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Europe 2019 Reflections

History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are but, more importantly, what they must be-John Henrik Clarke

Every time I return from a school trip to Europe, I often like to reflect on the impact it has had on everyone involved, students and teachers alike. I cannot help but think it has changed all of our lives, like any experience such as this would. Most of it was good, but I’m sure the negatives have only served to make us better. Not everyone has the opportunity to visit the places we did, so I must count ourselves lucky.

Hey kids! I can’t believe it’s been a week since we’ve been back; man, does time ever fly by! I’m still a little tired, but this being my fourth trip I already know it takes a bit of time for your body to readjust. As you probably read, these aren’t leisurely, let’s sit on the beach and get some sun vacations. Oh, no. They are extremely hectic, and at times very stressful as we gallivanted across western Europe. When you think about it, we visited 4 countries in 8 days, covered more than 1600 kilometres and stayed in 5 different hotels. It’s exhausting just thinking about it!

All that being said, it was well worth it. You might think, “but you’ve already seen most of these places already Dave, doesn’t it get mundane?” Well, it could I guess. Obviously, we did visit a couple new cities, Berlin and Groesbeek, but the rest was the same. If it doesn’t sound weird, I don’t find it boring. I’ve been to Amsterdam three times now, and Ypres, Vimy, Normandy and Paris four, and everytime I manage to see something unique. I’ve never stayed in the same hotel and maybe because we’ve have different tour directors, I always manage to get a slightly perspective.

I think there’s more to it thought. These places have so much to offer and to see, that it’s impossible to do it all in a few short visits. Maybe I’m biased. I love some of these places so much…I can’t get enough of Amsterdam, Ypres and Normandy. I want to go back in the future, outside of an EF Tour, probably when I retire, so I can take my time and see things at a bit more leisurely pace. It was a conversation I had with my colleague, Clare, as we walked the streets of Ypres and Saint Aubin-sur-Mer. I suggested that we could go together if our spouses weren’t interested. Ironically, we travelled together many moons ago, back in 1992 on our school’s first EF tour to Europe.

Temple of Apollo in Dephi, Greece, March 1992.

I always get asked what is the most memorable moment of the trip, which I struggle to answer. That might seem like a cop out, but I truly have a hard time picking one thing that stands out; that is usually easier with the bad stuff. Anyway, get to the point Dave. So, memorable moment. Can I take two? Technically it is one, but it’s my blog, so I can do whatever I want. First I’d have to say the visit to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. This is the first tour that included a visit to one of these stark reminders of the Holocaust and it was not a comfortable one. While not as well known as places such as Dachau or Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen was one of the earliest camps to be established and was home to many political prisoners. It was difficult seeing the gas chamber and the crematorium ovens. The miserable weather added to the sombre mood.

The other memorable moment was the train ride from Berlin to Apeldoorn. I, probably most of the group, have never been on a train ride that long. It was a great way to travel; few stops, quick and lots of room to move around. Besides the experience, I’ll remember it as the moment that the kids began to gel on the trip. It always takes a few days for the two groups to begin to mesh, and it’s great to see new friendships blossoming.

Alright, the bad. So what was bad Dave? Well, two things in particular if you’d like to know. The first is the most obvious; the weather. The fricken weather! I did write about it during the trip, but it’s worth repeating. Other than the pouring rain at Vimy 2012, this was by far the worst temperatures and conditions we’ve had to deal with. There’s not much we can do but roll with it, but it does generate a lot of frustration. In retrospect it could have been worse, like raining the whole time, but it was enough to dampen our spirits quite a bit.

The other big issue was the flights. I guess we were lucky in the past with no major problems, so maybe we were due. We were very tight with all of our connecting flights and had to run to the gate each time. Not only is that crazy, but it generates a lot of stress; if you haven’t noticed, I have no hair to lose and what is left is mostly gray. I already told EF we’d like more of a buffer at least between when we land in Toronto and our international departure, so that is one less thing to worry about.

