I woke up this morning, my iPad and cellphone both lit up with messages. The messages were variations of either, “I’m so happy you aren’t in France anymore” or “I know you were going to France at some point, please let me know you’re okay” or “are you okay”. Paris had been attacked in six different parts of the city by terrorists. At that point, no one had taken responsibility for the attacks, all the terrorists on site were dead. Hours later, the death toll was over 120 people.
I returned all the messages and posted Twitter and Facebook status updates to make sure everyone knew I was okay, safe in a small town in The Netherlands. It was not the first time in my life that I had to do that. I’d been in Somerville during the Boston Marathon Bombing and subsequent manhunt. I’d also received a death threat in high school along with ten other students, in a post-Columbine world, the FBI had to get involved.
So waking up alone in Margraten, The Netherlands, hearing that there had been yet another terrorist attack was disheartening to say the least. I had one day to see the American Cemetery, where 8,301 American soldiers were buried. As much as I wanted to hide away from the world, I had to leave the house.
I walked through the gorgeous countryside. Sheep, horses and cows hardly noticed me and the sporadic cars that drove by. I only saw four street signs when I was trying to find the cemetery, and they were all at the same intersection. Not so much lost but definitely not knowing where I was going, I walked to the top of the hill and looked for a road that could be described as “the main road”, which is what the bed and breakfast owner had told me I needed to take. I saw one that could fit the description and walked towards it. I was right, I found the American Cemetery shortly after.
The walk, the confusion of getting there and the scenery, almost made me forget about the state the rest of the world was in. I couldn’t think of anything else as the wind whipped my hair around, cutting through the sweatshirt that I had for some reason chosen not to layer with anything more than a tank top. But when I finally walked up to the memorial and saw the breathtaking tribute to those 8,301 men, all I could think of was Paris last night.
You enter the memorial to walls for the missing. Just like in Normandy, brass pins note any men whose bodies were eventually found. Flowers line the wall, one man had a loved one visit recently. His name was polished and a picture of him with a bouquet of flowers left at the base of the wall.
There was another reflecting pool here with a small fountain at the base of a statue of a woman, Mary maybe, with three birds in flight next to her. Behind her, a monument with the quote, “Each for his own memorial earned praise that will never die, and with it the grandest of all sepulchres, not that in which his mortal bones are laid, but a home in the minds of men.”
Beyond that, another quote lined the wall, “To you, from failing hands we throw the torch, be yours to hold it high.”
And I was struck by the image of a torch falling from bloody hands. How I feel like we as humans have dropped what was passed to us. What our grandparents fought, starved, rationed, sacrificed and died for. Simply the right for others to live as they so choose, our world has failed.
I walked through the cemetery, one of maybe eight other people. The wind was picking up, the sky darkening. I walked to the edge of the cemetery where the American flag flew, today it was joined by the French flag.
I made it back to my bed and breakfast, surprisingly, without getting lost. When I got into the small house, my fingers were too cold to write. I felt empty, like my whole soul was starving. Without my hands working, my anxiety heightened. I made myself tea — probably a first for me.
Eventually, the feeling came back to my limbs. I spent the day writing, avoiding the news. Until I couldn’t anymore. I read a little and cried a lot, I freaked out and asked my friends if they thought I should come home. Just then the doorbell rang, the owner of the bed and breakfast stood in the dark, two unmarked bottles in hand.
“Would you like some homemade schnapps?” He asked.
“Yes! Yes!” I said, and made way for my new best friend.
“We have strawberry and, I think, raspberry — framboise?”
“Yes, framboise is raspberry.” I said, “I’ll try that.”
He took two tiny glasses out of the cupboard and poured one for me and one for him.
“Cheers,” he said, “this is a tradition we like to do for our guests.”
“Thank you.” I said and then, as if it were spilling out of me, “I am afraid to travel now.” I gestured to the television.
“Yes.” He said. He sipped his schnapps, “But life goes on. It always does, and it must.”
We finished our schnapps making small talk about how long he and his wife had owned the bed and breakfast, how much remodeling they had done, how they had both grown up nearby. He left soon after, giving me a little more schnapps to enjoy alone.
“Thea,” He said, pronouncing it perfectly, “that’s a — Dutch name?”
“Oh. I don’t really know.” I told him my longwinded name story.
“Yes.” He said. “I think it is Dutch.”
Dutch. That’s a new one.