Travel Think Tank

Honoring the Military on Memorial Day

Memorial Day is here. In our family, like so many others, it is the kickoff to our summer season. The holiday seems iconically American as Memorial Day has its roots firmly planted in the Civil War. As time marched on, the day of wartime remembrance became the bank holiday we all know today- the official start of Summer. While fun and sun seem to dominate the landscape, this is the most solemn of military honors. It is meant to remember those who have fallen in battle. It’s a moment of gratitude. While the US honors the fallen, our allies wish to say thank you as well since so many of “our boys over there” paid the ultimate price for their freedoms as well.

Understanding military family sacrifice…

One way other countries honor the military sacrifice is to honor the sacred battlefields of both WWI and WWII. A great example of this is what you can find in France. Last summer, I had the honor of meeting two heroes while I visited and the experience was life changing. My mom and I hopped into a sporty euro rental in Belgium and made our way west across the French border to an area out in the middle of nulle part– that’s French for nowhere. We were stopping to visit Private First Class Thomas McGovern. His address is one I can share: Plot B, Row 18, Grave 11, Somme American Military Cemetery, Bony, France.

Thomas is my great, great uncle and died in the famous Battle of the Somme on September 27th, 1918. Visiting the cemetery is quite amazing. The superintendent escorted us out to the grave, among impeccably manicured grounds and explained to us the play by play of the battle and exactly what fate my uncle met. He produced a small container of sand from Omaha Beach to rub across the marble stone so that Thomas’ name was easily read. There, in the summer sun out in the French countryside, I became the first family member- military or not- to come and pay my respects to him. I was all at once proud, connected, elated and humbled. It was a once in a lifetime experience!

My journey to understand family connections continued the next day. While the Somme had 1,100 bright white graves, Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery holds 10 times as many. And it is here at Meuse-Argonne that I meet another uncle. John McGovern also died on that fateful September Day. He is Thomas’ brother. Attached to a completely different unit, it’s hard to imagine their mother losing both of them on the same day. But, it happened. And I pay my respects with sand and flags.

This WWI cemetery has very few visitors but it is far from empty. And on this Memorial Day I remember. I think of those McGovern Boys and many others from my family- for they are not the only ones. I look at this picture of a wild poppy so bold in color and so fragile to touch. It is a metaphor for each marble stone. I take time this Memorial Day to remember.

Where do you start to find your ancestors?

Many families look to make their travel more meaningful by connecting with their destination in a bevy of ways. Visiting a relative who sacrificed is definitely a great place to start. But how? First, check out your family tree. Once you have some information to work with, connect with the American Battle Monuments Commission. This is the governmental office that maintains all of these military sites overseas. They will point you toward the correct site for your ancestor. If you find that you do not have a familial connections, try choosing someone from your hometown. Contact your local VFW to get started. Good Luck! You won’t regret your experience!

American cemeteries are all over the world but the ones that you are most familiar with are ones that you will see when you travel to France.

Travel Think Tank

Lost Treasure, Notre Dame: One Year Later

A cross shines through the cinders at Notre Dame
The wooden ceiling in ashes on the floor of Notre Dame

On the one year anniversary of the fire at Notre Dame, here are a few of my thoughts from those trying days….

Thinking Back…

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the last 48 hours. How tragic they have been! Our Lady or Notre Dame has been watching the world change since 1163. It has been witness to celebration and tragedy in equal measure. It has seen war and revolution, religious demand and secularism. As the news unfolded, I think we all slowly realized that this was going to be more than just an isolated fire. The true scope of the fire was evident as the beloved spire of 1852 toppled into the flames. Questions of protecting priceless papers, relics and art were now on everyone’s mind. So, how did the world react?

Well, quite decently it seems. Experts along with world leaders each came forward with condolences and messages of hope for Notre Dame’s future. As president Duda spoke to the mourning public and particularly Parisians, the embers were still glowing as money and donations started to come in. Fellow French billionaires came together and have already donated €700 million. Further, the public has the opportunity to donate to rebuild. While money, especially in this day and age is needed, what about the artisans who will be invaluable to a project that can perhaps take 20 years or more?

Time will tell

You may think that 20 years is a long time but considering that Notre Dame took 200 years to put together the first time around, 20 years seems more like a drop in the bucket. Some have come forward with donations of a different kind. Orchestra superstar, Andre Rieu, has pledged the scaffolding from one of his previous concerts to get things going. It may seem like nothing but check out the 700 tons he is offering.

Further, the Polish prime minister has stated that his country is ready to help. That might seem odd at first glance but if you think about it, who else in Europe knows how to rise from the ashes better than the poles? Not very many. And if structures like the UNESCO world heritage site, The Church of Peace, is any example, the Polish might be just the partner the French will need. Check out the story here. So impressive!

Rebuilding Notre Dame…

As the early plans for rebuilding start taking shape, others came forward with words to put balm on the fresh wounds. From the travel world, Rick Steves surfaced on CNN from Rome and did an eloquent job of framing Notre Dame’s place in European History. While His Eminance, Timothy Cardinal Dolan represented the Church with grace. Click on the pictures to hear their hopeful words.

Rick Steves' thoughts about Notre Dame

Cardinal Dolan's thoughts about Notre Dame

Probably the most inspirational story to come out of the whole tragedy is that of Father Jean-Marc Fournier. This fire brigade chaplain led the rescue of relics and artwork inside the sanctuary. He, along with others, created a human chain to save as much as they could. This came after news that, just 5 days ago, all of the statues on the central spire had been removed for restoration.

The Fire Department chaplain

The Future…

However, the future of Notre Dame plays out in the upcoming months and years, one thing is for sure. While it’s timbers may be reduced to ashes, the love for this icon of history and culture will get it through this next chapter. In fact, when you think of the so many other icons of the past like The Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the great colossus of Rome that didn’t make it through the march of time and history, Notre Dame may just wind up becoming quite the Phoenix. So, let’s plan on meeting up in central Paris in a couple of years. I’ll be there and so will Our Lady, you can count on that. Resurget ex favilla et phoenix!

Envisioning Notre Dame

For more travel inspiration in France, check out the Parisian neighbor, Normandy. Looking for great resources for your kids? Check out our great list of books for young travelers! As always, you can continue your global journey on our home page by clicking here!