One thing I did notice about this trip is that we did a bit less walking. On previous trips I remember more forced marches and put on a lot more miles. This time I did make a note to see how far we actually did walk. So thanks to the marvel of modern technology, I checked the health stats on my phone. Adding up the numbers, from March 10 to March 17, my phone recorded 86.4km of walking and 123,788 steps. The busiest day was on the 17th, with 17.1km and 24,629 steps. That’s a lot of walking! And if I feel we did less this time, I can’t imagine what we’ve done in the past.

So where do we go from here? Well, the planning has already started for Europe 2021. No rest for the wicked right? Either that or I’m a sucker for punishment. Whatever the case, we’re going back. Where to this time Dave? Since we’ve done northwest Europe the last four tours, I figure it’s time to go somewhere else. How’s sunny Italy sound? Works for me! EF has a couple history-themed Italy tours; we’re going to do WWII and the Liberation of Italy. It will take us first to Rome, where we’ll explore the Vatican, the Colosseum and the Spanish Steps. There’s a day trip to Anzio, followed by a journey to Ortona after stopping in Monte Cassino. We head north from there, to Rimini, San Marino and Florence before returning to Rome. We have just submitted the paperwork, but I’m already excited. In the meantime, you can check out a few of our videos from the trip posted below.

Alright, it’s time to go. I’ll be taking a break on the posts, so I won’t be back until sometime in April with my usual themed rantings. Until then…

 

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2019 in History, Travel

 

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Europe 2019 Day 6

Morning Kids? So, Dave is feeling rather ambivalent today; did I get enough sleep or is my body just playing games with me? Hmmmmmmm. It was definitely not as good as the night before. I am clearly not as adept as my roomie at falling sleep, who seems to be out the moment his head hits the pillow. And then the cacophony starts. Ugh. Do you ever find yourself so frustrated that you’re torn between crying and physically wanting to harm someone? Those thoughts may have crossed my mind during the several conscious periods I had during the night. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone!

So, today’s agenda. Well, I’m just sitting here by my lonesome in the lobby waiting for breakfast. The bus departs at 830, leaving Amsterdam and the Netherlands behind for Belgium. Our travels today will take us to Ypres, the site of numerous epic battles during WWI. Obviously the most important are the Second Battle of Ypres, fought in April-May, 1915 and the Third Battle of Ypres, more precisely the Battle of Passchedaele, fought in November 1917 (or at least the Canadian part was). We will be commemorating those and other events at the St. Julien Memorial and the Menin Gate Memorial.

“🎶On the road again…” And hey guess what? It’s bright, sunny and +15C outside. Haha! Ya, okay; if you fell for that you’re a sucker. It’s once again rainy, damp, windy and cold (7C feels like -2). It’s supposed to be 10/11C in Ypres, but depending on what forecast you look at, the rain or showers are expected to last until early or late afternoon. Hopefully it’s sooner than later and we have a chance to enjoy Ypres out of the rain.

I haven’t mentioned yet that I love Ypres too. This will be my fourth visit to the historic city and I can’t get enough. The history, the people, the architecture…it’s all amazing and why I’m enamoured with it. Ypres dates back to the 1300s, and was a prominent city in Flanders, particularly with regard to banking and textiles. One of the most famous buildings in the city, the Cloth Hall, is a lasting symbol of that. Sadly, it (with the exception of its exterior walls) and many other structures were destroyed during the fighting in WWI. They were rebuilt, restoring the city to its former glory. The central square, the Grote Markt, the ramparts and the Menin Gate all form quite an impressive experience.

Okay, so we’re back on the road, 120km from Ypres. I managed to get in a good nap before we had a break at a truck stop just west of Antwerp. By law, European bus/truck drivers have to stop for 30 minutes every 2/2.5 hours. Therefore, the travel plazas are amazing; this one had a Texaco station, a Starbucks, Burger King and huge convenience store. After taking advantage of the facilities, we all stocked up on food and goodies for the last part of the trip. Now we’re eating, sharing and chatting, hoping that the weather improves for Ypres.

Rainy drive, March 2019.

Interesting European flavours, March 2019.

