Tag Archives: Family Travel

British and German Cemeteries in Normandy

In my last blog post, I wrote about our visit to the American cemetery near Omaha Beach, Normandy. We also visited British and German cemeteries in Normandy. The cemeteries are different in important ways that helped me realize the losses experienced by people from different sides of the conflict in World War II.

German Cemetery, La Cambe, France

German Cemetery, La Cambe, France

At the German cemetery at La Cambe, the remains of 21,000 German personnel are interred. The American cemetery at Omaha Beach is visited by more than one million people each year, and there were scores of people there during our visit. People walked among the American graves, filled the visitors center, and took part in organized tours. During our time at the German cemetery, however, there were only two other people present, and quiet filled the air.

As you enter the German cemetery, you can leaf through a book of names of those buried on the grounds. Near the end of the book are printed words that could apply to Germans, Americans, Brits, or nearly any other people:

Darkly rises the mound over the grave of the soldiers.
Darkly stands God’s command over the dead of the war.
Yet brightly glows the sky above the towering crosses,
More brightly still shines their comfort: The final word is God’s.

British Cemetery

British Cemetery

The British cemeteries around Normandy differ from the American cemetery in two significant ways. First, British cemeteries include remains of soldiers from different countries. We visited British cemeteries in Bayeaux and Ryes. At the Ryes cemetery, 335 Germans are buried along with the Allied dead.

Second, while grave markers in the American cemetery all are white and include minimal embellishment, tombstones in British cemeteries include individual epitaphs chosen by surviving family members. Walking through the graves, I read many moving testimonies. One marker says, “You were only one to all the world but all the world to us. Mam, Dad, Sister, Brother.”

Serjeant S. Barber, Royal Artillery. Died 2nd August 1944, Age 30.

Serjeant S. Barber, Royal Artillery. Died 2nd August 1944, Age 30.

Another grave marker was especially poignant. The tombstone for Serjeant S. Barber, Royal Artillery, who died on August 2, 1944, at age 30, includes words from his mother. It says,
Dear Son of Ann Barber. His father killed in action 1918 is buried at Conde. Remembered.

American Cemetery in Normandy

During our time in Normandy, we planned to visit the American cemetery to remember the soldiers who died there. What we did not expect, however, were deeply meaningful visits to British and German cemeteries. In this post, I will reflect on our visit to the American cemetery, and in the next post, I’ll write about our time at the German and British cemeteries.

Looking toward Omaha Beach

Looking toward Omaha Beach

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial sits high above Omaha Beach near the towns of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and Colleville-sur-Mer. The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains the cemetery, which is picturesque with white grave markers in neat rows. The grounds are immaculately kept, and the serenity that fills the place is a fitting memorial to the brave service members who died in Normandy. Much like Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, DC, the setting is moving and inspiring.

The American cemetery contains the graves of 9,387 service members, and the names of 1,557 service members are inscribed on the Walls of the Missing.

In addition to the grounds, there is an excellent visitors center, which opened in 2007. You can learn the larger story of Operation Overlord and hear stories of individual men and women whose lives were altered in Normandy. Some of them died there, some were injured, and others lost their sons, husbands, fathers, or brothers.

The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves, bronze statue at American cemetery

The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves, bronze statue at American cemetery

One particularly moving experience is the movie, Letters, which focuses on letters written by service men who died in Normandy. While hearing their letters to loved ones and seeing pictures of these young men before and during their military service, I realized the depth of the loss when they died in Normandy.

Visiting the cemetery is well worth the time and effort involved. It is indeed a fitting memorial to the American service members who died on D-Day and in the Battle of Normandy.

A Hymn of Peace

As our family prepared to depart from France, we arrived in Paris on 7 January. As we checked into our hotel, we saw a television monitor with scenes from the attack at Charlie Hebdo. At that moment, the gunmen were still at large and believed to be northeast of Paris in the direction where we were staying. Police presence was heavy that day and again at the airport as we departed the next day. This was a chilling reminder that hostility still permeates much of our world.

British Cemetery, Ryes, France

British Cemetery, Ryes, France

Just a few days before, while in Normandy, our family visited the American, German, and British cemeteries. (I will post about our experiences there in the coming days.)

While at the cemeteries, I reflected on one of my favorite hymns, “This Is My Song, A Hymn of Peace.” While serving as a pastor in the United States, I often included this hymn in our worship on the Sunday closest to July 4, when Americans celebrate the founding of the country.

The hymn reminds me that many people from many countries love their homelands, and it calls people to peace that transcends national borders.

