Monday, June 29, 2015

A Respite From The Battlefield: Tea At The Talbot House

Children receive their own
tablet to guide them through
the grounds
War is ugly. Regardless of the era, fighting day in and day out is a grueling proposition that quickly takes its toll on the soldiers in the field. Any respite from the fighting is welcome and during the bloody days of World War I, the Talbot House served as just such a refuge for British soldiers on the front line. The Belgian front, and the area called Flanders Field, saw some of the worst fighting during the War but the tiny town of Poperinge, located hear the French border in the far western reaches of Belgium, escaped relatively unscathed. Although it is adjacent to Ypres, Poperinge was part of the unoccupied region of Belgium and thus served as the hub for British forces. And within this pocket of calm sat, and still sits, the Talbot House, a refuge that is referred to as "Every man's house".

Militaries are perhaps one of the last bastions where rank clearly matters; the division between the enlisted and the officers is set in stone with fraternization between the ranks discouraged if not outright prohibited. Traditionally each group has their own pay scales, housing and social clubs.The Talbot House, however, broke with this tradition and served as a respite for all soldiers, regardless of rank, thus getting its moniker.

The Talbot House was built in the 18th Century and was the home of a wealthy banking family before it was hit by a German shell, forcing the family to flee to a safer location. The British army rented the house as an alternative to more controversial respite sites in the town. Talbot House as it is known today was founded in 1915 by two Army chaplains, who for the next three years welcomed soldiers into their little piece of calm between the storms. They set about creating a homey atmosphere, complete with a tranquil garden, lounging spaces, a spacious dining hall and clean sleeping quarters in which soldiers could relax.

Sampling the tea. The verdict?
Today visitors are welcome to explore the exhibits, grounds and partake in the English tradition of tea in what is the original mess hall. The museum is not large but it is filled with interesting and moving displays that provide visitors with a glimpse of what life was like for soldiers enjoying a brief R&R. And this museum welcomes the youngest guests with their own electronic tablet that guides them through the grounds on a type of scavenger hunt. You can look through numerous photographs, documents and relics from the war and visit the former bath house which now hosts temporary exhibits. During our visit we saw an exhibit paying tribute to military chaplains, both allies and foes, from the Great War to today's ongoing fighting in the Middle East. And every guest is invited to sit in the dining hall and partake in a cup of tea served by the jolly hosts. In true British form, the tea is steeped from loose leaves and served in china cups around communal tables. After tea you can take in the ornate details of the sitting rooms then climb the very steep stairs to see the sleeping quarters and the top floor chapel. (A small number of rooms are available for overnight accommodations although a peek into them revealed rather narrow and uncomfortable looking beds). But my favorite part of the museum is without doubt, the garden. Small but well laid out, the garden has  water features, benches and lots of shaded grassy spaces that invite relaxation and meditation. It is easy to imagine soldiers sitting and laying in the walled garden and momentarily trying to forget about the outside world. And had it not been for the rain, we too would have sat in the garden to contemplate.

So when you are in this corner of Belgium take time to visit the Talbot House. It is a tribute to war unlike any war museum I have visited. Stroll the gardens, explore the house and enjoy a cup of tea. If you are of British heritage, or know someone who is, search through the database to see if your relatives were one of the thousands who sought refuge there during the War.

If you go:
The Talbot House
Gasthuisstraat 431-B 8970
Poperinge, BELGIUM
+32 57 333 228

Open Tuesday-Sunday 10.00-17.30
Adults 8 Euro, under 7 FREE

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Wrapping It All Up

The end of the school year is rapidly coming to a close here in Belgium and as such, the procession of projects, art work and papers are making their way home by the armful. While I feel as though I'm being inundated with paper that we must keep ("because it is all important work"), the process has been enlightening and has provided me with insight as to what Sidney has been doing all year. Because up until this point, with the exception of a few rare glimpses, I've been pretty much in the dark.

I've loved our experience with Sidney's Belgian pre-school. While many things are different and what I call quirkier than what I would expect from an American school, he has been happy, has made friends and has been fortunate to have strict but loving teachers. And most importantly, after a year and a half of attending, he professes to love school and is sad that the year is winding down. Communication between the school and parents has been virtually nonexistent, however, so I've struggled to figure out exactly what Sidney is learning or doing on a daily basis. (Despite seeing his teacher twice a day communication is essentially limited to notices that are put into his communication notebook. If we have concerns we are encouraged to raise them but rarely are issues actually brought to us as parents. Its a much different approach than the American over involved, over communication approach and I've adjusted for the most part. It appears that this is just the Belgian way). But, with the avalanche of papers coming home I'm getting a fuller picture of what Sidney has been doing all year and I must say, I'm quite impressed.

