Because I am lucky enough to spend a month in Paris every year, people often ask me what they should be sure to see or do while they are there.
Of course the answer to this question depends a lot on who you are, what interests you, and how long you will be there.
But there are a few things I tend to recommend to most people who ask.
1) If you only have a short time in Paris, consider going to the Musée Rodin instead of the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay. Why? Because the Musée Rodin, despite being one of the most wonderful and most famous museums in the world (it is hands-down my favorite) offers what many of the world’s great art museums do not: pleasant, relaxed surroundings and uncrowded conditions in which it is easy to actually do what you are (at least theoretically) there for: to enjoy the artwork.
In addition to the pleasure of strolling through the very rooms where Rodin and a stellar list of other turn-of-the-twentieth-century artists lived and worked–Isadora Duncan, Rilke, Matisse, Cocteau among them–the beautiful grounds offer the chance to study Rodin’s sculptures from multiple distances and perspectives. Inside, don’t forget to notice, in addition to the sculptures, beautiful drawings and paintings by Rodin, and the friends and fellow artists he admired–Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Edvard Munch, to name a few. And be sure to spend some time looking at the magnificent work of Rodin’s student, lover, and sometimes protégée, Camille Claudel.
If you are determined to go to the Louvre no matter what, be ready for the crowds. And consider looking at the Mona Lisa from a distance, instead of up close with a bunch of other tourists toward whom you may find yourself having irrationally murderous thoughts. And take the opportunity to view some of the literally thousands of other beautiful artworks there, the ones that are not drawing crowds.
2) Consider skipping the ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower. This experience is expensive, time-consuming, and very crowded, and the view from up there is in my opinion not that exciting for anyone who has ever been in an airplane. Instead, consider walking up to the first level. (You still have to buy a ticket, but it costs less, and the line for walking up is usually quite short.) Or just sit on the Champ de Mars and enjoy the view of the tower and the relaxed yet lively scene around you. There are other, less crowded places you can get panoramic views of Paris if that is important to you, for example from the top of Sacré Coeur, the Arc de Triomphe, or the Tour Montparnasse. There’s some good advice about a few alternative spots for viewing Paris here.
3) Read David Downie’s wonderful collection of essays, “Paris, Paris: A Journey Into the City of Light” before going. You may well develop some ideas for things you’d like to see and do while you’re there by reading this book. You will also learn fascinating things about the history of Paris, its architecture, and many interesting, “off-the-beaten-track” spots and idiosyncratic subjects, with Downie, your travel companion, offering his own unique, witty, intelligent slant on things. (If you like this book as much as I do, you’ll probably want to also bring it with you to Paris.)
4) Have a wonderful French meal somewhere. For reasons ranging from a limited budget to a lack of sufficient interest in cuisine, I am not the person to try to advise you on where to eat. My usual recommendation is Le Train Bleu, which is currently closed for renovation (but will reopen in September). However, there are many people who can do so, including my friend Gary Lee Kraut–journalist, editor and publisher of France Revisited, professional tour guide, and a gourmand who has spent many years learning about, and writing about, French cuisine. His “list beyond the list” of restaurants in Paris is a good place to start.
5) Whatever else you do, make sure to leave some time to do nothing but stroll, and spend some unhurried time in a Parisian café, and/or in the beautiful parks and gardens of Paris, watching the world go by. The French even have a word for spending time this way: flâner, which is translated in various ways. But it means, mainly, to enjoy relaxing: an activity that has a much more positive connotation in France than in Anglo-Saxon countries and cultures. So, ditch that mentality that has you furiously checking off sights on your list and fretting about how much you are “accomplishing.” Kick back and relax. (Go ahead–you can do it! And to experience life this way, even for a short time, can be transformative.)
Finally, in order to make your time in Paris as pleasant and as safe as possible, two more bits of advice: hang onto your bag, especially when you’re in crowded, touristy areas (and on the Metro). While Paris is generally speaking at least as safe as most American cities, pickpockets do work the crowds, and apparently one of the latest things is plucking cellphones off of café tables. So, be aware!
