GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Month: June 2017 (Page 4 of 6)

Ma Normandie

Today we took a break from bustling Paris to visit the quieter towns of Bayeux and Colleville-sur-Mer, the site of the Omaha Beach landings and now the Normandy American Cemetery.

We knew Bayeux was going to be a small town as soon as we stepped off the train onto a single outdoor platform–their entire train station. The town looked very nice, though, as we walked towards our first destination: the Bayeux Tapestry museum.

I’d read about the Tapestry before, but it was certainly mich more impressive in person. Technically, it’s not a tapestry at all, rather a 70 meter long embroidered cloth that depicts the Battle of Hastings and the crowning of William I of Normandy, considered by many to be the first king of England.

As a bit of an embroidery hobbyist myself, I can’t even imagine how long it would have taken to stitch together something as large and as detailed as this, especially since they had to also make the cloth and thread themselves!

After the museum, we had an hour to explore a bit of Bayeux and grab a bite to eat. The most prominent thing about the city was how many flags were flying from countries all over Europe and beyond. In particular there were a lot of British and American flags–the Cathedral even had two Union Jacks flying right alongside the French flags at the top! Bayeux clearly remembers their history with much endearment, as the flags reflect. They were the first city to be liberated during the Battle of Normandy in WWII, and Charles de Gaulle gave important speeches there during the final year of the war to rally the French people. Bayeux also has one of the largest cemeteries for British soldiers and still hosts annual memorials for British troops of WWII.

If you’re ever in Bayeux for lunch, their fish is said to be exceptionally good, and I recommend a good Norman-style fish and chips meal to everyone.

The mood became more somber as we got on the bus to the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. I think for most of us, we had conflicted emotions between the joy of seeing the ocean and the knowledge of what took place there on D-Day.

The museum and memorial were really touching, and of course walking through the cemetery and just seeing the sheer volume of lives lost was a bit hard. Some people, however, said that these sites fill them with a sense of pride for the United States.

After the memorial, we walked down to the beach. The most striking thing was how difficult it was to walk down the hill even with clear pathways, and it really put into perspective how difficult the Normandy landings would have been in 1944, especially under heavy fire and with the coastlines being fortified. It was also interesting to see all the French sunbathers and beach-goers who can enjoy these beaches during their summer holiday because of the sacrifices of the Allied forces on the 6th June, 1944.

Finally, after the visit we talked about our impressions of the site, if we think America still keeps WWII in our memory the way the people of Normandy do, and other things related to our program and international relations in general. After a long day (and a quick stop at the local antique store), we hopped back on the train to Paris to be well rested for our free day tomorrow.

Paris in a day? Challenge Accepted.

What do you do when you get a free day in Paris? Since this wasn’t my first time in the city, I decided to skip the Louvre (though I would say it’s a must see) and the Champs-Elysées and explore areas of Paris I had not seen yet. After a light breakfast of tea and pastries at the hotel, I walked to the Quartier Latin to see the Grand Mosque of Paris.

Built in the 1920s as a symbol of France’s gratitude for the Muslim soldiers who fought in World War One, the mosque is a stark contrast to the crowded streets of Paris. The Moorish architecture with green and white tiles and beautiful courtyards were reminiscent of the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain. I even met local artists who come to the mosque every day with their paints and canvases for inspiration.

After taking a quick look at the library in the mosque, I took the “scenic” walking route back to the hotel. My first stop: the Jardin des Plantes. This botanical garden dates back to the 16th century and was planted by King Louis XIII’s physician to grow medicinal herbs. Today the garden houses a large collection of flora and fauna from around the world as well as the Natural History Museum. The shaded tree lined paths through the garden are a great place for a morning run. Second stop: the Jardin du Luxembourg. Considered one of the most beautiful gardens in Paris, the Jardin du Luxembourg as well as the Luxembourg Palace located in the garden were built for Marie de’ Medici who was the regent queen of France in the early 17th century. Today the stunning palace is home to the French Senate.

I decided to swing by the hotel for a much needed hour in air conditioning and then walked to Le Bon Marché with a friend to see some haute couture. What I thought would be a quick stop soon turned into an hour and a half. I tested almost every single Chanel perfume from No 5 to No 19. I then walked to the Jardin de Tuileries and the Musee de l’Orangerie. I love impressionist art, so the Orangerie turned out to be one of my favorite places from the entire week we spent in Paris. Monet’s water lilies were even better than I had imagined. The eight canvases span oval walls which are shaped like an infinity symbol. Monet designed the space himself but never saw the exhibit realized during his life.

The museum boasts an impressive collection of works by the likes of Picasso to Renoir, Matisse, and Cézanne. I then hopped on the metro and headed to Montmartre to see the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. The moderate hike up the hill to the basilica was well worth it, and the terrace offers some of the most beautiful views of the city. I strolled around the streets of Montmartre. This charming neighborhood is filled with cozy cafes and cobbled streets.

