Guys with guns surround Notre Dame. What’s left of it after a blazing fire gutted about a third of it. Streets around the great Cathedral are blockaded. Only those with pre-approved security clearance can get past the armed guards.
Walk up the street past St. Chapelle’s and you will encounter yet more guys with guns, fingers on the trigger. Nearby, locals and tourists sip on espressos, take bites of crepes, as they talk of work, of art, of sick parents and growing kids, seemingly oblivious to the guys with the guns standing 10 feet from them.
High fences surround the Eiffel Tower. Visitors must wind their way around the fences to a security check where their bags are opened, searched, then they must pass through a scanner. Guys with guns stand at the ready.
Ropes thin as clotheslines surround all the graves at Normandy. These are not there to keep people off the grass while it grows, though it works for that purpose too. These are there for “security” says the girl with the guns standing guard nearby. “Only family can go past,” she explained.
Stroll down the streets of Bayeux the first major town liberated following the D-Day invasion, and notice all the window signs thanking veterans for freedom. In 2012, those signs were directed specifically at Americans. No longer. As the region prepares for the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the gratitude now is focused on the British troops. Fewer acknowledgements are directed at Americans. Fewer US flags fly.
France has changed since I was last here in 2013. In a few short years, Paris and the Normandy region has taken on a different tone. Oh, the French are every bit as friendly here as I have always found them to be. People are funny and kind and generous of heart. I have never understood those who find the French as snooty. That has never been my experience. Quite the contrary, I appreciate their sense of style – I am going miss seeing everyone dressed as if they are going to a business dinners. As one of our intrepid travelers said: “Everything the French do is done so beautifully. Even the smallest things.” Yes. Beauty abounds. Grace walks the streets. The French are still our allies in their hearts if not in their politics. Their sense of humor and love of the arts in all forms is endearing.
Now, though, there is this daily awareness that things have changed. Cafes and newspapers offices have been attacked. People have died. Many more injured. Men and women with guns, security details, have become a part of the daily lives of Parisians.
But then again, this is a city and a people that has a long history of living in the tension between a peaceful existence and one of utter chaos. Men standing on the street corners with guns might be a new experience for the occasional visitor like me, but it is certainly not new to the grandparents and great-grandparents who remember with an uncanny clarity that time of the occupation.
And the liberation.
I stood listening from a dark corner as a film rolled, and an American woman recounted her own memories of caring for the thousands wounded, those carried to England from Omaha Beach following the D-Day invasion: “I think the French are more appreciative of freedoms than the Americans are,” she said.
I suppose having your country occupied by a foreign entity might have something to do with that appreciation. Americans boast a great deal about being the greatest country in the world, but travel outside the US and you begin to question the truth of that propaganda.
Or at least I do.
I don’t take for granted any freedom. Not as a white woman. Not as an American. Not as a woman of faith. Not as the daughter of the fallen. Not even as the former member of Crystal Valley Trailer Court. I remember. I remember it all.
It is because I remember how Daddy looked in that casket, all waxy blue and bruised in his finest Army get-up, that I will never forget how Congress exploited my father’s devotion to his family to slaughter another people, to be slaughtered himself.
It’s because I remember that I will never forgive this punk of a president. He’s a liar. A cheat. A Con Don for sure.
I wonder, perhaps, if what the good lady meant when she said it seems the French appreciate their freedoms more is that Americans are an arrogant lot, by and large. Our selfish egocentric view has convinced us that the rest of the world revolves around us.
And since this punk of a president stepped into power, our likely “former” allies know better than to align themselves with this administration. If they speak of Trump, and the locals I ran into were very loathe to do so, they speak of him with spittle on their lips.
They are busy enjoying their lives. The parks in Spain and France are full of families spending time with children. Not just talking about family values, but living out family values. Their entire focus isn’t on creating chaos for the world, but rather, they are spending their time creating works of beauty or enjoying those works of beauty.
Books. Art. Museums. Cafes. Restaurants. Music.
This notion that America is the greatest country is simply not true. There are many countries around the world where people are better educated, better read, better dressed (certainly the case in Spain and France), and better behaving. There’s a coarseness to America that I have not missed one bit.
We have lost our dignity as a country, as a people.
We don’t need more patriotic people. We need more dignified people.
But then again, dignity isn’t something you inherit. It’s not embedded in one’s DNA. Dignity is the thing that is earned. We earn it the way the soldiers at D-Day earned it – by not insisting upon our superiority in the world, but by serving the world. Not by stomping on others, but by lending the hurting a helping hand.
Dignity can’t be bought. It can’t be left in a trust.
You choose it as an individual, as a people, as a country.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain (Mercer Univ. Press).