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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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Europe 2019 Day 5

Good morning Children, or Goedemorgen kinderen as they would say here in the Netherlands! As you can tell, I am in much better spirits today. According to my self-diagnosed prognosis, my status has been upgraded from utterly exhausted to somewhat exhausted. They tell might me I just might live; the next 24 hours is critical. We need to ensure I don’t have a relapse…as I sit here and feel my eyelids closing while I stare at the screen.

So I’m just sitting here by myself in the lobby waiting for breakfast. There’s no space in our room for me to work. I wonder what breakie will be like? We have a busy day ahead of us today; a walking tour of the city, Anne Frank House and guided tour in the afternoon. I am really looking forward to it; I love the city of Amsterdam. It is such a beautiful and historic city. I’ll check in later.

Okay, so we’re on the bus heading back to the hotel after a very busy day. I’m not super tired, but my joints hurt. We were dropped off at the downtown train station (Centraal Station) and started our walking tour with Sebastian. It reminded me how beautiful it is and how much I love the city of Amsterdam; it is definitely one of my favourite places to visit. I want to go back at some point where I will have more time to explore.

So where did we go and what did we see? Well, Amsterdam is characterized by its ring-shaped layout and all the canals. It was founded back in the 1200s and has amazing history and architecture. One of the best parts is when your students can see this for themselves, taking the teaching beyond the classroom. When you can touch the history, it really comes alive.

Anyway, we saw places such as the Royal Palace, Westerkerk and the narrow, winding streets of the city core. The only issue we had was, you guessed it, the weather. It was bitterly cold, like +3C but feels like -2 , cold. And damp too, which is probably why my joints hurt. The first part of the morning was okay, but then it started to rain. Ummmm, rain and cold…felt like football practice at the end of October, just we were stuck outside all day!

Amsterdam, March 2019.

Amsterdam, March 2019.

Amsterdam, March 2019.

Amsterdam, March 2019.

Amsterdam, March 2019.

Amsterdam, March 2019.

Amsterdam, March 2019.

Amsterdam, March 2019.

Royal Palace, Amsterdam, March 2019.

Amsterdam, March 2019.

Amsterdam, March 2019.

At 1100, we made our way to Anne Frank House (Anna Frank Huis) for a visit to this very touching memorial to her and the Holocaust. I know that a lot of the kids were looking forward to this place, having heard her story and maybe even read the book. It is always a very sobering location. Afterwards, many of them commented that it was a moving experience.

Anna Frank Huis, Amsterdam, March 2019.

We had a break for lunch (in the pouring rain), which found myself and Mr. Marcon hiking back many blocks to find the least sketchy ATM we could and then meeting Ms. Caza for a bite to eat. I had a brie and some type of prosciutto sandwich which was fantastic. I stopped by a local shop before our meeting time at the Westerkerk to buy a few things for my boys.

Our afternoon was taken up by a bus tour of the city with our guide, Gerwin. We had him as a guide on our 2014 trip and he is very knowledgable. We were able to see some places we were not able to walk to and then made our way to the Rembrandt Hoeve (House), which is a cheese farm. I’ve been there before, and it is quite the place. They make some amazing Gouda cheese and traditional clogs. I think the kids really enjoyed it, and many came away with souvenirs and cheese. I did have a couple near relapses during the tour, where I almost nodded off. I even put my sunglasses on to mask my condition; thankfully I powered through it.

Rembrandt Hoeve, Amsterdam, March 2019.

Rembrandt Hoeve, Amsterdam, March 2019.

Amsterdam, March 2019.

The tour ended around 500, which left us some time to get off the bus and look around before we went to supper. Did I say how much I love Amsterdam? By that time, it was still cool, but the sun had come out and it was a nice evening. It is such a laid-back city, the people are super friendly and the sights are amazing. If I had to live somewhere in Europe, this would be the place. Do you ever wonder if you’d have done that? Like, at some point earlier in your life you decided to transplant yourself to another continent? I have no idea what I would do for a job, but it’s interesting to think about it.

Amsterdam, March 2019.

Amsterdam, March 2019.

Amsterdam, March 2019.

Dinner was at a place called Drovers Dog, which was a nice restaurant. Our meal consisted of chicken (kip in Dutch) skewer with peanut sauce, rice and vegetable garnish. My colleagues gave it a 9 out of 10. Hopefully our dinner in Ypres tomorrow is equally as good.

Anyway, it’s time to move along. We actually have some time tonight in the hotel, so hopefully the kids can unwinded a bit before a very busy day tomorrow. As usual, stay tuned for the latest news coming next evening. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 13, 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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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 3

Good morning! It’s Day 3 kids. I’m sitting in the lobby waiting for 0845, which will be our departure time to head into Amsterdam. I had a fairly decent sleep last night, having gone to bed shortly after checking on the kids at 2200. The breakfast buffet was great and now I’m ready to roll on our adventures for today. Hopefully all of the kids will be ready on time.

So we’re here near the centre of Amsterdam waiting for our tour guide to show up. We were a bit late getting here, which was due to a road closure that affected the bus arriving at our hotel. Our guide this morning is Larae, who will be showing us some of the notable points of this beautiful city.

Alright, so we’re back on the bus after a busy day. Larae was a great guide, taking us around parts of the city before we ended up the Rembrandt Hoose. We actually visited this same place during the 2014 tour and it is really neat. It is a farm, and they have milk cows which are used to make delicious Gouda. We had a tour of the facility and got a nice explanation of how it is made. They also make wood clogs and they gave us a demonstration of the process. Interesting to see. Afterwards, we were given samples of Gouda and time to buy some souvenirs in their gift shop. I picked up a few things for my family which I hope they like.

Rembrandt Hoose, April 2017.

Clog making, April 2017.

Windmill, April 2017.

After a quick stop at a nearby windmill, we proceeded back into the city centre for the remainder of the tour. Larae had some fantastic information and stories to share about the history and culture of Amsterdam. When the tour ended, we were brought close to the Royal Palace, or the Koninklijk Paleis, where everyone had an opportunity to grab a bite to eat and take a quick look around. For me, lunch was ham and Swiss on a croissant.

Our next stop was near the Amsterdam Centraal Station, where we embarked on a boat for a 1 hour canal tour of the city. I knew this would be great, as we did it in 2014 and it was an amazing way to see the city. It would have been nice if the boat was more open, which makes it easier to take pictures and video, but it was good nonetheless. The canals make this place such an interesting and unique city. I really would like to visit here more often to be able to see more its amazing culture and architecture.

Streets of Amsterdam, Paril 2017.

Streets of Amsterdam, Paril 2017.

After that tour was over, we slowly made our way to near the Rijksmuseum, which is the largest museum in Amsterdam, where we had a chance to see the “I (am) Amsterdam” sign. Our bus picked us up there and brought us to our dinner destination, which was a place called Drovers Dog. The food was okay at this Australian themed restaurant, in Amsterdam, but I think the kids found the portions to be a bit light. The dessert was good though, with cool wooden spoons (not like the wooden sticks we ate ice cream with as kids). When we arrived back at the hotel, many proceeded to get food from one of the hotel restaurants to satisfy their unquenched appetites.

Wooden spoon, April 2017.

We just finished checking on the kids, who are now in their rooms for the evening. Tomorrow is a busy day, as we have a 1000 appointment at the Anne Frank House, and then we are off to Tyne Cot Cemetery and Ypres in Belgium. So on that note, I better turn in. I’ll be back tomorrow with all the details of our day. Until then…

 
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Posted by on April 7, 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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