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

Thursday, July 16, 2015

City Boy In The Country

Belgian fields and Belgian skies
We're approaching the halfway point of summer this week which begs the question of where or where has summer gone? One minute the school year was winding down and now scouring supply lists and preparing for the next one. But because it is summer, we've also been doing all sorts of summer time activities. There have been trips to zoos and museums, hours upon hours spent upon the playground with friends, story time at the library and sleeping in and hanging out at home. And of course no summer would be complete without camp.

Last summer Sidney attended a wonderful day camp on the coast of Maine. He paddled in the tidal pools of Penobscot Bay, played games I remember playing as a child and made a whole new bunch of American friends. Hesitant at first, he quickly came to love everything about this all American camp and was sad when it ended. So this summer I wanted to find a similar experience for him here in Belgium.

Growing up in a rural area some of my fondest childhood memories were just going outside and playing. This was back in the days before helicopter parenting, overly programmed schedules and the incessant need to have every activity be aligned with the standards of learning. It was a time of free range parenting before the term became a stigmatized phrase. Summers were all about playing in the fresh air, letting out imaginations guide our activities and simply being children. Our backyard was spacious and emptied into a deep woods filled with trees, paths and unlimited opportunities for exploring. Despite our best efforts, I realize how foreign this whole concept in Sidney's world. A large part of that is the result of his immediate surroundings. In Albania out house sat behind a high, barb wire topped concrete wall and lacked any green space. In fact, safe green space was virtually non-existant in our neighborhood. Here in Belgium our front steps empty onto the street and while we have a small walled back garden (or yard), it is just that, small. There is a patio, a patch of grass and ivy and rose covered walls. It is lovely but not exciting to a five year old who has already lost too many balls over the wall. Neighborhood playgrounds provide some opportunities for running and playing as do after school sports, but all of these activities are so clean, orderly and structured.

Getting to camp is scenic
We are in fact raising a little city boy. He can navigate the narrow cobblestone streets of our neighborhood with ease, is cautious when it comes to crossing a street and is a pro at riding public transportation. But take him into the woods and he might as well be in a foreign land. The first time he saw a real expanse of green grass he gazed at it in astonishment and asked if he could walk on it. And this point was driven home earlier this spring when on a light hike through a nature preserve, Sidney took off running through the grasses and low lying branches spanning our paths. Repeatedly he stopped what he was doing to tell us that he was having so much fun exploring, playing solider and running through the woods. He then informed us that we needed to have trees in our own backyard for him to play in. What he was describing to us was what we had both taken for granted growing up yet was such dream for him.

By pure chance it was only a couple of weeks later that I heard about a day camp here in Belgium that sounded intriguing. Located in the Belgian countryside the small camp offered children the opportunity to be children. Campers would play in the woods and fields, learn about baby animals on the adjacent farm and generally spend their days playing. And as a bonus, while the camp leader and a few of the counselors spoke English, most of the day was spent speaking French. It sounded like just what we were looking for. Sidney and I visited one afternoon, both fell in love with what we saw and quickly signed up for a few one week sessions.

The happy camper set for another
rainy and mud filled day
So over the coarse of the past week Sidney has been going to what we have dubbed farm camp. In true Belgian form the weather this week has been cool and damp but armed with galoshes and raincoats, camp is going on. The kids are playing in the woods, watching baby chicks grown and playing in a magnificent tree house. They are "free ranging" in the best sense possible, exploring the world around them and simply being kids. Sidney is coming home covered in mud but declaring each day "the most amazing day ever." He's tired when I pick him up--falling asleep on the ride home each afternoon--but in the morning he bounces right out of bed and is ready to do it all over again.

I do wish the camp was located a bit closer to us as I am spending two hours a day driving him back and forth but I am discovering Belgian villages and countryside that I never knew existed. The rain only seems to be a damper for me since it isn't bothering Sidney one bit. I cringe a bit that we are spending money for him to experience the being a kid that we took for granted outside of our backdoors as children, but times have changed. What hasn't changed, however, is the need for kids to be kids, for them to use their imaginations in their play and to explore to their heart's content. It all makes for an amazing day. And that is simply priceless.