France, 2016 (Part 1 of many)

It has been an extraordinarily busy week, and one I very much look forward to retelling. Though chronologically I should begin with trips through historic Marburg and the old capital Kassel, a recent trip to Normandy for the 72nd anniversary of the D-Day landings will take precedence while the details are fresh in my mind.

A few months ago, my good friend and former college roommate Jeff suggested visiting me in Europe while I’m here doing research. As we consulted calendars to figure out the best timing for the trip, he noted that the optimal week happened to include the 6th of June – and a plan was born.

On 5 June, we left Marburg at 6am for Frankfurt, where we caught a connecting train to Paris. Our ICE was replaced by a TGV, which was a perfectly comfortable ride at up to 316km/h across the French countryside. Once we arrived in Paris, we had a five-hour layover in which to see the city before heading to our connecting train to Bayeux from Gare Saint Lazare. The city was buzzing with tourists as always, even with an historic swelling of the Seine River, which caused several museums to evacuate their first-floor collections as a precaution.

The Seine overflowing its usual banks to flood the walks along the river.
The Seine overflowing its usual banks to flood the walks along the river.

The weather was unfortunately overcast, so we scrapped the plan of starting at the Arc de Triomphe and opted instead to spend more time at the Invalides (Musée d’Armée and Napoleon’s tomb). One could spend weeks in this massive museum dedicated to French military history. The different halls span from the Middle Ages to the War on Terror, with a heavy emphasis on the nineteenth century. Those who study memory will be interested to learn that placards in the Napoleonic rooms could have been written by the Moniteur’s own propagandists – unapologetic glorification of French Empire and Emperor. Curiously, the small room dedicated to the “Birth of the American Nation” makes no mention of the Marquis de Lafayette.

The courtyard of the Invalides. The halls of the Musée d'Armée are on either side, while straight ahead is the chapel of the Invalides. Under the dome is the ostentatious tomb.
The courtyard of the Invalides. The halls of the Musée d’Armée are on either side, while straight ahead is the chapel of the Invalides. Under the dome is the ostentatious tomb.

After spending most of the layover in the museum, we did a quick walking-past tour of other centers of French Revolution and Empire: the Place de la Concorde (formerly Place Royale and Place de la Révolution – the place of execution for 1119 royals, clergy, and other “counterrevolutionaries”), the Tuileries, and the Louvre.

The fountain at the Place de la Concorde. The Eiffel Tower can be seen through the fog.
The fountain at the Place de la Concorde. The Eiffel Tower can be seen through the fog.

When it was time to catch our connecting train to Bayeux, we hit our first and biggest snag of the trip: the SNCF. French railway workers were participating in an ongoing strike, which delayed trains, canceled others (which naturally overcrowded those still running), and closed most information booths at metro and rail stations. Though seat reservations are mandatory in France, to think one actually gets to occupy that seat is often a forlorn hope. In our two-hour ride to Bayeux, our train car had every seat filled and people sitting in the aisles – where we, too, were stuck, unable to even get in sight of our seat assignment. Not once were any tickets checked and only for the very last leg did we actually get to sit in seats (albeit, still not the ones we actually had reserved).

20 minutes late, we finally arrived in Bayeux, a beautiful, medieval Norman town. Our French host picked us up from the train station and brought us to their home on the outskirts of town, within easy walking distance to the historic town center.

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