Friday, October 16, 2015

Brave New World

One of the wonderful things about school is that children are exposed to new ideas and people and have the opportunity to explore things they might not otherwise have the chance to at home. Since the beginning of the school year Sidney has been coming home talking about the new friends he is making, what he is learning and the fun he is having in the process. It is topics like this that make me feel good as a parent. On the flip side your child may be coming home talking about subjects that in one way or another challenge you as a parent. These subject aren't necessarily topics you don't want to discuss with your child; rather they are ones that you were hoping you wouldn't have to discuss for a while. This may be due in part to your thinking your child isn't ready to discuss them or, as is my case, I haven't figured out how to discuss them myself with my child. And as we have entered into the wide world of first grade, these conversations are happening with increasing frequency.

First there was the conversation about cancer and dying. Our family has been fortunate to have escape ravages of both during Sidney's short life so quite simply the topics have never come up. But as Sidney's school was preparing for their annual Terry Fox Run to benefit Canadian cancer research, he became a student on the subject and began asking lots of questions. What is cancer? What is dying? What happens when you die? I was pushed completely out of my comfort zone as I struggled to answer these questions in an age appropriate manner but coupled with what he was learning in school, I think I did alright. And it was just preparation for the conversation that came next: lock down drills.

Yes, lock down drills. Those unfortunately necessary yet complete scary practices that have been as commonplace as fire drills in schools across the western world. They didn't exist when I was in school. I remember being scared out of my wits the first time my class had a fire drill when I was in first grade. I had no idea what to do when the loud alarm sounded but I quickly learned what I was supposed to do. At the time we were living in a rural community in northern Vermont and the first grade (but not the second and third) was attached to the larger high school. Our biggest threat was a spate of bomb threats called in over the course of several months by teenage pranksters wanting to get out of taking their exams. When the alarm sounded we would file out of the school only to be allowed to return soon after. But times have changed since the 1970s..........

Lockdown drills have replaced the fire drills of my childhood. In this age of what feels like weekly school shootings, knowing how to react during an emergency can mean the difference between surviving and not. Thus the reason we have five year olds quietly cramming themselves into closets and bathroom stalls and sitting patiently until the all clear alarm sounds. They emerge safe if not a bit shaken but then the real questions arise.

Sidney's little school has already rehearsed two lock down drills during the first two months of the school year. Parents were notified about the impending drills prior to their taking place. And prior to each drill the teachers worked with the students so that they know what is expected of them during the drill. I wasn't in the classroom but I have full confidence that they presented the drills in an age appropriate and sensitive manner. But because of the sheer nature of the exercise how could a child (or adult for that matter) emerge from the practice not feeling a little shaken? I know that on the afternoon of each drill my little first first grader came home telling me what had happened before launching into a whole series of questions that yet again started a conversation I had naively hoped to delay having for some time.

He wants to know why bad men (as he calls them) would want to hurt the kids at this school. He wants to know if it is even safe to go to school and what he should do if they bad guys come when the kids are on the playground. He wants to know if they will also come after the parents and if the teachers are being brave and protecting their students whether they will be safe. These are all thoughts and questions that keep adults up at night and certainly aren't ones that a six year old should be pondering. But they are.

So how do you answer all of these questions yet explain to a child that while going to school is safe, someday the drill he is practicing might be for real? All I can do is explain that his teachers' jobs are to keep the students safe. No matter how scared he might be he needs to focus on what they tell him to do and to obey the rules. I assure him that that his parents will be safe. And for the moment, his going to school on a secure military base is probably the safest place for him to be. He understands that everyone must show a base issued identification card to enter the compound and early on when he questioned its purpose I assured him that it was to keep the bad people out. After the first drill these answers mollified him but after the second drill he asked what would happen if the bad guys skipped the main gate and dropped onto the base from the air like paratroopers (....he really is a military kid......). All I could do was reassure him that his teachers would take care of him and that everyone wants to make sure that all of the kids are safe.

And for the moment these answers have to be enough because they are all I have. The reality is that I can't promise him that his school will always be safe, that his teachers will always be able to protect him and that the bad guys won't descend upon his school. But I can promise him that the adults in his life will always do the best we can to keep him safe, that there are more good people than bad people in the world and that good does overcome bad any day of the week.

I believe that we can't live in fear of the what if and instead must focus on the here and now. And with that I'm going to give my little boy an extra hug and spend time focusing on the fun and (remaining) innocence of childhood.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Tanks Are Back In Town

In honor of the return of the annual Tanks in Town event here in Mons, here's a repost from last year's fun.

