When I traveled through Europe six years ago, I naturally went to Normandy to see the beaches made famous by the D-Day invasion. I rented a stiff and uncomfortable bicycle in Bayeux, the town where I was staying at a wonderful hostel, and set off for the English Channel several miles away. My riding companion was an Australian guy I met at breakfast. And though he was 20 years older than me, he quickly left me in the dust. We covered 30 miles on a blustery late-September day, pedaling past the landing zones where the Americans, Canadians, British, and French soldiers came ashore. Flags of the Allies fluttered outside almost every building, while the beaches seemed eerily serene for monuments to such violent events.
But then I remembered that these beaches were only made battlefields by humans--and that by nature they are rhythmically calm places where water meets land. There had to be flags, and graves, and rusted tanks there to tell me that this platonic scene was once the site of a great battle. Without those reminders, I would have considered the beaches of Normandy to be a stirring place for a picnic.