Monthly Archives: July 2014


This gallery contains 12 photos.

(Pamplona, Vitoria, San Sebastián, Spain – 13 July 2014) This far into our amazing trip, one might think there is little else could amaze. Not true. Witnessing the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain will go down in my … Continue reading

Switzerland Happiness

(Zurich, Lucerne, Interlaken, Bern, in Switzerland – 3 June 2014) About a week before our visit to Switzerland, I stumbled on one of those articles about the happiest people on Earth. Switzerland topped the list of nations. [Link to article] The article went on to explain the reasons why this might be the case, but my imagination was way out in front… creating the magical, utopian world that Switzerland would surely be. My acute anticipation for Switzerland was higher than it had been for any previous place we visited. The interplay between expectation and experience is tricky. I had to be wary of over-hyping it in my head.

We arrived into Zurich by train from Salzburg, Austria. It’s standard practice, as soon as we get to a new place, we head straight for whatever accommodation we reserved for the night. Just steps out of the train station was our tram stop. On the platform, we stood and marveled at the bustle of activity speeding around us. Like a ride at Disney, gleaming futuristic electric trams were coming and going with superior efficiency. It reminded me so much of the Jetsons. Cars weren’t flying, but they might as well have been.

We hopped the next tram heading to our destination and away we flew.

A Good Life

Zurich’s dominant “water feature” is Lake Zurich. As the large but slender lake rounds off on its northern end, Zurich is there to cap it like an star atop a Christmas tree; practically the entire city gets a beautiful lake view. The Limmet River winds through the city and feeds the lake on its north side giving even more residents postcard views from their windows. Old-world bridges link the historical buildings that line both banks of the Limmet. Zurich is a gorgeous symphony of old and new.

On a brilliantly sunny Saturday, Jessica and I strolled the promenade that runs along the eastern shore of Lake Zurich. Everybody was out and about. The park benches had no more spaces to give, street musicians fulfilled their calling, and ice cream cones sales were breaking records. Maybe this was the first perfect spring day of the year; for Zurich was celebrating. The high “life-satisfaction” rating I had read about in that article was on full display.

In our travels, we’ve visited countries where you are advised not to drink the water from the tap. Or, where water is so scarce they ask you to turn off the flow of water in the shower when not actively using it to wash or rinse. Here in Zurich the drinking fountains had no on/off button. The pure, fresh delicious water simply flowed non-stop.

Behind our quirky faces, you will see Zurich’s park is full of activity.

Here is a less obstructed view of life in the park. The group in the foreground appears to be playing a Swiss version of Bocce Ball.

We found a lively Zurich street carnival. The Ferris wheel runs on pure manpower. I join the band for a few notes. And we ate some pork on a stick slathered in a delicious buttery-mustard paste.

Zurich, a beautiful city all around.

Clean Zurich

I decided to go for a long run along Lake Zurich’s west bank one afternoon while Jessica stayed and relaxed in the park. Between reading and people-watching she noticed a sanitation worker casually but diligently combing the park for trash. He was careful and methodical in his approach to each piece of trash, regardless of how large or small.

With his bag of collected trash and extension tool, the man worked his way slowly towards the shaded bench where Jessica had secured a spot. Before long he was right in front of her, still stoically doing his job- robotically picking up scraps of who-knows-what? He also picked up every cigarette butts he spotted. Just in Jessica’s immediate vicinity he cleared them one-by-one until he had bagged nearly a hundred of them. There was no hint of complaint or angst, he was just doing his job, but doing it so very well. Jessica was tempted to pop-up from her seat and shake his hand, or pat him on the back, or tip him a 10-spot, or something… something to acknowledge just how impressive she had found his work ethic.

Jessica and I talked about the sanitation worker and the Swiss society more generally. How does one country create such a lovely environment for people to thrive and prosper while others languish in squalor and hopelessness? We’ve got lots of questions, but few answers. 🙁

Great views of all Zurich were ours when we went to Uetliberg Park.