When we lived in Virginia I always wondered about the Civil War reenactors who would flood old battlefields each year. Because we were south of the Mason-Dixon line there seemed to be more Confederates than Yankees but the later were still present. I wondered whether the (mostly) men who played war were history buffs reenacting the stories of their forefathers or simply liked to get dressed up and play war. At the time I naively thought this was some weird American phenonenum. But then I moved to Belgium, the heart of battles in both world wars and realized that Americans have nothing on their European counterparts when it comes to war reenactments.

This past weekend was the annual Tanks In Town event here in Mons. Tanks In Town commemorates the liberation of Mons by American forces during World War II and this reenactment is the ultimate in big boys and their even bigger toys. For three days tanks, jeeps, amphibious vehicles and every other form of World War II artillery descend on the Mons region for one big party celebrating the region's liberation from Nazi control. There are reenactments, camps and parades throughout the region. A huge flea market selling everything from period uniforms and weapons to cheap Chinese produced knock offs runs the length of several city blocks. And the culmination of the events is a Sunday evening procession of all of the military vehicles into the Grand Place in Mons.

Amphibious vehicle making its way back on shore
Tanks In Town was one of the events we have been hearing about since we arrived here so we made it a point of taking in the festivities. On Saturday we joined the crowds in watching the launch of amphibious vehicles in the canal. It was pretty amazing to see these lumbering vehicles make their way from shore into the water and back. After their initial splash into the water I had to wonder how they could stay afloat. After the amphibious demonstration we made our way to the large encampment that served not only as a stationary exhibitors for visitors to tour but the actually sleeping place for many of the weekend's reenactors. An expansive wooden area had been converted into a World War II era camp for the weekend. Scattered amongst the trees were tank, tents, jeeps and other machinery. Soldiers lounged around campfires, healed the wounded in makeshift hospitals and answered questions from inquisitive guests. And of course there were the tanks; they tore around a muddy track splattering dirt and debris on those who stood to close. Up until this point I had never been this close to a moving tank and was surprised at how their sound echoed through the woods and make the ground shake long after they passed. These certainly weren't vehicles that were used in stealthy maneuvers. Other tanks were stationary with visitors being invite to sit on and explore their formidable features. Then there were the reenactors themselves. Men, women and children, young and old alike were dressed in period costumes. Many visitors had even gotten into the spirit of things by dressing in their own period costumes. And of course because this is Belgium the camp included some no-so-period beer and frites (French fry) trucks.

Sidney and the tanks roaring into town

But my favorite part of the event was the next day. This is when these tanks came rumbling into Mons' cobblestone covered Grand Place, replicating the actions taken by American troops 70 years ago. A bus full of the veterans who helped liberate Mons were present as special guests. We were lucky to snag a front row seat at a cafe and with our bottle of wine (and orange Fanta for the little one) we watched the spectacle that is Tank in Town. We heard the tanks long before we saw them. First came the procession of jeeps, troop carriers and ambulances filled with waving soldiers and their pretty young women. Then came the motorcycles driven by grizzly goggle clad men with their coats flapping behind them and the amphibious vehicles. Finally there were the tanks. They rumbled up the narrow streets and into the square. Because of our great location Sidney was swept over the barrier by a soldier and placed atop a tank for a few minutes.

I know this was a reenactment but it was impossible not to get caught up in the cheering and spirit of the moment. People in the crowd hung out of windows high above the square waving flags and cheering on the liberating troops. Once the tanks filled the square the barriers were lifted and the crowds joined the troops and tanks. The SHAPE band played big band music while people danced, drank and had their pictures taken. The atmosphere was truly festive. I can only imagine what it must have been like to actually be here in Mons during the liberation. But since I wasn't there I'm lucky that I got to experience this reenactment. It is events like this that make living here in Belgium so special.

Grand Place filled with tanks, troops and people

The lone U.S. Navy representative

Hi fiving soldier

Monday, August 24, 2015

Rising To The Occasion

It is often said that children will rise to the highest denominator yet sink to the lowest one. I've seen this myself with my own son; when he was the youngest child on his soccer team he played with all his heart and out shone the older children yet when he himself was the oldest, his efforts were sub par at best. On the playground playing with older children the bloodiest skinned knee doesn't even illicit a whimper yet the smallest bruise while playing with younger children has him crying to no end. This pattern has been on going for some time and I dare say, as we wrap up our first week of school, it is continuing.

