What I Saw in Normandy, France, Beyond the Surface

When you think of typical study abroad weekend trip, you might think swim beaches, nightlife, or shopping. I typically would, too. However, my friend and I countered this expectation by spending last weekend in Normandy, France: a charming, historical city, yet nevertheless a city mostly known for and immersed in violent, WWII history. I’m the one in my family and friend group to rapidly change the TV channel if I even see a gun appear in a show or movie, so I surprised even myself as I walked through the famous Caen Memorial Museum, pausing at artifacts like vintage rifles, bomb casing, and haunting, faded newspaper headings.

This surreal experience served as an excellent reminder and testament of the fact that studying abroad shouldn’t be just “fun”— though it is important, and every exchange student obviously needs enough smiling photos to become their most-liked profile pictures— but also challenging and shocking. When I’m swimming in French beaches, eating at French restaurants, and shopping in adorable French boutiques, I’m having the enjoyable but passive trip of a tourist. Yet when I shuffled among French people and was confronted with both some of the best and worst events in the country’s history, I quickly considered it one of my most authentic, intentional experiences so far this summer.

In addition to the Caen Memorial Museum, my friend and I visited a museum dedicated to the role that French beaches played in WWII, visited one of the stormed beaches and discovered the artificial ports, and stopped at the church where Charles De Gaulle, former President of the French Republic, officially declared that France would stand with the Allies for the remainder of WWII. The clear water and statuesque cliffs of the beaches, along with the ornate detailing of the church, revealed that even the most painful parts of history can be extraordinarily beautiful.

Overall, what I saw in Normandy taught me that a divided history can lead to a united future, if only everyone is committed to an education in and an awareness of their pasts. At many of the places I visited, I met people from many different countries— and both sides of the war— approach monuments of their countries’ pasts as lessons not to repeat actions that incited such violence.

I also learned not to shy away from an experience just because it’s not simple and “fun”— instead, search for the complexities and conflicts in a culture, because they will be much more interesting.