Instead of taking the metro back to the left bank and the Saint Germain area, I decided to walk almost 3 miles back to the hotel. I walked by the Palais Garnier and the Louvre courtyard. After being unable to decide where to eat dinner since each restaurant I walked by looked even better than the last one, I sat along the Seine River and people watched as the sun set over the city. In the end I ate some delicious Vietnamese food at “I love Bo Bun” before heading back to the hotel for the night. By the end of the day and 35,000 steps later, Paris is still just as exciting with more neighborhoods to be seen and discovered. I will definitely be coming back here again.




George Marshall’s Legacy in Europe

Today we had what I consider to be one of the most informative briefings of the trip thus far when we visited the George C. Marshall Center as well as the German Marshall Fund Center here in Paris.

The George C. Marshall Center is housed in the Hotel de Talleyrand, which is a beautifully ornate building not far from the Place de Concorde. Not surprisingly, the property once belonged to the Rothschild family until it was purchased by the US Department of State in 1950.

We started our visit to the George C. Marshall Center with a video that highlighted the optimism and overall success of the Marshall Plan, otherwise known as the European Recovery Program (ERP). For those who don’t know, the ambitious plan provided assistance to a Europe who was, at the time, “on its knees” after the devastation of World War II and other disasters such as the drought of 1947. The Marshall Plan was able to not only stimulate the European economy but also provide the continent with much-needed health services and emergency assistance at the time. Most importantly, the success of their rebuilding efforts gave these European nations the opportunity to see the wonderful possibilities that arise when countries work together for a common goal.

We then had a lovely tour of the historical building before speaking with an American foreign service officer regarding his career path. It was very helpful, especially for those who would like to pursue such a career themselves. And for those who aren’t sure, it was nice to know that there isn’t just one way to enter such a field because this kind of work requires individuals with a variety of abilities, interests, and experiences. The best advice he had was to never become discouraged by the process. If you fail the Foreign Service Exam, you can always take it again later, when you have more experience and are better equipped for the task of representing America.

After the informal discussion and a quick lunch in the neighborhood, we then headed to the GMF, which wasn’t far from our own hotel. The GMF is a think tank that focuses on “strengthening transatlantic cooperation” by educating and building understanding on both sides of the Atlantic. The GMF is headquartered in DC but has seven offices across Europe, giving it a far-reaching presence across both continents. The office here in Paris was located in a quaint building, sandwiched between some local shops in the 6th arrondissement.

Our host was very knowledgable and rather than simply answering questions, she spoke to us about the current political atmosphere and the changes we are seeing with the recent election of Trump in the US and the election of Macron here in France. Both leaders are seemingly bringing a new wave of political action to their respective nations, whether it be good or bad. This changing tide in politics has created an overall unsettling feeling across the Western hemisphere as Europe struggles to find its place within the context of a new world order.

Overall, as the day progressed, I realized that America might have helped Europe get to where it is today, but it is now up to Europe to get to where it needs to be tomorrow. We should never forget the importance of the Marshall Plan because it paved the way for what we know today as the European Union by helping to rebuild the war-ravaged continent during the vulnerable post-World War II period. But over time, Europe has grown in power and influence. If the United States does lean towards more isolationist policies, the world should not fear a power vacuum because Europe has proven itself to be perfectly capable of assuming a greater position within the global context. This does, however, depend upon Europe’s ability to unite the individual member states, which should be all the more possible now as France is experiencing what was described as a “Macron moment” as well as renewed dedication to the overall European vision since Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

This is an interesting and exciting time to be in Europe. I have always admired Europe’s ability to look to the future while still being able to appreciate the rich history of its past. I am so excited to spend the rest of the week exploring Paris!

June 13th: Visit to Les Invalides and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Although we were supposed to go to the US Embassy and the Assemblee Nationale today, and the Les Invalides exhibition another day, the schedule got switched around. This worked out perfectly because we got to have a free morning in Paris and the perfect amount of time at the museum before taking the short walk over to the Ministry to meet with some young employees!

A couple of us used our free morning to visit the Notre Dame, then to peruse the halls of Musee D’Orsay (A sizable museum recognized mainly for its impressive Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection), both of which were pleasurable and awe-inspiring activities I would recommend to anyone who comes to Paris.

The Notre Dame de Paris began in 1163 and was completed in 1345. “Notre Dame” means “Our Lady”. This structure is one of the largest and most impressive churches/cathedrals in world, and an excellent example of French-Gothic architecture. It also holds holy relics such as the “purported Crown of Thorns”, a Holy Nail and a piece of the True Cross. It was crowded with tourists, but still very impressive.

In Napoleon’s time, the Les Invalides was utilized as a military hospital, but now holds  historical monuments, museums, and a veteran retirement home and hospital. The front lawn of Les Invalides was scattered with bunnies and beautifully shaped bushes. The Dome des Invalides holds the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte, as well as the tombs of other war heroes. The Dome was very lavishly decorated, and held numerous monuments and remembrances. It was a cool respite to the hot outdoors.