And take a look at this post, which will give you some very important, very basic advice about how to get off on the right foot with the natives. :-)
Alors, bon voyage, et bon séjour en France!
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She writes about France for Bonjour Paris, France Revisited, and on this blog (you’ll find more posts on Paris here). This fall she is teaching “Parlez-Vous Anglais? Survival French and French Travel Tips” at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.
“One thing I noticed, that the Argonne Forest, so many bullets had gone through there that the trees were mostly stumps. Very few branches on the trees there…”
The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the U.S. in World War II. At the age of 20, my Uncle Lewey left his home on the family farm in Wisconsin and, along with hundreds of thousands of others, played his role in that battle.
Seven years ago my son Phineas interviewed him, as part of a school project he was doing on World War II. Here are some excerpts from that interview…
PR: Before you left, what was the Depression like, back at home?
LP: Oh, way back in the 30s?
PR: Oh. No, I mean, just before you were about to leave for the war, what was it like in America?
LP: Well, it was about the same as usual. Farmers were farming, and people were working, it wasn’t that bad. I wouldn’t have had to have gone, but I just thought maybe I should.
PR: When and where did you arrive in France?
LP: When did I arrive in France? Well, let’s see. I went in in 44 and I had my basic training, and I went to France in 45. 1945. Then from France we went to Germany. We went over on a boat, it was the Mariana. It was an English luxury liner. There were, I think 5,000 guys on that thing, and they each had hammocks to sleep in, and there was six of ‘em in a row, one on top of the other. And the one on the top one, he had the advantage because the ones below, there, it wasn’t so good. One time I was going through the chow line, and I got my food and the guy ahead of me ate his, and he came to the barrel where they throw the scraps and got to the barrel, and he threw up right there. Y’see, bein’ on a boat can make some people seasick. And it was a big one, but…it was kind of interesting. And then another thing that happened is, on the way over there, they realized there were some submarines around there. But they threw bombs over the side at the submarines…The submarines didn’t get us. I don’t know if we got the submarines or not…but they didn’t get us. Cuz we didn’t have any other ships around us to protect us. So that was how they did it…
PR: So, what was your job in the Battle of the Bulge?
LP: I was a radio repairman. And do you know how we checked the radios?
PR: No, how?
LP: Well, that was when they had tubes, y’know? And I would feel them to see if it was warm. And if it was warm it was working, and if it was cold it wasn’t working, and I’d replace it. That’s all I had to do. So, I really didn’t fix any. But there was other things going on…
PR: Did the American soldiers, did their impression of the Nazis before the war influence their fighting during the war? Do you think their impression of the Nazis and their being all, like, scary and everything, did that make their fighting better or worse? Or do you think it didn’t matter…
LP: I don’t think it mattered very much. It just depended on the situation at hand.
PR: Did you ever have any encounters with the Nazi Army yourself?
LP: Well, in a way. I was walkin’ through the woods one day to get back to camp, and a sniper shot at me. I didn’t see him. But the bullet went about two feet from me. So I walked a little faster and hoped I was going in the right direction, and he didn’t get another shot at me. So I was pretty happy about that.
PR: Oh. Whoa. (pause) What was the most difficult part of being there, in the Battle of the Bulge?
LP: Well, one of the most difficult parts was, one of the guys I took Basic with, didn’t come back. And another interesting thing that happened was, one of the guys I took my Basic training with, he was in a Recon company and I was in Headquarters company. And they were going between two big hills, and there was a camouflaged machine-gun nest that shot out the front vehicle and the back vehicle. And then they were gonna get the rest of ‘em. But my friend, he had a jeep with a 50-caliber machine gun on it, and he backed off the road, and he kept them pinned down until everybody got out. He saved that whole recon company. I thought he did pretty good…
LP: He got the Bronze Star for doin’ that…(laughs)…One of the interesting things was when we went, they called us reinforcements. And the reason we went there is because quite a few of them had been killed. And instead of calling them “replacements,” they called them “reinforcements.” (laughs) Yeah, see it was a tank destroyer battalion that I was in. They had tank destroyers that were a lot like a tank. But they didn’t have much armor on them. And…I didn’t drive any of the tanks, I didn’t feel bad about that….they were big creatures!
