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Monthly Archives: March 2014

Europe 2014: Reflections

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
Benjamin Franklin

I’m not sure if Benjamin Franklin actually said these words, or if it’s just one of those internet knock-offs, but whoever said it knew what they were talking about. This very much sums up the essence of the entire trip; history is real and tangible and it is through “hands” on experiences that we come to truly understand how these events shape our lives.

So I had pretty much all of this blog done during the flights home from Europe, but unfortunately I lost it all. Too bad…from what I remember it was pretty good! Anyway, this is my attempt to replicate all those thoughts I had put down while in the moment. Hopefully I do it justice.

It’s been roughly a week and a half since we returned from Europe…I can’t believe it’s been that long! Many of us have been in this position before; experience a remarkable journey and then struggle a short time later to recall everything that happened. Thankfully there are many things to jog our memories. This blog is one example. It wasn’t always easy to chronicle the events of each day, especially when you’re exhausted and sleepy, but I’m glad I did it. I know the parents appreciated reading about our adventures though, which made it worthwhile (not to mention the fact that I can look back too). Also, the 1600 photos and nearly 40gb of video I shot will help us to remember.

From a personal point of view, I had an amazing time. Even though I had visited some of the places we saw before, it was still exciting nonetheless. I think I was also feeding off of the excitement of the kids. My exuberance probably stems from my passion for history and my desire to learn more about the past, and I definitely became more enlightened on this journey. It was a great honour for me to lead and be part of this experience.

On the steps of the Vimy Memorial, March 2014.

On the steps of the Vimy Memorial, March 2014.

As I mentioned in previous blogs, things were tempered by the solemnity of parts of the trip. I’ve spent the last few evenings posting photos to Facebook and it really brought me back to those walks through the cemeteries. I wrote a lot about the flood of emotions I experienced on those visits…the mix of pride and immense sadness. It really helps one to understand the sacrifice that was made by this generation of Canadians. Reading the inscriptions on the headstones gives you an insight into the personal pain and anguish felt by the families of those who fell.

Cross of Sacrifice, Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian war Cemetery, march 2014.

Cross of Sacrifice, Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian war Cemetery, march 2014.

Grave of Private Wilson, Beny-sur-Mer, March 2014.

Grave of Private Wilson, Beny-sur-Mer, March 2014.

Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, March 2014.

Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, March 2014.

Grave of Rifleman Adamson, Beny-sur-Mer, March 2014.

Grave of Rifleman Adamson, Beny-sur-Mer, March 2014.

Grave of Private Barrett, Beny-sur-Mer, March 2014.

Grave of Private Barrett, Beny-sur-Mer, March 2014.

If I have any regrets the only one would be the fact that I had to leave the boys behind for 11 days. It certainly does not compare to the sacrifice made by the parents of our war dead, but it was the longest Jo-Anne and I have ever been away from them. They did enjoy the time they spent with the grandparents and the weekday activities at the museum. Maybe we missed them more than they missed us; I know it was particularly hard on Jo-Anne (things are always tougher for moms). It’s good to be back with them though (even with all the spats that siblings experience). I am hoping that we will have the opportunity to take them to Europe to visit all of these places when they are older.

I guess this goes to the philosophy that I (and I assume all teachers) subscribe to; school isn’t always Monday to Friday, 8:00-3:00. There is so much learning that happens outside the classroom, and we as teachers sometimes need to sacrifice a bit of our personal time/lives to make that happen. This is the essence of teaching. Most students will not remember what they learned in the classroom in 10 years, but they will remember the memories they made on the football field, on the stage or in Europe. That makes all the planning, effort and time worth it.

So we’ve already started looking ahead to our next trip to Europe. The 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge is coming up in 2017 and we’d really like to be there for it. I’m sure it will be a fantastic experience for everyone involved, and maybe it won’t pour rain like it did the last time. EF does an awesome job looking after things and the celebrations in 2012 were amazing to be part of. Hopefully we can make it work within the school year since it falls at a rather awkward time before Easter. Fingers crossed!

Alas, it is time to close the book on this journey…but only a little bit. The reality of returning to things like work and family dictate that life must move on. The experience will live on though, as long as we who lived it choose to remember what we saw and did…hopefully memories do last a lifetime! I’ll be back in a few weeks with more of my usual posts. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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Europe 2014 Day 9

If you read the Day 8 post, you know why this is delayed.

Day nine, our last day in Europe 😦 Man, the time has just flown by. I guess as they say that’s what happens when you’re having fun right? We’ll have to make the most of today and enjoy every moment.

So the internet (or as they say here the “wefe”) is still down, so I still cannot post yesterday’s blog. Hopefully it will be working by the time we return today so I can catch up and everyone knows we’re still alive. It’s amazing how we come to depend on it…first world problems right?

Anyway, we will be leaving the hotel at just after 8:00 so we can start a sightseeing tour of Paris. Should be interesting and give us a good sense of the city (well, maybe the kids since I’ve seen it before). Not quite clear on this afternoon’s agenda, but I know a lot of them wanted to go up the Eiffel Tower. Great, more stairs!

Well, I’m sitting here at the north gate of the Hotel des Invalides as the kids work through the museum with Mr. Cappello and Ms. Borgo. Normally I wouldn’t pass up a chance to visit a military museum, but I just wanted to sit for a bit and while I did that I could work on the blog. I figure it’s going to be another late night and I have two blogs to post.

I’m resting in the shade as it is probably well over 20C outside…it is absolutely gorgeous! I’m going to be sad to leave this behind for the snow and cold of Thunder Bay. I do miss the boys though and I guess it is time to head back to realty.

