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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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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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Big ol’ jet airliner, don’t carry me too far away!

Well, it depends on how far is too far. Does 6215 kilometres count?

If you don’t recognize this, they form part of the chorus of the Steve Miller Band’s iconic song “Jet Airliner.” This time tomorrow I’ll be on a plane across the big pond, but it’s a Boeing 777, not a 707! I cannot put into words how excited I am, even though I did a similar trip two years ago. There are a lot of nerves too; the weather is always a factor and this time there are 22 kids, not 7.

Speaking of the weather, it’s actually a bit of a reprieve getting out of Thunder Bay and the lousy weather we’ve been experiencing this winter. In my last post I spoke about a possible big dump of snow; well, we got that 30cm and more. It was actually enough to close the schools for the day! Cleaning it up wasn’t fun though and it’s hard to believe that with the big yard that I have, the banks were actually getting too high for the snowblower to reach over them. If that wasn’t enough, it got cold again. Last Thursday it was -45C with the wind; I think just about everyone has had enough with Old Man Winter!

After the storm, February 2014.

After the storm, February 2014.

Mountains of snow, February 2014.

Mountains of snow, February 2014.

March break is just around the corner, though it doesn’t feel much like it. The temperatures climbed a bit this week, but I’ve been too busy to notice. There has been a last minute rush of preparations for the trip. There are so many little things to take care of, on top of all the big things. I was burning up the email with my counterpart from St. Ignatius Alicyn Papich as we worked out the fine details before departure. I spent time today getting all of our travellers checked-in via the web, so it’s one less thing we have to worry about tomorrow. I need a vacation from the vacation and we haven’t even left!

In the last couple weeks Alicyn and I have been going back and forth via email with our Tour Director Felicity. The tour, Canada’s Battlefields, has a rough template of places we will be visiting, but all the details need to be worked out. Felicity has been fantastic so far, offering many ideas and potential places we can see on each day. Even though I saw some of these places in 2012, I’m excited to see them again. Good thing for it too, as it is helping to displace some of the nervousness I’m feeling…I’m such a worry wart!

There are a couple of places I’m very pumped to see. I’ve never been to Amsterdam, so that will be a whole new experience. We were at Vimy Ridge in 2012, but that was with 4000 other people during the 95th Anniversary celebrations and it was rather busy. I’m looking forward to a more relaxed visit. Felicity has also suggested that we take in the Wellington Quarry, which is located just south of Vimy in Arras.

When we travel to Normandy, we will be staying at a very neat “hotel.” We were supposed to stay in the city of Caen, but I guess this place had an opening and they moved us. The Chateau du Baffy dates from the 1700’s and was used as a headquarters by the Germans in WWII. It is located only 6km from Juno Beach and reminds me of a little rustic country inn. It will give us a good opportunity to thoroughly explore the Normandy area.

I guess part of the reason why I’m excited is the kids. I met with them yesterday at lunch and they were literally bouncing. It is great to see the exuberance of youth! For many this is their first trip across the ocean; for some it’s their first trip in a plane. Most of them will have never been away from home and their parents for so long. I’m sure there is a bit of apprehension mixed in too, but traveling with their friends on the trip of a lifetime will overcome that quickly enough.

So with the insanity that has been my life over the last couple of weeks, I have had zero time to devote to any railway work. I was very busy in the last week writing newsletter for the Silver Mountain and Area Historical Society, which went out yesterday. Our annual general meeting is coming up on March 22 and there was work to be done on that. I’m sure when I’m back from the trip and things settle down there will be time to get back on track.

Anyway, I better get rolling. I need to finish packing and I have a busy morning ahead of me. The forecast is calling for a bit of snow, but hopefully it doesn’t impede our flight to Toronto and then on that big ole’ 777 to Europe! My next post will be from the beautiful city of Amsterdam. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2014 in History, Railway, Travel, Writing

 

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