Then one of the interesting things that happened when we were over there, we even got a vacation. We got to go to Switzerland, and there it was amazing. They had hills of alfalfa that were at 45 degrees. And the women would cut the hay, with a scythe, and rake it up, and put it in stacks, and it was sure different than it is here.
PR: At the time of the war, how did you feel about America’s situation? Were you confident, or worried, or what?
LP: Well, see, Hitler, he was gettin’ his way with things and y’know, it only takes 10 men out of a hundred, to control the other 90. And if they get control, there isn’t a very easy way to stop ‘em. And I thought it was time I should help in getting rid of ‘em. And I did.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of literature and writing. This post is one in a series of her personal tributes to those who contributed to regaining Europe’s freedom in World War II.
A few weeks ago I was in my local post office, waiting in line. A bit ahead of me in the line there was a man speaking some not-very-good Spanish to the man behind him who, apparently, spoke even-less-good English. They were having a friendly conversation, and I was pleased to see someone reaching out to the Spanish-speaking man in this way.
As the line inched forward, the Spanish-speaking man was called to the counter. His apparent mission (it soon became clear to everyone in the post office) was to renew the lease on his post office box, which he thought was due for payment. The postal clerk tried to explain to him that he didn’t have to pay anything until October, it was all paid up already. But he didn’t understand her.
This is where things began to fall apart. The postal clerk, with understandable frustration, began to speak louder. (A natural, but entirely ineffective, response to someone who is having difficulty understanding a foreign language.) Less understandably, she began to also speak to our immigrant (let’s call him that) in a very condescending tone. “You need to listen to me…” she said more than once, in much the way a strict kindergarten teacher would speak to an out-of-line five-year-old. Then she repeated what she had already said, in exactly the same words, at the same pace, and in the same tone (which he hadn’t understood the first time, so…)
The man who had befriended our immigrant while waiting in line tried to assist, but as he attempted to find out from our immigrant (in Spanish) what the problem was, he began to be addressed in the same condescending tone by the postal clerk. “You need to listen to me” she said in that same condescending tone (at least twice), this time to the would-be translator.
Behind me in the line, someone grumbled, “And some of ‘em vote!”
“Whether they’re legal or not,” another disdainful voice added.
It was at this point that I thought of my Swedish grandparents. I wish I had thought clearly enough at the moment to say, aloud, to the detractors behind me, that it was at moments like these that I do think of them, and maybe to add that I wondered how many people standing in the line did not have grandparents, or great-grandparents who had come to this country from far away, and gone through the same sort of frustrating humiliation before they learned to speak English.
I could also have asked the disdainful people if they had ever tried to speak a foreign language themselves, and if so, why they could not be a bit more understanding about what our immigrant (for he is “ours”) was going through. And that if they had not, had suggested to them that they really had no idea how difficult it could be.
The linguistic frustration that immigrants experience as they adjust to life in a new land is inevitable, but the humiliation is not.
My Swedish great-grandparents came to this country, like so many before and after them, out of desperation. I am sure they had many frustrating moments, and I imagine that they encountered both kind and understanding people and critical, unkind people as they made their lives in a new land.
As a matter of fact, so difficult was the adjustment that they, like many others who settled in Minnesota, basically re-created little Swedens (or Norways, or Finlands) on the prairie–speaking Swedish in the home, at church, and among their neighbors. They pretty much stuck to themselves for a couple of generations and concentrated on the hard work of carving out a new life. Consequently, though he was of the second generation born in this country, my father’s first language was Swedish, and it was not until he started school that he began to learn English. I suppose people criticized them for that too.