I must say, not to hark on it, because I never do, that this is the worst weather I’ve encountered on an EF trip. It could be that we were spoiled on previous trips, like the last one which was hot and dry. That being said, usually the rain lasts a day or two then clears out. However, this has been day after day; you can see it clearly on the system maps. The jet stream is cutting across Europe, and the weather above it is unsettled and below is awesome. I blame climate change, but then I usually do.

Alright, so I’m sitting here in the lobby of the Cloth Hall, the Flanders Fields Museum, waiting for everyone to finish their visit. Our first stop upon reaching the Ypres area was the St. Julien Memorial (Sint-Juliaan). The memorial, a statue, is known as the Brooding Soldier and marks the first Canadian action in WWI at the Second Battle of Ypres. Here, near St. Julien, the Canadians fought a desperate 3-day battle against the Germans to hold back a massive attack which included the first use of poison gas in war. It was rainy and very windy, but we managed a quick prayer and a group photo.

St. Julien Memorial. March 2019.

St. Julien Memorial. March 2019.

St. Julien Memorial. March 2019.

St. Julien Memorial. March 2019.

The museum is a very interesting place to visit, and the kids really enjoyed it. There is a lot information about WWI and many artifacts from the area. I’ve been there before, so I moved fairly quickly through it. I also had an ulterior motive; I wanted to walk the ramparts of the city to the southern, or Lillie Gate. The best was that the sun came out…halle fricken lujah! I was starting to feel a bit like a mushroom with all the rain. The best part was that the winds calmed, and it was actually quite nice out.

Ypres, March 2019.

Flanders Fields Museum, March 2019.

I’ve done the trek to the Ramparts Lillie Cemetery before, and it a beautiful walk along the treed rampart. It took just over 10 minutes to get there from museum, and the kids I had in tow, Liam M from our school, and Beth, Sarah, Nick and Brodie from St. Ignatius, were glad they came. The cemetery is small and quaint, maybe 50 graves, but very beautifully built in the ramparts just west of the Lillie Gate alongside the canal. The sun shining through the clouds added a warm and fitting touch to the scene.

Ramparts Lillie Cemetery, March 2019.

Ramparts Lillie Cemetery, March 2019.

Ramparts Lillie Cemetery, March 2019.

We had to be back at the Grote Markt for 5:00 as we were going into one of the local shops to purchase some great Belgian chocolates. The shop is called Leonidas, and I’m sure they give EF something for bringing all the tour groups through. I’ve been there each time I’ve visited Ypres, and the owner has the same pitch and mannerisms. He reminds me of the Shamwow guy!

Ypres, March 2019.

Ypres, March 2019.

Ypres, March 2019.

Ypres, March 2019.

Dinner was at a restaurant called “De Trompet.” Lasagna was on the menu, but the roast chicken the British group who were also there eating looked better to me. It was okay, but you can’t serve an Italian lasagna at a Belgian restaurant. That’s kinda like sacrilege. The ice cream dessert was on point though.

Our last thing for the day was the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. I’ve described this in previous years, but for the sake of clarity, it’s worth repeating. The gate was completed in 1928 as a memorial to the tens of thousands of Commonwealth missing in the Ypres Salient. It is massive, but when they started engraving the names on the memorial, they realized there wasn’t going to be enough room. They managed to get nearly 55,000 names on the panels up to August 1917; the rest are commemorated at Tyne Cot. Anyway, since it opened, with the exception of WWII, they have a daily Last Post ceremony at 8:00.

I hustled ahead of the group to get the spot I wanted to record the event, but a couple beat me to it. I had to settle for standing beside them for nearly 45 minutes until it began. It always amazes me how touching it is for just a 10 minute ceremony, but it proves just a small thing like this goes a long way in helping people remember such a sad and tragic event in our history.

Menin Gate, March 2019.

Now we’re on the bus for a 60km drive to our hotel located in France, just north of Vimy Ridge and Arras. I don’t feel too bad, but I am tired. It’s been a long day, even though part of it was just sitting. We’re only here for a night, and tomorrow we’ll be leaving for Normandy, stopping first at Vimy Ridge, which is only 30 minutes away. From there we will head to Beaumont Hamel, and then another 4 drive to the next hotel in Caen.