Some stanzas were written by Lloyd Stone in the years between World Wars I and II. Other words were written by Georgia Harkness, a United Methodist theologian and, like me, a graduate of Boston University. The hymn, which is set to the tune Finlandia, says:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

May truth and freedom come to every nation;
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
that each may seek to love and build together,
a world united, righting every wrong;
a world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.

Given the recent events in France, the prayer of this song is especially fitting. May it be so.

American cemetery, Omaha Beach, Normandy, France

American cemetery, Omaha Beach, Normandy, France

Normandy Beaches

Omaha Beach looking toward Pointe du Hoc

Omaha Beach looking toward Pointe du Hoc

One of the highlights of our time in Normandy was visiting the beaches where the D-Day invasion began on June 6, 1944. While walking on Omaha Beach, the scene of so many American casualties, I was struck by the incongruity of what I saw there seventy years later. The beach was calm, with a few clouds in the sky, and people enjoying their time on the shore flying kites, walking dogs, and playing with children.

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach

A dear family friend, Zedekiah Cassel, had been a young American soldier landing on the beach at Normandy. Zeddie told a few stories about his time in Normandy, and I wondered what he would have thought to see people frolicking on the same beach where he nearly lost his life. Would he be pleased or upset, concerned or happy?

To enhance my experience in Normandy, I read Stephen Ambrose’s book, D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. Near the end of his book, Ambrose quotes General Eisenhower who visited Omaha Beach on June 6, 1964, to mark D-Day plus twenty years. Speaking with Walter Cronkite, Eisenhower looked over the scene and said,

You see these people out here swimming and sailing their little pleasure boats and taking advantage of the nice weather and the lovely beach, Walter, and it is almost unreal to look at it today and remember what it was. But it’s a wonderful thing to remember what those fellows twenty years ago were fighting for and sacrificing for, what they did to preserve our way of life. Not to conquer any territory, not for any ambitions of their own. But to make sure that Hitler could not destroy freedom in the world.

Looking down at Omaha Beach from American Cemetery

Looking down at Omaha Beach from American Cemetery

I suppose the setting in Normandy today, with its calm beaches and tranquility, is what the soldiers would have hoped for. Standing there on the quiet beach and later looking down from the cliffs, I was struck deeply by what they must have faced that day — and how fortunate I am today.

House Sitting around the World

We have included house-sitting as part of our round-the-world family adventure. We have used a couple of online sites — MindMyHouse.com and HouseCarers.com — that match homeowners who will be away with people willing to care for their home and pets.

Our furry friends in South Africa

Our furry friends in South Africa

Initially we were motivated to house-sit because it saves on the cost of housing. Generally, in exchange for caring for the owner’s home and pets, you are provided a nice play to stay (thus saving the cost you would have paid for a hostel, hotel, or short-term rental.) We quickly learned other, far more important benefits of house-sitting. Rather than staying in a hotel separated from local people and habits, living in someone’s home provides you a close experience of regular, day-to-day life in the community. We have been invited to use fully stocked homes. We have learned about local markets and shops. We have received information from trusted local sources about places to visit and experiences to include in our travels. We have met caring neighbors who invited us to their home for dinner. And, we have come to love dear animals.

On one house-sitting assignment, we stayed for a month just north of Cape Town, South Africa, and our duties included twice-daily walks on the beach with loving Labrador Retrievers. The homeowner shared wonderful hospitality with us. We still are in touch with the homeowner several months after our assignment to check on our furry friends.

Christmas in Normandy

Christmas in Normandy

We completed a house-sitting assignment in Normandy, France, where we cared for a sweet and kind nine-year-old Irish Wolf Hound. Our duties included twice-daily walks that took us through fields and past donkeys and horses. The homeowners provided delicious welcome and farewell meals, and because our stay was over the holidays, they even generously gave us presents to open on Christmas morning.
A wonderful terrier in New Zealand

A wonderful terrier in New Zealand

Currently, we are house-sitting in New Zealand where we are caring for a loving and energetic two-year-old Australian Terrier. The home is set in a wonderful location away from town and in the midst of fields filled with cows and sheep. The homeowners have provided special dinners before leaving on their holiday. They are bee keepers, and we have tasted delicious honey from their hives.

Our experience is incalculably richer because of our house-sitting experiences. Sure, we have saved some money, but house sitting is beneficial for reasons far beyond finances. We have made new friends around the world — both human and animal. We have encountered life in different locations in ways we never could have on our own. We have tried new foods and shared stories with dear people around the world.
I encourage you to consider house-sitting, and if you have any questions, please be in touch with me.
Happy travelling!