Because of the small student body size (52 students spread across eight grades), as a first grader Sidney shares a class with the second grade. This results in an intimate class size that is still smaller than most single grade classes. This also means that he is interacting with older children on a regular basis. And as his history has shown, this is where he really shines. Actually his is glowing.

It seems as though my little boy has grown up over night. He is so proud of being a first grader that this identity has become his introductory mantra to everyone he meets. Whether it is in the grocery store, on the playground or on the street talking to a neighbor, Sidney is quick to tell everyone that he is now a "first grader at the Canadian school". In the morning he tells me that it is important to wear clean clothes to school because no one wants to sit next to someone who is dirty. On our walk to school I am informed that if you see trash on the street or the playground you need to pick it up and place it in the trash can because helping to keep the environment clean is the right thing to do. Sidney has adopted his teacher's favorite adjective "spectacular" as his own and uses the word to describe each activity. French class is spectacular as are math and music classes. Going to the playground is still his favorite school activity but it is now called recess. Each student has been given a sketch book to keep track of their art and they have drawn three pictures of themselves which are called "selfies". All of the classes meet together in the "maple leaf room" to discuss all school activities. Each of these activities is reported to me in thorough detail at the end of each school day. They are then repeated over dinner with the occasional additional detail being added in. All of this comes from the same child who upon being picked up from camp only reported that his day was good and he didn't remember what they did. I'm certainly not complaining but where has this instantaneous maturity come from? It is like he has become a whole new child overnight. I'll take it.

But then there is the bus. We had signed Sidney up to take the bus on the off chance that I didn't need to be on base in either the morning or afternoon. After the first day of school Sidney told me that he might want to ride the bus and after the second day he told me that he really wanted to ride the bus because according to him "first graders don't need their mothers to bring them to school". Really? We've talked about it and decided that starting next week he can take the bus home on the days when he doesn't have after school activities. In the mean time Sidney no longer holds my hand when we are walking up the street to the school and I am no longer allowed to cross the street with him to reach the school. Instead he gives me a wave and I watch while he crosses the road with the assistance of the crossing guard. Yes, my baby is growing up.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Battle For Mons

Today marks the 101st 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

Friday, August 21, 2015

On Arthur's Seat

Panorama from the top
Tastes change. Nothing reiterated that more for me than our recent trip to the United Kingdom. I used to love visiting cities while on vacation but now I'm all about getting away from the masses of buildings, stores selling items no one really needs, crowds and everything that goes along with them. Because of this Scotland was the perfect vacation for us. We spent time exploring small towns, exploring castles and wandering through lush glens with sheep as our only companions. But because we found ourselves so close to the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, we figured we needed to spend at least a day there and so we did. The city itself was crowded, bustling and a bit rainy. We joined the hoards in roaming the streets and taking in the sites. It was pretty but that was about it. But for us, the real treasure of the city is nearby Arthur's Seat in Holyrood Park.

One of my favorite things about Europe is their dedication to green space and Holyrood Park is yet another example of this. Just a few hundred meters from the city center sits this expansive green
The ruins of St Anthony's Chapel
space that is dedicated to outdoor pursuits. The mountain was formed by an extinct volcano approximately 350 million years ago with the highest crag itself being created two million years ago by a slow moving glacier.  Legend says the peak got its name from King Arthur and was perhaps the location of Camelot. The remains of a hill fort, a fortified earthen defense and a ruins of Saint Anthony's Chapel sit on the slope leading up to the peak. Both date to the 15th century when the are that is now the park was part of Holyrood Abbey land. The last chaplain to preside over the chapel departed in 1581 for unknown reasons. More recent history tells of 17 coffins being found in 1836. At the time they were thought to be a part of a witchcraft ritual but the more modern thinking links them to the serial murders William Burke and William Hale who killed 16 women and sold their bodies to a prominent physician for anatomy research in 1828. Arthur's Seat also holds significant for the Church of Later Day Saints as it was here that the apostle Orson Pratt prayed to god for more converts in 1850.

Today the peak and green space surrounding it tranquil. The 822 foot peak can be reached via a variety of paths so you can literally reach the top from any direction. We visited on a cool and cloudy day yet were joined by people of all ages and physical abilities winding their ways to the summit. Because there are so many paths to choose from, we took the one that looked the most traveled on the way up. It was impressive to look up and see the peak soaring above the city and the views of the land below grew more awe inspiring with each stop. Although we didn't spot any, evidence of sheep was everywhere (this is Scotland after all). We could see trail runners transversing the ridge above us and passed families with small children scrambling up the rocks.

