Monday, June 29, 2015

A Respite From The Battlefield: Tea At The Talbot House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Wrapping It All Up

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 22, 2015

Le Cimetiere de Montmarte

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

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

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

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

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

Crypt or cathedral?

Some of the more "modest" burial plots

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 19, 2015

200 Years Ago.......

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you go:

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

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

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

+32 (0)2 385 19 12

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

Monday, June 15, 2015

Exploring The Gardens Of Wallonie: Parc du Chateau d'Attre

Chateau d'Attre 
We've covered a lot of ground since we moved to Belgium; we've visited the far north, south, east and west of Belgium as well as much of the surrounding countries. But as we are continually discovering, there is an amazing trove of places yet to be discovered right in our back yard. So that is what we're doing this summer: in between our larger planned trips, we're taking advantage of free weekends and checking out the sights close to home. First up was this past weekend when we visited Parc du Chateau d'Attre.

Belgium is seemingly covered in chateaux, or castles. Grand in scale and in various states of (dis)repair, many of them are open to the pubic and they make for the perfect place to spend a weekend afternoon. And in that respect, Chateau d'Attre is no different. The exterior of the present day Neo-Classical chateau was commissioned by Count Francois Philippe Draneay d'Hyon van Gomegnies. It was built upon the foundation of the mediaeval castle that had been in his family since 1520. What does make this chateau different, however, are the gardens. Rather than sweeping manicured lawns, the grassy space at Chateau d'Attre is limited to a small back garden and a rather non-descript expanse stretching from the front of the house to the passing roads. But that doesn't mean that there aren't outdoor spaces here. Tucked away behind the house are out buildings, farm land and acres of woods complete with grottos, streams and hidden caves just waiting to be explored. And that is what we did.

Inside the grotto, looking
Visitors are invited to explore the grounds and see such sights as the ruins of the Vignou tower, the 15th century dovecote (bird house), a Swiss chalet, the bathing pavilion, grottos and an artificial cave that inspires visions of mysteries. (The gardens are oh-so Nancy Drew and readers know how much I love this young detective). A well marked path takes you through the woods where you can not only see but explore the afore mentioned ruins. The Vignou tower looks as foreboding as the legend that surrounds it.  Lore says that the tower was once the den of the highwayman Vignou who lured passers-by to his house after which they were never seen again. He later confessed to assassinating 14 people and burning their bodies in his stove. (Locally the name Vignou is still used to refer to someone who is a scoundrel). You can also clamber over a 33 meter stone grotto that was used as a viewing point for annual rabbit hunts.  A Swiss style chalet, long abandoned yet still mostly intact, overlooks a small pond and provides a view of the surrounding grounds. And one must not forget the caves; where a series of small inter-connected caverns invites exploration and imagines to run wild. (I again return to the Nancy Drew reference). A larger pond sits in the center of the gardens and is linked to the crystal clear stream that runs along the parc's boundary. All of these sites are linked together through a series of well laid out paths that are lined with strategically placed benches for resting and contemplating.  It is all so peaceful.

The view from the Swiss chalet
And because we are in rural Belgium, the gardens and grounds are surrounded by farm land filled with grazing cattle and goats. You can catch glimpses of the fields from various points in the garden and you can see them from the passing road where nothing differentiates them from the other fields and farms in the area. You will definitely take brief pause when you pass by the chateau but from the road you would never know the mysteries and gardens hidden behind the main building. It is well worth stopping and taking time to explore. Now that we've visited we know we'll be back. After all, the gardens are right down the road from us and really beg for further exploration.