Anyway, I going to get rolling as it is late and we have another early morning. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2019 in History, Travel

 

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Vimy 2017-Reflections

The challenge of history is to recover the past and introduce it to the present-David Thelen

Do you ever wonder how these quotes become famous quotes? Do people set out to generate them, or are there people sitting around waiting for them to be said? Is there a committee that decides what is or isn’t a good quote? Who votes on them…is there a quotes academy? Okay, okay, I’m obviously being very facetious. The whole point of the quote from Thelen, who is an American History professor (I had to Google it), is that teaching history is not easy. One of the best ways to do it, is to have people experience it firsthand.

Well, it’s hard to believe that it has already been a week and a half since we returned from the trip. But I guess time moves just as fast when you’re not on a trip as it does when you are. We were very busy on the trip and it’s been even crazier now trying to catch up on everything while we were away. I’ve never missed 7 days of work before and I sure paid for it. There was a whole stack of marking I needed to get through, especially since midterm marks were due. I’m mostly caught up now, but I’m glad I hopefully won’t be missing that much school again in the future.

My return to real life and work was made that much more challenging by how jet lagged and exhausted I felt when we returned. I know, I know, poor me! I did get the gears from a lot of people who read this blog during the trip and asked me about how tired I was. How tired were you Dave? Really tired? The reality is I was tired…that’s why I wrote it. Duh. I realize I was in Europe and not at work, but these excursions are not your run-of-the-mill let’s jump on a plane and see some stuff type of vacation. First, I am the group leader and ultimately responsible for the 23 students we had with us. That is a tad bit stressful; when you’re teaching, the kids go home to their parents at the end of the day and you’re not on duty 24/7. Secondly, these trips are very busy and they try to pack in as many things as they can. So ya, I was up some days at 0500 and getting to bed, albeit because I was working on this blog, after midnight. I did try to nap some on the bus, but I like to see some of the sights and don’t want to sleep it all away.

In any case, it was a great trip. The kids really enjoyed themselves and hopefully learned a lot more about the history and culture of the world. I can honestly say, even though this was my third trip, that I learned a lot too. Even though the three trips were relatively similar, and there were some repetitive things, you experience new stuff. Amsterdam and Paris are so big, that there is so much still to discover. Besides those two places, we’ve never stayed in the same city twice, which is amazing. I have now seen Rouen, Amiens, Valenciennes, Colombiers-sur-Seulles, Lille and Honfleur. Each has it’s unique features, architecture, history and culture. In my personal opinion, while Paris is an amazing city, I much prefer the those smaller cities for their distinct charm and character. Maybe someday I’ll be able to explore them at a much more leisurely pace.

The whole crew in Honfleur, April 2017.

One of the things people often ask me is what was my most memorable memory or moment from the trip. That is always a difficult question, as there are so many. If I have to pick something, I would have to say it’s not one thing in particular, but rather watching the reactions of the kids. I mentioned before it’s a huge step for many of them, and for most their first experience with European culture. It’s akin to what I’ve experienced with my own kids, just they’re not mine…that sense of awe and wonder. It’s heartening to hear them talk about coming back and exploring more of the great places we visited. I was also blessed to be able to travel with a great group of chaperones, who shared my excitement and my stresses. I’m already looking forward to our next adventure! Our EF Tour Director, Jason, was the icing on the cake. His professionalism, easy-going manner and silky-smooth commentary put everyone at ease. The kids loved him and still talk about how great he was.

St. Patrick crew, April 2017.

So what about the bad Dave? I guess I can say there was really only one bad experience that I had. I thought the whole Vimy commemoration was good, though as I already described, more festive than I anticipated, especially compared to the 95th anniversary. I guess that will happen when there’s 25,000 people and lots of VIPs there. I thought the early part of the day was well planned and went very smoothly, but not the second half. I don’t think they (they being Veterans Affairs Canada, who were in charge of the event) anticipated the impact of having so many people squished into such a small area would mean.