There is always something a tad bit disappointing about reaching a peak and encountering other people. There weren't a lot as the high winds made lingering too long rather unpleasant. But the view from the top was amazing to take in. With a three hundred and sixty degree view you could look down into the center of Edinburgh and out past the shore were ships bobbed in the bay. Looking in the other direction you could see the suburban sprawl and farther away the rolling green hills that I had come to associate with Scottish countryside. Even with the low hanging clouds it was amazing. And from here we spotted the ruins of St Anthony's Chapel and made the decision make our return route pass through them. This route took us along the ridge and gave us an unparalleled view of the Edinburgh Castle anchoring the far end of the city. Just when I thought the view couldn't get any better, it did. The slippery slide down to the chapel (wet grass does not make for easy maneuvering) had us walking through fields filled with wildflowers and blueberry bushes. The ruins were small but once again reminded me just how old this area is and how much history has taken place here. Again, its is awe inspiring.

Our trek up to Arthur's Seat was definitely my favorite part of our time in Edinburgh. Regardless of the weather, or your level of physical fitness (because as the number of prams we saw at the summit attests to, there is a trail for everyone), a visit to Arthur's Seat is a must for every Edinburgh agenda. It will provide you with a perspective of the city that you simply can't find any where else.

At the very windy summit

If you go:
Arthur's Seat at Holyrood Park
Queen's Drive
Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Parking nearby

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

On The Trail Of Shaun The Sheep

Sometimes you are simply in the right place at the right time. Case in point our recent trip to Cardiff, Wales. I had planned the vacation back in February, picking dates that worked around Glenn's office schedule. We didn't know what the weather would be and we weren't really sure what we wanted to see during our stay. It doesn't really matter because figuring things out as we go along is part of the adventure. And this time, we scored big when it came to finding the perfect activity.

Sidney is a huge fan of the Wallace and Gromit series of Shaun the Sheep. In fact, Glenn and I are too. For those who don't know, Shaun the Sheep is a British claymation character who along with his fellow sheep, live a jolly life on a British farm. Shaun appears in a series of short films, and he even has a full length feature movie that is playing in cinemas. Each film lacks words allowing the character's actions to portray what is happening. Sidney will laugh hysterically at the skits and I love it for its wholesome entertainment. And actually, we laugh too. We were a few weeks out from departing on vacation when I came across the mention of a Shaun the Sheep walking trail in England. I investigated and hit the motherlode when I discovered that this was taking place in Bristol, a mere 45 minute drive from where we were staying in Cardiff. I immediately knew this would be a much anticipated stop on our trip and it didn't disappoint.

The Shaun in the City trail is a fundraiser for the British non-profit Children in Hospitals which provides funding for the country's children's hospitals. Through this fundraiser artists design and paint a Shaun the Sheep which is then adopted by various businesses and organizations and put on display first in London and then in Bristol, the home of Wallace and Gromit. Once the trails have ended, the Shaun statues will be auctioned off to the highest bidders. The idea isn't necessarily unique as it has been done with various figures in cities across the globe, but for Shaun fans, it is a whole lot of fun.

So on a rare sunny day we found ourselves in the port city of Bristol hunting down Shaun statues. With the assistance of an app we followed not one or two but three separate trails looking for Shaun. Our first trail took us along the city's colorful waterfront where Shauns were hidden amongst the boats, piers and parks. Each sheep was a different color and carried a different theme. They were all beautiful and it impossible to pick a favorite. The beautiful Bristol Cathedral had both a Shaun outside but a smaller version inside. As we wandered through the church I noticed tiny wooly stuffed sheep peeking out from various nooks and crannies. This became a second sheep hunt as we tried to find all of the ones hidden in this solemn place. Next we went deeper in to the city through historic neighborhoods filled with brick houses, churches and green parks. Our final trail took us through a more modern shopping district where Shaun was hiding in shopping malls and pedestrian districts. As we went along we ticked off our find on our app, snapped a picture with each sheep and took in our surroundings. And we weren't the only ones hunting Shaun; at each statue a small cluster of like minded people were doing the same thing.

