Freedom. Pure, wholehearted freedom. Not the kind of freedom given when a newly licensed teen is handed the keys to his or her new car, and not the kind that is received when school releases for summer break. I’m talking about the freedom of life, the kind that enforces a person’s natural rights, his or her civil liberties, and his or her right to have choices. In a recent trip to Normandy, France, I was awakened to a culture I’d been too naive to realize I had lived in my whole life. I was awakened to the culture of freedom.
Most teens spend the entire forefront of their lives wishing their parents would extend curfew, or let them go to a certain party, or maybe a certain concert. But as my tour guide, Dureau, drove my family and me from Paris to the Northwestern region of France on a cold and rainy Wednesday morning, he explained the history of the region, and I pondered what freedom really was.
Many people don’t know that the beaches of Normandy saw the bloodiest, most horrifying battle of World War II, better known as D-Day. During this era in the 1940s, France was under the control of Nazi Germany, and the people were forced to follow strict speech and curfew rules. The children of France were brainwashed with Nazi propaganda in schools and many were imprisoned for speaking out against the forceful “Third Reich.” They faced dramatic oppression. Finally, on the rainy morning of June 6, 1944, American, British, and Canadian military forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, driving out and killing the Nazis, and liberating the French people, but with a great price to pay: over 400,000 casualties. I was in awe after hearing this from Dureau. How could such basic freedoms be stolen from an entire nation? Why would so many people put their life on the line for this? It made me feel small, and lucky to have never dealt with something of such graphic nature.
Dureau’s small minivan rolled around the countryside, until we finally reached the Colleville-sur-Mer road which had towering cliffs overlooking the English Channel, as we headed toward the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. When I got out of the van, all I could see was white and green. The green was the most well kept grass I had ever seen, and the white was the sea of gravestones of every Allied troop who died in the D-Day battle. I immediately fell to my knees, awestruck by the plethora of gravestones. Dureau explained that the grounds of the cemetery were so polished because the French feel great debt owed to the Allied forces, and are eternally grateful to them for restoring freedom in France, even some 75 years later.
After strolling around the memorial, we decided to take a walk on the beach. Immediately, I noticed these big, metal “X” shaped barriers on the beach, near the water. I asked Dureau what they were for, and he explained that they were anti-landing barriers used by the Nazis, so that Allied tanks could not invade the beaches. He also said that many of them had exploding mines attached to them and would blow up if moved. It was a cold and rainy morning, a lot like the weather on D-Day, so it was very easy to picture what it might have been like to be on the beaches on that day in 1944. I even found a defective hand grenade buried in the bushes next to the cliffs. Dureau said it was common to find these. It was then that I realized that I was walking on the very shores of freedom, the brink of liberty, and the edge of victory.
After our beach walk, my family and I loaded back up in Dureau’s minivan to see the Point du Hoc cliffs and craters. There we were able to see a German bunker, and craters in the pasture around it where the Allies had dropped bombs on them. Looking at all this memorabilia made it seem as if D-Day had happened yesterday. I could easily imagine troops scaling the tall cliffs, climbing toward the Nazis, brave and ready to win. Next, we went to a little town called Saint Mere Eglese and saw the Airborne Museum and chapel where John Steele, an American paratrooper’s parachute still hangs from the church steeple he got caught on. Steele spent 48 hours pretending to be dead because he could not escape from his caught parachute. This was possibly the most touching thing I had heard from the whole trip. These men literally faced an uphill battle to bring freedom to the French.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of my experience in Normandy was the people’s attitudes. Many didn’t even experience the war and D-Day, but even the young children are eternally grateful to the Allies for their freedom. Many were wearing American flag attire. Even the cashier at a little crepes stand on the corner of a side street seemed thankful toward my family, solely because we were American. It was a new cultural experience for my family because the same kind of gratitude is not quite as present in the U.S. Our freedom hasn’t been taken from us like it had with the French nation. I realized the French culture wasn’t about street markets or escargot, it was about freedom and generosity. Even though the American culture is commonly described this way, it was enlightening to experience the culture somewhere else, in a different way. Some say the best way to learn who you are is through a change of scenery. I can definitely say that this was true for me,. This was my great awakening. This was my great cultural experience.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.