So the day has been great so far. A bus picked us up at the hotel and brought us into the centre of Paris where we met up with our guide for the morning. Corine would take us around the major sites in the city to give us a bit of sense of what Paris is like. We made a few stops along the way, the last of which was at the Place du Trocadero, which gives a good view of the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately there is a lot of pollution in the air, which made the view less than ideal.

Place du Trocadero, March 2014.

Place du Trocadero, March 2014.

Afterwards the bus dropped us off near the Tower. The original plan was for most of the kids to go up the Tower, but the poor visibility and long lines made us change our minds. Instead we would head east toward the Hotel des Invalides, stopping for lunch along the way. Here we would split up, with St. Ignatius remaining at the museum and St. Pats heading toward the Champs des Élysées after a short visit. So here I sit…

Eiffel Tower, March 2014.

Eiffel Tower, March 2014.

Sigh. I’m sitting again, this time outside a perfume museum just north of the Paris Opera. I’m tired…exhausted would probably be a more apt term. It’s been a long day!

So after the Hotel des Invalides, we headed north across the Seine to the Champs des Élysées. The kids had a little time to look around before we were off again, this time to the Opera and a rendezvous with Felicity and the St. Ignatius crew. We walked the short distance to the perfume place and soon we’re off to dinner.

Alexandre III Bridge, March 2014.

Alexandre III Bridge, March 2014.

Paris Flowers, March 2014.

Paris Flowers, March 2014.

I’m beat! My feet are killing me! It has been a very long day. We are waiting for the bus to come and take us back to the hotel. I can’t wait to go there and put my feet up. I’m sad that we leave tomorrow (especially since we have to be on the bus at 7:30), but we’ve had a great trip.

Dinner tonight was at a place called “L’Arlequin Cafe,” which was quite a distance from the Opera. That made for an interesting ride on the Metro in which we were packed into the cars like sardines. Dinner was some sort of beef stew with carrots and potatoes, which was okay. Dessert was fruit salad.

Our night would conclude with a visit to the Louvre, which involved another packed ride on the Metro back in the direction of the Opera. A lot of the kids were excited to visit this fantastic museum. We didn’t have a lot of time, so our little band did the Mona Lisa, Venus di Milo and Hammurabi’s Code.

The Louvre, March 2014.

The Louvre, March 2014.

Hammurabi's Code, March 2014.

Hammurabi’s Code, March 2014.

Anyway, I better go. I need some sleep and morning will come way too soon. The bus leaves at 7:30 for the airport. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 15, 2014 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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Europe 2014 Day 8

My apologies in the delay posting this. The wifi at the hotel was terrible, so I was unable to post this two days ago.

Day eight kids. Sadly we are down to our last few days of the trip. I can’t believe how quickly things have flown by! We’ll have to make the best of our remaining time and savour every memory.

So we’re on our way to Crepon for some Norman culture with a tasting of local juice and sweet breads. I never done something like this so it should be interesting. We will be greeted by the mayor of the village, so it’s almost like we’re VIP’s.

Back on the bus now heading toward Paris, which is about 4 or so hours away. We had a great morning of exploring French culture. In Crepon, we were met by the local mayor who took us on a tour of the village. We saw a monument to the Green Howards, a British regiment that liberated the town on June 6, 1944. From there we visited the local church, done in Romanesque style and dates from the 1200’s.

Saint-Médard-et-Saint-Gildard, Crepon, March 2014.

Saint-Médard-et-Saint-Gildard, Crepon, March 2014.

The last part of our visit to Crepon took place in the town hall, where we sampled the locally produced apple juice, brioche and biscuits. I think the kids enjoyed this part, and they certainly had their fill of food. I must have ate 10 biscuits…they were fantastic! I even spent the 4 euros to buy a package to take home to Canada.

From Crepon we hopped back on the bus for the short drive to Creully for mass. Too bad we didn’t have time to look around as it looked like a very beautiful little town. The church was called St. Martin, which dates from I believe the 1300’s. Again the church very was nice and it was neat to experience mass in another language. Fr. Martin is originally from the Congo and was very grateful for our visit.

St. Martin, Creully, March 2014.

St. Martin, Creully, March 2014.

Wow, what a long day! So I’m standing here on the street in Paris at 11:00, still dressed in my long sleeve shirt. If you remember we’ve been going since 8:00, so the bed is going to feel great, that is when I get this blog done!

I left my iPad back at the hotel, so I’m trying to do this last part on my iPhone, which is rather interesting. I’ll try to describe the very busy but very exciting last part of our day.

After checking in to the hotel, we trudged the relatively short distance to the RER (light rail) station to head into centre of the city. For the teachers (and Felicity) this was going to be an interesting (and at times stressful) experience. We rehearsed staying in our small groups and how to enter/exit the cars and where we were going.

Our journey would take us from the RER to the Metro, which was even more interesting to enter and exit. We made it in one piece and then proceeded to Notre Dame Basilica for a quick visit. The Basilica is such a beautiful church; I wish we had time to go in.

Notre Dame, March 2014.

Notre Dame, March 2014.

Dinner tonight was at a place called “Flammekeuche,” which serves all you can eat pizzas in the Alsacian style. As on our last visit, we were seated in the basement, which resembles at Medieval dungeon. We gorged ourselves on the awesome food, and then ate more when they brought out the dessert pizzas. The meal was highlighted by a man who arrived and sold roses to anyone who wanted one for 2 euros. I bought one for my wife…I hope she liked it.

Alsacian Pizza, March 2014.

Alsacian Pizza, March 2014.

Flammekeuche, March 2014.

Flammekeuche, March 2014.

We had one more stop before we boarded the bus for hotel. Montmartre is the highest point in Paris and has a beautiful church at the top. It was back on the Metro for the ride, which included a transfer between lines. A bit stressful again, but we got to our destination fairly quickly.