In retrospect, we did have it easier than some groups, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. It only took us about 1.5 hours to get through the line to the shuttle buses, but no one thought to put any facilities in the assembly areas (or at least ours in Lens) so people could go to the bathroom. The poor employees at the MacDonald’s beside the parking lot must have had a rough day. At the memorial, I thought there should have been people directing traffic and making sure some areas did not get too congested. The fenced in area on the front side of the monument became so packed you could not move, and there were nowhere enough toilets for all the people (I tried going at one point, but couldn’t find the end of the line). Many stopped drinking water, which was not a good thing on such a warm day, so they wouldn’t have to go (myself included).

The exfil (to use the military term for exfiltration) from the site was an absolute gong show. People near the front began streaming up and over the monument to get out, while those at the back, including us, were trapped because they would not open gate to the main entrance. It seems as though transporting some of the minor VIPs took precedence over the thousands of people who had been baking in the sun for hours. Someone or some people broke down a portion of the fence and there was a mad rush for the opening. It was utter pandemonium! It was fortunate no one was trampled, but it was a nightmare trying to keep the group together. The scary part was realizing, as we surged along with the crowd, that we were walking through a part of the site that is off-limits due to UXO. Yes, people (myself included) were walking through fields with unexploded munitions in them! They don’t even cut the grass in those areas, but rather use goats to keep the vegetation down due to their lower ground pressure.

Thankfully we had told the kids where to go to catch the shuttle back to the assembly areas. It was insane, but we managed to get most of the kids rounded up in one big group, with one chaperone and a few students slightly separated. Getting on the shuttle created a lot of anxiety and some tears, but by 2030 we were all on our bus, Big Green, and heading back to Lille. We didn’t find out until later that it took some groups until midnight to make it back to the assembly areas. That’s nuts! Anyway, we got everyone out and I don’t think we’ll be involved in an event like that again. But it will be something that we all remember for the rest of our lives. Alright, so that was only four paragraphs of ranting!

From a personal perspective, my only issue, as it always has been, is leaving my family behind. I know my boys missed me, and it does put a lot on my wife, especially since I was gone for 11 days. I certainly appreciate everything she did during that time. If there is one positive to my absence, it has generated a lot of interest in the boys to see these places as well. I have promised them I will take them on a tour when they get to St. Pats.

All griping aside, I would do it all again in a heartbeat. While the Vimy ceremony wasn’t as solemn as I anticipated, there were many opportunities for us to have an intimate view of history. The place that probably generated the most reflection and emotion was the Bretteville-sur-Laize Cemetery in Cintheaux, south of Caen. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we were relatively alone there, as opposed to the tens or even hundreds of people at the other places we visited. When it touches close and becomes personal, the impact of the history is much greater.

Newfoundland Memorial, Beaumont Hamel, April 2017.

Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery, April 2017.

Now speaking of which, we are planning to do it all again, hopefully in two years. We would like to change it up a bit, maybe see a few new places in the process. We’ve submitted our application to go during March break of 2019, but haven’t settled on an exact tour yet. One option would take us to Berlin, some different parts of the Netherlands and then Vimy, Normandy and Paris. The second is a complete break, focusing on the Italian battlefields. We’re leaning towards one, but we’ll make a final decision once the paperwork is (hopefully) approved. Wherever we go, it will be an amazing experience for the kids just like every other trip.

Anyway, it’s time to wrap this up. Now that things are getting back to normal, I’ll be back with my usual blog posts soon enough. Until then…

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2017 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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Vimy 2017 Day 4

Oy vey. It’s a sleepy morning today kids. I did not have a very good sleep last night. I’m not sure how much sleep I actually got, but it wasn’t much. I really feel like I’m running on fumes. In any case, I’m a big boy, so I’ll have to suck it up and get in my rear in gear. Today we’re leaving our hotel and heading first to Anne Frank House for a short visit. I’ll check in again once we’re back on the bus.

Amsterdam selfies, April 2017.

Amsterdam canal, April 2017.

Okay, so we’re back on the bus. A visit to the Anne Frank House is something one does not easily forget. It certainly puts a real human face on the price of conflict and in particular hatred. All of the kids are familiar with the story of Anne Frank and they were all very quiet as they left. No one should ever forget war, but particularly instances of genocide than have left an indelible mark on history. Fittingly, there’s a beautiful church next to Anne Frank House, the Westerkerk. It would have been nice to go inside and say a little prayer; the incongruity wasn’t lost on me. A Catholic, in a Dutch Reform Church praying for those lost in the Holocaust.