A peaceful path through the woods

If you do:
Parc du Chateau d'Attre
Avenue du Chateau 8
Attre, Belgium B-7941
 +32 (0)68 45 44 60

Open Sundays and holidays from April to October, 14.00-18.00
July and August open Saturday and Sunday, 13.00-18.00

Adults: 4.50 Euro
Children 6-12, 3.50 Euro

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Floating Gardens Of Hortillonnages

 Sometimes I joke about finding myself my own little cottage to use as my own personal escape. (Ok, maybe I'm really not joking). You know what I'm talking about; a space that is all mine, serves a reprieve from my daily responsibilities and is all mine--nothing particularly fancy but something that is all girly without a Lego, army soldier or beer bottle in sight. I've taken to calling this fantasy spot a "she shed" or the female version of a man cave. They exists; (probably more on the Internet than in real life). I've seen prototypes and dreamed and then, while on a recent day trip with my travel group, I saw exactly what I've been dreaming about. And now I am really hooked. And while these little cottages weren't the main attraction of our destination, I found my little escape amongst the floating gardens of Hortilonnages in the northern French city of Amiens. Our destination was the gardens and canals themselves but while on board a small boat called a "barques a cornet" as we glided through just some of the 65 kilometers of narrow canals surrounding the 300 hectares of gardens, I saw the cottages I've been dreaming about.

A tranquil spot along the
The gardens themselves date back to the Middle Ages when these gardens were cultivated in the fertile grounds along the banks of the Somme River. While they host a smattering of flower beds and blooming trees, the gardens are gardens in the purest sense growing fruits and vegetables that for centuries provided the produce for Amiens. During the 15th century the gardens covered a total area of 1500 hectares and by the mid 1700s was home to a total of 47 distinct gardens. The area was a well defined community in its own right with a leadership hierarchy to enforce rules. Maintaining the gardens was hard and laborious. Adding to the labor intensive nature of farming the land, all of the necessary equipment, from tools to seeds, needed to be carried in by boat, thus storage sheds were built. Despite all of this, gardening plots were coveted and passed down from one generation to the next.

The gardening space has expanded and retracted over the years as the city of Amiens expanded and modern farming, transportation and refrigeration techniques changed the way farms operate. Today, although smaller than in previous decades, the gardens still produce three harvests a year. The recent trend towards organic produce has created a revival for the gardens and the formation of a new association that is working to preserve, maintain and continue the farming culture at Hortillonnages.

Today, visitors can tour the gardens both by boat and on foot. Touring by boat you see the gardens, which during our visit were in the infancy of their growing season. I can only imagine how lush they will be in a couple of months. But the towering trees provided a green canopy which made the entire area feel magical. Ducks and other water fowl swam alongside our boat and peeked out at us from the rushes and canal banks. You never knew what you would find around the next corner; sometimes it was more woods but other times it was garden plots carefully being tended by their caregivers or the small cottages. By foot, the experience is different. Winding paths parallel the canals but you can see the gardens at your own pace taking the time to sit and absorb the nature around you. The only hint that you are in a city is the spire of the Amiens cathedral on the horizon. If I had to use a single word to describe the experience, I would call it enchanting.

The canals meandered peacefully through the gardens. It
was easy to forget that we were in the middle of Amiens.
But my favorite part of course, were the little cottages set amongst the gardens and canal banks. Most cottages were pretty basic, rustic even, looking like one room shanties. The term 'shabby chic' immediately came to mind as a pastel pink house reminiscent of southern Florida sat next to a weathered wooden structure whose yard was filled with plastic bottle art. None appeared to have electricity yet most were obviously well cared for. With the exception of a couple that were accessible by foot bridge, boats were the only way of reaching them. As such, each had their own mooring spot. A few were incredibly well manicured and whimsical and these had me dreaming about the possibilities. We were told that today most of these cottages serve as weekend retreats for local residents.

I know that weekend retreats weren't the original intent of these buildings but I love what they have become. Each has their own individual personality, from manicured to overgrown, whimsical to utilitarian, I could dream about the possibilities of each of them. It made me realize that  don't need a big beach house or mountain retreat; give me a one room house in a peaceful setting and I could be perfectly content. For the moment I am making myself content with my own little quiet corner in our house but with our next move I'm already planning what my she-shed will be like and these cottages in the Hortillonnages gardens are sure to be my inspiration.