Bristol is not a city we would have visited if it wasn't for Shaun the Sheep. A college and industrial town, it is simultaneously gritty and bohemian, modern and up and coming. Over the course of the day we walked 20 kilometers and saw things we never would have other wise. It was fun and a great way to get in some exercise while discovering the city's hidden treasures. Excluding the miniature sheep at the Cathedral, we shopped 31 sheep over the course of the day. And it all benefitted a great cause. (Which we contributed to by visiting the gift shop across from our final sheep at the local children's hospital). So if your in the area in the next few weeks, stop by to find a sheep or two. And even if you miss it, take a swing through Bristol if you get a chance. Its a fun place to spend the day.

Colorful Bristol

If you go:

Various locations throughout the city
Bristol, UK
Now through 31 August 2015

Monday, August 17, 2015

Stamp Collector

With the school starting again this week, summer is officially over. Sure the calendar says we still have another month but for us both the Belgian weather and the afore mentioned school mean that the all too short summer season has come to an end. And what a summer it has been. We've explored new territory both in our backyard and farther afoot, attended summer camp (Sidney) and hung out at home. And because I made a conscious effort to disconnect, or at least reduce, my screen time, I have yet to write about these adventures. (Not to worry though, as these stories will be coming shortly).

For many, summer means a slower pace, a change of routine and (for those of us not undergoing a forced, job related move), vacations. Here in Europe vacation time is serious business with reduced work schedules throughout the week and people taking three week vacations being the norm. (When Glenn let his co-workers know that the would be out of the office for two weeks they scoffed and wanted to know why his trip was going to be so short). I've loved looking at the pictures my friends have shared of their own summer vacations--for international explorations to stay-cations discovering the wonders of one's own neighborhoods, they have looked like so much fun. I know people who have camped in the mountains, cruised the high seas, lolled on beaches and knocked more national parks off of their bucket lists. Friends have volunteered in third world countries and even bicycled over the Alps. Some people head to warm sunny places for vacation while others, like us, seek out cooler climates. All of this was done in the name of "vacation" which just proves that everyone has a different idea of what they like to do during their time off.

One persons vacation is another persons idea of torture. Take cruising for instance. I know people who cruise on a regular basis because they love having their meals included in the price of their voyage and only having to unpack once all while visiting a variety of ports. I've cruised on several occasions and simply haven't enjoyed myself. I've found the unlimited food to be just ho-hum, the ship board entertainment to be "not my cup of tea" and the time in port too limiting to actually see the sights I want to see. But because Europe is a great jumping off point for cruises I recently found myself contemplating taking another one. After all, the cruise I was looking at would take us to countries on our bucket list that we had yet to visit. But a closer examination of the time in port, eight hours with a six am docking, would leave us with scant time to really get a feel for the places we want to see and just enough time to say that we had been there. For some people that may be enough but it isn't for us so no cruising is on our travel agenda.

But when it comes to road trips.....bring it on. Our favorite vacations have included miles in the car exploring whatever we encounter between points A and B. We've road tripped through Scandinavia, across the Balkans from Albania to Romania and back, along the east coast of the United States and most recently, throughout the United Kingdom. We pick a few destinations along the way, set our GPS to avoid the highways and away we go. We take spontaneous breaks for food, stop to take pictures where the setting is right and in doing so, have discovered some amazing spots along the way. For some people the idea of spending hours on the road is anything but a vacation but for us, it is the right fit.

One of the trends I've seen a lot while living in Belgium is people who try to visit as many countries as possible while stationed overseas. I completely understand this and in fact, this is part of our own travel planning. (At the moment we're at 37 countries and counting). But we have criteria for counting the countries as having visited them; we must have slept in the country or at least spent an entire day there. A layover in an airport where you never leave the terminal doesn't count. I once had a conversation with someone who bragged about his knowledge of the Adriatic coast in the Balkans. He had flown into Dubrovnik, Croatia then rented a car and drove south through a sliver of Bosnia before entering Montenegro and then finally Albania. With the exception of border crossing he never stopped and immediately reentered Montenegro upon clearing border control in Albania. Four countries in less than a day was how he presented this portion of his trip. He claimed to have seen all that he needed to see and now had a clearer understanding of all of these countries. Now I have driven this stretch of road many times and while breathtakingly spectacular, I do not profess to have any expertise on these places. But, this is just another reason and way people travel.

But regardless of how you go about doing it, travel is a wonderfully educational and enlightening experience. It introduces you to new people, places and things. They may be in your own city or state or half a world away from the place you call home. Whether you explore a single city or neighborhood, visit a country in depth or even do a fly-by drive through a place you will leave with new experiences and memories to last you a life time. That is what makes travel so special. So as we enter a new season I'm carrying with me memories of my most recent travel adventures. And I've also found inspiration in those of my friends which has me thinking about next summer's trip. It just might be for three weeks........

