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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 4

Oy vey Kids! So if this part of the blog makes utterly no sense, please accept my profound apologies; my cognitive level is somewhere between zero and non-existent. What my brain is passing off as relatively coherent thoughts could be just a random collection of gibberish on the computer screen-I may have seen this scenario a few times during my teaching career. Oops, did I say that out loud? Sorry, my bad. Happy thoughts, happy thoughts…

Anyway, it’s Tuesday and I’m completely exhausted. But hey, who needs sleep right? I remember telling myself that at points in my life, like when I was in the army, when my kids were newborns (I still don’t know how my wife did it) and a few others I probably have forgotten. For a history teacher, I do have a short memory; I may have written the exact same words, well, more or less, on the last trip when I couldn’t sleep. Should have got my own room. Smothering a snoring roommate is still a crime over here right? Asking for a friend.

Okey dokey, we’re now on the train to Amsterdam. It was quite the odyssey getting out of the hotel and to the train station. The hotel was supposed to have a bagged breakfast ready for us, but something got messed up and that went out the window. We were told to grab something quick from the breakfast buffet and then jump on the bus. I took us about an hour to get to the station, where we had time to buy more food for the ride. I picked up a couple chicken schnitzel sandwiches and even got to try out some German. Too bad we’re leaving as I was just starting to feel comfortable with some basic words and phrases.

The train will take us to Apeldoorn and we should be there about 2pm. I guess we’ll have an opportunity to see the countryside, relax and hopefully sleep. I never been on a train before, and I’m sure this is a new experience for many of our students. I’m sure it’s a great way to see parts of Europe. Anyway, time to get some shuteye.

Scenes from the train, March 2019.

Scenes from the train, March 2019.

Scenes from the train, March 2019.

Alright, it’s now noon and we’re northwest of Münster near the German-Dutch border. That means we have another 2 hours before we arrive in Apeldoorn. I did manage to get some rest, which we won’t call sleep as I don’t think I really did. I do feel a bit better, but I could use some proper nighttime sleep. We’ll see what tonight brings.

I ate both of my chicken schnitzel sandwiches, which were delicious, but had very messy crusty buns. The sun was out for a while, then it clouded over and now it’s trying to peek out again. Hopefully it holds until we get to the cemetery at Groesbeek. The kids seem to be enjoying the opportunity to relax, sleep or just hang out; it’s quite the smooth way to travel. I even played a little Nintendo Switch with some of the boys, but I did as poorly as I thought I would.

Scenes from the train, March 2019.

Scenes from the train, March 2019.

Scenes from the train, March 2019.

So we’re now on our bus leaving Apeldoorn and heading toward Groesbeek. The train ride was great, but it was getting rather stuffy on board, so it nice to have some fresh air. The bus we are now on will be our home base for the next five days, until we reach Paris. Our driver is a Dutch fellow named Tish (I hope I spelled that right). The drive is about 60km, so we have a bit more time to relax.

We’re back on the bus, on our way to Amsterdam. We first visited the Liberation Museum in Groesbeek, where we learned about the battles around the town, such Operation Market Garden and the Rhine Offensives. There was a very heavy Canadian involvement, especially the battles for the Rhine in early 1945.

Liberation Museum, Groesbeek, March 2019.

Liberation Museum, Groesbeek, March 2019.

Groesbeek, March 2019.

From there, it was a short two minute drive to the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery. Over 2600 Canadians are buried there, most killed in those battles along the Rhine. The cemetery is unusual, as most of the men died in Germany, but because the commander of the 1st Canadian Army refused to have any of his men buried on German soil, they were moved across the border to the Netherlands. Among those interred there are Sergeant Aubrey Cosens of the Queen’s Own Rifles, who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions in February, 1945 and Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Nicklin of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, who was killed in the opening moments of Operation Varsity. Nicklin was a former member of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, March 2019.

Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, March 2019.

Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, March 2019.

Grave of Sgt. Cosens VC, Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, March 2019.

Grave of Lt. Col. Nicklin, Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, March 2019.

Grave of L. Cpl. Hooper, Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, March 2019.

Okay, we’re on the road for the final leg. We stopped for dinner at a place called La Place in Enspijk. It was not a scheduled stop, as EF didn’t have a set restaurant for the meal. Sebastian gave us some options, and that EF would give us 15€ to spend. Turns out, we made a great choice. This restaurant was a buffet-style establishment that makes your entree while you wait. I had salmon with some type of sauce, fries, salad and bread with garlic butter. All for 17.30€, so it only really cost me 2.30€…nice!