I was intent on visiting this park because it boasts a scale model (1,000,000:1) of our solar system. My right hand is pointing to the Earth, represented in the model by a silver marble (not sure why they couldn’t find a blue marble, but whatever). Just above the fingertip of my left hand is the sun. It looks tiny only because it is nearly a football field away. Up close, it has a diameter of about 4 feet.

Zurich’s Little Sister, Lucerne

From Zurich we took the train south to Lucerne. Smaller than Zurich, but no less perfect, Lucerne only reinforced our image of Switzerland as one of the greatest places to live on the entire planet.

We’ve stayed in many unusual or quirky places during our trip, but none were more unique than the Jailhouse Hotel. Yes, some enterprising businessman converted an old jail house into a hotel. While they could have chosen to renovate-away this fact, they decided to go for it straight on. This meant all of the rooms had the authentic look and feel of a real jail cell….because that’s what they were.

The cell doors were refitted so you could NOT truly be locked in (by accident or on purpose), and each room had its own small shower, but otherwise…we spent four nights in a real jail cell. It was a once in a lifetime experience….we hope.

Lucerne had some awesome sights, like the curiously beautiful wooden bridge (named Chapel Bridge) that crosses the Reuss River at a most interesting angle.

Same bridge from the opposite bank.

Chiseled directly into the side of a sheer rock face, it is indeed the saddest lion statue ever! With no name other than Lion Monument, it commemorates the mercenary Swiss Army soldiers that were hired by King Louis XVI of France to protect the royal family. Those soldiers all died during the French Revolution….as did the king.

Defensive city walls were all the rage back in the day. Now they seem kind of dumb. Still fun to explore while imaging what life must have been like hundreds of years ago.


Photo of Lucerne from a lookout next to the fortress wall.

Sick Cellmate

A strange and nagging illness started on May 1st (our last day in Italy some 4 weeks ago) with Jessica coming down with a sore throat. She carried the low-level but persistent bug through Slovenia and into Vienna…where it seemed to be getting worse not better. At some point it was obvious that she needed to see a doctor. She went to a clinic in Vienna and was diagnosed as having tonsillitis. A five-day regimen of antibiotics was prescribed. Some improvement followed, but now another two weeks had passed since the antibiotics were done and whatever virus was bugging her would not relent. If there was good news to report, it was that the antibiotics beat back an expanding sinus infection. Without them, I fear her condition could have become truly severe. As it was, she improved slightly but was still left with most all of the same symptoms.

By the time we were in Lucerne the frustration of being sick for so long was too much. She continued to be racked by a harsh cough, had tender and aching ears, glands under the jaw line that were visibly swollen, and congestion in her head and chest. And, of course, there was the tiredness. Enough already!

Never had she been so sick for so long. It was concerning. Jessica gave in to seeing a doctor now for the second time. She recounted her story in full, received an exam, and this time got them to run a couple of blood tests. In the end, it appears what Jessica had was simply one helluva persistent virus. She was prescribed three different medicines and reassured there was nothing more serious going on; she just needed to wait it out…as if she hadn’t already waited long enough.

The reassurance was welcomed and the medicines helped her cope with the symptoms. It would still be another few of weeks before Jessica returned to feeling normal again.

Even when under the weather, she still looked good in Lucerne.

Interlaken- Now THIS Is Switzerland

20140716-223738.jpg Our doorway to the grand Swiss Alps awaited in the town of Interlaken. From Lucerne, we traveled there by train in just a couple of hours. Interlake isn’t just the town’s name, it is also its description: Inter laken literally means between lakes. As you can see from the map, it certainly is.

Here is a view from our train as we rode the rails into Interlaken.

In addition to having lakes east and west, Interlaken has mountains to its north and south. From one of the mountains closest to town, we repeatedly saw dozens of paragliders soaring overhead on their way for a landing site located smack-dab in the middle of town. It was a spectacle. Most of the flyers were tandems. But there were also several paragliding schools in town so some of the flyers could have been students.