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Gardens Of Abbaye de Villers-la-Ville

One of the best things about Belgium is its proximity to some of Europe's great cities and sights. Thanks to its central location, in two hours we can be in Paris or London; Brussels or Amsterdam. It really makes for great trips. But despite all of these world renowned locations we can visit, one of my favorite things to do on weekends is to explore the hidden places that are closer to home; these are the sights that locals know about and whirlwind visitors rarely get to see. These off the beaten path places  have yielded what I think are some of Belgium's best treasures. And one such place is the ruins and gardens of the Abbaye de Villers-la-Ville.

Like many Belgian abbeys, this one dates back to the early 10th Century when a small group of monks established an abbey in the secluded village of Villers and its ensuing history is also similar to other abbeys. It expanded in size and population, endured wars, internal crises and reign changes. By the 13th Century the estate covered over twenty-five thousand acres and was indeed one of the largest ones around. (The power once held by the abbey is still evident in wandering the grounds; in addition to the typical spaces and buildings one would expect, the abbey had their own prison). The abbey was "modernized" over time with mediaeval buildings getting transformed into a more classical style. During the French Revolution the abbey was closed and the surrounding property sold. During the following years the abbey fell into ruins with a small amount of restoration work finally beginning in 1893. It wasn't until close to a century later in 1984, however, that large scale restoration work began.

The remains of the guest house turned brewery

The great room of the guest house
Today visitors can walk through the still expansive grounds visiting the remains of the refectory, church, cloister and chapel as well as the numerous outbuildings that made the abbey a fully functioning city unto itself. The guest house provided space for up to one hundred pilgrims before it was converted into an onsite brewery. Today you can climb the stairs to what is now the roof but was once the second floor of the building and get a bird's eye view of the ruins and grounds. Various workshops, the pharmacy and infirmary, monk's dormitory and the afore mentioned prison are also open for exploring. And let us not forget the church itself as it was and still is the centerpiece of the abbey grounds. The sky is now its ceiling yet it is so easy to imagine how impressive the structure must have been when it was fully standing.

What remains........

Inside the chapel
Giant dill--it was taller than I am 

But by far, my favorite part of the abbey was its two remaining gardens. Gardens played a central role in the functioning of any community and as such were a vital part of abbey life. There was typically a cloister garden, a vegetable garden, a fruit orchard which doubled as the monk's graveyard, and a medicinal plant garden. Today, what is called the square garden and the wild garden remain. The square garden is manicured and filled with neat plants, gurgling fountains, benches for resting and wide pathways making it feel slightly regal and formal. It sits in juxtaposition to a backdrop of decaying ruins giving it a rather medieval and haunted feeling. The adjacent wild garden, however, is just that. The gardens are filed with (purposefully?) overgrown flowers with grasses hiding much of the more narrow paths and benches. And this garden is fragrant with herbs. Scents of lavender, mint and dill fill the air and grape vines, heavy with tart green fruit, hang over the trellises. Although this garden is only separated from the passing road by a brick wall, it feels untouched by modern society as though it is a world away from today. It is a truly tranquil place and I could have sat there forever.

The abbey grounds are the perfect place to spend a few hours walking, picnicking and simply enjoying the day. Paths are well marked, dogs are welcome on much of the grounds and there are plenty of benches and picnic tables for sitting and relaxing. And unlike many ruins we have visited, you can actually explore just about every nook and cranny of the old abbey. And if the winding stone stairs, shady paths and mysterious nooks aren't enough to entertain you, on the day of our visit there were even children's lawn games set up for visitors to partake in. Have you ever wanted to play "throw the ring around the monk"? If so, this is the place for you.

Looking down into the square garden

Looking through the square garden towards the chapel

If you go:
Abbaye de Villers-la-Ville
Moulin Abbatial
Rue de l'Abbaye, 55
1495 Villers-la-Ville BELGIUM
+32 (0)71 88 09 80

Open daily from 10.00-18.00 (April through October) and 10.00-17.00 (November-March)
Closed Tuesdays, Christmas Eve & Christmas Day, New Years Eve & New Years Day
Adults- 6 Euro, children under 6 Free

