Romance & Reflection in France

Art, history inspire return to where couple met

By Ralph Dyson and Helen Ahern, 13-time travelers from San Diego, California

When Helen and I started talking, it was like we had known one another in another lifetime. We met in 2000 on a trip to France, and after a whirlwind romance, I proposed after 72 hours over a glass of red wine in Paris. Though we’ve traveled extensively since then with Grand Circle, our vacation on The Seine: Paris to Normandy was a chance for us to relive some of that romance. Our motto is, “Live every day with a passion.”

Helen and I in our Sunday best on the M/S Bizet

We were greeted by a surprise as soon as we entered the M/S Bizet. We couldn’t believe our eyes—there were our friends from church, 3-time travelers Bob and Lois Canzoneri, returning from the previous week's departure of the same trip. For the first night’s dinner we had another surprise—we were seated at the Captain’s Table. Captain Jacky Leclerc was flanked by our beautiful Program Directors Christine Brouillet and Sylvie Royer.

Captain Jacky Leclerc, center, with Program Directors Christine Brouillet, left, and Sylvie Royer.

Our trip was just as romantic as it was historic, and we took in beautiful landscapes while strolling at Giverny, the one-time home of Monet. There are Kodak moments all over the property, especially the water lilies and the Japanese bridge.

The lily pond and bridge at Giverny. Helen and I love the card game bridge and I bought her a set of bridge cards at Versailles on our optional tour.

Other highlights not to be missed were the Joan of Arc memorial in Rouen, and the Caen War Memorial, a beautiful limestone building holding the weapons of war, pictures, uniforms and vehicles used during the invasion and battles. We also enjoyed Conflans, where our local Dutch guide, Alclare, showed us the land of Van Gogh explained the different ways to pronounce the iconic painter’s name. In English: Van Gough; in French: Van Gougg; in Dutch: Van GACH!

Of course, the trip on the Seine is art in itself. The small villages and beautiful homes always impress us, as we love Europe and its old personality. One of the highlights was our Home-Hosted Visit with Patricia and Felix Rynski D’Argence, a young couple trying to salvage a 14th-century homestead. They served us delicious pear pie and baked goods, French cider, and wine. We saw Patricia again the next day, when she taught painting to a group aboard the Bizet.

Besides art and culture, it was our interest in history and World War II that attracted us to the Seine trip, especially because it features the Normandy beaches.

I did a bit of research by reading Antony Beevor’s book, “D-Day: The Battle for Normandy,” which I’d recommend to anyone taking this trip.

German general Erwin Rommel’s home when D-Day took place, just one of the many WWII highlights on this trip.

My brother-in-law, William Howard Simpkins, served in the Air Force and was involved in the bombing campaign in Dresden, Germany. Helen’s first husband was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. And friends of ours asked us to visit the grave of Pvt. Edward W. Rzemek—we were the first visitors to his grave in 65 years.

Sylvie Royer arranged the meeting with the superintendent of the American Military Cemetery—she’s definitely one of our favorite Program Directors. When we arrived, there was a kit waiting for us. It included French and U.S. flags, and info on Pvt. Rzemek. We placed flags on each side of the grave cross, and flowers in the middle. I took Sylvie’s hand and said “America thanks you,” and she replied, “and France thanks America.” This was a most important part of our trip, to be a part of history and this story. Standing there where the greatest armada of fighting troops, planes and ships took place gave me a sense of the sacrifice that took place to save Europe and the rest of the world from tyranny. I only wish today’s Americans had a feeling of how great a nation we have, despite its faults.

Sylvie and I at Pvt. Rzemek’s grave—we were the first visitors in 65 years.

One of the most emotional moments for all of us—in fact, I’m still emotional about it—was the ceremony for travelers facing the graves, while the Star-Spangled Banner played. Salutes were made by many veterans and the rest of us held our hands over our hearts. Many prayed and brought flowers to graves. Eighty-eight-year-old Stanley Roy, a fellow traveler, was in the second wave of an armored company, and received a long round of applause and special recognition of his service.

In addition to the poignant opportunities for reflection, we also took this cruise because of the wealth of fine food and art in France. We found some of this in Normandy, which is home to 32 kinds of cheeses, lots of apple trees and cider, and fabulous dairy products from the Norman cow. The food has just been excellent on all our trips, and we speak very highly of the service on the river boats. We like the river boats because of the relaxation and the ability to visit many different cities and get acquainted with the different societies of the world.

If you’d like to learn more about this trip from our travelers, check out this video featuring Grand Circle Cruise Line travelers like Ralph describing—in their own words—what made their experience in France so memorable.