Jessica and I walked through town wide-eyed in amazement. The sidewalks were humming with tourists from China to Australia. We wanted to believe Interlaken was tucked away in secret Swiss location (between two lakes and two mountains) and that only we had found it. This was not the case by a long shot. Interlaken was happening.

Having found ourselves caught up in the Swiss atmosphere, we stepped into a chocolate shop and purchased a small bag of dark chocolate with nuts for way too much money. Like a soothing day at the spa for the taste buds. So very, very luxurious.

A Walk In The Alps

Interlaken was at the entrance to the Alps. To climb deeper and higher into the mountains, we boarded an old-style train and rocked up the winding rails to a tiny outpost called Lauterbrunnen. From there we filled up a gondola car and rode the cable skyward to Grütschalp. At that point, we’d arrived into Swiss heaven. The joy before us now was to walk amid the beauty and feel like the luckiest people in the world.

As walks go, this one was a 10 out of 10. The trail meandered easily through a little bit of forest and bit more of pasture. The views were of mountains near and far, and of the expansive spaces of air and light between them. Will we remember this day once we return to the real world? We must. We must absorb everything about this moment as thoroughly as possible, so that we can return here, if only in our minds, for the rest of our lives.

We paused along the trail at a shaded bench for some trail mix and juicy bites of the best peaches we’d ever had. More walking brought us to the ski-resort town of Mürren. Ski season was over for the year, but it was easy to picture this place in full winter swing. A scenic overlook in the middle of town gave us a front row view of paragliders floating silently through the valley.

Ready again to snack, we bought a couple of bags of popcorn from Mürren’s local grocer. So tasty. Everything was good this day.

From Mürren we continued on, following the signs to Gimmelwald where another gondola would swing us back down to the valley floor. In the meantime, there was no rush. We strolled by a stately Swiss cow and a handsome Swiss cat.

Jessica enjoying herself immensely.

This paraglider displays his Swiss pride.

Look at this amazing photo Jessica took. I love it!

Our view unto the valley as our gondola descended into the town of Schilthorn. The drop was steep and rapid.

So Good, Let’s Do Another

The following day, we decided to explore a different hiking route, still within the same general area as before. Again, we boarded a train from Interlaken, but this time followed the rail up and to the left towards the town of Grindlewald. The previous day we were hung from the cable in a gondola. Today’s ride would be pure cable cars up, up and away (…just like our old days at Astroworld).

Leaving Grindlewald on a wire.

What do the cows think of us?

The best way to get high!

Someone’s excited.

It was not one single long cable that we rode to the tippy-top. There were several intermediary stations all stitched together via some creative Swiss engineering. As we reached the end of one looping cable, our car would disconnect simultaneously causing the doors to pop open with a loud bang. We could then choose to exit or remain on board and swing across the sub-station until attaching to the next cable skyward.

Our goal was the ear-popping top!

Our walk down from snow-on-the-ground heights this second day of hiking was not nearly as awesome as the first. We walked mostly on the roads for the trails were more rugged and difficult to lay foot on comfortably. The steepness of the grade was hard on our muscles and tendons after a couple of steady hours descending. Well, I guess we did take a super break along the way. Here I am mid-chew on some french fries at a Swiss café.

Walking across snow is always exciting for a boy from Texas.

As we neared Grindlewald, small cabins such as this one became commonplace. What’s the story? Do people actually live here?

We had another extraordinary day in the Alps, but perhaps the bar had already been set so high from the previous day’s hike; that nothing else would truly compare.

Interlaken will certainly make our top 10 best places to visit list. We loved it and would definitely like to return someday.

Hey Einstein, We’re In Your HOUSE!

After Interlaken, we shifted back towards the north and paused for a few hours in Switzerland’s capital city of Bern. Certainly Bern deserved more than a few hours of our time, but it was all that we had. Another one of those great old cities of Europe, Bern is filled with history and intrigue.

I am not deeply familiar with the life of Albert Einstein, but I did know that he spent a portion of his life in Bern. His small apartment is now a small museum.

We waltzed through his living room. Talk about a brush with greatness.