Monday, July 27, 2015

Phases & Stages

There's been a lot of press in the past week discussing the Maine diner owner who yelled at a misbehaving toddler in her restaurant. Various versions of the story have been all over social media with both the restauranteur and the toddler's mother self rightously defending their actions. There have been conversations of who is right and who is wrong, how children shouldn't be brought to restaurants and how they have just as much right to be there as anyone else. There are those who say that the customer is always right and others who say parents need to control their children and teach them to not disturb others. There are always at least two sides to any story so the reality probably lies some where in between what we are all hearing. On this one though, I'm siding with the diner owner since the mother's self righteous excuse for not removing her crying toddler from the situation--the child was hungry, they had waited too long for the food, the busy diner was already noisy so her child's noise didn't contribute to the din, it was raining outside--just strikes me as whiny and annoying. And I say this as a parent who on more than one occasion has left my food uneaten in order to remove my screaming child from a situation.  But this whole issue makes me think of larger issue--that of the various stages and phases we all go through in our lives and how these changes require us to change and adapt our own behaviors as our circumstances change.

I know that I love the idea of enjoying a long leisurely meal that someone else has cooked for me. And prior to having a child Sunday brunches and over priced dinners at hip restaurants were a regular part of my lifestyle. But now, I recognize that such events simply aren't practical. Do I miss them? Absolutely but they just aren't in the cards right now. The same thing goes for impromptu invitations, sleeping in on weekends and forgoing making dinner because I'm not hungry. When you have children, everything changes and as adults, we simply can't put out wants and desires ahead of those of our children. At least that is how I feel but I know others will disagree with me.

But as this now infamous Maine incident demonstrates, not all parents change their habits when children enter the picture. Rather than growing up and accepting that their circumstances have changed, they continue to live as they always have. They may continue to eat  where they want and go where they please without giving a thought to others. The phrase "child appropriate" never crosses their minds because in their mind, everything is child appropriate. Or even worse, they assume the attitude that their children can do no wrong and that others must simply deal with their (good or bad) behavior. Its enough, well, to make even the most patient person loose their cool.

Would I love to visit art museums when we are in foreign cities? Yes, but I realize that Sidney would be happier visiting a park or a zoo so we limit the museum to a quick morning visit and dedicate the afternoon to an outdoor, kid friendly venue. The same goes for hotels and inns; on-site playgrounds let us know that the littlest of visitors are also welcome. Not having a babysitter means skipping an event or one of us going alone rather than taking Sidney with us to an event to which he wasn't invited. We eat in nice restaurants but go for lunch or when they first open with the hopes of beating the crowds. Sidney is now at the age when this doesn't matte as much but we are still conscious of wait times, whether the menu includes foods he will eat and whether or not it is an environment we can all be comfortable in. If the answer is no to any of these issues, we reconsider. And if at any time the behavior at our table begins to interfere with the enjoyment of others, we immediately remove ourselves from the situation. No one need to tell us to leave and we certainly don't allow actions to bother those around us.

Life moves in cycles and this is simply the stage we are in now. Our time for staying in quaint, antique filled inns, lounging in cafes over steaming lattes or late night visits to wine bars will come again. In the mean time we're discovering that zoos, parks and interactive museums have a lot to offer visitors of all ages. Restaurants that are welcoming to children can serve really good food without the stuffy pretenses found in more formal establishments. But most importantly, we need to enjoy the phase we are in because all too soon it will be gone.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

There's No Fire Here

Religion is one of those hot button issues that can really get people worked up. Because of this, and because we are what I consider to be a non-religious household, I tend to avoid discussing religion with others. For the most part this approached has worked well for me since I simply don't bring the subject up. But as my Facebook pages attests to, my friends cover a broad spectrum of religious beliefs--from the non-believing to the evangelical preachers and everywhere in between. Many times I don't agree with what I see but I simply choose to ignore it since it is highly unlikely that anything I could say would persuade anyone to change their minds. And besides, who am I to try to change anyone's mind? Perhaps it is my generally lack of faith that allows me to take such a cavalier attitude towards religion. I won't proselytize to you about my beliefs and expect you extend the same courtesy to me. (Ironically I was a religion minor in college but I approached the subject as a purely academic exercise where I would question everything with a critical, uninvested interest). And even as a family, when we've had religious beliefs we don't agree with pushed into our faces---we once had American dinner guests who insisted we all join them in a prayer before we began eating--- it has been relatively easy to look the other way. Until now.