Okay, so it’s time for bed. We are at our hotel, the kids are tucked in and we getting ready for lights out too. This hotel is pretty good, though the rooms are small…the kids are gonna be cosy! Anyway, I need to TRY and get some sleep; I’m not holding my breath. We’re heading out at 8:30 tomorrow, so we get to sleep in an extra hour. Yay! Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2019 in History, Travel

 

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Europe 2019 Day 3

Hey Kids…ugh! I don’t if I’m better or more exhausted. I’m sitting here staring at the screen trying to decide if I’m actually conscious, or if I’m in a quasi zombie state; me thinks the latter. I signed up for this right? Sure, why not spend your week off doing the same thing you do every other week of the year, just 24 hours a day? It will be fun they said…

I did sleep, if you can call it that. The more pertinent question is regarding the duration and quality of that sleep. You know when you’re so tired you can’t sleep? I was falling asleep on the train ride back to the hotel, yet of course I was restless when I got to bed. It doesn’t help that my roomie can wake the dead with his snoring and falls asleep immediately, leaving me to lie awake and contemplate my life choices (see above). If the past trip is any indicator, I’ll eventually become so tired that the snoring won’t bother me.

So we’re going to be heading out shortly for our day’s adventures. I just came back from breakfast, which is always interesting in Europe. It’s kinda like roulette, as you’ll never know what the quality and quantity will be like. Today, it wasn’t bad; lots of breads, some meats, yogurt and a few other things. Overall, I give it a B.

Still have these in Berlin, March 2019.

Today we’re off for a tour of the city with a local guide. Hopefully the weather is a bit more cooperative. It’s not raining right now, so let’s hope that trend continues. The forecast for the rest of the trip doesn’t look very encouraging, but things can change quickly right?

Okay, so we’re on the bus to Sashsenhausen, which is about 45 minutes away. We had a good morning, though the rain has returned…just in time to be outside. Anyway, we picked up a local tour guide, Forrest, who happens to be an American, to take us around the city. We saw many of the local sights, and stopped at a few. The notable ones were sections of the Berlin Wall, which obviously was a physical reminder of the Cold War.

Berlin Wall, March 2019.

Berlin Wall, March 2019.

Battle scarred museum in Berlin, March 2019.

Berlin Cathedral, Match 2019

Flak Tower, March 2019.

We stopped at a shopping mall for lunch, and it was recommended that we try the Currywurst mïtt pommes, which is a fried Bradwurst covered with curry power and ketchup, with fries and mayonnaise sauce. I had my misgivings, since I’m not a huge fan of curry, but it was awesome. Definitely recommended!

Currywurst mïtt pommes, March 2019.

We’re back on the bus after our visit to Sachsenhausen. We are again tired, wet and chilled to the bone. As bad as we feel, I think the weather was a fitting tone for where we were. Sachsenhausen was one of the first concentration camps established, and the first to be laid out exactly to a plan. We had two guides for the tour, Forrest and another, Wouther. Forrest was our guide with the St. Pats group, and he did a amazing job explaining the history of the camp.

It started off fine, cold and damp, but dry. We learned about how this camp was mainly for political prisoners starting in 1936, but later both Soviet POW’s and Jewish civilians arrived as well. Some of the structures of the camp survive, while others are commemorated. We saw the main gatehouse, some of the barracks and the remains of the crematorium. It’s estimated that more than 200,000 people passed through the camp between 1936 and 1945, and roughly 35,000-40,000 died there, including 13,000 Soviet POW’s.

Halfway through the tour it began to snow, then escalated to a blizzard. The temperature was +3C, but it felt like -2. Soon the snow turned to pouring rain. I was very grateful I had an umbrella, but the whole time I imagined the poor prisoners held at the camp being worked hard in the same conditions, dressed on in one layer of clothing. I think the camp, the tour and the weather were all very sobering for students and teachers alike.

Main gate, Sachsenhausen concentration camp, March 2019.

Whew, back at the hotel. Wow, another busy day. So it took us a bit longer than we anticipated getting from Sachsenhausen back to Berlin. Normally it’s a 45 minute drive, but due to an accident on the Autobahn, it took us an hour longer. The whole delay was caused by a minor fender-bender involving a Smartcar…really? It did however give us extra nap time on the bus 😉

After arriving back at Alexanderplatz, we made our way to a local mall where we had dinner. I can’t remember the name of the place, but it was similar to the night before. Some sort of hamburger-ish thing with rice and some sauce, and coleslaw. Nothing spectacular, but palatable. Dessert was some yogurt with strawberry sauce, which I thought was good.

