We were lucky enough to be living in Europe on June 6th, 2014.

That day marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the day of the Allied invasion at the beaches of Normandy, France.

 P1100258 

When I started researching events that would going on that weekend in France, I saw that there would be a ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery.

Both U.S. President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande would be giving speeches during the ceremony.

The tickets to the ceremony were free. We just had to write to the American Embassy in Paris for availability, and we were able to get two tickets.

 P1110573

We left home very early the morning of June 5th and drove to Normandy, about an 8-hour trip with no stops. Before going to the hotel, we stopped at the cemetery to pick up the tickets. That was a very easy process. They explained where to go the next morning. They also told us we could not bring large cameras to the ceremony. I showed the woman my camera – which is not really very big – and she sort of made a face and said it was probably too big. Sean then showed her his pocket-size camera and she said that was okay. In addition, she advised us that there would be airport-type security at the ceremony and that big backpacks or any other big bags would not be allowed. Finally, she told us we that we could bring a little sandwich or something to the ceremony, but no drinks. Water would be provided.

On the morning of the 6th, the day of the ceremony, we left the hotel at about 5:30 a.m. to drive to a checkpoint about 30 minutes away from where we were staying in La Glacerie, near Cherbourg. There was a traffic circle right near the entrance to the checkpoint and there were hundreds and hundreds of cars converging from all 4 directions trying to get into the traffic circle and to the checkpoint. So, the day started off with a bit of a mess.

To get through the checkpoint, all we had to do was show our tickets. No ID check, no bag check, no nothing.

We were then directed to get into a line of cars in a parking area where we sat for a short time.

After that we were directed to drive out of the parking lot in a single file of maybe 50 cars. Each group of cars to leave the checkpoint had a police escort along the highway to another town. The highway was completely and totally closed off to any other traffic – it was just us and the police escort. Every single overpass had at least one and usually two or more armed officers on it keeping a lookout. That part was actually pretty cool. It was the first and probably last time in my life that I’ll ever have a police escort while driving somewhere.

When we arrived at the next town, everyone was directed to park on the side of the road. The cars were parked so closely together, bumper-to-bumper, that I hoped we wouldn’t get back to the car before the people in front of or behind us or we’d never be able to get out.

After parking, we all had to walk to an area where there were numerous buses waiting to take us to the ceremony.

P1100250

The buses were just regular city buses that they’d commandeered for the occasion. The transportation was free though.

The bus arrived at the cemetery parking lot and then just stopped. Nobody seemed to know what to do with all the traffic at the cemetery. The bus was extremely full and was getting very hot. The driver finally opened all the doors to get some air, and after a few minutes people just started walking off the bus.

Sean and I are not ones to rush off an airplane or out of a movie theatre or anything like that. We’re happy to let everyone go out in a crowd all mashed together and then when the crowd dies down we leave in comfort.

So, we waited until mostly everyone was off the bus and when there were about 5 of us left we started to get off as well.

A guard came running over yelling that we couldn’t get off the bus. What? You just let 75 people off the bus and now when there are 5 of us left we can’t get off? He ran around trying to herd people back on the bus but was largely unsuccessful.

After a few more minutes the bus started moving again and finally everyone was let off to make their way to the security area.

Now, most of the people on that bus were carrying backpacks as big as a house and had cameras and lenses as long as my forearm. (In fact if you look at the photo above that I posted of the bus, you can see a guy with a big ol’ backpack on his lap.)

Did anyone stop them at the “airport-like security”? The answer to that would be no. So I left the better camera at the hotel for nothing and was stuck taking photos with the pocket-size camera. That’s what I get for being a rule-follower.

Here’s what security at the cemetery consisted of: I went through with my teeny-tiny purse (again, being a rule-follower) and they asked me to open it. When I did, they took a quick peek inside and said “Okay”.

Wow. Really? That was the security check for an event where the U.S. and French presidents would be speaking? I was actually kind of stunned.

By this time we had about 2 hours to kill before the ceremony started. We grabbed a couple of seats near a big TV monitor so we could see. We could have sat closer to the stage, but as it was we were pretty darn close. Viewing the event on the monitor was still the best choice.

P1100274

We took turns wandering around the cemetery and saving our seats. We had been to the cemetery and the Normandy area before, thankfully, because it was not the best weekend to try to see the place for the first time.

P1100280

We did indeed find some bottled water, and there were two small granola bars on each chair.

Of course the ceremony didn’t start on time, so we had to wait around for a few hours before the helicopters started arriving which caused a great stir.

 P1100292

The ceremony finally began and it was the first time I have ever sat through an entire presidential speech, regardless of president or topic. I likely will never sit through another one in my lifetime. Watching the monitors, the French president’s speech was sub-titled in English and the U.S. president’s speech was sub-titled in French.

After the speeches a bugler played Taps. While the whole ceremony was very emotional, that was the one time that I really got choked up.

Taps was followed by a missing man formation fly-over, a wreath-laying cemetery and then a cannon salute and that was it. The whole ceremony was over in about an hour.

P1100306

P1100334

P1100338

We made our way back to the entrance and there was a complete bottle-neck. Nobody could move. We were trying to find a way out and some official-looking woman starting talking to us in French. I know how to say “I don’t speak French” in French and that’s about the extent of my French skills. So I said “Je ne parle français” and she just nodded and shrugged and kept speaking French.

I finally understood that she was telling us we needed to come back in an hour. They were apparently only letting people with a certain kind of pass out of the cemetery at that time.

So, we went back to the seating area to sit for a bit and then we walked around a little more and about an hour later went back to the exit.

We still couldn’t move. Some other Americans told us that it was going to be another couple of hours before we could leave. It was complete and utter mayhem and I honestly have never seen anything like it in my life.

Back we went to sit some more and wander some more and after an appropriate amount of time we went back to the exit.

After another waiting period we were finally let out but we weren’t home-free yet. Our next hurdle was to try to get onto a bus. Here’s how that worked: They crammed one bus full of people, took them to the town where we’d parked, and then came back for another busload of people. So it was quite a long wait between buses.

In the meantime there were hundreds of private tour buses all trying to get to the parking area to pick up their guests.

After waiting around for a really long time we were finally able to get on a bus. When the driver tried to exit the highway for the town where the car was parked, a police officer told him he couldn’t do it. So our day was made even longer when we had to drive to the next town and then turn around and come back on the other side of the highway.

Luckily our car was not blocked in when we got back to it.

By the time we got back to the hotel it was about 5:30 pm, so attending a one-hour ceremony turned into a 12-hour day. We were exhausted, hungry, thirsty and a bit cranky (well, at least I was).

I am sad to say it the most poorly-run event I have ever attended.

There were a lot of elderly people at the ceremony and I felt horrible for them having to deal with all that when most of them had nothing to eat but a teeny little granola bar all day.

All that being said, I am so glad that we went. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event. I just had to keep reminding myself that putting up with mild annoyances for one day to attend the event was nothing to complain about compared to what the military personnel went through – not only on D-Day, but during the rest of the war and even afterwards.

Seeing the surviving D-Day veterans both up on the stage and in the audience was amazing and we can never thank them enough for what they did.

Seeing the graves of the ones who didn’t make it surrounded by French and American flags was heart-wrenching.

P1100263

I think anyone attending the ceremony could not help but realize what a different world this could be had that day not unfolded the way it did. It undoubtedly changed the course of the war and, in turn, the world.

Tags:

 

About the author: Trish

 

Website: http://travelsandtipples.com