Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Ducasse de Mons

Belgians love festivals and the annual festival to end all festivals just concluded a week long run here in Mons.  The Ducasse de Mons, more commonly known as Le Doudou, it is recognized as a Masterpiece of Oral and Tangible Heritage of Humanity.Its history dates back to the Middle Ages and today mixes its origins with a modern day week long party where thousands of people flood the streets of Mons. There are processionals and ceremonies, concerts of classical, military and contemporary music, food and drinks and the spectacle of Saint George taking on the dragon.

The La Ducasse in Mons found its origins in 1349 when the city found itself suffering from the plague. Officials decided to simultaneously parade the shrine of Waltrude from Mons and the shrine of her husband Vincent Madelgarus from Soignes to a meeting place in the village of Casteau. It is said that a miracle happened with their meeting and the plague was eradicated from the area. In 1380 Saint George entered the festival with a reenactment of his slaying of the dragon.  Today these traditions are carried on annually on Trinity Sunday through the reenactment of the processions and the battle between Saint George, representing good and the dragon, representing evil. There is ceremony and costumes with the maneuvering of the shrine up and down Mons' cobblestone streets. And of course the highlight of the festivities is the reenactment of Saint George's battle with the dragon. Good luck is said to come to those who are able to grab the hairs from the whipping tail of the dragon and hundreds of people always take that challenge. From what I have seen, most of the people making a grab for the tail are young men (probably influenced by a beer or two). There is even a smaller and calmer reenactment of the battle with the dragon is held the following Sunday for where children are the participants.

Friends had told us about the festival months before it actually took place. Living in the center of the city we realized that we would have a front seat view of the festivities and thought the festival would be fun. But then American neighbors who have been living in Mons for some time warned us about the perils of living so close to the center of the action. Streets would be blocked off, the noise would be unbearable at times and we had to be prepared to not be able to get our car in and out of our parking area on several occasions since our garage is not only on the parade route but directly across the street from the church where many of the celebrations take place. So we were both warned and prepared.

The dragon
In the days leading up to the first night of celebrations no parking signs started popping up on every street in our neighborhood. Security personnel at SHAPE issued warnings about how to stay safe during the festivities. City maintenance workers took to the street whitewashing over graffiti and power washing the cobblestones. Restaurants and cafes opened their doors and pulled kegs of beer onto the streets. An early Friday afternoon walk through the Grand Place revealed that the party had already begun with music blaring young people drinking and dancing in the midday sun. We wisely decided to not partake in the evening's festivities but perhaps view the Sunday morning parade. All weekend the streets were filled with the sounds of yelling, music and general revelry. Four in the morning was particularly noisy since this was the hour when the bars briefly closed and drunk patrons were pushed out onto the streets. Shortly after the street sweepers would follow in their wake and then the power washers would come by again. And then it would start all over again.

I've seen pictures of the crowds and festivities and am glad we stayed away from most of the events. Perhaps twenty years ago we would have put ourselves in the middle of the festivities. Being older and wiser now, with a small child, we picked our events carefully. We watched the grand finale fireworks from our bedroom windows. They were indeed one of the most spectacular lighting shows I have seen and I was able to enjoy them, without the crowds, while wearing my pajamas. This past Sunday we joined the albeit smaller crowds on the Grand Place for the children's version of St. George and the Dragon. It was still crowded but from his perch on Glenn's shoulder's, Sidney was able to see most of the spectacle. We watched it live on the large screen that was suspended over the plaza.

La Doudou takes place every year so we have two more opportunities to partake in the festivities if we want. Will we? I'm not sure. At the moment the neighborhood still holds the lingering smell of stale beer and urine and I'm not sure I want to put myself and my family in the center of that. On the other hand, it is a well known and spectacular event whose history runs deep. (And as a history nut, I love that aspect of La Doudou). Perhaps our best bet is befriending someone who owns one of those apartments that is truly on the plaza (maybe we should have rented one of those). Or we could brave the crowds on the ground. We have a year to figure it all out.

The "smaller" crowd that we were a part of

Friday, May 29, 2015

Living In A Tourist Town

Come play in Mons
It may have started out slowly, or so it seemed, but Mons 2015 is in full swing. As in the tour busses are coming, the tourists are swarming and I dare say we are living in a Belgian tourist destination. And as a resident, I have to admit that it is all kind of exciting.

