After lunch we finally crossed over to Belgian territory. I was eager to start tasting my family roots again, as I had done so many times before in trips to Belgium with my family. I remember visiting my great grandmother and uncles and aunts, and stealing sips of strawberry beer from my dad's glass in restaurants, and having sausages with boiled cabbage for lunch (which I hated at the time), and visiting the beautiful old cathedrals that Belgium is so famous for.
As I looked out the window at the perfectly green pastures and the well cared for villages houses and squares, it felt good to be back in Flemish soil after so long. The good thing about having a double nationality is that you always have a second home to go to. But our destination was a town I had never been to before: Ypres (or Ieper in Flemish), where my grandfather and his 3 siblings had been born and raised.
As we entered Ieper's Lille Gate, crossing the deep green colored River Yser through a large stone bridge, we marveled at the beauty of this old town. The buildings and cobblestone streets were lined with enchanting brick buildings, bearing the typically steep Flemish roofs. It was incredible to think that this lovely ancient town was razed to the ground during the war. For the Germans, Ieper had been important because they planned their raid through Belgium and into France through it. This tough little town had been used to bloody battles since Roman times, hence its heavy fortification. But this time around, there was nothing that could be done against German shelling. Belgium had sustained her neutrality during the war, but the unjust German invasion of her lands was what brought the British Empire into the war.
While the Germans bombarded Ieper, the Allied forces defended her in the First Battle of Ypres in 1914. The Belgians did their share to defend their land, and while their town was being demolished, they opened up the compartments of the River Yser to let the sea in and prevent further German advances.
On November 22 (my birthday), hostilities between the Allies and the Germans ceased due to the incoming winter, but the battle was forever immortalized as one soldier put it: "a man was not a soldier unless he had served on the Ypres front". Two more similar battles followed in Ieper involving British, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, and South African troops which engaged Germany's Imperial Army, yielding dreadfully high casualties.
After the war, Winston Churchill had recommended that Ieper be left in ruins as a monument to the sacrifice of the British forces. However, the locals rightfully ignored the British premier and began to rebuild their homes and their lives with the help of United States funding. An emotive poem bearing witness to the events in Ypres was written by a Canadian military doctor, Major John McCrae in 1919: In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Such was the popularity of this poem that the emblem of the poppy was chosen as a symbol of Remembrance Day because of the amount of poppies which grew on and around war graves in Flanders.
We reached the center of the town where the great Cloth Hall stood. This 13th century building had been the largest commercial building in the Middle Ages, where the trade of fabric turned Ieper into one of the most prosperous cities in Europe. It was of course destroyed during the war, but the townspeople rebuilt it exactly as its 13th century original. Today it houses the Flanders Fields Museum.
Today, a beach volleyball tournament was being held, and while David and Ed drooled over the Flemish beauties in their swimsuit style uniforms, Lucy and I found a chocolate shop which was sadly closed. We checked into our B&B, the Shell Hole Hotel
run by John, an Englishman connoisseur of all things WWI, and Christine, his charming Flemish wife.
We decided to go for a couple beers at one of the local bars. Lucy and I enjoyed ice cold Kriek (cherry beer - which I must say was one of the most enjoyable beers I've ever had), while David had his Bockor and Ed got wasted on Duvel and Chimay. As we drank, I looked around and caught people looking our way, but this time it wasn't the same look of scorn or mistrust that the French had given us a couple hours earlier, here I was able to exchange smiles with strangers and one even approached us to take a photo, while another wanted to exchange emails and send us pictures of Ypres from the time of the war. People were smiling all the time, glad to be of help and service, and not afraid to practice their English with us. These are the things that made me feel at home.
It was soon 8:00 pm and David rushed us out of the bar towards Menin Gate, where the Last Post was to be played as it has been played every evening since the end of World War I. From afar we could already see an impressive mass of people crowding around the white memorial, commemorating the missing British and Commonwealth soldiers who fought in the three Battles of Ypres.
As we were approaching we could already hear the first notes of the Last Post, a military tune traditionally played by a bugle in funerals. We could hardly see what was going on in the center of the monument, but after the tune was finished playing, we heard a short speech expressing the gratitude to those who had given their lives for Belgium's freedom, followed by the chant in unison of the words "we will remember them" by the spectators.
It was hard to imagine this ceremony (lasting a full 20 minutes) being performed every single evening since WW1 ended, and not only that, but having such a massive turn out every night. This was a clear indicator of the never-dying memory and gratitude of the people of Ypres. This solemnity was quieting and inspiring, and as the ceremony was finished and the crowds broke apart, we were left with the terrible image of the great monument bearing the 54,900 names on the pure white marble.
I had no idea. As I stood there gaping at all the names, and the small poppy wreaths placed at the foot of the great walls, and the ex servicemen wearing their uniforms also standing in silence before the marble walls, I realized that I had no idea that people were still remembering after all these years. I continued to stand there, a little confused and awe struck by this new realization, by this feeling of great sadness but profound hope. I now understood why David and Lucy repeatedly came to visit these sites and began to share their respect for the people here, for the history, and most importantly, for the fallen.
Our spirits were quickly raised when we directed our aims to finding dinner, after a short stroll through the city walls and parks, where little cemeteries were scattered here and there like secret gardens. Ed's vegetarianism went out the window when he ordered the infamous Flemish beef stew as did Lucy and David. I stuck to my veggie-guns and settled for the seafood casserole since I had been privileged to have been served home cooked Flemish stew by my grandmother many a time during my childhood.
Nothing requires a good night's rest like stuffing your face like there's no tomorrow. Clearly having eaten too much, we dragged our limp bodies to the hotel where our beds were more than eager to welcome us in.
It had been a day of much emotion and much learning, crowned by the realization that there's more to human nature than you thought. I guess it's hard to feel strongly about something that you didn't yourself live through, but when that consciousness hits you, it'll probably remain with you for a long, long time.