It was in Bern that the young Einstein worked as a clerk at the local patent office. His daily commute from work to home by electric streetcar rolled him down Kramgasse Street in direct line of sight with Bern’s famous Zytglogge Clock Tower. Day after day, Einstein passed that clock tower and pondered how it might look (i.e. how time might look) if he were traveling away from it at the speed of light. In part, at least, it was from this rumination that his Special Theory of Relatively began to take shape.

The view down Kramgasse street from Einstein’s apartment window. The clock tower is in the distance.

What a thrill it was to walk down the very street that Einstein strolled and look up at that very same clock tower Einstein turned to time and time again.

Like I said, we were not in Bern for more than a few hours, but it sure looked like a great city to us even in that short amount of time.

I’ve split our time in Switzerland into two posts. This first one brought you with us to Zurich, Lucerne, Interlaken and Berne, but there is more Switzerland ahead, three different locations, in fact, but all with one thing in common- friends. Traveling by ourselves has a different tenor and tone than when we have the comforting experience of meeting up with people we know. Read about that in the next post.

Switzerland with Friends

(Langenthal, Heerbrugg, Geneva – 14 June 2014) The high cost of Switzerland was kicking our butts. I didn’t really talk about it in the previous Switzerland post, but the cost of everything in Switzerland is next to insane. A small and simple sandwich will take the equivalent of 10 dollars from your pocket. Want a soda with your sandwich? Don’t do it, friend. That’ll be another $5.

Finding affordable places to stay in Switzerland was a challenge. We could generally expect to find the best nightly rates at hostels, but even those were well over $100/night. We applied all of our research skills and tricks to never pay quite that much for a night’s stay, but it was still wreaking havoc on our budget. We were in definite need of some relief.

Fortunately, we know people, really good people, that provided us with a generous stretch of free lodging. First, it was Beat (pronounced bay-ott), that we caught up with in an out of the way town called, Langenthal. Next, we reunited with the man, the myth, the legend, that has become, Boris, meeting him in his highly improbably new place of residence, Heerbrugg, Switzerland. Finally, we ventured to a more well-known Swiss locale- Geneva -and crashed with Hannah and Elliott, a couple of friends known to us from the Ultimate community back in Austin.

Fellow Traveler

We knew Beat only slightly before imposing ourselves on him quite heavily, though we had every sense that he was a truly kind and generous soul. He’s tall and thin, speaks English imperfectly with a soft Swiss-German accent, and delivers almost every line with a dollop of sly humor.

Our first encounter with Beat was at one of the lodges in Torres del Paine, back in November of last year. He was just a random fellow traveler we struck up a conversation with at the last refugio we stayed in before leaving that beautiful National Park. One day later, we saw him a second time at a restaurant in Puerto Natales. That is the town closest to Torres del Paine and where nearly everyone pauses on their way to or from it. The town has many restaurants, but by queer chance the three of us ended up eating at the same one. It seemed extra coincidental, too, because we were the only three people in the whole restaurant.

Still not done running into Beat, (not by a long shot, as it would turn out), we saw him a third time at the tiny regional airport that services the area. Through our three encounters, we learned that Beat was from Switzerland and just at the tail end of a vacation in South America. We told him our story of traveling the world and that we would be in Switzerland the coming spring. Unprompted, he volunteered his contact information to me and suggested we email him once we arrive to Switzerland.

I clearly warned him that he should not give us his info casually….because we will be contacting him. We are not shy for such things.

Fast Forward Eight Months

A full eight months time had passed since Beat (foolishly?) gave us his email address. Imagine him opening his email and seeing, “Hey Beat! Remember us? We are in Switzerland,” and photo of us was attached. Being the good guy that he is, he seemed genuinely excited to hear from us. There was, however, a slight complication. As we already knew, Beat loves to travel….he was in Morocco on another vacation when we contacted him.

Fortunately for us his return to Switzerland was near and we would still have a chance to meet up.