There is something to be said for receiving an entire year's worth of school work at one time. I can clearly mark Sidney's progress from September through June, watching his handwriting go from shaking and quite undecipherable to clear and confident. The same goes for his artwork; paintings and drawings from the spring are clearly identifiable. But what has impressed me the most is what he has clearly learned. His lessons are entirely in French, leaving me to wonder how much he is able to read and write. After perusing the pile of papers, my answer is that yes, Sidney can read and write in French at an ability clearly beyond mine. But it is the way he has learned that I'm most in awe about since it is a world away from the Dick, Jane, Sally (Spot and Puff) characters I learned with. Last fall the focus was on the outdoors with the class taking a field trip to some Belgian caves. The lesson clearly extended beyond the day at the caves since Sidney brought home intricate work where he labeled the components of caves as well as trees, leaves, mushrooms and plants. All of this was done in French of course and as we reviewed his work he reiterated what I was looking at by reading each label in perfectly accented French. Fall gave way to winter with the Christmas and Carnival holidays being diagramed. Spring brought snails and tadpoles as well as a several month unit on Vincent Van Gogh and Mons 2015. Each lesson included art work, writing exercises in both printed and cursive script, word searches and crossword puzzles and activities testing spacial and hand-eye coordination. All in all, its quite impressive. Back in September I never would have thought that my son would be able to correctly diagram the anatomy of a snail, discuss the lifecycle of an egg, and correct me when I confuse stalagmites with stalactites.

So now my little boy in on the verge of entering first grade (in a bi-lingual French-English program this time). Sidney has visited his new school, met the principal and asked the all important question of where he will eat his snack and lunch. (He also asked, in French, how much of his day would be spent speaking French and how much would be spent speaking English). But first we have six short weeks of summer vacation. It will include French camp, a three country family road trip and time to simply hang out and enjoy living at a slower pace. We can't wait.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Le Cimetiere de Montmarte

There is no reason to be the richest man in the cemetery; 
You can't do any business from there.
~Colonel Harlan Sanders; American Astronomer~

The only real equality is in the cemetery
~ German Proverb~

All cemeteries are not created equal. Yes, they all serve as a burying place for the dead and are mostly comprised of row after row of durable tombstones. Cemeteries are places that are as much for the living as they are for the dead. Here the friends and loved ones left behind can visit and feel closer to the departed. And in their own way, regardless of whether they are in the midst of a bustling city or in a rural field, they are tranquil and serene. But that is where the similarities really end. Cemeteries may be organized in a haphazard fashion or with military precision. They may be abandoned and overgrown or manicured with surgical precision. They may be humble with small nondescript stones or they may be filled with ornate and over the top spectacular crypts and monuments. Regardless of their state and organization, I've always felt that walking through a cemetery is like walking back in time through history. In a few brief words epithets paying tribute to the dead tell more about the dead than the wordiest obituary can. Mother, father, spouse, sister, brother, veteran, artist, explorer, its all laid out on the stones. They also provide a wonderful window into the history and values of their region. So yes, I've been known to walk through a cemetery or two on my travels and so a recent trip to Paris had me exploring the beautiful and historic Cimetiere de Montmarte.

Montmarte Cemetery is tucked inside an abandoned gypsum quarry in the heart of Paris' hilly 18th arrondissement just a short walk from the Sacre-Coeur. In the 18th century the site was first developed as a make shift and mass burying ground for the poor; it was an answer to the ban on the disposing of bodies in the center of the city.  The area was later acquired by the city of Paris and in 1825 it opened as a cemetery in its current form. Today it is the third largest internment ground in Paris. As it has since it was built in 1888, the cemetery sits under a busy metal bridge span yet it feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of Paris. The 11 hectare cemetery is filled with 20,000 burial plots as well as numerous leafy maple and chestnut trees which provide shade on sunny days and filter out the street noise from above. The Montmarte district of Paris was the center of the arts scene so it makes sense that the names of those interred here reads like a who's who of the Parisian arts and culture scene. Painter and sculptor  Edgar Degas, dramatist Alexandre Dumas of Camille fame, author Emile Zola and the actress Dalida are just a few of the thousands buried here.

Crypts, chapels and busts...they are all here

Crypt or cathedral?

Some of the more "modest" burial plots

If you are looking for specific graves, several mounted maps will help lead you to your destination. But for me, the real fun was simply wandering around. A visit to the cemetery finds you wandering through narrow tree lined lanes amongst the many ornate crypts paying homage to those buried there. The first thing one notices is the crypts. Crammed in side by side the unadorned rectangular one is the oddity. Rather, towering crypts resembling small chapels, complete with crosses, stained glass windows and ornate carvings are the norm. Rather than laid out in a sprawling pattern, the crypts are positioned in a manner that maximizes the small space. They line pathways wide enough for hearses to travel, are stacked several deep along narrow walkways and accessible only by foot. Taking advantage of the hilly location some crypts are erected on higher ground as though they are standing guard over the lower graves. Others are built into the wall surrounding the cemetery and yet others are tucked away in the few grassy expanses. (Well, expanse is all relative since we are in the middle of a city). Most of the "residents" have French names but there is a smattering of non-French sounding ones as well. Some of graves date back to the cemetery's earliest days while others have been recent additions--rather the actual names and dates of death are recent since most of the crypts themselves have been in place for years. And because this is the burial place of so many members of the arts community, there are busts, sculptures and other forms of art. 