We left the restaurant and made our way to the train station. So, if the kids had never rode a train/subway before, boy they are well versed now. To get to our next event, a Cold War discussion, we had to take several different trains to get to Südstern. Our presenters, Peter and Emme, were residents of West and East Germany respectively. They described the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall and how it effected them. Afterwards, it was back on a couple different trains to get to the stop near our hotel, Grünbergallee.

Berlin Church, March 2019.

Cold War discussion, March 2019.

Now we’re back at the hotel getting ready for another busy day tomorrow. We have to be on the bus at 6:30 to get to the train station for 8:30. Then it’s a 5+ hour ride to Apeldoorn, Belgium. With that in mind, I better get going. I’ll be back early tomorrow morning at some point. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2019 in History, Travel

 

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Europe 2019 Day 2

Hey kids, welcome to Day 2. Thanks to the miracle of air travel, we’re now on a different continent! Hello Europe! We’ve now touched the western coast Ireland, and are less than two hours from Munich. Yay! I just reached over my elbow partner Logan to snap a picture of dawn breaking. They never turn out as well as they look.

Chasing dawn off Ireland, March 2019.

So that was the good news, now for the bad news. Well, I can’t move my neck properly and I’m running on about two hours “sleep.” I guess if you can call the few hours of spine-crushing, contorted misery I just did sleep. However, I just realized something. I write much better and am way wittier operating on fumes. Or at least I think I do; we’ll see when I read this back at some point.

I think they’ll be serving breakfast soon. Hmmmm, what’s on that menu. It’s continental, so probably not much. I remember getting banana bread and water one time. Sounds about right. Anyway, I’ll be back once we’re on our flight to Berlin.

Alright, on our way to Berlin. Boy do I have a story for you! First, the rest of the flight to Munich was uneventful. I did call the banana bread breakfast. It was pretty good, though not chocolate chip banana bread good. Anyway, we landed on time and made our way off the plane as quickly as we could. That’s when the fun started.

As I mentioned earlier, I was worried about the time between our flights. If I thought Thunder Bay to Toronto was tight, fate said “hold my beer.” We only had about 50 minutes to get to our next flight, and there was a massive line at customs. I didn’t time it, but it took us more than 30 minutes to get through the queue. Then we had to take a shuttle to the gate, and literally run to make it there. What a gong show! When we finally got there, and thankfully they held the plane, one of the Lufthansa people said us “What took you so long? Your plane landed an hour ago!” Uh, we have to get off the plane and through customs. Hello!

Anyway, we’re on our way with everyone in tow. I don’t know about anyone else, but I need a shower. I am sweaty and gross! Problem is we can’t check into the hotel yet, so hopefully we can fresh up somewhere. I’m beat too. The running and stress take a lot out of you, oh and the lack of sleep too. Oh well, we’re in Europe instead of snowy Thunder Bay, so we’ll make the best of it.

In Berlin, March 2019.

Leaving the Berlin airport, March 2019.

Our method of transport for the day was the train, which I’m sure was an experience for some of our students. The only issue unfortunately was the weather. It started drizzling when we landed, and continued as we left the hotel. I did stop for a bit, but then came down even harder. Definitely not one of the best weather days I’ve had in Europe.

If you’re wondering where we went and what we saw, I’ll tell you. We took the train from our hotel, which is located in the southeast of the city, to the centre of old East Berlin, Alexanderplatz. Riding European public transit is so different than in Canada. Anyway, from Alexanderplatz, we did a walking tour of the area, stopping at many historic sites, including the Holocaust Memorial. My favourite was definitely the Brandenburg Gate, but sadly it was raining so hard that we didn’t linger very long. We all were hungry and cold, and really wanted some food and to get out of the rain.

Catholic Church, March 2019.

Konzerthaus Berlin, March 2019.

Holocaust Memorial, March 2019.

Brandenburg Gate, March 2019.

Dinner was at a restaurant called the Hopfingerbräu. The meal was meh; 3 sausage links, some sort of meatball shaped like a hamburger patty and some potato salad concoction. I ate the first two, but was disappointed like others were that the potato was cold and didn’t taste very good. Dessert was something akin to a black forest trifle which I thought was good, but then again I like Black Forest cake.

Anyway, I’m going to wrap things up as I’m sore and utterly exhausted. We have a busy day tomorrow and we might get snow flurries…seriously? I thought we left that crap behind! I need some shuteye, so I’ll be back in the morning. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2019 in History, Travel

 

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