We visited a special exhibition about the France-Germany 1870-71 War, Commune and Memories. It was relatively small, but chock-full of helpful summaries, interesting graphics and effects, old paraphilia, and moving art work. The museum made the effort to explain the reasons behind the war, what life was like during it, and the consequences and after-effect it had on German and French civilization.

Nationalism in France and the effort of unification in Germany triggered this conflict, and lead to French defeat, fall of their government, proclamation of a Republic, an uprising and occupation by the victors. This interaction set the mood for future French-German relations, and ended the Concert of Europe. The main players were Otto van Bismarck (unification was the name of his game), and Napoleon III, who’s empire was weakening. The French were decisively defeated, and Pais was sieged and eventually occupied (after an armistice). The price was heavy for both sides, and upset the French governance for a long time to come.

After the museum and tomb visit, we walked over to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was only a couple of minutes away. We checked in our passports, got badges, went through security and were led through the old building. Everyone’s office doors and windows were open, and the conference room that we settled into had an impressive view of the Eiffel Tower.

After settling in, the young professionals there to meet with us introduced themselves. The young man, Nick, worked for the UN directory and the Young Diplomat Program, and had a history and interest in climate change and the environment. The first woman, Karen, was involved with NATO and strategic affairs defense, and was soon going to work on the Singapore trade agreement. The other woman, Nadine, was an Asia specialist involved in global affairs and soft power policies.

We asked them questions about the issues we were interested them, and they answered them as best they could. We talked about a variety of issues over the next two hours, focusing on Turkey, the future of the US relationship with France and the EU, China, the Paris Accord, and Brexit.

The conversation started with Turkey. Turkey is not in the EU, but is a part of NATO, but has proven to be a difficult ally. They said that the Ministry was trying to “ignore bilateral differences” and ” enhance unity and alliance to provide stability,” while trying to coordinate the efforts of the EU and NATO as to limit duplication and head-butting. They also mentioned that while Turkey was considered to be a candidate for EU membership in the past, it was no longer up for consideration in light of the less-democratic direction it has headed in in more recent years, and the fact that the death penalty is still an available punishment there, and that this application withdraws makes Turkish citizens very frustrated with the EU. While Turkey has become less democratic since the coup, the EU believes that Turkey is an essential ally, and that the democratic persons there must be supported (although it is hard to tell who is actually democratic). The situation is very much in the air, and needs to be felt out.

We then discussed the US withdrawal from the EU, in light of our new president. They believe that foreign relations don’t necessarily have to go through the center, and that with modern technology, everyone can communicate through many different channels. US and EU still agree on main objectives, but the US would like to see Europe step up on defense spending and shoulder some of the global and EU related burden. Nick said that hopefully Europe will step up and the US will stay involved, but Europe could also “bury its head in the sand” and try to draw US involvement back into Europe. As the Trump administration doesn’t have a consistent or collective stance, and the EU is representing 28 different voices, neither really know where to stand at the moment. The pledge to devote 2% of GDP to defense spending is being worked on, although Germany feels that 2% might be unreasonable for their economy. Countries are putting forward their national plans, and hoping to get there around 2024.

Nick was very passionate about the Paris Accord and climate change, stressing the importance of us making progress on this subject, and that we need to always be improving our carbon footprint. After the US dropout, EU and China are going to continue with the agreement, and some other groups (such as some US states) are following through with the deal. This agreement shows that we can tackle big problems globally, and is beneficial to everyone involved.

Nadine talked about China’s growing role as a trade partner with the EU, which is starting to look outward more and more. China is trying to improve its image and send a positive message about globalization and climate conservation, for profit and for their citizens. They are trying to show that they are a responsible global partner, and may begin to fill the hole left by the US in the EU, growing their presence their like they have in Africa.

The general EU feeling is that whatever happens with Brexit is bad for the EU and the UK. Nick, Nadine and Karen spoke as representatives by saying that Brexit is bad for British citizens abroad, EU citizens in the UK, businesses, institutions, and trade. The everyday life simplified by the EU and its benefits will now become more complicated and chaotic. Every sector where the UK and the EU mixed has to be sorted out and the EU might end up with a lower budget as they lose to UK’s contribution. The consequences of Brexit can be seen in the French elections, other countries’ referendums, and in UK politics. The EU is making an effort to negotiate as a group rather than individually. The main goal is to keep the UK as a close ally.

When we wrapped up this enlightening discussion, Dr. B was surprised with a special opportunity for us to see the building in which the Schuman Declaration was signed. The building was a part of the Ministry’s complex, so we quickly walked over. Although the exterior was modest, the interior of the building was ornately decorated and lavish. We were taken through the series of rooms to end up in front of a picture taken when it all went down. Dr. B was over the moon, and we were all thrilled to be standing where such a monumental event took place.

Later in the evening, we ended such an exciting day with a scenic boat cruise down the river Seine. The water beautiful reflected the city lights and setting sun, and the bridges and Eiffel Tower were just beginning to light up. What a perfect way to end the day!

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