Immigration is not a new story in this country. Almost all of our families came from somewhere else (and the land we have taken over was not exactly ours to begin with, but that’s another story). My Swedish forbears, like so many American immigrants before and after them, came here to build a better life for themselves. My extended family now includes more recent immigrants from Greece, Mexico and China. Each of them has a different story, but all of them have made this nation of ours a better, richer place, adding their talents and skills, their cultural traditions and their languages to the mix.
One of the greatest strengths of this nation is that we have created a place where people can come bearing their hopes and dreams, and if they are willing to work hard, they have chance to actually achieve them. Generations of immigrants have come from all over the world and have created this wonderful nation of ours. When we see the newest immigrants among us struggling to understand, attempting to pay their dues (or their post-office box fees), I would hope that most of us will do what the kind gentleman in the line did, and reach out a helping hand.
All we have to do is realize that a few generations ago, that struggling new American was a member of our own family.
The American family.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for Queens College, CUNY, and she also teaches classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.
And so it is time to say it again: au revoir, Paris…
There is always a little bit of melancholy in the last few days I am here each year. And then the whisper, or the saying-it-aloud as I head down the beautiful streets and toward the airport, at least when my kids were younger and were there with me to say it: “Au revoir, Paris, merci!”
I have been lucky enough to have spent a month in Paris each summer for the past 17 years, teaching an American literature course (“Paris: A Literary Adventure”), to a group of American students studying abroad.
Every year is different, of course: different personalities, different group dynamics, different weather, and other variables can make for a different set of emotions as I help prepare them to return to the U.S. Sometimes some of them are more than ready to go home (though most of those develop their appreciation of Paris in retrospect, looking back).
This year the group was uniformly not ready to go. They were in love with Paris! They wanted to stay. So did I. (I always do.)
But instead of being sad about it, I just turn up the “appreciation” factor a tiny notch higher. Deeply, fully enjoy all the little nuances of life in Paris that I so enjoy. Summer evenings spent in beautiful parks reading, surrounded by other people doing the same, or engaged in quiet conversation, or (a fairly recent phenomenon) running, but–unlike in the U.S.–continuing their conversations as they run. :-) The clinking of glassware, the clicking of silverware, the soft murmur of conversation in one of the most beautiful languages in the world emanating from the cafés as I wander home after the park has been closed by policemen on bicycles, blowing their whistles, the signal for everyone to exit at closing time. The long, lingering sunsets.
I am not unaware that the wonderful orderliness and sane pace of French life with which one is surrounded in Paris is under attack, with various economic and other pressures for it to change. But I admire and appreciate the belief the French have in the salutary nature of the life they have created, and their sustained efforts to hold onto it. I hope they can succeed in holding back the tide.
I wish that the rest of the world could find a way to be a little bit more like France, rather than all of us asking why they don’t do the “reasonable” thing and be more like us.
For now, I am just enjoying it, and appreciating the lessons it can teach my students about the value of slowing down, of taking the time to enjoy their lives, to appreciate that there is more–much more–to life than earning a living. The French possess this knowledge, of the famous l’art de vivre in a way that is deep, complete, full–and in the end, eminently practical, yes practical! For indeed it is not necessary to live one’s life in a constant rush, the way we tend to believe. The French prove this truth over and over, all the time, in the way they conduct their daily lives. “You’re not going to slow down New York when you get back there,” I say to my students. “But you can slow yourselves down, and that can make a big difference in a life.”
So it is always sad to leave, but built into the very words of departure is a sentiment that is awfully optimistic and positive for a people known for their pessimism.
Au revoir means, literally, “until the re-seeing.”
It implies a next time, always. And I take comfort in that promise every time I leave.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, and teacher of literature and of writing based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each year she teachers “Paris: A Literary Adventure,” for Queens College, CUNY. She also teaches literature and culture classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. and writing workshops in the Champagne region of France.