From the bright and whimsical
to the manicured and "fancy"

If you go:

Floating Gardens of Hortilonnages
54 Boulevard Beauville
8000 Amiens, France
Open  09.00-12.00 & 13.30-18.00 from 1 April - 31 October
Adults 9.50 Euro, children 4 and up 4.10 Euro, under 4 FREE

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Les Plages du Debarquement de Normandie

Normandy American Cemetery
Humbling. Simply humbling. That is the only way I can describe a visit to the landing beaches on the coast of Normandy, France.  I've watched Band of Brothersand Saving Private Ryan numerous times yet neither film fully prepared me for the experience of walking over these battlefields. June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day, was a day that went down in history and during the long summer of 1944 this stretch of coastline was the scene of some of the most strategically planned yet bloody fighting our country has ever known. Today, seventy years after the fact, these same beaches, villages and fields are both eerily quiet yet filled  by tourists taking the same trek we did. Bunkers and craters mark the battlefields where bombs were once dropped, monuments paying tribute to the soldiers, sailors and airmen who made the ultimate sacrifice sit adjacent to corn fields and grazing cattle  and tastefully organized museums recount all aspects of the battles. American, British and Canadian flags fly alongside French ones in every village and signs and banners thanking the rest of the world for their freedom are as common as stop signs. The entire area pays tribute to their past and reminds us all of the horrors that can ensure should we forget where we have come from.

One could spend weeks if not months visiting and exploring the battlefields, monuments and museums of Normandy. In fact, there are so many historically significant sites in the area that our GPS looked like a field of black dots connected by a few roads. Because this was our first visit and since it was impossible to take it all in over the course of a long weekend, we chose to spend time at a few of the more famous ones along the Normandy coast. I know we missed so many worthy sites (we must go back) but those that we did see moved me in a way that few other places ever have. Nice, enjoyable and fun are not the appropriate words to describe our weekend; moving, humbling and thoughtful are.

Perhaps the best known (to Americans at least) sites are Omaha and Utah Beaches. Today they are flat sandy expanses that mask the horrors that took place seventy years ago. Here the tides ebb and flow quickly, exposing and covering the sands and reminders of the past. We saw a few brave souls swimming in the surf and many more curious waders dipping their toes into the sacred waters. (True to form, we limited ourselves to throwing a few rocks into the water from a craggy perch). There are many places you could start your visit but the Cinema Circulaire in Arromanches provides a moving and comprehensive overview of the landings and battles that took place on the shores below. Set on a hill overlooking the village of Arromanches-les-Baines, and using archival footage displayed on nine high definition screens, the cinema introduces visitors to the story of the landings by Americans at Omaha and Utah Beaches, as well as the Canadian and British landings at Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches and the entire 100 day Battle of Normandy. Both the Musee Memorial Omaha Beach and the Utah Beach Museum house relics, photographs and memorabilia that bring this period alive. Films take you back to 1944 and watching them makes you feel as though you are on the battlefields. Most of all, these museums take the war from a page in history that most of us only learned about in school and personalize it through powerful narratives that bring the battles to life.

But not all of the battle is shown from an Allied perspective. The Batterie allemande de Longues sur Mer has you walking along the remnants of the Atlantic Wall, Germany's defense barrier that protected their troops from attacking armies. Perched atop the cliffs overlooking Omaha and Gold Beaches the bunkers of Longues sur Mer provided German's with a bird's eye view of what was happening on the beachfronts below. Today concrete bunkers in various states of decline, some with their artillery still intact, dot the hills. Visitors are free to climb into and on top of the bunkers and see the same view that the Germans did seventy years ago. We visited on a crystal clear day and the serene views only made the reality of what had occurred here all the more numbing.