Westerkerk, April 2017.

So we’re on the road now, heading toward Belgium and the Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery outside of Passchendaele. I guess it has been and will be an emotional day for the kids. First Anne Frank, and now their first cemetery. Tyne Cot is a very large cemetery, larger than most. Many of the Commonwealth cemeteries from WWI were created were the men were initially buried, so there are many small cemeteries scattered around a wide area. This is what makes Tyne Cot and it’s 11,000 burials so unique.

In addition to the graves, there are many names (over 33,000 in fact) recognized on the Tyne Cot Memorial. The Commonwealth Graves Commission, which oversees all of these cemeteries, originally intended the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres to hold the names of all the missing in the area. Unfortunately, when they began to add the names, they realized it would not be able to contain the vast number of names of the missing. They used an arbitrary cut-off date of August 15, 1917; everyone after that date would be remembered at a memorial at the Tyne Cot Cemetery.

After a stop for lunch, we are back on the road. I feel much better now that I have some food in my belly. You won’t believe where some of the kids ate at. We’re currently passing through the Belgian city of Antwerp. I really wish I could see more of Belgium; it looks like such a beautiful country. I love the countryside, with the rolling hills, farms and gorgeous scenery. It will take us another 1.5 hours to reach Tyne Cot, so I think I’ll just sit back and enjoy the view.

McDoanld’s, Belgian-Dutch border, April 2017.

Whew, back on the bus. What a busy last few hours of the day. The visit to Tyne Cot was solemn and everything we expected. I think it made a big impression on the kids, none whom I imagine have ever been to a military cemetery. After a brief prayer service, the students visited the graves of their assigned soldiers. I did not visit a specific grave, but rather followed some of the students as they walked around the cemetery.

Tyne Cot prayer service, April 2017.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, April 2017.

Grave of Private McMillan, 52nd Battalion, April 2017.

From there, we took a short 10 minute ride into Ypres. With all of the groups visiting the area (there are 250+ EF groups expected to be at Vimy alone), we had to park outside of the city centre and walk in through the Menin Gate. I’ve already mentioned that I love the city of Ypres as it such a beautiful place. Even though much of it was destroyed during WWI, and was rebuilt, it is still breathtaking. I think many of the kids actually gasped when they got to the main square, the Grote Market and saw the Cloth Hall.

Everyone had just over an hour to walk around and explore, which unfortunately is nowhere near enough to see the city. I grabbed some frites, the national food of Belgium, just to say that I did. Afterwards, I joined the hordes of Canadians who descended on the chocolate stores to pick up some genuine Belgian product. The Leonidas Store had a “Canadian” special, which I partook in like all the other sheep. Twenty Euro got me a bag full of chocolate and since I’m an adult, a neat bottle of beer (I’m not much of a drinker, but the bottle was certainly a collectable).

After we reconvened, albeit a bit late, we headed to the Menin Gate for the Last Post Ceremony. There were a lot of people, mainly due to all the tourist groups in the city. Since we needed to be on the other side of the gate, we hiked around to the eastern side. We didn’t have the best spot to see the ceremony, but we were all glad that we did. There was an honour guard from the Queen’s Own Rifles, which added a Canadian flare to this solemn event which takes place everyday at 2000. I’ll post some video once I get back home.

Cloth Hall, April 2017.

    Menin Gate, April 2017.

Alright, it’s now 2300 and we’re preparing for bed. It was a late check in after the Menin Gate Ceremony and dinner at the hotel in Lille, France. Tomorrow is the big day and a long day. We need to leave the hotel by 0745 and arrive by 0900. Today was very warm and tomorrow’s supposed to be hotter, upwards of 22C! I think all might melt..thankfully I have a hat to protect my shiny dome and I believe we have enough sunscreen to go around. On that note, I better turn it as I have to be up very early. There will be lots of news from the ceremony. Until then…

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2017 in History, Travel

 

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There’s places I gotta see…

There certainly are…many in fact. In less than 24 hours, I’ll be on my way to make it happen. If you’re wondering about the title, you need to listen to more classic rock. Connoisseurs will recognize the line from the iconic Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Freebird.”