You can take the Funicular up the hill, but most of us decided to take the stairs and work off dinner. It is a heart-pounding, leg-destroying 140+ stairs of agony to the top. I was lathered and winded when I got up there, but that was probably because I tried to race with the kids. The view was spectacular, but we didn’t have much time to look around very much.

Sacre-Coeur Basilica, March 2014.

Sacre-Coeur Basilica, March 2014.

Anyway, we’re still waiting for the bus, but I should go. We have an early morning tomorrow for our last day in Europe. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 15, 2014 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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Europe 2014 Day 7

Day 7 is calm and very foggy. Daylight gives us a much better impression of the chateau and its grounds…stunning! I would definitely come back here if given the opportunity. Before breakfast I had a chance to walk around a bit and it was very beautiful with the fog, trees and the small waterfall. I’m interested to see what it is like when the fog lifts. We are really in the heart of Normandy and it is so pretty and idilic here.

So we are about to leave for the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, which is literally five minutes away. We are so close to the beaches it is amazing. This should be a great day of remembering, exploring and discovery.

We’re back on the bus now, making our way past Arromanches toward the American cemetery behind Omaha beach. Beny was probably the most touching yet, mostly because we had a lot of time to look around. The cemetery holds the remains of over of 2000 Canadians who were killed on or in the weeks after D-Day. It also has the unfortunately distinction of having the most number of brothers buried in any Commonwealth cemetery at 9 (but I counted 11).

For the soldier visits, I gave our students all the sets of brothers to research. Jessica, Brenna and I had the 3 Westlake brothers of Toronto, who were killed serving with the Queen’s Own Rifles and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Thomas and Alfred, who were with the Queen’s Own, are buried side by side in the cemetery.

Rflm A. Westlake, March 2014.

Rflm. A. Westlake, March 2014.

Rflm. T. Westlake, March 2014.

Rflm. T. Westlake, March 2014.

Pte. G. Westlake, March 2014.

Pte. G. Westlake, March 2014.

I spent the rest of the time wandering around, reading the headstones and inscriptions. The morning fog provided a surreal atmosphere in the cemetery. As a Canadian I am filled with with pride and honour at the sacrifice of our young men all those years ago. This visit really hit me hard, and as a parent it ripped my heart out to read the inscriptions from mothers and fathers to their children. I cannot even fathom losing one of my boys.

The American cemetery at Omaha beach was an interesting visit. There are over 9,000 US fallen at this site overlooking the beach and is quite massive. I’d never been to an American cemetery before and it has a totally different atmosphere and feel. Even the headstones are very different, though I think that the inscriptions at Commonwealth cemeteries add more of a personal touch.

Omaha Beach Cemetery, March 2014.

Omaha Beach Cemetery, March 2014.

So we’re heading back east now, on our way to Arromanches. This was where Gold Beach was located, along with the British part of the Mulberry Harbour. There is a big museum there with many static outdoor displays of military equipment. This vistas from the cliffs are quite beautiful!

Well, so much for the vistas in Arromanches! The fog is just beginning to lift, so it was hard to see much on the beach. The tide was much farther out than when we were here in 2012, so I was able to walk right down to the Mulberry pieces lying in the sand. It was very neat to be that close.

Mulberry Harbour remains, March 2014.

Mulberry Harbour remains, March 2014.

Lunch was good, though painfully slow. I had waffles with chocolate, white chocolate and whipped cream, while Jo-Anne had crepes. Too bad it took an hour and a half of the two hours we had in the town. I would have liked a little more time to look around and take pictures. Anyway, we’re back on the bus headed toward the Juno Beach Centre.

The visit to the Juno Beach Centre was great, even though I had been there before. Afterwards, we had a little time to look around the on beach, which is officially know as Mike Red Sector, Juno Beach. We then hopped on the bus for the short ride east to Bernieres-sur-Mer. At this location, Nan White Sector, Toronto’s Queen’s Own Rifles landed on June 6. In a matter of 10 minutes the battalion suffered nearly 50% casualties in the dash across the beach. There is a German bunker preserved there and it really gives the students an idea of how far the soldiers had to run to get off the beach.

German bunker at Nan White Sector, Juno Beach, March 2014.

German bunker at Nan White Sector, Juno Beach, March 2014.

We are now on our way back to the chateau; if it wasn’t for the fog it would have been a fantastic day. It was so warm with very little wind and the tides were very low. Dinner will be at 7, so that will give us a little bit of time to look around the grounds and explore the area. I’m not sure what is on the menu for dinner, but I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Well I’m just about out of energy and I think it’s time for bed. Even though we didn’t do a lot of walking, it was certainly a long day and we saw a lot of things. Dinner at the chateau was great and we got a chance to look around the area and get a real sense of what it is like. Tomorrow we have an early morning; a visit to the nearby village of Creuly and then off to mass before we depart for Paris. We probably won’t be checking into the hotel until very late, so it will be another long day.

Chateau du Baffy, March 2014.

Chateau du Baffy, March 2014.

So the next you’ll hear from me I’ll be in Paris and we’ll be on the final leg of the trip. I have to be up at 6:00, so I’m out for now. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2014 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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Europe 2014 Day 6

Good morning Day six! We’re on the bus waiting to leave for Vimy. There is a bit of fog this morning, but mind you it is before 8am and maybe it hasn’t had a chance to burn off. Our journey should take us about an hour and a half. Can’t wait to get there!

So it’s hard to believe that we’ve already arrived at the halfway point of the tour already. Where does time go? It has been an awesome time so far, and there is so much more yet to come. Today is the transition from the WWI part of the tour (Ypres, Arras, Somme and Vimy) to the WWII part (Dieppe and Normandy). Many of the places we will visit are a contrast between tragedy and triumph, the proud moments in our history and the darkest days. In the end we will commemorate it all, and remember those who fell.