Although the construction of the new train station appears to be lagging, things are really picking up around here. The streets are cleaner---workers patrol the streets both day and night with giant vacuum cleaner like apparatuses sucking up trash, leaves and anything that lies in their paths. New restaurants, store fronts and private residences are opening up and public art is everywhere. Formerly drab facades have been splashed with brightly colored paint and pop up exhibits (like the giant inflatable red balls pictured at the left) appear in surprising places. And as someone who spends a lot of time wandering through the neighborhood, I've noticed an increase in signage identifying historic buildings. And much to my surprise the signage is usually tri-lingual with the local French sharing space with Flemish and English. But best of all is the increase in customer service one receives from the shop keepers and waiters. Under the best of circumstances I've found Belgian service workers to be polite if not a bit surly with many not speaking, or at least professing to not, speak any English. Now I have no expectation that anyone should speak English here but upon arriving here I was a bit surprised by how many people didn't speak it. But all of a sudden it would appear that the very same waiters and clerks now speak the language. Like I said, it isn't necessary but is a welcome surprise that makes it easier and more comfortable to go about my business. (Of course my French is also improving so maybe we are really just meeting half way).

And a Grand Place filled with balls
So on any given day, regardless of the weather, I leave my house and come face to face with hoards of map and camera toting tourists.While I don't take the sights of Mons for granted, seeing others stop to take pictures of the buildings around me is making me slow down and appreciate my daily views. And when I do I find myself in slight awe that I am living here in Europe and getting to enjoy all of this on a daily basis. On some level I must look like a local too since I am being approached on a daily basis with inquiries for directions or things to see. My French is still pretty weak but ask me for directions to the Grand Place and I can rattle them off in French with the best of them. But of course it isn't all fun and games.....

Remember the tour busses I mentioned earlier? Well they need to park somewhere and the narrow streets and even more limited on street parking spaces don't afford them a lot of leeway for moving about.  One way streets and sidewalks are being converted into make shift bus parking--both authorized and unauthorized-- and much to my dismay on more than one occasion this has included the no parking zone in front of our gate. Yes, the joys of city living apparently include being blocked into your driveway with no alternative escape route. I guess it is as good of an excuse as any but more than ever it means being flexible and making alternative plans. And regardless of the size of the street, a double decker tour bus is not designed to do K-turns. But they try and the results aren't always pretty.

With the summer season just gearing up the tourists and busses are only going to increase. Mons has a whole slate of fun activities planned for the coming months and I plan on joining the hoards and enjoying them as well. I'll be arriving on foot instead of by bus and will be able to escape to the calmness of my own house when the buzz gets to be too much. But at the end of the day this is all  a lot of fun. After all, how many people can say that they have lived in a fun and increasingly vibrant community with the designation of being a European Capital of Culture? I'm going to enjoy every moment of it while it lasts.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day in Margraten

There was an American and Dutch flag
at the foot of every grave
Today is Memorial Day and as such, we spent yesterday doing what is becoming an annual tradition: attending a ceremony at an United States war cemetery. Last year we were at Flanders Field right here in Belgium. Since then we've visited the American Cemetery in Luxembourg and the hallowed grounds of Normandy so yesterday found us in the Netherlands at the cemetery in Margraten. And while visiting an American war cemetery is a humbling experience any time of the year, being there during a remembrance ceremony is beyond moving. It is a reminder of the sacrifices that have, and continue to be made, by our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in the name of liberty and freedom and it is something that must not be taken lightly. Regardless of how one feels about war, these men (and women) gave their lives so others could enjoy the freedoms we do today. And that was readily apparent when standing in the hilly and tranquil expanse of eastern Netherlands.