So after nearly 3 years of planning, we are finally ready to go to Europe. I can’t believe we started all of this in the spring of 2014. Where has the time gone? It feels like an eternity ago. And it’s not just me; the students have grown up along the way. Those young Grade 9 or 10 students are now in Grade 11 or 12, some getting ready to graduate. What a fitting way to leave the school!

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I usual write about how busy I am and how crazy my life is. My last post ironically said exactly that. Well, when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I managed to find another gear. What an insane few days! So I guess I should tell you about it.

Since this is a once-in-a-lifetime event, I thought it would be great to have the media at the airport for our departure. Last Monday however, I received a call from our school board communication officer, Mike Thompson. He said he was in contact with our two local MPs, Patty Hajdu and Don Rusnak, and they wanted to visit with the students before they left. The trick was that it had to happen by the end of the week, as Parliament is back in session at the start of April. We settled on Friday, but a lot of work had to be done to prepare. Mike would look after the politicians and the media, but I had to find a venue in the school and line up some students to be present.

During our trip, we will be visiting two cemeteries; Tyne Cot near Passchendaele, Belgium and Bretteville-sur-Laize south of Caen France. At those cemeteries, we will honour the fallen but in particular those that served with the 52nd Battalion, CEF and the Lake Superior Regiment. Both were organized in Thunder Bay and are perpetuated by the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment (LSSR) today. I served in the LSSR in my teens. Therefore I thought it would be fitting to invite one of my former officers, David Ratz, who is now a Lieutenant Colonel and commanding officer of the regiment, to the event. It was great to to catch up with him and the students were very appreciative of his knowledge of the history and his stories.

I had to MC the event and scramble with some last minute issues, so I was extremely nervous and sweating like a hog. Fortunately everything went well, and I am very thankfully for that. The media interviewed some of the kids, and even though I knew it was coming, it was still so nervous to speak to them myself. You can read more about the media conference on TBNewswatchCBC and the TBT News.

MPs Hajdu and Rusnak visit students from St. Patrick & St. Ignatius, March 2017.

Probably the biggest source of my stress and the thing that had me running around the most was the tickets for the Vimy ceremony. For security purposes, everyone attending the ceremony has to have a ticket, which makes sense. However, the registration and distribution if said tickets turned into a bureaucratic boondoggle. There was a mad rush to register within a short window and with it came some technical glitches. Then there was the drama getting the tickets. I received my ticket in early March, along with one other chaperone and that was it. We kept receiving messages that because of technical issues, it would be delayed; March 21st, then March 27th and still only 2 tickets. Last Friday Veterans Affairs reported that at the behest of the French Government, all tickets would be reissued. Finally, tickets began to roll in. Cutting it a little close you think, especially since the tickets needed to be printed before we left!

In any case, it’s done, so now there’s just little things left to go. I still have some packing to do and if you know me, I started getting things ready weeks ago. I am not a last minute person; in fact I tend to be quite obsessive about this aspect of traveling, most likely due to the fact that I have some OCD. I don’t care though, better prepared and organized than not.

I have all the boarding passes printed, so we’re ready to hop those flights across the pond. From Thunder Bay we head to Toronto (of course), and from there to Munich. We have a fairly long layover at the Franz Josef Strauss Airport before we heading to Amsterdam, which I guess will give everyone time to nap, including me. I’ll probably be taking the time to blog as well.

Anyway, I better get going. You’ll probably hear from me again from Munich with details of our first day. Until then…

 

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2017 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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Europe 2014 Day 10…The Lost Post

This was supposed to be posted at the end of our trip, but due to a little glitch, I was not able to retrieve it until now. It seems so long ago, but I think there are some things that need to be said even if they are a bit late.

Day ten. This is it…back to Canada. I think there isn’t one person who isn’t sad about our departure; the trip has been awesome. However we have consumed our time in Europe and we now need to return to reality, which for us includes snow and cold! We all have fond memories of the trip and I guess I’ll share some as I write this blog today.