A German artillery bunker
And the German perspective of the beach landings

Normandy American Cemetery sitting above Omaha Beach
And last but not least, was our visit to the Normandy American Cemetery. I've visited several military cemeteries in the past, including the hallowed Arlington, but Normandy is in a class by itself. The visitors center provides visitors with a personal introduction to several of the soldiers buried on the cemetery grounds. It is these personal stories, who they were, how they lived, the families the left behind, and how they died that makes the tragedy that much more real. Then there was the cemetery. Set above the very beach where so many of those buried here lost their lives, these 172.5 acres are the final resting places for 9,387 American heros. Included in this number are 45 sets of brothers and four civilians. Marble Latin crosses and Stars of David are laid out in symmetric rows, without regard to date of death, home state or rank, for as far as the eye can see. And despite the throngs of visitors and the Congressional delegation on a fact finding mission (members of the Appropriations Committee) the cemetery had a tranquil feel. A silence hung over the area and we could wander amongst the headstones undisturbed by others. In fact, for much of our walk the only sounds were those of birds chirping and the sea crashing below us. It felt like a fitting final resting place for those whose final moments had been filled with such terror and trauma.


...... and now
Tribute at Omaha Beach
The Navy Memorial at Utah Beach
Like I said, our entire visit was a humbling experience. Today it is so easy for people to complain about what they don't have in life or how difficult they perceive things to be for them. But I challenge them to take a moment to reflect on what they do have and question if their circumstances are really that bad. For just a moment, they should put themselves in the place of the French families who lived under the Nazi occupation. Or perhaps put themselves in the shoes of the young soldiers who stormed one of the beaches or dropped from the air on D-Day. Then think about their own lives. I know I did and I walked away feeling grateful for those who fought these battles. Its humbling; simply humbling.

If you go:

Arromanches Cinema Circulaire 
Arromanches, France
(33) 02 31 06 06 45
Open daily
5 Euro for adults, 4 Euro for children and seniors

Musee Memorial Omaha Beach 
14710 Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer
Normandy, France
(33) 02 31 21 97 44
Open daily
9 Euro for adults, reduced admission for children, seniors and active duty military members

Musee du Debarquement Utah Beach
50480 Sainte du Mont, France
(33) 02 33 71 53 35
Open daily
8 Euro adults, reduced admission for children and seniors

Batterie allemande de Longues sur Mer
Port en Bessin, Bayeax, France
(33) 02 31 21 46 87
Open daily
Free admission; charge for guided tours

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
14710 Colleville-sur-Mer, France
(33) 02 31 51 62 00
Open daily
Free admission

Saturday, June 6, 2015

O' Canada

As a parent I often find myself wondering whether or not I am making the right choices for my son. Some decisions--what's for dinner, whether or not to go to the playground or what to wear are minor ones. Some days (or moments) my decisions might not make him happy but the choices do not have lasting results. Others are a bit trickier--such as discouraging a budding friendship that doesn't seem healthy or encouraging him to try a new sport or activity (I'm looking at you swim lessons). The consequences are not necessarily life altering but do effect him longer than the wrong colored shirt does. But then there are the big ones. These are the choices that are life changing and do stay with you forever. And the big, life changing decision for our household in recent months has been that of school choice since in reality, the decision we make know will effect him for the rest of his life.

Sometimes having multiple options is harder than having none at all. After all, with limited choices you power ahead and make the best of it. Here in Belgium we are fortunate to find ourselves in the situation of having several options when it comes to enrolling Sidney in elementary school. As Americans, the obvious choice might be the American section of the international school on base. It is by far the largest school and the one that most people, regardless of their nationality (with a few exceptions of course), naturally gravitate too. There is also the Belgian option, which is actually two separate options really. We could enroll Sidney in our local commune school where his peers would be all Belgian children or the Belgian section of the international school on base which is a combination of local children whose parents work on base and more adventurous internationals. And then there are the other smaller international sections on base which are hosted by various NATO countries with the intent of educating their own students as well as a handful of students from other countries. (Of course there is also the home schooling option as well but for a variety of reasons, including both my and Sidney's sanity, that really isn't an option). So what is a parent to do?

