Do you speak French?

We woke up in Paris just after sunrise, hopping on our bikes and rolling through the empty streets toward Gare du Nord. I had ridden my bike in Paris before but never with streets this empty. The only traffic was the occasional trash truck, and we also had to swerve to avoid broken glass from last night’s beer bottles.

“I’ve got to get something to eat,” my brother said, so we stopped at Starbuck’s outside the train station. “You go in and order. I’ll watch the bikes.” I looked at him. “It’s a Starbuck’s,” he said. “Just speak English.” So I went inside and spoke English. After taking the order, the French baristalooked at me and said, “You don’t speak French?”
I shook my head.

“Neither do I,” she said, handing me the coffee with a smirk on her face.

I slept the entire two-hour train ride, and when I woke up we were in Normandy. The sky was grey. Hopefully it doesn’t rain, my brother said. Ten minutes later it started raining. Neither of us was prepared, as we only had the clothes we planned to wear that night packed away in our backpacks. There were 75 kilometers between us and the hotel.

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The American cemetery in Normandy, France.

Two flat tires later, the rain lifted, and we arrived at UtahBeach, one of five areas the Allies invaded in German-occupied France on June 6, 1944. After walking the beach and taking photos we had a second breakfast, of eggs and coffee. We also dropped into a few tourist-trap souvenir shops to see if they had any raincoats. All we came up with were crude, replica American military jackets selling for about 75 euros each. No thanks. We’ll deal with the rain.
Next we headed to the American cemetery, where it started raining again. Hard. And this time it didn’t stop. For the entire day. When we reached Pointe du Hoc, we tried to wait it out in the visitor center, sitting around, drying off and watching interviews with World War II veterans. This is the site you want to see, my brother told me. And he was right. Pointe du Hoc is where the Allies scored a crucial victory in the taking of France. It’s a 100-foot cliff that overlooks the English Channel. Some 200 U.S. Army Rangers scaled that cliff and seized five German guns — weapons that would have meant major damage during the Allied advances.

After about 30 minutes, the rain was only falling harder, and we weren’t getting any drier. Come back tomorrow, we decided, and hope the weather is better. Soaked from our T-shirts to our biking shorts to our socks and shoes, we headed back out into the rain.

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The German cemetery in Normandy, France.

“The hardest part is getting going,” my brother said as we rolled back onto a two-lane road surrounded by green fields and farms. Well that and the 35 kilometers ahead of us, I thought. Despite the wet clothes and cold wind, you get into a zone, though, where you just pedal and think about the warm food waiting for you at the hotel.

We fared better the second day, waking up to sunshine and dry clothes. We hopped on our bikes and charged the 110 kilometers before us. We saw Sainte-Mare-Eglise, a church with a dummy paratrooper staged on the roof. Apparently the church was burning during D-Day, and the fire drew the floating troops toward it. When one soldier landed on the church, he pretended he was dead, eventually escaping German arrest.

We bought sandwiches and dessert and pedaled the 40 kilometers to Pointe du Hoc. We saw the craters from Allied bombs and the German dwellings staged for turrets. We also saw the German cemetery, lined with graves, mostly for 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds. Brainwashed, my brother said. These kids were no older than 10 when Hitler rose to power.

A few hours later, we pulled into Caen, a bustling town where people were just getting off work. We had an hour or so to kill before the train, so we stopped for a pint. Then we had a second, and maybe a third. Back in Paris the streets were crowded, the traffic restored. My brother’s girlfriend had reservations at a restaurant in the city. We hurried home.

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