We’re back on the bus now on our way to Dieppe. Again it was another amazing visit, and such a huge part of Canadian history. Even though I was at Vimy in 2012, it was still a very emotional event.

We started off at the visitor centre, and then made our way up the ridge to the memorial. It is really something that you cannot describe to ascend that hill and see that amazing sight. The memorial itself is massive and fills one with pride to see this towering tribute to the success and sacrifice of our nation. There is also undeniable sadness, especially when one sees the statute of Mother Canada, her eyes and head down in sorrow.

At the memorial we met Jessica, who is with the Vimy Foundation (which works to educate young Canadians about this part of our history). She did a little ceremony, and then presented us with our with our Vimy Pilgrimage medals, which are given to all young Canadians who visit the memorial). Following this we had a another short prayer service led by Ms. Papich.

We had an appointment to visit the tunnels and trenches at 10:40, so there was a little time to look around the memorial. This is always a time for quiet reflection. I spent a bit of time taking in the Statute of Mother Canada; as I mentioned earlier it always gets me. Maybe now as a parent it takes on a lot more meaning and makes me think of my own boys (we were able to Facetime with them last night). I truly can sympathize with the sorrow of the parents and the nation as a whole; 60,000 Canadians represents a huge sacrifice on the part of an entire generation.

Statute of Mother Canada, March 2014.

Statute of Mother Canada, March 2014.

The tour of the tunnels and trenches was amazing! In 2012 we were able to see the trenches, albeit very rushed and the tunnels were closed. I had seen video of the Grange Tunnel before, but it was something to experience it firsthand. This piece of Canadiana really puts you in the place of the soldiers preparing for battle. Carved into the soft chalk, it allowed supplies to be brought forward safely and sheltered the men before the battle. I can’t wait to watch the video I shot when I get home.

Grange Tunnel, March 2014.

Grange Tunnel, March 2014.

As I just mentioned, we literally had to run through the trenches the last time because of time constraints. This time was much more leisurely, and really allowed to experience what they were like. I shot a lot of video here as well, and I’m sure it will be a lot more detailed than my one from two years ago.

On our way out of the area, we stopped at a German WWI cemetery. I had seen and read that they have a very different feel than the British Commonwealth ones. The Neuville-Saint-Vaast Cemetery contains nearly 45,000 burials, usually with four soldiers to a headstone. The huge number of interments and the rows of crosses stretching on and on really make it much more sombre place. I think it made a big impression on the students.

Neuville-Saint-Vaast German Cemetery, March 2014.

Neuville-Saint-Vaast German Cemetery, March 2014.

It seems as though the sun is trying to poke out now; it has been very foggy this morning and as a result been very chilly. I hope it get warmer and goes up to the 15C or so it was supposed to be, since Dieppe is on the sea and will be a lot winder. Well, I’m going to have a nap for a little bit.

We’re on our way out of Dieppe now. Unfortunately we did not have a lot of time in Dieppe, basically a little of time to wander around on the beach. I think it did give the kids an appreciation of the difficulties faced by the soldiers as they stormed up the beach. The headland cliffs are quite prominent, and the distance across the beach to the town is very far. The tide was much farther out than the last time I was here, and the climb up the beach was very steep. The sun refuses to come out and it is quite windy and cold on the beach. Too bad I don’t have my parka here!

Dieppe beach, March 2014.

Dieppe beach, March 2014.

It’s late now and I’m just getting down to finishing the day’s entry. I’m a bit tired; we’ve travelled very far in a short period of time and saw a lot of things. We are settled in our rooms and the kids are in bed for the night.

So after a drive of a couple hours, we arrived in Caen and turned south toward Falaise. Not quite halfway between the cities, near Cintheaux, lies the Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery. It is one of the two cemeteries in the area (we are going to see Beny-sur-Mer tomorrow) and contains the graves of nearly 2800 Canadians killed in the fighting in the area. We made a special request to visit this cemetery, since it wasn’t originally on our schedule.

This cemetery holds some special significance since it contains the graves of soldiers from the Thunder Bay area, and also graves from those who served in the Lake Superior Regiment. In my Gr. 10 History class I teach my students about the Battle of Verrieres Ridge, which was a very tragic event in Canadian military history, but which remains unknown to many people. In that battle the Black Watch, the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada based in Montreal, was decimated during their portion of the attack on the ridge. Only 20 men survived unscathed from the 325 that began the day.

Like our other cemetery stop, the students were assigned graves to visit. We began with a prayer service at the entrance to the cemetery and then proceeded into the site to view the graves. I assigned myself Major Phil Griffin, who took command of the Black Watch during the battle and was killed leading his men forward. In addition to their own soldier, I gave all the students a special task; they were to visit the grave located at XVI G 11. Buried at this location was Private Gerard Dore, who was killed on July 23, 1944 serving with Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal. He was only 16 years old. I thought that this would help to emphasize the tragedy that is war.

Grave of Maj. Griffin, March 2014.

Grave of Maj. Griffin, March 2014.

Grave of Pte. Dore, March 2014.

Grave of Pte. Dore, March 2014.

After our visit we drove back through Caen and turned northwest toward Colombiers-sur-Seulles and the Chateau du Baffy. It is too bad that we arrived after dark and we really could not see much of the buildings and the grounds as they are sure to be quite amazing! The chateau was constructed in 1735 and served as a German Headquarters during WWII. I’m sure we’ll have a chance to look around tomorrow during the day.