Making educational decisions for your children is such a personal choice. What works for some doesn't necessarily work for others and vice versa. This isn't a good or bad thing; rather it is simply reality. But as a family we've never been people to blindly follow the crowd and opt for the easy choice, so over the past few months we've been doing a lot of school research. Because of this, the obvious choice wasn't so obvious for us. Blessed/cursed with a November birthday, enrolling Sidney at the American school would place him in kindergarten for the upcoming year. But, having spent the past year and a half at the Belgian kindergarten, he would essentially be repeating this past year's curriculum with the biggest difference being everything being done in English rather than French. Due to his pesky birth date, there is no negotiating his being bumped up to the first grade regardless of his abilities. So the repeated curriculum,  combined with large class sizes and my general unhappiness with the school when it comes to communication, had us exploring the alternatives. All of our other alternatives had him skipping kindergarten and moving right into first grade which raised another set of lasting issues. For us, the curriculum is more important than the grade number, but what would always being the youngest student in his class do to him? Sidney's aptitude for the French language had us exploring Belgian schools. My French ability, while increasing, is still limited making me uncomfortable about my own ability to speak the language with his teachers. But, as parents you put aside your own discomforts and do what is best for your child.

A first look at the Belgian options looked promising with a curriculum that would be both challenging and reinforce his budding French capabilities. Then I discovered the close to home bi-lingual option of the Canadian school on base. The program was bilingual and everyone I spoke with absolutely adored the school and the education their children were receiving. The school has small class sizes (a plus for an easily bored and distracted boy), a curriculum that emphasizes music, art and physical educational (subjects that have been downsized into virtual nonexistence in too many American schools) as well as the traditional subjects. Field trips and experiential learning are a regular part of the academic program. Plus the combination of English and French instruction would allow Sidney to continue learning French while honing his English language understanding. (Never having lived or gone to school in an English speaking community has wrecked havoc on his grammar). The more we learned about the school the more we wanted to be a part of it. So the minute the application process opened up we submitted our application then crossed our fingers and waited.

But because I am one who believes in contingency plans, I continued looking into our options. The waiting list for the British school immediately eliminated it as a possibility so I returned to investigating the Belgian options. With the assistance of Google translate, I toggled between the French and poorly translated English pages and liked what (I think) I saw. The Belgian school looked like a viable option should the Canadian school not work out. Sidney even visited the Belgian school with his kindergarten class and reported back that it "was fun, they had great snacks (waffles of course) and that one kid even spoke English". I was ever gearing myself up to attend a parent orientation. It felt great to have two viable options where we would be happy regardless of the outcome. And then our acceptance letter for the Canadian school arrived.

After we did our happy dance and breathed a sigh of relief, the reality began to sink in. While the rest of his five year-almost six year old peers are entering kindergarten our little boy will be starting first grade this fall. How did this happen? Academically he's up for the task but we are setting the stage for his always being the youngest child in his class. This isn't necessarily a bad thing but combined with his small size, I have to wonder whether he will be at a disadvantage in the years to come. Are we making a mistake? A small part of me wonders, but at the moment the advantages far outweigh any doubts we may have. So we are plowing forward. Communication from the school is flowing in and the planner in me loves the fact we already have both a supply list and the academic calendar for the coming year. As a new student Sidney has been paired with a second grade "school buddy" who will welcome him on the first day of school and show him the ropes. Over the next two years Sidney will truly master the French language and this will stay with him for the rest of his life. He'll make new friends and experience and see things that we never dreamed of when we were his age. And he will also be learning English which will make his inevitable transition back to the United States easier.

Are we making the right decision? We think so but only time will tell. I know it won't be all fun and roses and there will be inevitable bumps in the road. But what I can say with confidence is that I am excited about the opportunities that lie ahead for the next two years. They are opportunities I could only have dreamed about as a student. Sidney may not fully appreciate them at the moment but I hope that some day he does. In the meantime, come August he will be a first grade student at the Canadian school complete with swim lessons in gym class (bonus!), new bi-lingual friends and a moose for a school mascot.

Did I mention that I am excited?

Thursday, June 4, 2015


I travel because I must. I love traveling; whether local or afar travel inspires me and nurtures my soul. For every place I check off of my bucket list, two more get added. I'll never experience every place there is to see, but I'm going to do my best at trying. And I'm not alone:

I whole heartedly agree with all of these quotes.  To see more inspirational travel quotes click here.