While we've visited many cemeteries and attended even more remembrance ceremonies, yesterday's was different. Perhaps it was because with over 8,300 marked graves the cemetery is large. Or maybe it is because World War II is actually recent history and veterans who fought in the War stood among us. Perhaps it is because of the the ongoing gratitude for the liberating army that is still expressed by the Dutch. This gratitude is demonstrated in part through the Dutch (and to a lesser extent German and Belgian) families who have adopted each and every grave. Adopted families care for the graves, visit and leave flowers and in many cases, have developed personal relationships with the families of the deceased who are unable to actually see their loved one's graves in person. Some of the adoptions have been passed down from one generation to the next and a few families have adopted more than one. There is even waiting list is maintained of those people who want to adopt. So actually, I think it was a combination of all of the above factors and then some that made yesterday's ceremony so moving.

The color guard
Dutch and American cadets in formation
The ongoing gratitude of the Dutch was discussed in a Washington Post article this morning. It is a powerful read and having been present at the mentioned ceremony it was all the more moving. Yes there were the typical speeches by politicians but intermingled with those were the personal stories of what the War and the cemetery means to generations of both Americans and Dutch.  It is one thing to read the words in the Post, but hearing Arthur Chotin share his story put a lump in my throat. Here was a 70 year old man whose entire life was shaped by the loss of his father when he was just an infant. And his story was only one poignant moment because there are thousands upon thousands of other stories that were shaped by, and continue to be affected by, the War.

Today, even as our country is in the midst of over a decade of on going war, many people feel distant from the battles that are being fought far from their homes. Perhaps it is too far away, too abstract, or doesn't seem pertinent to one's daily life. But yesterday, standing amongst both Dutch and American citizens I was reminded me yet again that no matter how far away it may be, war isn't a depersonalized abstract concept that only affects others for a brief moment in time. The actions and consequences of all those involved transcends countries and generations.

This is a lesson I share with my five year old son who currently loves to play soldier. I remind him that war isn't a game and has lasting consequences. He has heard me say this time and again and reiterates to me that he is only pretending because "war is scary". So as he stood at attention yesterday listening to Taps, I reminded him of this. And as the final note echoed through the cemetery he turned to me and told me how sad it was that so many soldiers had died. He was right of course but I also took that moment to remind him of the importance of remembering those who have given the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us can enjoy the freedoms we have today. After all of these years Dutch still remember and so should we.

The Dutch Air Force fly over at the conclusion of the ceremony

If you go:
Netherlands American Cemetery
AM Begraafplaats 1
6269 NA Margraten
+31 43 45 82 208
Open daily except for Christmas and New Years Days from 09.00-17.00

Monday, May 11, 2015

Channeling Monet In Giverny

It is probably one of the most peaceful and enchanting places I've visited to date. Tucked away in a tranquil corner of Haute Normandie, the village of Giverny, France was once home to Impressionist artist Claude Monet. It was from here that he drew his inspiration the gardens and ponds made famous through his paintings. And all it took was a single walk through the gardens and around the lily pond depicted in his paintings to understand where his inspiration came from.

Born in Paris in 1840, Claude Monet began painting as a teenager living in the Normandy coastal town of Le Havre. Following military service in Algeria, Monet returns to France where he continues painting and befriends his fellow artists including Pierre-Auguste Renior and Pablo Picasso. His work slowly gains a following and he begins to exhibit and sell his artwork throughout Europe. In 1890 he moves to the town of Giverny which he would use as a home base until his death in 1926. Monet traveled throughout Europe but found much of his inspiration right in his own backyard.

Today visitors to Giverny can tour Monet's house and walk through the numerous gardens which fans of Monet will immediately recognize from his paintings. Walking through the gardens was truly like experiencing a deja vu since it felt as though I was walking through his paintings. With eight children, Monet's green shuttered, pink stucco house was clearly one that was designed to be lived in and that is reflected as you walk through the warren of rooms that his family called home. The large windows of his bedroom offer sweeping views of the gardens below while the kitchen and dining room--my favorite two rooms in the house---are brightly colored and exude a warm and welcoming lived in feeling. It is easy to imagine family and friends gathering in these rooms to share food and ideas. But a visit to Giverny is really about seeing the gardens. Immediately surrounding the house lies the Clos Normand, which is comprised of fruit trees, boxwood hedges and row upon row of brightly blooming flowers. With each look you can see yet another one of Monet's palates reflected in the landscape.

