Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Liberating Belgium- Cendron

Sign post marking the point where Allied troops entered
Belgium in 1944
For all of you World War II buffs out there (and by living in Belgium I'm quickly becoming one myself), today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Cendron, Belgium. On this day in 1944 American troops crossed the border from France and entered Belgium for the first time.

In 1940 the Nazis established a headquarters in nearby (4 kilometers) Forge-Phillipe and thus began the long four year occupation by Hitler's forces. Entire villages were evacuated with the Germans building bunkers on the rolling farmland. Villagers were displaced, farms pillaged and life as Belgians knew it changed forever. So when the American troops came rolling over the border at 09.30 on the morning of  September 2nd, they were welcomed with great fanfare and open arms.

Today the village is little more than a handful of buildings and a monument commemorating their liberation that was dedicated in 1973. However, each year, in the days leading up to the anniversary of the liberation, local residents come out and celebrate. There are reenactments, period music and a grand march following in the footsteps of the liberating soldiers. Young and old, locals and the relatives of American liberators descend upon this tiny hamlet and celebrate.

We had heard about the celebrations this past weekend and decided to check them out since Sidney is all about seeing "the military" these days. Directions were spotty but we had been assured that we couldn't miss it so we found ourselves following small wooden signs as we wound down one narrow lane after another. And then suddenly we were there. American flags flew alongside Belgian ones and the pastures had been turned into makeshift parking lots. A small encampment of canvas tents had been erected in another field. Soldiers dressed in period costumes roamed the muddy streets and the sounds of Doris Day and the Andrew Sisters filled the air. We had arrived too late for the march but spent time checking out the jeeps and the memorial. We walked across the border into France and back again. We chatted with a Belgian soldier who, upon learning we were Americans, told us a bit about the day's events and about the other Americans who were also visiting.

The celebration had a local feel to it; it was missing the big bands and flashy details that I have come to expect at such events. But it all seemed so real. The people celebrating were mostly locals or those who had deep connections to the town. They were celebrating for themselves rather than putting on a show for the outside world. Even decades after the fact, their appreciation for the liberators (in this case Americans) felt genuine. For me, it felt special to be there.

And commemorations like this are happening all over Belgium, and Europe, this year. We are definitely going to make an effort to seek out and visit more celebrations like this. For us, they are once in a life time opportunities.

A liberator's jeep

"The first American troops entered Belgium at this point on
the 2nd of September 1944 at 09.30"

Memorial paying tribute to the Allied forces who
"beat down the monstrous Nazis"

Friday, August 29, 2014

Food Fights

Food; we all need it to live. But do you eat to live or live to eat? In my family, depending upon the day, we are a bit of both. I love good food and since I am the cook in the family won't hesitate to spend hours in the kitchen perfecting the perfect dish or full blown meal. I actually find all of the tinkering and experimenting to be relaxing but when the cooking is done, I like to sit down, relax and enjoy my meal. Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen. Rather food is alternatively inhaled with gusto or pushed around on plates; often before I've even had my first bite......so frustrating but part of my food reality. So this leads to my desire to eat to live with simple and easy dishes gracing our table.

So how do I please everyone's culinary desires? Many times it comes down to the issue of how many dinners can I make on a single night. Do I make three separate meals, as I've done a few times recently, two or a single modified one where we all must either eat what is in front of us or go without dinner? My inclination is to go with the later but as a food lover, the thought of all of us being unsatisfied at the end of the meal is downright discouraging. Three balanced meals is simply too much work so our dinners tend to fall somewhere along the lines of option number two. I try to find foods that we will all enjoy but sometimes it is just so hard. I love fish and seafood, just about every vegetable I've ever encountered and am always game for trying something new. The boys in my family....not so much.

Our family food battles used to be confined to our home. Last year I sent Sidney to school where four days a week he was served a varied and nutritious Belgian lunch. (I still provided a nutritious snack). He didn't always like what was put on this plate but under the pressure of his Madame he was at least trying new foods. And much to our delight there were foods he never would have tried at home that he actually ended up liking at school. But gradually I began to hear complaints. Other kids got to bring their own lunches. According to Sidney, they got to eat chips and cookies and drink soda for lunch and he wanted to do the same. On occasion Sidney would bring a home baked cookie as a snack but he wanted plastic wrapped Hostess treats instead. After all, that is what all of the other (American) kids got to eat.