Articles about how to explore and discover “Hemingway’s Paris” are published with some regularity. Usually they recommend visiting establishments the writer was known to frequent, such as Les Deux Magots, La Closerie des Lilas, the Ritz. This is fine for those who are able and willing to pay top prices, only to be surrounded by a lot of other tourists trying (unsuccessfully, I’m pretty sure) to channel creative energy long gone from these particular places.
Is the magic still there? The good news is, yes, it is–and even better news is that you don’t have to pay inflated prices to experience it.
Here are a few tips for budget travelers who would like to experience something of what it was that drew Hemingway and so many others to Paris, and nurtured their creative genius.
1. Spend some time with the statue of Maréchal Michel Ney, located across the street from the Port Royal RER station, adjacent to the Closerie des Lilas. The statue was erected at the place where the Maréchal, one of Napoleon’s favorite marshals, who took both the blame and the fall for what happened at Waterloo, was executed by firing squad in 1815. (Ney’s last words are said to have been “Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her. Soldiers, fire!”)
Stand there, outside, and read what Hemingway wrote about Ney, looking back many years later, on the afternoon when he had stopped at the Closerie des Lilas for a beer after being told by Gertrude Stein that he and all his war-veteran companions were “a lost generation.”
“…as I was getting up to the Closerie des Lilas with the light on my old friend, the statue of Marshal Ney with his sword out and the shadows of the trees on the bronze, and he alone there and nobody behind him and what a fiasco he’d made of Waterloo, I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be and I stopped at the Lilas to keep the statue company and drank a cold beer before going home…sitting there with the beer, watching the statue and remembering how many days Ney had fought, personally, with the rear-guard on the retreat from Moscow that Napoleon had ridden away from in the coach…I thought of what a warm and affectionate friend Miss Stein had been…and I thought, I will do my best to serve her and see she gets justice for the good work she had done as long as I can, so help me God and Mike Ney. But the hell with her lost-generation talk and all the dirty, easy labels…” *
Read it, and think about it.
Now you’re getting close to communion with the master, and you haven’t paid anything except the cost of the Metro ticket to get there.
2. Stroll over the Seine on the Pont des Arts, where Hemingway and his first wife Hadley strolled one night, reminiscing about their friend Chink.
Or choose any bridge you like to stroll across. (The views are beautiful from all of them.) If you are with someone you love, reminisce about whatever makes the two of you happy. Or talk about the future, as Hemingway and Hadley did too. (But please do NOT add to the “Locks of Love” on the Pont des Arts: here’s why.)
3. Find your own café.
The cafés that Hemingway loved best were unpretentious local places where he could go to be alone and work. Thank God there are still hundreds of such places still in Paris, in every part of town. Find an unpretentious, unknown café, pick a table in a corner somewhere, and take out your notebook, or a book to read. You can order a glass of wine, a beer, or un café, and stay there for hours, and as long as you are not in the part of the establishment where a meal is being served, no one will bother you or hurry you on your way. (They probably won’t even bring you your check until you ask, unless they are changing the shift, in which case they may apologetically ask if you would mind settling l’addition. But you don’t have to leave then either. You should just pay up.)
4. If you want to go the places where Hemingway lived–as well as a few other very important writers, including George Orwell and James Joyce, Honoré de Balzac and Paul Verlaine–and to gain a very good basic overview/background on them, as well as a lot of other interesting information, two hours spent with Paris Walks Tours is money well invested.
At 12 Euros for adults and 10 Euros for students 21 and under (children under 15, 8 Euros), it’s one of the best bargains in Paris for the intellectually curious. There is a weekly Hemingway tour, every Friday morning at 10:30 a.m. No reservations needed, all you have to do is show up at the Metro Cardinal Lemoine (a name that will be familiar to you if you’ve read A Moveable Feast) and meet the guide. The tours go on 365 days a year, rain or shine. (Here’s the link directly to their site: http://www.paris-walks.com/)
5. Find a nice café–not expensive, just nice, as in sympa–or a bench in one of Paris’s many beautiful parks, and read “A Moveable Feast.”