The real star of the show, however, is the water lily ponds and surrounding gardens. While the Clos Nomand is filled with brightly colored blooms, the water garden, across the street tucked away from the house is a pastel dream. The garden has a distinctively Japanese feel with bamboo, peonies, ginkos bibola, Japanese maple trees and a wisteria covered green bridge framing the famed lily pond. This garden is truly enchanting. The flowers fragranced the air without over powering it and a chorus of frogs serenaded visitors from their lily pad filled pond. And even with a good number of visitors sharing the pathways on the day of my visit, the garden was peaceful and it was possible find your own quiet little nook. It is so easy to see how Monet found inspiration there and simply being there inspired me to want to both garden and to paint.

And while you are in Giverny, visit the neighboring Musee des Impressionnismes (Impressionist Museum). This small but well laid out museum features temporary Impressionist exhibits from Paris' Musee d'Orsay. From now through the middle of Edgar Degas after which the exhibit will feature photographs of Monet's gardens.
July the exhibit features the life and works of

If you go:

Fondation Claude Monet
84 Rue Claude Monet
27620 Giverny, France
+33 (0)2 32 51 28 21

Open daily from late March to early November, 09:3-18:00
Adults-10 Euro, students-6.50 Euro, under 7 Free

Musee des Impressionnismes
99 Rue Claude Monet
27620 Giverny, France
+33 (0)2 32 51 94 65

Open daily from late March to early November, 10:00-18:00
Adults- 7 Euro, students- 4.50 Euro, under 7 Free

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Biografias

This week's Wordless Wednesday photograph is actually overflowing with words:

close up of the books

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Volunteer Commitment

Millions of people around the world get up, go to work and get paid for their efforts on a daily basis. And while people in paid positions help make the cogs of the daily grind go around, they don't do it alone. No, just as so many people get paid to work, millions also volunteer their time, energy and skills to complement paid work. In fact, so many organizations in our communities simply wouldn't be possible if it wasn't for volunteer efforts.

The tradition of volunteerism is really a way of life in America. So much so that a few years ago when I was asked to give a talk on "America" to high school students in Albania, my topic was volunteering. First some facts: in 2013, a total of 62.6 million Americans volunteered their time. This means that 25.4% of Americans give freely of their time each year. Their unpaid efforts annually equate to 7.7 billion man hours valued at $173 billion dollars. Imagine if all of these volunteers got paid in cash for their efforts. But these are simply statistics; what does all of this mean to each of us on a daily basis?

All I have to do is look around my own little military community and I see volunteers everywhere. There are parents volunteering in their children's classrooms, native English speakers running language groups so others can improve their language skills and pet lovers dedicating their time to local shelters. There are people volunteering to teach crafts, to organize trips, men and women leading scout troops and others yet collecting donations for orphanages. And lets not forget all of the youth sports programs that are the mainstay of after school activities for children everywhere. The coaches are all volunteers and as one of them, I can tell you both the importance of giving of my time and the real time it takes to make each practice a positive experience for everyone involved. As is the case with most volunteer activities you can't just show up and expect things to go smoothly; it takes pre-planning and organization for a practice to go off without a hitch.

All of this unpaid volunteer time is actually like....well....paid work. And for me, there lies the catch. I know first hand that volunteering takes time and it take commitment but all I ask is that if you are one of the people who steps forward to volunteer, you give it your all. Its as simple as that. People volunteer for a variety of reasons and I applaud them all. After all, for whatever reason they have decided that they want to give of themselves and give back to their community. And I know there are times when I have too much going on to step forward to volunteer so when that is the case, I keep my hand down and don't. But when I do, I view it as a job. That means being committed to the activity, showing up when I say I will and being mentally as well as physically present when required. Just as with paid employment, some days this is easier to do than others but slacking simply isn't an option. If only everyone felt this way.

In following with my theme of youth sports, when we sign up as volunteer coaches we are making a promise to our young players that we will be there. And at an age when youth athletics is as much about sportsmanship and skills that carry into life off of the field as it is about learning the intricacies of the game, keeping our promises is important. As a coach repeatedly canceling practices or simply not showing up is sending the wrong message. Would a volunteer behave this way if they were getting paid? Probably not; but then again, maybe they would.

Volunteers do help make the world go around but if we step forward to volunteer we need to be committed to our efforts. Anything else is simply unacceptable. Don't you agree?