Anyway, I better get rolling…it’s almost midnight here. Tomorrow we are off to the Beny-sur-Mer Cemetery and Juno Beach. It should be a great day and hopefully the sun will come out and warm us up! Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2014 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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Europe 2014 Day 5

Day five is bright and sunny. It is supposed to be very warm again today, with highs around 17C. I am very tired this morning, but that is a long story. I’m looking forward to today’s journey, especially since we’re going to a few places that I’m not as familiar with.

Rolling on the bus now, on our way to Thelus. Once again we are travelling through the countryside and it is really neat to see this part of the country. It’s supposed to take about an hour and a half to get to our destination, so I can relax and enjoy the view.

So we stopped at a neat little memorial, called the Zivy Crater Memorial, which is a crater that was turned into a memorial to the Canadian artillery. It was neat to see this very interesting memorial, especially the design of it. Even better, the stop provided us an opportunity to do some “Norm Christie-ing.” I guess I should explain.

Norm Christie is a Canadian historian that narrated a series of programs of the history of Canada’s wars (WWI-King & Empire, WWII-King & Country, Korea). In the documentaries, Christie often shows the battlefields and while he does that, he finds remains from the war. This includes shrapnel and shrapnel balls, bits of clothing, metal, etc. It is a neat part of the programs.

When we were here in 2012, we jumped into a farmers field to look for objects and found some stuff. Today was no different. On the short little walk to the memorial, I found a shrapnel ball. We looked on the way back, and a St. Ignatius student found one too. Hopefully we’ll have more chances to do this again.

Wow, that was awesome! What a great experience. I would certainly recommend this attraction to anyone; it was worth the 13 Euros to go in.

We broke up into 3 groups to go in to the quarry and I led to first group in. We were given headsets to hear the commentary as well as helmet to protect our heads (especially from the dripping water). The elevator took us down 30 metres into the ground, which amazed me at the depth. The quarry was originally used from the 1400, but was abandoned by the beginning of the 1900’s. New Zealand miners dug new tunnels that linked the various quarries together.

We had a guide that took us around in relatively pitch black, so I used the the video camera in the night shot mode. It gave everything that eery green glow. It was really amazing to see the work that had been done, and how thousands of soldiers had lived in damp cold for quite a while before the Battle of Arras opened on April 9, 1917. There were many artifacts on display that had been found in the tunnels.

Wellington Quarry, March 2014.

Wellington Quarry, March 2014.

So we’ve left Arras and now are on our way to Pozieres, which is located near Albert. This is the site of the Somme battles of 1916. We are going to stop for lunch and then proceed to the Thiepval Memorial, which is a huge Commonwealth Memorial from the Somme. It was so warm that I zipped off the bottoms of my pants…yes, March 10th and I am in shorts and a t-shirt!

We’re now in the city of Albert, having to come to pick up our guide for the afternoon. Lunch was at a great little place called “Le Tommy,” obviously referencing the term for a British soldier in WWI. Our meal was a huge ham, cheese, tomato and lettuce baguette…certainly not a low-carb meal! The restaurant is also part museum, and had a lot of memorabilia and information of the Australian troops who were in Pozieres in 1916.

We’re on our way home now after a very productive day. It’s now getting dark and I think everyone is looking forward to dinner at the hotel. After yesterday’s very long day, I think the earlier end to the day will be very appreciated.

After lunch we picked up our tour guide for the afternoon Lucien in Albert. We then proceeded back toward Pozieres to go to the Thiepval Memorial. I had seen pictures and video of the memorial before and knew it was very large, but nothing could prepare me for what I saw. Situated atop the Thiepval Ridge, the memorial is so large it dominates the surrounding area. It’s massive bulk contains the names of over 72,000 British soldiers who went missing during the Somme battles. A small British and French cemetery is located on the grounds as well.

Thiepval Memorial, March 2014.

Thiepval Memorial, March 2014.

From Thiepval we drove a short ways down the road to the Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. The land the memorial sits on belongs to Canada, so it is manned by young Canadians under the direction of Parks Canada.

It is a very beautifully preserved battlefield, complete with trenches and shell craters. It really gives one a sense of what trench warfare was like. The centrepiece of the park is the statute of the caribou, which is the symbol of the (Royal) Newfoundland Regiment. If you’re not familiar with the story of what happened, the regiment went over the top on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. Within twenty minutes they had been annihilated, suffering some 90% casualties, a tragedy that affected nearly every family on the island.

Newfoundland Memorial, March 2014.

Newfoundland Memorial, March 2014.

Just down the road is another WWI site, which is the Lochnagar Crater. It was formed when the British detonated an underground mine packed with 60,000 pounds of ammonal, which formed a crater nearly 100 metres across and 30 metres deep. It was neat to see and gave us more time to do more “digging” for artifacts.

Lochnagar Crater, March 2014.

Lochnagar Crater, March 2014.

We returned to Albert to drop off Julien and thank him for his time. Our next stop was a little farther away in Cambrai. Felicity knew a local man who is a very passionate amateur WWI historian. In 1998, after 6 years of research, he unearthed a nearly intact British tank that dated from the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. The tank, “Deborah,” was destroyed in action and resulted in the deaths of 5 of her 8 man crew. It was very interesting to see something like that so up close and Philip was such a knowledgeable and enthusiastic speaker.

"Deborah," March 2014.

“Deborah,” March 2014.

So tomorrow is going to be one of the most important days on the tour. In the morning we will be travelling to Vimy Ridge, which is one of our most revered foreign monuments. This time we will have time to take in the tunnels and spend more time on the monument. In the afternoon we’ll make our way to Dieppe and then on to Normandy.

I better get going. Early day tomorrow…we have to be rolling for 7:45. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2014 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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Europe 2014 Day 4

Hello Day four! I had a decent night’s sleep (I felt tired this morning, even though I got at least 7 hours…must have been all the walking) and had a good breakfast. I’m sitting here in the hotel lobby waiting for the kids to come down with all their gear and board the bus. We will be leaving for Bergen at 9:30. After two days of walking, it will be nice to sit for a bit on the bus.

