When She Was a Girl

For the second year, I’ve submit a short essay for consideration to World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship. My essay follows the theme of making a local connection. Should I be selected, I’ll be heading to Argentina with two other writers and a mentor, courtesy of World Nomads and Say Hueque Argentina Tourism. Winners are announced April 4, 2018. Stay tuned!

The hair on my arms was standing straight up, despite the warm sun shining on us. My throat tightened up as I listened, my eyes watered as she spoke.

It was a summer afternoon in Arromanche-les-Bains, a small village nestled among the D-Day beaches. Remnants of the infamous Mulberry Harbour are here, and we had spent the evening before gazing on them in the sunset. We’d been exploring the coast and D-Day beaches for a little over a week so far, stopping at monuments, museums, plaques, and seeing remnants of the destructive war on farm structures and walls as we bicycled by.

We were tenting in the municipal campground, soaking up the sun, drinking wine, cleaning our bicycles and doing wash. It was in the laundry room that I met her – an older woman, shorter than me with sandy blonde hair and colorful shirt. I initiated a clumsy conversation that progressed from laundry to pleasantries in mediocre French, and eventually found it’s way to English.

She was from Brussels, on an annual RV trip with her husband. She asked about our bicycle tour, and where we were from. To date, no one had cared that we were American. It was Alaska, our home, that caught their attention. Not that we could blame them – Alaska is a slice of paradise, and we were happy to speak to it. But not this woman. She honed in on America, and told me a story I could never have anticipated or asked for.

She was a child in Brussels during World War II. The war touched her town, her life, and made her frightened. There was no future – just surviving the present. She told me that she didn’t know if she would survive, and tried to explain to me the emotion, the fear, the electricity she was producing during those days. She was relaying the history she had lived to me, and it was holding me in place on the walkway.

“Americans…” she started. They liberated her. They saved her life and her family’s life. She was indebted to those soldiers. I was silent, locked on her eyes, face, mouth as she told me this story, and I watched her eyes water and her mind go somewhere else. “I come here often, to Arromanche. We go to the cemetery. And I walk from grave to grave, as far as I can, saying ‘Thank you for your service’ to each headstone.”

No plaque, short film, or cannonball hole could have prepared me for her story, and our shared emotional responses. I took in the weight of history resting on her, and despite the still air, I shivered. We wiped our eyes, shared a smile and went our separate ways.