(You can read why you should read THIS edition, and not the 2009 “restored” one here.)
Really, is there any better way to connect with writers than to read the work they left behind? Is there any better way to connect with the Hemingway who so loved Paris?
I don’t think so.
And–should you happen to be in Paris in a week that is particularly rainy, know that you are not alone. Here is a Hemingway quote that is not that famous, but it can be a very appropriate one: “I don’t know what I thought Paris would be like, but it was not that way. It rained nearly every day.”
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure”). She also teaches culture and literature classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., and writing workshops in the Champagne region of France.
*from A Moveable Feast, published by Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), 1996 edition, pgs. 30-31
Richard P. Rueckert, known in our family as “Uncle Dick,” was born February 3, 1924, in Kankakee, Illinois, where his father owned and operated the I.C. Pharmacy and his mother was a homemaker. In 1942 he graduated from Kankakee High School. While in college, he joined the enlisted reserve. He was called to active duty in early spring of 1943, and in April of 1944 he was shipped to the U.K., where he lived in a tent city named Moberly Hall near Manchester, England.
When the Allied troops landed in Normandy, he was among them, a medic in the U.S. Army’s 315th infantry regiment, 79th division. He served 18 months in Europe.
In the spring of 2007, my son Phineas, then 13 years old, interviewed Uncle Dick as part of a school project. What follows is excerpted from that interview.
PR: I know you were in D-Day but were you in the Battle of the Bulge too?
DR: No, we were down around Strasbourg, and when the Germans did the Bulge, they threw what they called a counter-attack down there, with the idea of forming a pincer’s movement, and they would join up with the Bulge people and give us all kinds of trouble. But we were able to stop them, they didn’t have enough punch to get through our lines and so we absorbed them, so to speak…
We were at two little towns called Rittershoffen and Hatten. And that’s where our three regiments with the 79th infantry were trying to stop them, along with the 30th infantry, on our left flank. We were down almost to the Swiss border there, around Strasbourg.
PR: So, what was your job?
DR: I was a medic. We were running evacuation for an infantry regiment, the 315th, which was part of the 79th division. And we would take the wounded from the batallions to aid stations, bring them back to what we called a collecting company, which was set up behind the infantry a few miles, couple miles, something like that, and then after they cleared our location, they would go back to a clearing company for the division, which was way to the rear, and the wounded would stay there, or be sent over to an adjacent field hospital—like in the TV story, Mash. They were a surgical unit that would operate on these guys and try to get them goin’ again..and then they were evacuated further back to an evacuation hospital. And if they were serious enough, they would be sent back to the States.
PR: So, what was the atmosphere like at D-Day?
DR: D-Day? Kinda like today. (laughs) Cold and rainy! It was not real cold, but it was cool for that time of year. There’d been a storm out over the English Channel, and our division was D-Day Invasion Reserve for the Utah Beach. And fortunately they didn’t need us, except…our company was chosen to go in because they needed medical evacuation, and so they shot us in on a big ole’ LST to Utah Beach. And we got in there, and all our vehicles had been waterproofed so we could wade ‘em in in the water if we had to. Fortunately we didn’t have to. And so they sent us to what they called a de-waterproofing area where we took all this gunk off of the engines and off the exhaust systems and the other systems on the vehicle, and we ended up sitting there three days, waiting for the rest of the division to come in.
PR: What day was this? What day did you go in after the initial invasion?
DR: Well, our company went in on D-Day plus 3 days. The third day. At that time the Allies were in about 3 1/2 miles on the French coast. And shortly after that we helped go across the southern end of the Cherbourg peninsula, and cut it off from the Germans. Then we and two other divisions attacked up the Cherbourg peninsula, and helped capture Cherbourg, which gave us an all-weather port to unload further supplies and stuff, they didn’t have to dump them out on a beach someplace. Then after that, why, we came back down to the base of the peninsula. We kinda sat there for a few days, everything was getting stabilized…The British were on our left quite a ways up the coast. We were trying to get into Caen, France, it was a very heavy fight.