Iceland

After Phase One of our family’s Round-the-World odyssey (August-November 2014), we returned to the United States in late November and early December 2014.  We enjoyed sharing Thanksgiving and celebrating an early Christmas with family members before setting off on Phase Two on December 16.

We took advantage of IcelandAir’s competitive prices between the United States and Europe and their stopover program, which lets you include a stay in Iceland at no additional cost.  While flying from Orlando, Florida, to Paris, France, we enjoyed two days and two nights in Reykjavik.

Bjugnakraekir the Sausage Swiping Yule Lad

Bjugnakraekir the Sausage Swiping Yule Lad

We loved Iceland.  Visiting just prior to Christmas, we learned about the Yule Lads, thirteen troll-like figures from Icelandic folklore who visit children on the nights before Christmas and either put presents in their shoes or, if they have been naughty, leave them potatoes. When not visiting children’s homes, the Yule Lads are up to mischief such as stealing milk, slamming doors, licking spoons, and swiping sausages.

We enjoyed the weather with freezing temperatures, snowfall, and short hours of daylight.  During our visit, the sun rose about 11:00 each morning and set about 3:30 each afternoon.

We searched for the Aurora Borealis, driving one night about 100 kilometers to find clear skies so we could see the lights.  We think the dim shades of green and red we saw in the night sky were the northern lights.

Blue Lagoon near steam roomsMost of all, we enjoyed our trip to the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa located in a lava field outside of Reykjavik. The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s top tourist attractions, and visitors pay hefty prices to float or swim in its hot waters.  Thanks to a Christmas gift from my parents, we enjoyed a package that included a robe, towel, flip-flops, facial mask, and drink.

During our visit, which began after 2:00 p.m. so we could be in the water at sunset, the air temperature was about thirty degrees Fahrenheit.  Snow and sleet were falling, and mist rose from the 107-degree water.  When we ventured outside in our swimming suits, we ran as quickly as we could to the warm water.

iceland-blue-lagoonWe had a grand time in the water.  We kept our heads just above the surface as snow covered our hair.  We applied our facial masks, and we enjoyed our smoothies.  We spent time in a steam room, and our daughter, Rachel, made a snow angel on the side of the pool.

We are glad we included a stopover in Iceland during our travels, and we are especially glad we visited the Blue Lagoon while in Iceland. Is it expensive? Yes. Is it a tourist trap? Yes. Is it worth doing? Certainly, yes.

Blue Lagoon Flip FlopsAs it came time to leave, we faced a small quandary.  It seemed obvious that we should return our towels and robes in the bins at the exit, but there was no place to return the flip-flops.  What should we do?  We kept them, and now we have them with us on Phase Two of our Round-the-World adventure as a fun reminder of a nice time on a great island.

On Safari at Chobe, Bostwana

A few years ago, my wife and I went on safari in Kenya. While watching lions, giraffes, water buffaloes, elephants, and other animals I remember thinking, “I really want our children to experience this!” As part of our round-the-world family sabbatical, we included a safari in Chobe National Park in Bostwana. Chobe is best known for elephants, and we saw lots of them, but there were plenty of other animals to see.Safari Bus

HippoWe drove about 70 kilometers from Livingstone, Zambia, to the border with Botswana, went through customs, jumped in a small boat to cross the Zambezi River, and continued to Kasane, Bostwana. Our safari included two boat rides on the Chobe River, several game drives in the Chobe National Park, two nights sleeping in tents, and five or six scorpions at our camp site.

Fish EagleAfter arriving, we boarded a boat with our captain named Captain (no kidding). On the Chobe River, we saw lots and lots of animals up close: elephants swimming across the river, hippos marking their territory (it’s both fascinating and rather gross to watch), crocodiles sunning, water buffaloes grazing, and lots of birds catching fish.

We were especially pleased to see African Fish Eagles, birds that look very similar to the American Bald Eagle with dark feathers and white heads. The birds mate for life, and we saw pairs of them in their nests and flying over the river. The fish eagle has a distinctive call, sometimes called the Sound of Africa, and we were delighted to see the birds and hear their call.

Chobe LeopardAfter our boat ride, we climbed aboard our cruiser with Sinka, our driver and guide. Sinka was a gregarious man with an easy laugh, gentle spirit, and uncanny ability to spot animals. During our first afternoon, Sinka helped us find a leopard by driving slowly around the back of bushes to a shaded area where he thought the leopard might be resting. As we turned, there it was! We gasped in delight to see the big cat. On our second day, we watched another leopard stalk a wart hog before giving chase. The wart hog eluded the leopard and lived another day.

