Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - May 30, 2014

From Normandy to Notre Dame

As husband Art and I pulled into the parking lot of our hotel in Caen, France, we began wondering where the Kansas State University choir was at that moment and how we would connect with them. They had flown into Paris earlier in the morning, while we had driven from Metz, France where we had been visiting friends.

But the question had barely formed when we saw daughter Katie’s boyfriend and fellow choir member Matt walking toward us. He just happened to be out having a look around when he saw us drive in. Matt and friend Grant, another singer, had already had a taste traveling on their own, flying into Paris and then taking the train to Caen while the others took the tour bus.

The 25-plus contingent of K-State choir members had a week of activities planned, beginning with a tour of the Peace Museum in Caen on Tuesday and ending with singing during mass at Notre Dame in Paris on Saturday evening.

After a group meal at the Caen hotel, Art suggested he and I drive over to the Pegasus Bridge north of the city where D-Day operations commenced in the small hours of June 6, 1944. A British force had been dropped by gliders to take the bridge, the aim being to stop German troops from using it to reinforce their compatriots to the west where the main landings on the beaches would begin at first light. The bridge was later used by Allied troops moving eastward. We were too late to get inside the museum area, but we could see the preserved section of the bridge from the road.

The next morning, the bus took the group to the Peace Museum, which focuses on the events leading up to and spanning both world wars. Then it was off to the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer where almost 10,000 U.S. soldiers killed in the D-Day operation lay buried. Katie and Matt were chosen to lay a wreath. The choir sang several pieces in honor of those who died with a message of hope that the world will somehow find peace.

Seeing the names of Kansas soldiers on the wall of the missing who had almost certainly died at a place we think of as so far from home helped emphasize what a small world it is. That thought was quickly reinforced when we encountered a couple wearing University of Kansas shirts. We chatted with them a bit and mentioned that the choir would be performing that evening at the Port-en-Bessin-Huppain church six miles to the east.

After a supper at a café near the Saint Andre church in Port-en-Bessin-Huppain, the singers donned their choir attire and were introduced by one of the locals. I wondered how we strangers from another country would be accepted, but I had a hunch that the beautiful music created by conductor Dr. Julie Yu’s young men and women would win over any doubters.

And it certainly did! At the end, the 200-plus in attendance rose to their feet to applaud, with the quickest to rise being none other than the couple from KU who had taken our suggestion to come to the program. The only complaint was they wished the program had been longer. But everyone in the choir agreed that it was better that way than having people feel it was too long.

Wednesday and Thursday were off-days, beginning with travel to Paris for sightseeing. Once in the City of Light, there were stops at the Trocadero across from the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe for picture taking. There was also free time for shopping or sitting in a street café for a meal.

Friday began as another day of fun, but ended as a work day. In the morning and early afternoon, the group visited the Louvre. But by mid-afternoon, they had assembled at the Church La Madeleine. Art and I sat on opposite sides of a couple from Polebrook, England, one of the towns that was a home to 8th Army Air Force operations in World War II. Art asked how they happened to hear about the concert and the fellow mentioned that he had seen a flier, adding that as an avid golfer, he knew Tom Watson was from Kansas City. He said that they had considered going to the opera that night, but since he sang in a choir himself, decided that they would see how the youngsters would do.

Art and I thought the performance was exceptionally good and we weren’t the only ones. The several hundred in attendance showed great enthusiasm after the program was over. As our new friends from England were leaving, the fellow said, “I’m sure glad we chose this over the opera!”

Saturday morning began with a guided trip to Versailles Palace. Light rain came and went throughout the day. But as far as we could tell, no one’s spirits were dampened in the slightest. Tour guide Erik even kept on their toes those who were tired from frantically trying to see every possible Paris attraction in such a short time. Possessing a sort of John Cleese personality and manner, he intermingled just the right blend of information and humor.

It is now hard to decide if the performance at the Madeleine church or the concluding one at Notre Dame impressed me the most. While the former featured the choir, in the latter, the group only served to support the mass service, sitting in the choir stalls where they were barely visible.

Still, it was Notre Dame they were singing in! And Archbishop Patrick Jacquin was impressed. He mentioned to those attending that the choir was from K-State and he thanked them in French and English. When the service was over, he asked that they join the procession with him and the others who took part in the ceremony. Afterward, he said, “You can come back whenever you want!”

I have taught for more than 30 years and frequently have students visit businesses as part of their course work. But I’m always a bit concerned whether they will make a good impression, and I imagine Julie was also a bit concerned as well. But she had no reason to be. They were excellent ambassadors of the university and had a good time in the process. It just doesn’t get much better than that.

Left: Katie and Matt laying the wreath at the American Cemetery while William, our guide at the cemetery, looks on at the left; right: Inside Notre Dame. The choir area is at the lower left.

Choir in the Church La Madeleine in Paris. Conductor Julie Yu is at the far left. Katie is in the front row, eighth from the right.

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