Beat lives in a small community called Langenthal, part of a cluster of townships far away from where any right-minded tourist would ever venture. Not to say there is nothing to see in Langenthal; to the contrary. All of Switzerland is beautiful and, almost by default, so is Langenthal. Don’t look for the tourist office here, however. There are no tourist highlights, per se. Langenthal is where ordinary people live and work and raise their kids. It’s Normal Rockwell’s America, done in Swiss colors.

Beat picked us up from the Langenthal train station late on a Tuesday afternoon. It was great to see him and on his home turf, too. We dropped our things off at his flat, met his interesting cat, Layla, and then ventured out for drinks and dinner.

Layla had just been to the salon. What a lion-heart!

Check out those totally 80’s furr-covered boots.

Our visit with Beat was far too short. But, my guess is that we will see him again one day. He loves to travel and we think he can be convinced to visit Texas one day.

The lesson from our story of Beat is that the world is full of good-hearted people. While one cannot possibly meet them all, they are often within reach of meeting if one simply makes a small outward gesture to do so.

Boris in Switzerland

Members of the Boris fan club have to stay on their toes. He’s in Antarctica. No, he’s in Italy. Wait, he’s in Perth, Australia. “There he is. I see him! He’s in New Zealand!” Hang on, that’s all old news. Here’s the latest: Boris recently took on a new job IN SWITZERLAND! I know, right?! How did he pull that off? (He applied.)

To his friends, Boris is a smiley, fun-loving, happy-go-lucky man of adventure. His career path makes it clear he has a more serious side. He is smart, focused, and incredibly driven to learn and grow professionally. Within his field of orbital logistics, he is part of an exclusive club of highly trained engineers and scientists. On one of the job message boards used within his field, Boris spotted an open position with a Swiss company that manufactures GPS-enabled surveying equipment. After months of interviews and waiting, and second and third interviews and more waiting, Boris was hired.

For Jessica and me, the timing of Boris’ relocation from Perth, Australia to (the miniature town of) Heerbrugg, Switzerland, could not have been much better. We had to wiggle our schedule around by a day or two, but just three days after Boris arrived to his new (temporary) flat in Heerbrugg, we were knocking on his door.

Same ol’ Boris. Such a ham!

We hung out with Boris at a fun little Mexican restaurant in Heerbrugg. Mexican food? Who knew?!

Of course, Boris just had to show off his tiny-kitchen skills.

After harassing Boris for a few days, we continued westward on our journey…to Geneva.

Geneva and More Friends

As I mentioned right at the top of this post, Switzerland is crazy-expensive. To figure out ways to cut costs, I queried Uncle Google with phrases like, “Switzerland on a budget” or “Switzerland on a shoestring”. The first piece of advice is always, find a friend to stay with. In Geneva, Jessica and I were at it again.

This time it was two Ultimate-friends from Austin that had relocated to Switzerland in 2013. Hannah and Elliott were not particularly close friends of ours, however, within the Ultimate community there is a feeling of family that often surpasses what is found in many actual families; they welcomed us into their flat with generosity and enthusiasm.

Crouching with Hannah and Elliott for the self-timer pic.

Equally welcoming was Hannah and Elliott’s sweet dog, Roy. A rescue dog, Roy has a deeply expressive face that can melt a heart with just one glance. Just look at that face!!! Roy, we love you.

Geneva vs. Ultimate

For anyone eager to hear about our intensive exploration of Geneva, I’ve got some disappointing news. As it worked out, there was a three-day Ultimate tournament going on in Geneva while we were there. For an Ultimate player like myself, I was powerless to resist the call of the disc. I joined a team from Paris, France named Ah Ouh Puc (I never figured out what that meant) and played my heart out.


Jessica came with me to the fields on the first day of the tournament, but spent the other days re-charging herself in Hannah and Elliott’s apartment or taking their dog Roy out for walks in the neighborhood.

We did make it out for a pleasant stroll alongside Lake Geneva, but otherwise saw relatively little of Geneva’s top touristy sights. (And therefore have very few photos of it.) We didn’t take a city-tour or go on a bike ride, and we only visited one old church. Frankly, I was fine with it since I was playing Ultimate. Besides, Geneva didn’t strike me as vastly different from Zurich, Lucerne or Bern, three of the Swiss cities we’d already visited and enjoyed very much. There is, however, one very significant difference between Geneva and those others fine cities….French!

