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........