So we’re on the bus on our way to the Bergen cemetery. It is very neat to be driving through the countryside and see a side of the country that you never would. Lots of flat land (the Low Countries, duh) and farms. The aroma of the air really tells you where you are.

Bergen-op-Zoom will be the first cemetery that we visit. It should be very interesting to see their reaction today; the excitement will be replaced with solemnity. I’m not sure what my reaction will be. I know in 2012 the first cemetery we visited was at Dieppe and I was quite emotional. Maybe my reaction will set the tone for the kids. We certainly will talk a little bit out the cemetery before we get there.

So far on the trip the weather has been very cooperative. Yesterday was very sunny and warm…at times too warm. Today the high is supposed to be around 15C, which might feel even warmer than in Amsterdam since we are away from the sea. I certainly feels very warm on the bus!

We are now on our to way to Ypres, which is about 3 hours away. The visit we had to the cemetery was quite emotional. After a brief prayer service at the Cross of Sacrifice, the students proceeded to the soldier’s graves they were assigned. I wish we had more time to spend there, but I think what we had was enough to make an impression. They were very quiet as they left and many (including myself) had tears in their eyes.

Grave of Lt. Mullins, March 2014.

Grave of Lt. Mullins, March 2014.

Grave of L. Cpl Hamilton, March 2014.

Grave of L. Cpl Hamilton, March 2014.

My assigned soldier was Lieutenant Frederick Mullins, who served with the Black Watch, the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada of Montreal. We was killed in action on September 29, 1944. From Saskatchewan, his headstone read “To save his men he faced death, unafraid. May we so face the empty days to come.”

It is always the headstones that get me. As we were leaving, I happened to catch another one that hit me hard. The soldier was a J. Hamilton, who was also from the Black Watch. He was killed on November 1, 1944 and was only 19 years old. His inscription read “In loving memory of our only son. He lives with us in memory and shall for evermore.” As a parent, I have tears in my eyes now.

It is now a quarter past nine and we’re back on the bus heading toward France and our next hotel. What another great day. Ypres was a fantastic place to visit!

It took us only about an hour and a half to drive from the cemetery to Ypres, and the temperature continued to climb as we did. The bus was showing the outside temp at 20C…20C! Holy cow! For a group coming from Thunder Bay, this is like going to the equator. A few weeks ago it was -45 with the wind and now I felt like zipping off my pant bottoms and going around in shorts!

When we arrived in Ypres the first place we went to was the Flanders Fields Museum, which is located in the historic Cloth Hall. The building dates back to the 1400’s, but was unfortunately heavily damaged in the war. It was rebuilt, and now houses this beautiful and informative museum.

After going through the museum, Jo-Anne and had time to wander around the town a bit, especially the Grote Markt (as did everyone else). It really gave us a chance to look around and explore the city. Jo-Anne got some chocolate and found some tea. Down the road was the Menin Gate Memorial, which contains the names of more than 56,000 Commonwealth soldiers who are missing. We were there in 2012, but there was no time to look at the memorial; I had no idea it was that large.

I had a mission while I was there, and I was able to accomplish it. In my teenage years I served in the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment, our local infantry reserve regiment. I have kept in touch with one of my commanders, Major David Ratz. On our last trip he had asked me to photograph the panel listing the soldiers from the 52nd Battalion, which which was the designation for the unit in WWI. I found the panel and took a whole bunch of photos, so I kept my promise.

We walked around a bit more, and bought more chocolate before we met up with the Felicity at 6:00. From there we went back to the memorial in preparation for the 8:00 ceremony. There was a bit of time before it started, so I walked along the Kasteelgracht (Castle Canal) with Felicity until we got to the Ramparts Cemetery. The blooming flowers along the way were great. It is a small cemetery, but very beautiful beside the canal. There are 10 Canadians interred there and I paid my respects.

The Last Post ceremony was very nice and it was great to be there again (it didn’t have the pomp of the 2012 one, but simple). Afterwards we headed back to the Grote Markt and the Den Anker restaurant for dinner. It was an awesome meal of salad, half rotisserie chicken and fries; I was full! The Revelo for desert was perfect 😉

Menin Gate, March 2014.

Menin Gate, March 2014.

So tomorrow were going to be going to the Wellington Quarry in the morning, followed by visits to the Thepval Memorial and Beaumont Hamel Memorial in the afternoon. Should be another awesome day of learning and exploring. On that note, I need to get rolling. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2014 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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Europe 2014 Day 3

Alright, day three. After a pretty decent night of sleep, I am ready to go (I was out like a light at 10). Hopefully the kids are ready too, and that they got some sleep under their belts. It’s bright and sunny this morning, and the high is expected to get up to 14…and there’s no snow!

Wow, what a busy but exciting day. I’m sitting on a bench outside the Anne Frank House freezing my butt on the cold marble as I write this. I’m waiting for everyone to exit the building; we’re supposed to be done by 8:30, but it seems as though they will be a bit longer.

So our day started early, but not too early. Everyone got some rest and were very ready to go in the morning. The hotel had a nice buffet for breakfast with all kinds of meats, bread, cheeses, eggs, yogurt, etc. We were all on the bus by 9:00 so we could start the day’s adventure.

Our first agenda item was going to be a guided bus tour of the city. For this we were joined by local guide Gerwin, who did a fantastic job taking us around the city. He also tried to help us out with our Dutch, which has some interesting pronunciations.