All summer long Sidney has been nagging me to be able to bring his own lunch to school this year. At camp this summer he brought his own lunch and he wanted to do the same for school. At camp however, every child brought healthy homemade lunches that made mine look like the unhealthy ones (yes, it was that type of camp and I loved it). As other parents are well aware, packing a daily lunch is a pain in the butt even when you don't have a fussy child. With a fussy one it is even worse. But Sidney wants to be like the other kids.....

So we've worked out a deal. Each week we will discuss the school lunch menu and Sidney can choose two days to eat school lunch and two days where he can bring his own. He's already informed me that he wants to eat school lunch whenever they serve fish, pasta or couscous. (Love this and it definitely tempers the rest of our food battles). As for the two days when I pack his lunch, I won't be delivering hot meals the way some of the Italian moms do. Rather, Sidney will carry it to school in his lunch box. The meals will be healthy and balanced but include items he likes and will eat.  This summer Sidney discovered sandwiches so there will be plenty of those. He loves pizza so some weeks my homemade version may be included in his lunch box. Fresh fruit and vegetables will always be present and an occasional sweet treat might be there as well. Of course, the sweets will be home baked by me and won't come with shelf lives that will outlast the school year.

That is our food compromise. Do I anticipate more food battles? Absolutely. I know that some days the lunch box will return home untouched but others it will be empty. Dinners will remain an occasional battleground but I'll take the struggles as long as they accompany successes. New dishes will be on the menu on a regular basis and who knows, we might discover more foods that we all enjoy. After all, you have to eat to live but living to eat makes the experience all the better.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

Many parents may disagree with me but personally, I love this time of year. Yes, I am one of those parents who gets excited about the start of school. I was talking to a fellow mom the other day who was bemoaning the start of the school year and the fact her children would be gone from the house for so many hours each day. I smiled and nodded and thought (perhaps a bit guiltily) that I was actually looking forward to it. Of course, it probably helps that my son has been beyond excited at the prospect of starting school again. For weeks he's been getting up each morning and asking if today was the day he would get to go to school. And finally, today was. (Actually, yesterday was his first day of school but in true Belgian form, Wednesdays are half days with a noon dismissal so it didn't really count). So with his backpack filled with his required school supplies off he happily went this morning for the first day of school and I don't know who was more excited, Sidney or his mom.

Actually I've always loved this time of year. Sure I was one of those students, like my son, who loved school. School was always the one place I felt free to be myself. I loved the learning, the socializing and the routine. But I also love everything about the fall season-- the cooler weather, the need to wear sweaters instead of skimpy summer clothing and growing up in New England, the changing leaves. January 1st may mark the beginning of a new year on the calendar, but for me, the first day of school is the start of my new year. I felt this way growing up and still feel that way now. Before Sidney started school I always felt a bit lost each fall since I didn't have an "event" to mark the beginning of my new year. But now I do.

We had a wonderful, fun filled summer where we were always on the go but now we're all ready to return to a routine. For us that means school and work, swim lessons and soccer team and lots of driving on my part to get get everyone where they need to be. It means shorter days and earlier bedtimes with weekends becoming the focus of our family time. But personally, it also means that despite the crazy schedule I am back to having time to myself. With school out my only "me" time was before Sidney woke in the morning or after he went to bed in the evening (and my child is an earlier riser as well as a night owl). The hours in between were filled with entertaining a little boy filled with thousands of questions with endless energy. It was fun but honestly, I am tired from our busy summer and am looking forward to having a few minutes to myself.

So how am I spending my first full day alone? I'm getting a long needed hair cut and then taking myself to lunch....all...by....myself. In the days to come I'll get into my own routine of going to the gym, resuming French lessons and writing more. Call me crazy but I'm looking forward to being able to leisurely grocery shop all by myself then returning home and experimenting with new recipes. There are so many parts of the city I have yet to discover and I look forward to checking out the museums and historical sites that to date I have only passed by. And because it isn't all fun and games, now that we actually have all of our furniture, I will be able to finally unpack the last of the boxes that are sitting in our cellar. Yes, I love this time of year but I dare say my family does as well.