Geneva is located on the western edge of Switzerland (next to France). Consequently, French is the city’s primary language and dominates the city from a cultural perspective. It was in Geneva that we began to see baguettes rising from brown paper sacks and carried in the arms of every citizen strolling the sidewalks.

Did you know there are actually 3 major languages spoken in Switzerland? Most of the Swiss population speaks the language known as Swiss-German. Italian is the primary language in the far south, and as I mentioned, it’s nothing but French in Geneva. I remember our one brief attempt to watch TV in Switzerland. So ridiculous! Having three dominate languages in the country means the 3X number of channels….and none in English. Oh well.

Black Cats On Patrol

Before wrapping up this post I want to share with you one of the most curious observations of our entire trip. The first time the scene I will describe caught my attention, it was not actually clear what I was seeing. I was on the train going from Bern to Heerbrugg. As we approached one of several stops along the route, I witnessed my first black cat alone in the middle of a small field. Hmmm. What an odd place for a cat to plant himself. It looked like perhaps the cat was patrolling the field for critters.

An isolated incident? Nope. By the time our tour through Switzerland was over, I’d counted at least 10 different black cats in fields. Jessica saw them, too. She even tried to one-up me by spotting one cat that was half-white, half-black.

One of my cats-on-patrol sightings in particular made it crystal clear that what it looked like I was seeing was in fact, the reality. On a different day and a different train ride (still in Switzerland), I observed a somewhat larger field and three black cats in it, each guarding its own parcel of land.

Obviously, cats have been policing fields for eons (and in many more places than just Switzerland), I had just never witnessed the phenomenon live and in person. It was way cool and totally unexpected.

Switzerland is most definitely a country we would like to return to again. What would really be awesome is if I had more experience paragliding so I could fly through those huge canyons between the snowy and majestic mountains of the Swiss Alps. Maybe Boris will get his pilots certification, too, and we can soar the Alps together.

Dreams of flying aside, Switzerland is simply a remarkable country. Yes, it is super expensive, but at least one has the sense that you get what you pay for. If this isn’t a utopian society…..well, it sure is darn close.


(Le Havre, Être tat, Normandy, all in France – 19 June 2014) Finding people who have become enamored with all things French is not difficult. They even have a name, Francophiles. Despite my French heritage, something Jessica loves to tease me about, I am not, nor is Jessica, particularly smitten by France. Visiting Paris has always been on our agenda, and we will do so next month when we travel there and back from London. But as far as the rest of France goes, we were truly at a loss when came time to fill our travel plans with French destinations.

Searching online for recommendations proved to be of limited use. Several people said you cannot go wrong no matter where you are in France. Good to know, but unhelpful for our purpose.

In the end, we left Geneva and traveled straight westward across France, cutting right through the middle of Paris, [just as Austin enjoys being at the center of Texas, Paris does the same in France], on our way to a region of France known as Normandy on the west coast. A change of trains connected by a bus ride through Paris gave us an exciting teaser of what we could expect when returning to Paris later.

Normandy was home to a solid list of tourist attractions, including Omaha Beach (site of the D-Day invasion). Additionally, we could easily catch a ferry from Normandy to England, our next stop.

Le Havre Splits the Middle

Finding an affordable place to stay in France was challenging. We tried every travel trick we knew, but were always thwarted by the high cost. We even explored staying in a ready-made tent at some campgrounds, but the summer travel season was already in full swing and nothing was available. AirBnB had come through for us on three previous occasions, so why not try it again? Bingo! We found a room for rent from a single mom with two teenage kids. This could get interesting.

The room-for-rent we’d found was in the port city of Le Havre (pronounced “Lou-ahv“). The location looked good on the map since we could get there directly by train, and then easily go north to see Être tat and south to Omaha Beach.