Last week Sidney informed me that if you prayed hard enough dead soldiers would no longer be dead. His comment caught me by surprise since we were in the car and I was more focused on the traffic than what he was saying. I asked him to repeat what he said then questioned where he had heard this. He informed me that a boy a camp had told him that this was true and he wanted to pray to bring all of the soldiers back from the dead. Then later in the week on the drive home he began whimpering and told me that he was afraid he was going to burn to death. When I asked him why he thought this, he said (another) child at the playground had told him that he would burn in hell because he didn't go to church. Like it or not, my approach to looking the other way when it comes to religion and religious education was now smacking me in the face.

But I really shouldn't be surprised by this turn of events. After all, the United States is a country that was founded on religious freedom. Or Christian freedom as one elected official recently said on national television. Although I beg to differ on the nuances of this take of the country's founding, it would be hard to argue that we aren't a country where religion is important to many people. Churches are the cornerstones of many communities and our country's youth regularly go abroad as missionaries hoping to spread the word of their faith to people around the globe. Religious organizations work both domestically and internationally to provide needed services and support to those who lack the basics that many of us take for granted. I've sat through community meetings and forums that have been started with Christian prayers and I've worked in government offices where bibles and crosses are accepted, if not encouraged, office decor. And we currently have over an egg carton full of presidential candidates who are trying to out Christian one another in their quest for the Oval Office. As a military family we often feel like the odd family out because we don't wear our (Christian) religious beliefs on our sleeves for the whole world to see. Most recently our base orientation program included information on the Christian religious offerings on base with nary a reference to anything else. All of this in the land that professes to a clear separation of church and state. But we are used to this and will quietly mull over what is said, and what isn't said, between ourselves and leave it at that.

So what did I say to, in my opinion, Sidney's misguided statements? I quickly assured him that that no amount of praying would ever bring any soldier back from the dead and that no, he was not going to burn in hell. Even though I was seething at the thought that someone told my son that he was going to burn to death, I reminded myself that this was another child who said these scathing words to him and it is likely that he was only repeating words that he himself had heard from an adult. I went on to tell him that different people believe different things so the only thing he had to worry about was what he believed and what we believed as a family. We would respect the opinions of other people and if he ever had any questions, he should let us know. Both times he nodded and let it go but I know I've only bought myself a brief reprieve. He will be back with more questions, both his own and those that have been raised by the comments of others and I need to be ready. I'm not sure what he will ask or how I will answer but all of this has me thinking about the different types of religious and moral education and how best to relay our beliefs to Sidney without scaring him or discounting what others believe. Because respecting others is one of our family's firmly held beliefs.

What will I say? I have no idea. But I do know there won't be any threats of flames and the rising of the dead in any of my explanations.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Bring On The Sun(flowers)

What happens when you fill a historic city square with 8,000 live sunflowers? When it is located in a European Capitol of Culture and has been designed as part of an art trail, it is called Sun City. Yes, that is right; for the next week the Grand Place here in Mons is filled with a maze of 8,000 sunflowers or tournesols, as they are called in French. This is just another one of the many free events that are taking place as part of the Mons 2015 celebration. Sun City is the latest cultural event that is celebrating the regions arts scene this year. And like so many of the previous events, this one pays homage to Vincent Van Gogh, one of the more famous residents of Mons. We had already visited an earlier Van Gogh exhibit at the modern art museum so now it was time to wander through a recreation of the sunflower fields that he made so famous.

This field of sunflowers is laid out in an intricate maze allowing visitor to wander through the towering twists and turns right in the center of the city. Before visitors enter the maze they pick up a free pair of headphones which provides a soothing soundtrack for their visit. The next stop is a climb to the top of the Grand Place or in this case, a multi-storied set of risers where visitor can take in a panoramic view of the Grand Place and the sunflower maze below. This was the first time I had viewed the city from this perspective and it was quite impressive. Next we made our way back down the stairs and entered the maze. Along the way we were greeted with row upon row of towering sunflowers in various states of bloom. There were also a few larger than life topiaries tucked into hidden nooks within the maze. Of course this included a giant Vincent Van Gogh head as well as an oversized chair, a giant boot (that looked a lot like the famous LL Bean boot in Freeport, Maine) and a ship. All in all, it was a pretty cool experience.

But pictures always say it better than words so here are a few to give you an idea of what Sun City is really like:

Looking down and across the maze

Hotel de Ville
Up close

Van Gogh; oversized images of his head  made
of various mediums have been
everywhere this year

Peeking through the sunflowers

An ariel view of the Mons Grand Place at night. Photo courtesy of We Love Mons 2015
If you go:

Sun City
Grand Place Mons
Open from 17 to 25 July, from 12.00-20.00 (extended hours on weekends)
Free admission