All set for the first day

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

Or even more when you are looking at the Bayeux Tapestry in Bayeux, France. This historic tapestry, which dates to the 1070s, depicts the story of William the Conqueror's invasion of England and the subsequent Battle of Hastings. The tapestry was an attempt to commemorate history and allow even the most uneducated and illiterate people of the time to see and understand their history. French legend had the tapestry being created by William's wife Queen Matilda and her ladies in waiting but scholars now think it was actually commissioned by William's half-brother Bishop Odo and stitched in England of vegetable dyed wool yarn on top of linen. There are a total of 50 panels starting with Edward the Confessor sending William to Normandy and ending with English troops fleeing the Battle of Hastings. In between the stitches tell the story of  battles and invasions, heroics and death and even a sighting of Halley's Comet, which in the Middle Ages was viewed as being a bad omen. Are the historical depictions accurate? Maybe or maybe not; but then again what version of history is completely accurate? But in my opinion, that really isn't the point. Rather the tapestry is a work of art that shows one version of a historical period that shaped the world.

A visit to the tapestry is a must see when visiting Normandy. All 230 feet of the tapestry is on display for visitors to see. Individual headphones guide visitors through the length of the cloth describing each numbered panel. (There is even a children's version of the narration which Sidney loved). There are so many levels from which one can look at the tapestry. First, there is the simple fact that this intricately hand stitched cloth is a piece of art. The work is beautiful and the details are so fine. It amazes me to think that every stitch on this cloth was sewn by hand. Second, it tells the story of a rich history that influenced and shaped western Europe. Even without narration or knowing the story of William the Conqueror one can learn about the past because the details are that rich. In many respects the narration, while wonderful and detailed, actually detracted from the viewing of the story. My advice would be to view the tapestry twice; first without the narration so you can focus on the details and let your imagination do all of the work and then a second time accompanied by the words. But, the words really are optional since pictures really are worth a thousand words!

Unfortunately photographs were not allowed so the only pictures I have are those I've found on the Internet. So, if you want to see more images of the tapestry click here. Or go visit the tapestry yourself. And while you are there check out more of the town of Bayeux including their grand cathedral where the tapestry was rediscovered hanging in the 18th Century.

If you go:

Bayeux Museum
13 bis rue de Nesmond
F14400 Bayeux France
33 02 31 51 25 50
Open daily 09.00-18.30
Adults 9 Euro, reduced rates for seniors, children and groups

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Other Landing: Pointe du Hoc

The very point of Pointe du Hoc
As an American, in school I learned about the World War II Battle for Normandy. We heard about the American, British, and Canadian forces storming Omaha, Utah, Sword, Gold and Juno Beaches and the heroism of those who parachuted in from above, collectively pushing the Germans back and eventually liberating Normandy. What I never heard about, and honestly didn't even know happened until recently, was the landing of U.S. Army Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, a craggy cliff face sandwiched between Omaha and Utah Beaches. The Ranger's pivotal contribution was critical in the Allie's success in Operation Overlord and how their story fits into the larger battle is well laid out at the Pointe du Hoc Memorial.

In the years and months leading up to the D-Day invasion, German forces had built a strong defense system along the French coast. Called the Atlantic Wall, this well armed defensive barrier composed of batteries and bunkers on land and underwater mines provided protection to German controlled lands and were thought to be impossible to breach.  But as history shows, that wasn't the case.

On 6 June 1944, under German fire, members of the 2nd Ranger Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder, scaled the 100 foot cliffs of Pointe du Hoc and disabled the German positions above. During the early morning hours the U.S. Naval bombardment that left those lasting craters began. In less than two hours of intense fighting, during which two landing craft and their crews were lost, American Rangers were able to reach the top of the cliffs, capture the strategic location and destroy numerous German artillery. The battle continued but the success of initial attack helped pave the way for future successes. Of the initial attacking force of 225 men however, only 90 were still able to bear arms when this portion of the battle was over on 8 June. The personal stories of those who were killed are shared in the Sacrifice Gallery that lines the exit of the memorial site.