It was all working out perfectly. Agnes, our host at the house, was a history teacher and also a chaperone for French exchange students studying in the US. This made her both full of interesting stories, but also full of compassion and understanding for us as new arrivals to France.

Our window at Agnes’ Airbnb over looks the English Channel. Not too shabby!

Sailboats across the English Channel

As a city, Le Havre itself had its share of notable sites. It suffered extensive damage during WWII and many of the waterfront buildings were rebuilt rather boringly since that time. Of far greater interest was a very unchurch like looking church set back a couple of blocks from the water’s edge. Its prominent feature was a colossal tower that resembled the UT Tower in Austin much more than the spire of any church we had ever seen. It was built in the 1950’s partly as a memorial to the 5,000 Le Havre citizens that died during the war.

Le Havre had a lively boardwalk scene just behind the “beach.” The problem was that this beach had no sand, only smoothed stones of varying sizes. One could lay out on the rocks and enjoy the surf, but without actual sand, it’s just not the same.

Beautiful but rocky beach

More than anything else, Le Havre was important to us for being our first French city. The language, the people, the pastries…all so very French. Enter any shop and you’ll hear the dainty, charming, disarming greeting, “Bonjour.” I’m embarrassed to admit just how sweet and beguiling they make it sound. I tried to mimic it, but the result was just silly. They have it, I don’t.

Être tat is a cliff-lined section of the French coast famous for its natural arches that walk out of the ocean becoming land at first step. Unique and spectacular views are provided in every direction. All the more, Jessica and I were there on a beautiful day.


Etretat Architecture


A tiny church was placed atop one of the cliffs and next to it, a war museum.

We walked on the high side and also the low, down by the water’s edge. The tide was out enabling us to walk to the left edge of the beach until the small stones that substituted for sand gave way to broad, slime-surfaced rocks, quite slippery indeed. All the care in the world didn’t prevent Jessica from taking a swoosh-dip right onto her butt, giving her tailbone quite a jolt. Shaken but not deterred, we continued, this time holding hands for extra security.

It seemed that our walk would be turned around as we arrived at a finger of land cutting straight out to the ocean, signaling a dead-end and the beach’s furthermost point. If only there was a tunnel that would take us through the sandstone to the beach on the other side. Yes, by now we could see a trickle of people coming from somewhere in the rocks. There was indeed a tunnel, accessible only when the tide is out. We scrambled to its entrance, read the signs warning of danger if the tides come in (written in both French and English), and walked into the damp darkness. Truly, the tunnel never got very dark and not 50 steps later we emerged to the deserted beach on the other side. It was a fun little adventure and oh so breathtakingly beautiful.

Omaha Beach

Our day to visit Omaha beach came about one week after the US President and other world leaders were there marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. [Wouldn’t that have been something if we’d run into Obama in France?] By the time we’d arrived, most signs of celebration were gone, though we did see many houses flying US, British and French flags. Our sense was that even after 7 decades had passed memories of the war and the gratitude felt by the French people towards America were still intact.

Getting to and from Omaha beach from Le Havre was no easy feat, despite being little more than an hour and a half away. There was no straight shot by bus or train; only a combination of methods would do the trick. Cost was always a concern for us, too. Where we found advantage was in our pace. At this point, we were three-quarters of the way through our trip and pretty comfortable knowing we can flexibly manage any situation. Good thing, too. Because a labor strike led to the cancellation of one of the trains we needed to take. Another train would follow, but not for a couple of hours. Hmmm, how does one spend two hours in a small city called Caen in France?

We concluded that a couple of hours is an awkward amount of time to have in a city you’ve never been to before. We didn’t want wander too far off course and risk missing our next connection. So, we basically found lunch and wifi in a Chinese restaurant and waited.

Too bad we didn’t have time to visit one of the many WWII-related museums in Caen. Prior to our day-trip to Omaha Beach, Jessica and I both boned-up on our history. This came in the form of watching a History Channel documentary AND the opening sequence to Saving Private Ryan.