And then all of a sudden one morning, we were back at our company, the place we were bivouacking at, and I woke up about 6:00 in the morning and here the highway we were camped against was just lined up with tanks as far as you could see. And the next day we took off and that was when the breakthrough was established. And we headed down toward Avranches…and let’s see, what were some of the other towns…Le Mans. And on over toward Paris, kinda paralleling the Seine River.
And we thought, “Oh boy!” We were riding with the French 2nd Armored at that point, and put our infantry on the French 2nd armored tanks and away we went. We ended up outside of Paris and secured some pontoon bridges that the engineers had put across the Seine because they wanted to get on the north side of the Seine. And we sat there for quite a while. We thought we were going to Paris: the French 2nd Armored went to Paris: we sat there and did what they called “secure the Seine loop.” (laughs)
And then we ended up way up, we fought in the Falaise Gap, where the Germans were trying to escape out of Normandy, and into northern France. And that was a lot of aircraft fighting, y’know, American pursuit planes bombing the retreating Germans, and that eventually got liquidated and we ended up at St. Amand, Belgium,which is just above the French border, not too far from Reims. And then somebody decided we were to go down into Lunéville, France, in that area.
It was gettin’ to be fall by then, and we ended up in the forest of Parroy, which is where WWI ended up. (rueful laugh) And fought through there for several weeks. It was wet and rainy, and winter was beginning to set in. And then, on and on, and we ended up, that’s when we got shunted down into the area on the German border, above Strasbourg. And then after the Battle of the Bulge was resolved…I guess you had an uncle that was there…
PR: Yes, I did…
DR: And when that all got settled they shot us up into Belgium, that area…on the Meuse River, and we did aquatic training with the infantry, and our project was to make the assault crossing of the Rhine. And at that point there were no American troops into Germany yet.
Well, lo and behold, about two days before we were supposed to make that assault crossing, they secured the bridgehead, and another unit went across, one of the things fell, after so many attempts to blow it up by the Germans, they got enough troops across to secure a zone on the east bank of the Rhine. We went ahead and did the assault crossing of the Rhine, which was north of there a distance, can’t tell you how many miles but not too far. And we went in, we were near, at the Ruhr area, where their big industrial plants were. And we helped liquidate that. Took a lot of displaced persons out of what they called DP camps. And…slave labor, so to speak.
And then the war was pretty much over for us by then. We went on Occupation up in that area, Dortmund, what were some of the other, Gelsenkirken, are a couple of the town’s names that I remember. And we sat there for quite a while as the rest of the armies were scurrying across Germany. And after that got sorta settled down, they sent us down into southeastern Germany, to the Czechoslovakian border. And we went in as far as Pilsen, and it was just sorta ridin’ along, there wasn’t too much resistance, because the Germans were in full retreat by that point.
And we got into Pilsen, spent about a day there, or I guess three days, maybe, and they got word that the Russians were coming from the east, and then the arrangement they had with them was, they were gonna occupy all of Czechoslovakia. So we pulled back to the German border in the Bohemian mountains, out on the western tip of Czechoslovakia. And we sat there all that summer, on Occupation. Pretty tough duty! (laughs)
And then the war was over by that point, and then they started breaking the units up, and they sent people that had enough points back to the States, for discharge out of the Army. And the rest of ‘em went back to the States, in units that were gonna go to Japan. Because by then the Japanese war was…they dropped the atom bomb and that pretty well ended that.
So we ended up sittin’ around Europe for several months until they decided I had enough points, I could come home. And so I was transferred to the 90th infantry division, division headquarters medical detachment, and went home with them. And then was discharged.
PR: So, how long total were you in Europe?