View in the direction of Omaha Beach
Today the Memorial is operated by the American Battle Monuments Commission and visiting it is a completely hands on experience. Visitors can tour the visitors center and view an introductory film before heading out and walking over the crater pocked battlefield. Along the way you walk through the Ceremonial Circle where plaques from the French government honor the Ranger's exploits. And you pass craters; huge indentations in the earth that are a visible reminder of the bombs that were dropped on this point of land. Even seventy years later the earth is scarred. Some are enclosed by barbed wire but others are covered with rocks, crumbling dirt and worn grass. Signs warn of the dangers of climbing into them but don't explicitly forbid it. As a result visitors are able to walk down into and out of the craters. My little war-playing boy was not the only child running through them and wondering at their size. And it is their very size that makes you understand the extent and power of the bombs that were dropped. Concrete bunkers of varying sizes sit alongside the craters. Two meters of solid concrete formed the outer walls of the ten-person and twenty-person bunkers where German soldiers sought shelter and sat watch over the sea below. Three ammunition bunkers, numerous casemates, hospital and observation bunkers also fill the pock marked field. Some of the concrete structures are in near perfect condition while others have been ravaged by bombs and time. Visitors are welcomed to explore the ins and outs of these bunkers. You can walk through the rooms that were crew quarters, check out the casemates and even peer out the observation bunker and see the same view of the surrounding water and land that the occupying Germans did seventy years ago.

The granite dagger that is the Pointe du Hoc Ranger memorial sits atop another bunker at the every end of the point. It was erected by the French government then later landed over to the U.S. government in 1979 as a sign of friendship between the two nations. From this point it is possible to look up and down the coast in both directions and see the landing beaches. From this perch it is easy to see why capturing this point of land was so crucial to the success of the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Bunkers and craters for as far as the eye can see

Exploring a crater

If you go:

Pointe du Hoc Ranger Memorial
Pointe du Hoc, France
33 02 31 51 62 00
Open daily

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Battle of Mons

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Mons. This relatively unknown but important battle marked the onset of clashes between the British and German forces during World War I. At the time Belgium was neutral but geographically stood between the German and British troops. And although Britain had officially declared war on Germany on 4 August, it was here in Mons on 23 August that the two armies met as the British attempted to fend off the advancing Germans over possession of the Mons-Conde Canal. (The first British casualty of the War had actually occurred two days earlier when a British reconnaissance team encountered a German unit and Private John Parr was killed).

The British were ultimately forced to retreat from this battle but eventually went on to be on the winning side of that war. A century later Belgians remember the course of events that changed history. They also love a good celebration and as such, commemorations recognizing this centennial anniversary have been taking place for the past few weeks throughout the Mons area. The first event was a commemoration ceremony recognizing Britain's declaration of war on Germany. It was held at  St Symphorien, the British military cemetery here in Mons on 4 August.  Wills and Kate (a.k.a. Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge) along with Prince Harry attended as did throngs of Belgian officials. Other events have included parades, wreath laying ceremonies, concerts and even a double decker bus tour of all of the World War I sites here in Mons. There have been nightly light show depicting the Angels of Mons who are have said to safely escorted the retreating British troops back to France.

Speeches and wreath laying events are a big part of the ceremonial aspect of the commemorations but my favorite part has been the reenactments. Or as Sidney says, all of the military people (and their horses and bicycles too). For the past few days the Belfry Park here in Mons has been turned into a period British encampment complete with soldiers and their artillery, horses and bicycles, and a mess and a hospital tent. Earlier this morning we ventured out to explore the encampment which is literally around the corner from us. It was great fun to walk amongst the tents and piles of equipment talking to the soldiers and watching as they went about their daily camp activities. Two man tents constructed of two snapped together raincoats provided shelter, if not comfort, from the elements. The pile of backpacks ladened down with the afore mentioned raincoats, a blanket, a canteen and a few other meager personal items reminded us of the simple conditions under which soldiers lived in the field. The mess (a.k.a. kitchen) made me grateful for the food we do have now; the tins of canned meat and vegetables neither looked nor smelled appetizing yet soldiers were hungrily spooning up the mixture from their metal bowls. And the hospital tent with its rudimentary medical equipment certainly didn't look all that comforting.

But this camp is a reenactment of the realities of the time. The times weren't pretty--it was war after all-- and by history coming alive through these scenes we are reminded of all of this. It should make us grateful for what we have and for the sacrifices that those before us made so we can enjoy the freedoms we have. And it did just that. This may have been our first World War I reenactment we've visited but I'm sure it won't be our last.

World War I encampment

Soldier on horseback in Grand Place Mons