Rows of White Crosses

Once at the Omaha Beach memorial site, it was all quite moving. Rows and rows of white crosses, each bearing the names and hometowns of US soldiers killed in action on this remote French coast. We walked slowly past them, stopping occasionally to notice the names and places. Soldiers from Texas always caught our eyes…and there were many of them. Some of the grave markers sadly pronounced that the entombed remains were “unknown.”

Blended around and within the cemetery were war-memorials and tiny chapels. A web of walkways connected everything together. On the side of the cemetery that faces the English Channel, there were paths angling down through the dunes towards the long stretch of Omaha beach. Hidden within those dunes 70 years ago were the German soldiers, firing their machine guns at the incoming waves of GI’s.

The beach where the D-Day landing took place is both intense, for reasons of history, and immense, for it’s sheer size. I’ve never seen such a great span of sand between the surf and where the dunes begin. Somberly walking that distance, Jessica and I had plenty of time to imagine what it was like for the GI’s to run the expanse while a gauntlet of bombs and bullets met them head-on.

On the beach itself, almost nothing remains of the epic battle that turned this placid scene into hell. The only thing we saw was a war-era transport boat of some kind; buried by sand almost completely until only it’s outline showed through.

Still Grateful

That train cancellation from earlier in the day was now creating difficulties we couldn’t have foreseen. It was now too late in the day for us to catch a shuttle back from Omaha Beach to the nearest town. We could have called for a taxi, but that would have cost us a bloody fortune and we truly were not carrying enough cash on us, anyway. Instead, I went out to the parking lot and started (indirectly) asking for a ride. “Excuse me, I’m trying to get back to Bayeux. Do you know of any buses still running?”

The first person I asked was the driver (and owner) of a sightseeing tour van. “Are you American?” he asked, almost certainly recognizing my Yankee accent. He was clearly British. [Yes, we were in France, but it seemed commonplace for Brits to make their home in France.] “Sure, I can give you a ride,” he reassured me. Though, he did feel obligated to ask permission of the Singaporean family that had already paid money for this tour that was still happening. Thankfully, they agreed.

The guide was super nice to give us a ride. Yes, mostly he was just a really nice guy with a great attitude, but also…it was clear that some portion of it was gratitude. We were American, and in this part of the world that meant a lot 70 years ago and it still does today.

Though bailed out of one jam, our travel challenges weren’t through. From Bayeux we caught a train back to Caen, but then hit a true dead-end. No more buses or trains were heading back to Le Havre until morning. We were stuck!

In desperation, I sent a text to our French AirBnB host, Agnes. It was a cry for help. After some delays, and as night was falling, we finally made contact with her by phone. She told us not to worry. That she would come and pick us up in her car. This seemed nothing short of heroic to us. She so easily could have said, I’m sorry, I don’t know what I can do to help you. But that wasn’t how she operated. Having been a chaperon for exchange students before, I guess she was used to coming to the rescue.

Anyone that says the French don’t like Americans hasn’t met Agnes. She was so nice to us. We paid her what money we had to help her with gas and the toll roads between Le Havre and Caen and back. I still question whether it was enough.

Before saying good-bye to Agnes, Le Havre and the Normandy coast of France, we think one other memory is worth a mention.

Movies, le cinema, are an important part of the French culture. Small, two or three screen movie theaters are everywhere. One leisurely-paced day in Le Havre, Jessica and I wandered into an old theater just to see if there was anything interesting showing in English. We spotted a movie with Tommy Lee Jones and Hillary Swank called, The Homesman. It touted some awards from the Cannes Film Festival, so we went for it. Jessica pretty much hated it and I liked it only a tad more. Nonetheless, it was a worthy side-step and we were both glad for the experience of watching a movie (in English) in Le Havre, France.

The next stop on our journey was London. We’d get there by crossing the English Channel by ferry from Le Havre, France to Portsmouth, England. For Jessica, London was the most highly anticipated destination of our entire trip. To hear her say it, “I’ve been waiting my whole life to go back to London.” (It’s where she was born, in case anyone’s forgotten.)