LionsEach day, as the daytime gave way to evening, we noticed the activity changing. Lions began to wake from their daytime slumber and prepare for the evening’s hunt. One evening, we spent a long time watching three lionesses with their cubs prepare to hunt. Gathering their cubs, the lionesses made their way to the river, took long drinks of water, and headed off to hunt as dusk fell over the land.

Chobe Elephant and GiraffeGoing on safari amazed me the second time just as much as my first experience. This time, however, seeing the animals, listening to sounds from the bush, and sleeping in tents was more special because my wife and I shared it with our children. We still talk about the bachelor herds of elephants we saw — large groups of male elephants that have been forced out of herds with mothers and babies. And we still laugh about bouncing to and fro while riding in our open-air cruiser.

Once again, I loved watching the animals and the beautiful scenery, but this time, I especially loved watching my children see and experience all of it.Chobe Bachelor Herd

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls is known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, “The Smoke that Thunders,” because of the great cloud of mist that rises when the Zambezi River cascades over the falls at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe.

We visited Victoria Falls at the beginning of October during the dry season, which usually lasts from May to October.  During those months, the Zambezi River slows, and much of the falls does not have water cascading over it.  While this could seem disappointing, it actually makes possible a wonderful visit to the falls.

If you visit Victoria Falls during the dry season, you have an opportunity to swim to the edge at Devil’s Pool.  You can take a boat to Livingstone Island, and from there, you walk near the top of the falls before jumping into the Zambezi.  Then, you swim — or more accurately you are pushed by the current — to the fall’s edge.  Then, a natural rock wall stops you from going over the top of the falls.

Vic Falls RainbowThere, you can sit at the top of the falls, watch water rush past you as it goes over, and see rainbows formed by the mist.  It is an amazing experience that is well worth the time, effort, and expense.

After we finished our swim in Devil’s Pool and were safely back on land, we visited the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.  A helpful guide took us on a walking tour of the falls, and because of the lower water level, we walked literally up to the edge.  We stretched out on our bellies and looked over the top of the falls.  Like swimming in Devil’s Pool, it took my breath away!

Victoria FallsSo often we seek superlatives:  the biggest, the best, the tallest, the greatest, the most.  On my trip to Victoria Falls, I was reminded that something can we wonderful — even better — when it is not the biggest, the greatest, or the most.  Had I visited Victoria Falls during the rainy season, much more water would have rushed over the falls.  The spray would have been taller, and the roar louder.  But, I would have missed the chance to swim in Devil’s Pool and found my heart thumping in the midst of the Smoke that Thunders.

Noisy Afternoon and Quiet Day in Buenos Aires

I’m waiting in the Buenos Aires airport because our departing flight is delayed until midnight by an air traffic control strike. This is part of a general strike that has been called today across much of Argentina.

Yesterday, we spent many hours walking around this wonderful city. After passing La Casa Rosada, the Pink House that houses Argentina’s presidential offices and which was made famous by Eva Peron’s speeches from the building’s balcony and, perhaps more famous, by Madonna’s portrayal of her in Evita, we heard beating drums, fire crackers, and chanting marchers. Workers took to the streets to voice displeasure with their working and living conditions.

What a civics lesson for our children and for my wife and me! In our regular, suburban life, we usually are far removed from such a demonstration and the plight of the workers who marched. It provided opportunity to talk about the situation faced by many people in the world.

Wave after wave filled the street. Some were boisterous young men in their public uniforms while others were young women walking quietly with children.

Today, Buenos Aires’ streets were quiet and nearly deserted as the general strike commenced. We rode the Subte, and rather than buzzing with commuters, we were some of the few people underground on the train.

Thankfully for us, the workers at Parrilla Pena came to work today because we loved the delicious lunch we ate there. The empanadas, beef tenderloin, and Rib Eye steak for which Argentina understandably is well known were outstanding.

By the time the taxi driver brought us to the airport, more people were on the streets, but I suspect today was calm and quiet compared to the beating pulse that usually greets guests in this city.

Now, we have a bit more time at EZE airport, which is extremely comfortable with free Wi-Fi and nice seats for passengers. If we have to be delayed, this is a good place to be!

Our visit to Buenos Aires was wonderful, and I hope to return someday. I’ll look forward to it, whether it is noisy or quiet.

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