I caught a bus this morning to the tiny town of Courseulles-Sur-Mer, which is where Juno Beach is located. Juno is the D-Day beach that the Canadians landed on. There were 5 overall: the Americans landed at Omaha and Utah, and the British at Gold and Sword. There are tons of monuments, memorials, and museums all over the area that covers these 5, but I really only had time for one, so I obviously chose Juno Beach. The big new attraction here is the only 2-year old Juno Beach Center. I walked in and was greeting by 2 young girls and a guy, all with very obvious Canadian accents. I chatted with them for awhile and it's a summer job program where 8 of them come over and work in the center for the summer and they all live together in a house in the town. What an awesome way to spend a summer, eh? And the guy there was from Halifax, so that was pretty cool.
First I saw the temporary exhibit room with a personal collection of thousands of war items owned by this one man in the town. Apparently he was a young boy when D-Day happened and after the town was liberated a Canadian soldier gave him his cap I think it was, and ever since then he's been collecting D-Day items. The collection was pretty incredible. The most interesting thing I saw was an original transcript of a mass said for the men the morning that they landed. I can't even imagine what was going through their minds as a priest said mass for them, knowing that many of them would not make it through the day.
Next I did a guided walk onto the beach itself and the surrounding park. It was great because I was the only one who wanted the tour in English so I got my own personal guide. I got a lot of really great background on the center and its short history. Apparently various vets have been coming back for anniversaries here for years and noticed that other than a few plaques and small monuments here and there, there was no big center or museum honouring the contribution of the Canadians to D-Day and World War II in general. So these veterans went back home and lobbied and fundraised and with donations mostly from war veterans, raised enough to build the Juno Park Center. The town of Coureulles-Sur-Mer helped out by donating all the land for the center and they even built the park around it themselves. It was quite an awesome story I thought. My guide took me down around the German bunkers and onto the beach itself and showed me pictures from 1944 as we went along. She had lots of information on the mission itself and how various coincidences ensured its success, like the Germans thinking the weather was going to be too bad for the allies to sail that day, but they just had enough of a window to make it over from England. Another interesting insider thing was that apparently all the Commonwealth beaches were supposed to be names of fish, like Sword Beach = swordfish and Gold Beach = gold fish. So where does Juno come from you may wonder? It was originally supposed to be called Jelly, as in jelly fish, but they axed that as it doesn't exactly sound very militaristic.
She said it's always interesting when vets come back and take the tour because you never really know how they're going to react to seeing these places again. She said on one particular tour a vet had been very emotional and she thought he might be upset by seeing the beach full of people sun-bathing and swimming. But as he told her, "This is why we came here and fought, so that people could live free and enjoy their country, just like this." A pretty powerful message I thought. She also told me a story about this house right on the beach that was literally the first house liberated in France. It's still the same family that lives there (2 generations down of course) and they have a huge Canadian flag on the side of the house. She said it's neat when local people take the tour too because they have great stories of their memories. Calvados is a famous local drink around here, a strong whiskey-like drink made from apples I believe. Vets remember local people running up to them, kissing and hugging them, and then offering a drink of this calvados, which, after hours of fighting on the beach and being parched, must have really hit the spot.
After the tour I spent a few hours in the center itself. There were tons of exhibits on Canada's political and economic situation before the war and what precipitated its entrance into it. Then there was information on various battles that Canadians played a prominent role in, what the different roles of the army, navy, and air force were (I don't think I ever realized how close the Battle of the Atlantic came to us), and how life back in Canada changed drastically in order to help out with the war effort. There was also video footage, taped interviews with vets, old letters sent back home, and profiles of men who were awarded the Victoria Cross. I could have spent another day in there there was so much fascinating information. They also had at the end an exhibit on Canada today and how it's changed over the years, with quotes and stories from various immigrants from all over the world. I learned more in those 3 hours that I probably did in high school history, or maybe I'd just forgotten it all, who knows! At any rate, I really, really enjoyed the center. It's something every Canadian should see I think.
I had to rush to catch my bus back to Bayeux and from there I was on a train to Paris. I didn't have a hostel booked so I called a place from the train station when I got in. They were booked up but he gave me the number of a one-star hotel that was fairly close to the station. These one-star hotels in Paris are about the same price as a hostel and most include breakfast, so it's a pretty good deal. I found the place pretty easily and managed to converse entirely in French with the guy working. He was very patient with me, which was nice. I had a nice double bed in a room all to myself, with a cot on the floor for one other girl. She really got the shitty end of the stick there!
I took some time after getting settled in to call my grandparents in Pomquet to let them know that I was alive and to tell them about the St. Benoit monastery! But first I made the mistake of buying what I thought was a €10 telecarte for a pay phone but what was really for a cell phone, which obviously I don't own, and of course it wasn't returnable....what a piss off. I went to Mcdonald's to grab some quick food and it was pretty funny ordering in French I thought. It just sounds pretty ridiculous, "Un McChicken et un Coca-Cola, s'il vous plait." After that I decided to have an early night so that I can get an early start on sightseeing tomorrow.