We made our way outside the city and stopped at a local farm that made cheese, particularly gouda cheese. We got to see the process for making cheese, and even got to sample some. This farm also makes clogs, and is one of the few places that still manufactures them in the country. Of course on the way out there was a gift shop, and many of the kids bought clogs, souvenirs and even cheese!

Clogs at the cheese farm, March 2014.

Clogs at the cheese farm, March 2014.

After the bus tour, we took in a beautiful boat tour of the canals. It was an awesome way to see the city, especially all the little places you wouldn’t see when walking. Again it made me appreciate how magnificent this city is…I’d love to come back some day!

Boat tour, March 2014

Boat tour, March 2014

The boat dropped us off right at Waterloo Square (or Waterloo Plein) again, and everyone was given quite a bit of free time to shop and look around a bit. The kids left in their groups, so I got to spend some time with Jo-Anne. We had a bit of a mission, which was to find a Starbucks we had seen on the bus tour earlier that morning. After a bit of walking, we found it near Rembrandt Square (Rembrandt Plein). Jo-Anne got to have her tea fix, while I ate a sandwich and used their free wifi.

Our journey then took us around the square, past the sculptures of Rembrandt’s Night Watch. We grabbed some Hagen-Dazs ice cream, and continued our exploration of the area. We found a little shopping district a short ways away, which was packed with people…quite a claustrophobic experience. After that we slowly made our way back to the Waterloo Plein to rendezvous with the everyone and Felicity.

Amsterdam, March 2014.

Amsterdam, March 2014.

There was another epic march to go to our dinner place, which was an Asian resturant called “Wagamama.” It is very interesting trying to take 48 people through a busy city that is full of traffic and bikes. The bikes are actually an intriguing part of Amsterdam culture. I guess because of the lack of space, the expense of a car and gas, tons of people ride bikes. It’s also an environmental thing. There are set bike lanes everywhere, and you have to really watch out for them (I almost got hit today). Apparently Amsterdam has the highest bike theft rate in the world, which is probably the reason why most people ride those “old school” bikes.

Anyway, so dinner a Wagamama was good. We had four menu items to choose from, so I took the chicken fried rice. The portion was huge, so there was no way I could possibly finish all of it, even after walking for a good part of the day. It really filled me up! I did have room for the ice cream desert though 😉

From Wagamama we had a 1.5k jaunt to our final stop of the day, which was Anne Frank House. This visit was certainly going to make things a bit more sombre and really put a personal touch on the horrors of the Holocaust. I haven’t read her diary, but as a history teacher I am familiar with her story, but it was very eye-opening. It is quite something to see the area where 8 people lived in hiding for two years and how they could not move around during the day. I think I’ll have to get around to reading the book at some point in the future.

We are now back at the hotel, ready to call it a day soon. Tomorrow we leave Amsterdam for Belgium, stopping at Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery on our way to Ypres and then our hotel. I think that this first cemetery visit will be very emotional for many of them. In Ypres we will take in the Menin Gate ceremony at 8:00. It won’t be a lot of walking, but it will be a very long day.

So on that note, I should get rolling. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2014 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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Europe 2014 Day 2

It’s day two kids! Thanks to the wonderful miracle of air travel, coupled with a few hours of back-wrenching contorted “sleep,” it is now Friday. My body still thinks it’s 10:30, but according to my watch it’s 4:30…can’t wait for the jet lag to set in. Not sure how the kids are doing it. Of the ones that I can see from my seat, only a few have attempted some sleep. Oh to be young and have energy!

So we’re nearly across the Atlantic; the in-flight map is showing us just about to pass over Ireland. I’ve been scanning the ground below us for signs of land, but I haven’t seen any yet. Twenty more miles apparently.

With less than two hours of flying time remaining, I would imagine that they will be bringing “breakfast” soon. Oops, I spoke too soon…cue the flight attendants! I wonder what’s for breakfast?

The next big anticipation, well other than our arrival in Frankfurt, is the breaking of dawn. It’s always kinda neat crossing the Atlantic and racing toward the rising sun. I remember it being quite breathtaking two years ago. I think it won’t be the same this time around though, as I am on the opposite side of the plane and it might not look the same. We’ll see soon enough I guess. Anyway, it time to eat.

Night over Europe, March 2014.

Night over Europe, March 2014.

Dawn over Europe, March 2014.

Dawn over Europe, March 2014.

Boy, they really had me going there. I thought for a minute that the one piece of banana bread they just gave us was going to be our entire breakfast. I mean, I’m pretty hungry, there’s no way that will fill me up. Wait, now they’re collecting the garbage and were landing in an hour. By the looks of things, my initial assumption was correct; breakfast was served. Ugh!

Well, we are now safely in Frankfurt, on time and at the gate, ready to go. Even better, we were able to get boarding passes for Tannor and Kellen, so everyone can now get on the flight to Amsterdam. Unfortunately, we now seem to be missing St. Ignatius.

Back in the air now. St. Ignatius did eventually show up and we’re now on our last leg to Amsterdam. I was hoping to post yesterday’s blog while in the airport, but unfortunately the wifi wasn’t cooperating. Oh well, I’ll have to do two posts tonight. I’m not sitting beside my wife for this short flight, which feels funny. Hopefully she’s okay beside Kim and not crushing her hand too bad!

I’m glad we’re on our way; now we just need all the bags to show up and were golden! I’m really starting to feel tired now. Maybe it is the lack of food. Other than our “big” breakfast on the plane, all I’ve had is a fruit bar. Thankfully the attendant just handed me a box with yogurt and some sort of cracker in it. Hold on a second…

Okay, much better now. The box had this cool little folding spoon; I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ll have to try to post a picture of it.

The spoon, March 2014.

The spoon, March 2014.

