In early 2007, I traveled to The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in the Berkshires to study John Singer Sargent’s Fumée d’Ambre Gris for my senior thesis. This was my first ever solo-trip. I flew into Manchester, New Hampshire, rented a car, and braved the winding, high speed roads to Massachusetts and fell in love with this charming, treasure-filled museum tucked away in the mountains.
The Clark is known for it’s fabulous collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings and just down the hall from the Sargent that I had traveled to see, hung Monet’s The Cliffs at Etretat. Painted just five years after Sargent’s exotic North African woman, Monet’s painting depicts the northern French coastline, a fashionable vacation spot among the 19th century Parisian bourgeoisie.
Normandy is an area of rich history, deep tradition, creamy sauces, lush farmland, and warm-hearted people. Eager to experience all that awaits along the Calvados coastline, these two history nerds/foodies hopped in the car for our longest road trip to-date. On the 7.5-ish hour drive (it’s still too soon for S to discuss our “detours”) from Mainz to Saint-Laurent -sur-Mer, we listened to the audiobook of Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day, absorbing the weight of that battle, the youth, innocence, and incredible determination of the American soldiers, most just boys, and the immeasurable odds that they overcame to secure the beaches of Normandy and liberate France. With Ambrose’s words fresh in our minds, and Eisenhower’s order of, “Okay, let’s go,” echoing in the car, we drove up to the bluff above Omaha Beach, and as the Channel, the sand, the dunes, and the wild grasses of the bluff’s northern face came into view, we both inhaled deeply, struck by the magnitude of this location’s past and current beauty and almost afraid to acknowledge the reality of the sadness hovering over and ingrained in the sand.