With sporadically places benches for rest and contemplation, Montmarte Cemetery makes for a welcome reprieve from the busy Paris streets surrounding the area. As a visitor to the city one's natural inclination might be to take in as many of the "big" sights as possible during their stay. But sometimes it is nice to step back from the hustle, leave the crowds behind and explore the city from a different perspective. If that is your goal, this is just the place to do it.

Oh, and the cemetery has a whole cadre of living residents as well. Cats, many of them, stalk through the graves simultaneously seeking refuge in the shady shadows and wallowing in the dappled sunshine. They aren't necessarily friendly but they will eye you suspiciously yet leave you alone if you leave them alone. So if you as though you are being watched during your visit, you probably are. By a cat, or two, or three.

If you go:
20 Avenue Rachel
70518 Paris, FRANCE
+33 1 53 42 36 30
Open daily 08.00-18.00

Friday, June 19, 2015

200 Years Ago.......

This week marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. We won't be partaking in this weekend's reenactments, but here's a repost of our visit from last year. We will be returning; just after the crowds subside....

Lion's Mound: whether visiting or just
driving past, it is a distinctive sight to see
War has come a long way in the past two hundred years and nothing exemplifies this more than a visit to the Lion's Mound in Waterloo, Belgium. The site of Napoleon's last stand, the Lion's Mound and the adjacent panorama museum introduce visitors to one of the great wars of the world that helped shape the course of modern European history.

It was here, in the middle of Belgian farmland that 300,000 soldiers representing six nations met in battle on the 18th of June 1815. Under the leadership of the Duke of Wellington, the British Army and their new shrapnel cannonballs met Napoleon's soldiers. The battle proved to be bloody all around with both sides amassing a total of 75,000 casualties and losses.

Today, looking at the still pristine farmland that surrounds the Mound, it is hard to fathom the violence and death that occurred here. Visitors can climb the 226 steps up to the top of the hill to view the battlefields. The mound took three years to build and was completed in 1826. The lion itself is 40 meters high and was erected in the supposed spot where the Prince of Orange (who later became the King of the Netherlands) was injured during the battle. The lion, designed by royal architect Charles Van der Straeten under the order of William I, is symbolic of the allies victories and his paw sits on a globe "announcing the peace that Europe was won in the plains of Waterloo". On the day we visited it was clear and from the summit we could watch farmers harvesting their crops and treasure hunters plying the same fields with metal detectors in hope of finding a war relic. Even with the highway traffic in the distance, it was so incredibly serene and peaceful that it was hard to imagine the battle that had been fought down below.

I enjoyed the views from the top of the Lion's Mound but for me, viewing the 360 degree panoramic fresco of the battle is what brought the battle to life and drove home the harsh realities of war. Unlike today, where modern technology has made much of war impersonal, soldiers fighting in 1815 came face to face with their enemies. In fact, that was really the only way to fight. Upon entering the panoramic room visitors are greeted by the sounds of war; rifles, cannon blasts and the neighing of horses make the battle seem real. Standing above the panorama and looking down, you can see the detailed images of soldiers from all armies engaged in hand to hand combat. There are images of injured soldiers lying beside their fallen horses while their comrades fight over their dying corpses. Perhaps the most eerie and unnerving part of the scene are those battalions who are standing in the distance watching the fighting and waiting their turn to enter into the fray. What must it have been like to watch hundreds of your peers being slaughtered knowing that your turn was next? The scene is extremely powerful and morbid, but then again, so is war.

Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. The site is currently being updated in anticipation of the celebrations. We plan on visiting again next year and if you are in the BENELUX area during 2015, you too should visit to experience a small, but pivotal part of history.

Just a small section of the 360 degree panoramic painting depicting the Battle of Waterloo

If you go:

Route du Lion 315
1420 Braine-l-Alleud (Waterloo)

Open: 09.30-18.30 1st of April - 30th of September
          10:00- 17:00 1st of October - 31st of March

Adults: 7.50 Euro to visit the Lion's Mound and Panorama, children 7 and over 4.50 Euro

+32 (0)2 385 19 12

There is a cafe adjacent to the visitor's center which has an impressive selection of Belgian beers and so-so food.