When we arrive in Amsterdam, we’ll grab our bags then straight to our bus. We can’t check into our hotel yet, so the bags will stay on the bus. I believe we are doing some sort of walking tour today, possibly. I really can’t remember what the plan is for today. Whatever it is, it will be fine. We’re in Europe…the kids are so excited! I guess I am too! The forecast is for 12C and sunny today…heat wave! Wait, I’m wearing convertible pants. Would I be crazy enough to consider shorts?

Wow, that was the shortest flight ever. As soon as they finished with our snack, we started descending. It felt about as long a trip to camp (it was only 350km). Anyway, we’re here and we’re just waiting to get to our gate and then we can get off the plane and out of airports. Look out Amsterdam!

What a busy day! After our pick up at the airport and meeting our Tour Director Felicity and bus driver Peter, we proceeded into Amsterdam and headed toward Waterloo Square. Everyone was given about two hours to look around the market and get some lunch. I never realized what a beautiful city Amsterdam is; the culture and architecture is awesome. We had a great lunch and then made our way to the Jewish Museum.

Amsterdam, March 2014.

Amsterdam, March 2014.

The museum was very interesting to see, a real insight into the history of the Jewish people in Amsterdam. After that, we walked to the Gassin Diamond store, where we saw diamonds being cut, polished and turned into jewelry. Quite a fascinating process!

Our next stop was dinner, which ended up taking us on a 45 minute walking odyssey through the city. It was quite the workout, but it was neat to see a lot of the city. All the canals make the city so interesting!

Dinner was at Cafe de Schutter and it was none too soon for a bunch of hungry, tired travellers. I think it was okay; tomato soup, sausage and mashed potatoes. Desert was apple streudle. There was a bunch of them literally falling asleep afterwards, myself included!

We’re all at our hotel now, exhausted and ready for bed. Tomorrow we have a sightseeing tour in the morning, a boat ride on the canals in the afternoon, then a visit to Anne Frank House and finally a later supper. Going to be a busy day, so I should turn in. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2014 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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Europe 2014 Day 1

Well, I guess you can say we’re on our way…sort of. Let the journey begin!

So we’re here waiting in the airport. We’ve all checked in, did a prayer service and passed through security. I even did an interview on the news…hopefully I sounded okay! Unfortunately, our flight is delayed; there is snow in Toronto and I’m sure the plane is behind schedule there. Hopefully we can get out of Toronto on time tonight and make our connection in Frankfurt okay.

The kids are beyond excited. You can see and feel their anticipation, which is awesome to see. I’m sure this hurry up and wait thing is driving them crazy. It’s driving me crazy. If I we can get to Europe without too many hiccups that would really be great. I’m going to say a little prayer 😉

Bombardier Q400, March 2014.

Bombardier Q400, March 2014.

In the air now; we’re roughly an hour or so behind schedule, but that’s okay. The only thing I just realized is that being on plane and having my iPad in airplane mode disables my Bluetooth keyboard that I just bought. Not the most ideal scenario, but one I can deal with.

One of the “interesting” things about this year’s trip is that I am travelling with my wife. I was frankly shocked when she agreed to come, especially since this is a history trip. The other part of it is that she doesn’t fly very well, especially on this flight which is a turboprop Q400. I’m glad that she’s here though; she doesn’t quite appreciate history like I do, but it will be fun to experience some of the things with her. She’s being a trooper!

The only issue we had was leaving the boys behind. You could see that they were quite sad to see us go. I’m sad too, but not as much as Jo-Anne. Things are always a little different with moms. There were some tears this morning, but I think we’re a little better now (as she crushes my hand reacting to some turbulence). I’ve already received one iMessage from Ethan and I’m sure there’ll be a lot more before we get home.

Well, we’re on the ground in Toronto. It was a bit of hectic process getting off the plane and making our way to our gate. Complicating things, I have a couple of kids who don’t have a boarding pass for our flight to Amsterdam. I want to try to clear that up before we leave. We stood in a line for a while, only to be told to go to our gate and see the customer service there. Typically, there is no one at that counter. So now I have to keep checking back and try to get those passes.

In any case, this is a good opportunity to relax and decompress a bit. The kids were able to get some food, which made them all happy (I guess I forget how hungry teenagers can get). My wife was able to get some tea, which made her happy. Unfortunately I think everyone got a reminder of how “reasonable” the prices for airport food can be. $20 for a salad and drink seems okay right? Anyway, I better go check on that customer service desk.

Okay, we’re back in the air and on time! Everyone is excited to get going…except my wife. There was a bit of hand crushing on the takeoff and I swear my fingers were turning blue. It’s all good now though, and after supper she’ll pop an Ativan and hopefully sleep the rest of the flight away.

Boeing 777, March 2014.

Boeing 777, March 2014.

Unfortunately I was not able to resolve our little boarding pass issue. I talked to the Air Canada service desk, as well as Luftansa. I talked to “Lorne” at EF a whole pile of times and although he was very helpful, there was nothing that could be done. Everyone has assured me that they will be able to print the boarding passes in Frankfurt. All we have to do is get there on time and get through customs fairly quickly. Fingers are crossed! Let’s hope that this is the only hiccup we have.

Dinner is going to be served shortly, so I should sign off. I’ll probably have a few more things to say before I wrap-up this day one entry.

So Dinner was okay; chicken Alfredoish with carrots, green beans and potatoes, some kind of corn coleslaw, bread and brownie. Still hungry though. I guess I should have ate more during the day than an energy bar and a fruit bar…too late now. I’ll survive and I’m sure it will help the diet!

In any case, I should sign off now. It is 1:26 in Frankfurt and we’ll be on the ground in 5 hours, so I need to try and get some sleep. Jo-Anne took her drugs and hopefully she’ll be out soon. Be back on day two!

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2014 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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