I really have only one negative thing from this adventure, which has been the wifi at this hotel in Paris. I thought I was going to be able to post two days worth of blogs last night, but after being on for a while, I was disconnected and could not reconnect. It is very frustrating from a blogging sense, but it also made it hard to stay in touch with the boys. We should be able to get some FaceTime in today, especially since it is Ethan’s birthday…9 already!

Alright, so we’re in the air now; next stop Toronto, seven and a half hours away. I wonder when lunch is…I’m hungry! I’m also curious as to what type of gastronomic delight is on the menu for today, hopefully it something good. Well, I’ll come to back to this later, after I eat and have a nap. For now, I’m going to enjoy a little Star Trek action on the TV.

So here we are, half way across the Atlantic. Up here, above the clouds might be a good place to reflect on the past 10 days. I’m tired, and really need some sleep. Even though it is way colder than what I’ve experienced while over in Europe, I miss home. And I really miss my boys; I’m sad that I’m not there for Ethan’s birthday. Despite all of this, I’m glad we went.

To me, teaching is more than just a job; I probably wouldn’t do it if it was just a job. It is about making a difference, and sometimes we have to sacrifice a bit to do that. This trip at times has been exhausting and stressful, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I was fortunate enough to travel to Europe when I was in high school (way back in 1992) and I relish all the memories I have of that trip. Twenty years from now these kids will not remember what they learned in my classroom, but they will remember this journey. They will remember when they look at the photos and when they tell their kids about it. It is then they will have understood what learning is all about.

The fact that these students have the good fortune to be in a classroom and have opportunities like this is due in part to the sacrifice of people not much older that them a long time ago. I hope that visiting the battlefields and cemeteries have taught them that the life they enjoy is not free; it was bought and paid for by the blood of Canada’s youth. Each one of them has a story and our remembrance ensures that they will never be forgotten.

I guess you can say that in many ways this trip is like when I coach football. Well that’s an interesting analogy isn’t it? Football and European travel…yes, I did get a good nap in. What I mean to say is that this trip allows you to make more of a personal impact on the kids, much like what happens when you coach. You can see the impact of what you’re doing more easily than in the classroom…or at least I hope!

Extra-curriculars like this also allow you to get to know the students better, which certainly helps with that connection is just spoke of. At times I did feel like a bit of a taskmaster though, the one who makes all the rules and cracks the proverbial whip. But I guess that comes with the territory of being the group leader…with great power comes great responsibility right? Parents are trusting you with their most precious possession and safety comes before everything.

We’re back in the air now, on our way to Thunder Bay and home. The layover in Toronto was a nice little break, though it was a bit stressful finding the shuttle to the hotel and getting everyone there. Thankfully EF had everything taken care of and there wasn’t much we had to do. Dinner was at the Mr. Greek restaurant attached to the hotel. The food was good and everyone ate their fill.

From Lake Huron, March 2014.

From Lake Huron, March 2014.

Frozen Lake Superior, March 2014.

Frozen Lake Superior, March 2014.

Since we were in Toronto for the evening, my older brother Dominic joined us for dinner; it was good to catch up with him since I had not seen him since Christmas. A few of the kids left the hotel to meet up with family. After we ate, we went up to our room where we were able to FaceTime with the boys and wish Ethan a happy 9th birthday. We’ll be having his party next weekend.

I’m sure all the kids are anxious to see their parents and tell them all about our adventures. As great and fun it’s been travelling with the kids for the past 10 days, I’m glad we’re going home too. Looking after 23 teenagers is at times exhausting and stressful; my wife Jo-Anne commented that she now knows what it feels like to be the Duggars and travel with 20+ people. However, I do it all again in a heartbeat…and we will.

My colleague at St. Ignatius Alicyn Papich and I have already begun looking forward to the 100th anniversary celebrations of. Vimy Ridge in 2017. I know that EF has the gears rolling as well, since Felicity told us she has been working on scouting hotels in anticipation of the arrival of thousands of Canadians for the event. It should be awesome!

 

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

 

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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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