DR: A year and a half. I was overseas a year and a half. The first part of it, we went over in April, and we were stationed up around, let’s see, the Midlands, what they call the Midlands, which is up in central England. And I got to see your Grandad, he was down in Bristol, I think it was, at the time. And our division was drawing supplies from his quartermaster depot, so I rode down with the trucks one time, and stayed overnight with him. (laughs) That was rather unusual for that era.
PR: I have one more question. In all that time, did you ever get shot at?
DR: (laughs) Oh, I got shot at all the time! In the front lines, yeah…being a medic, you had an opportunity to get to the rear occasionally, in an ambulance, but we were shelled a number of times and…(laughs) Just goes with the territory. Fortunately, I wasn’t ever wounded…A lot of guys were, but…I lucked out, I guess you could call it. It was an interesting time. How old was I? 19 years old, somethin’ like that… (laughs) Pretty young! Yeah…yeah…I went back over there after, oh, a number of years ago…just to see what it looked like today. Saw some of the cemeteries, and the beaches, and stuff like that…so…one of those things you do, I guess…
And this link leads to a video of the 315th infantry, in Germany http://www.criticalpast.com/video/65675028438_315th-Infantry-79th-Division_Bien-Wald-forest_sign-on-hood_jeep-passing
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, and teacher of literature. This is her tribute to one man’s contribution to the liberation of France.
September 1978. It is only a little more than 30 years after the end of the war that devastated the European continent and threatened the entire world. But that war is a distant, vague reality to me, born 8 years after it was resolved. I know it happened, but I’ve never thought much about it, and when we studied American history–in fifth, seventh and tenth grades–we never got that far. We always started with the Conquistadores and the Pilgrims, we never got past the Treaty of Versailles. Why didn’t the fifth, seventh and tenth grade history teachers ask each other how far we were getting each year? Seems like something could have been done about that.
It is 1978, and I am walking in the streets of Bayeux in Normandy, returning to my hotel after having gone to see a movie. It is my first trip to France. I had only been there for a couple of days, and was still getting used to the idea of travelling alone.
As I paused to get my bearings, a couple of older gentlemen stopped and asked me if I needed help. When I answered in my far-from-perfect French, they knew I was a foreigner. “American?” they asked, and I nodded. Their faces broke into wide, warm smiles, they shook my hands enthusiastically, they practically embraced me. “We fought with your father, your uncles,” they said. “We fought with them, side by side.”
Confused, I shook my head. At the time, I didn’t know that any of my uncles had ever been to France, and I knew my Dad hadn’t been. (Though he had been stationed in Japan after the war.)
“Not my Dad…” I said.
“Well, your uncles, then,” they insisted. And they also insisted on walking me safely to my hotel.
That was the first experience I had with the “ungrateful” French–the ones who are supposed to be completely unappreciative of our rescuing them from the Nazis in World War II. These two Frenchmen, total strangers to me, were effusively grateful for what they presumed my uncles had done for them before I knew that my uncles had done anything at all. And they seemed to want to step into the role of protecting me as a natural instinct, a way of expressing that feeling of gratitude, of family.
It turns out the Frenchmen were right. I learned later that not just one, but two of my uncles had aided in the liberation of France. One was a medic who had arrived on D-Day, day 3. The other was a radio technician, in service at the Battle of the Bulge. My Uncle Lewey, the radio technician, mentioned, when I had returned from that first trip to France, that he had been there too. “It wasn’t for fun, though,” he said, with a kind of rueful grin.
There were 160,000 Allied troops involved in the D-Day invasion. More than 9,000 of them were killed or wounded in the assault on the French coast. The rest lived to carry out the mission, and many of them, though not all, survived the war and went on to live out their lives. My uncles’ stories are just two of them.
Seven years ago my son, then 13, was doing a school project on World War II (I am so glad his teachers managed to get him and his class that far!) and he interviewed each of them. I will be posting excerpts from those interviews as the anniversaries of these two momentous struggles, so important in world history, approach. Stay tuned!
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure”). She also teaches culture and literature courses at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., and writing workshops in the Champagne region of France.