29 March 2007


4 hours and counting . . .

Location: Quad Cities Airport, Western Illinois
Time: 5:00 PM, waiting for a 2:25 flight that's been delayed until 6:00 (?)
Reason: Returning from Iowa City with the newly-crowned Dr. Z

Since I last wrote from the comforts of my miniscule studio in Leuven, so much has happened. Brussels to Seattle via Newark, east to Iowa City, back to Seattle today (eventually, though an onvernight in Chicago is looking more likely by the minute), and back to Belgium next week.

I promise to blog these "exciting" adventures soon.

4 hours and ten minutes . . .

18 March 2007

In Flanders Fields

In 1914, when the German army attempted to outflank the French and capture Paris by moving through Belgium, they hit a snag around the town in Ieper in Flanders. Ieper (more commonly known to us as Ypres) became the site of a bulge in the line of attack between the two massive armies. As a result of this bulge, or salient, the German offensive had to dig in a series of trenches, and the allied armies did the same. Generals on both sides envisioned breaking through the lines of their enemies combining man power and old-fashioned military tactics such as cavalry charges. The reality of modern warfare--machine guns, barbed wire, tanks sinking in artillery-shelled landscapes, and chemical weapons--resulted in starvation, desertion, and a massive loss of life. Four years, four major battles, and only a handful of kilometers later, 1.7 millions soldiers were either killed, wounded, or missing.

As a child I used to balk at the thought of visiting "yet another Civil War battlefield" on family vacations. They are interesting, sure, but their relative isolation from the rest of the country makes them seem almost quaint and nostalgic. In Belgium the signs of war are much more real. They are a part our everyday lives. The library in which I have an office in Leuven, for instance, was purposefully burned to the ground (along with the rest of the city) by the Germans in both World Wars. Throughout Ypres the signs are even more visible: 160 Commonwealth cemeteries and dozens of monuments dot the sleepy countryside. The entire city of Ypres was rebuilt from the ground up using what our tour guide called German "blood" money. Anti-German sentiment still runs high among the local elderly residents.

Mom, dad, and I visited Ypres a week ago Saturday. We traveled by train to this tiny town at the edge of West Flanders--2 1/2 hours from Leuven--and visited the countryside via a local bus tour. We spent four hours touring the areas top sights:
  • Essex Farm Cemetery. The burial site of casualties from a battlefield near the adjacent canal. The cemetery also contains several British bunkers which would have housed crude first-aid stations. This was also the place where Canadian John McCrae composed his poem In Flanders Fields.
  • Canadian War Memorial. A ten-meter high granite statue that was raised to honor the Canadians who suffered the first German chlorine gas attacks in April 1915.

  • Tyne Cot. The largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world with almost 12,000 graves and a memorial naming 35,000 soldiers whose bodies were never recovered.

  • Passchendaele. The little village that was the site of the Third Battle of Ypres, the only British offensive. The objective was to break through the German lines and capture this village, only a couple of kilometers away. The battle was a "disastrous success:" in 3 1/2 months almost 750,000 men died, having either been killed or drowned in the landscape's swampy quagmire. The whole campaign came to symbolize the futility of the war and the incompetence of the generals. At one point Field Marshall Haig's Chief of Staff ventured out to inspect the battlefield and said, "Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?" (The first picture above was taken during this battle.)

  • German cemetery. We did visit the one German cemetery that is maintained in this area. At the end of the war the numbers of German dead ran as high as those of the Commonwealth armies. But they were only allowed one cemetery. As a result, the graves hold anywhere from 2 to 20 men. At its entrance is a mass grave that holds 40,000 bodies. The names of the dead line surrounding statues, including those of two British soldiers who were accidentally included in the mix. We were shown a picture of Hitler who visited this cemetery with his generals on his way to France in 1940.

  • Sanctuary Wood Museum. One of the only places in Ypres where you can visit a series of trenches as they were during the war. It is said that the owner of this little property returned home after the war to find these trenches filled with shells and bodies, all in his backyard. After the clean up he decided to open a museum. Today every tour stops here, including bus loads of kids who unfortunately treat this as their private playground (thankfully not when we were there.)

  • Menin Gate. This war memorial stands at the Ypres city entrance to the main route of Commonwealth soldiers heading to the front. Its walls contain the names of 50,000 troops who died in the Ypres Salient but who have no grave. The Last Post is sounded every night here at 8 PM.

The Ypres Salient is a stunning place. Only when you drive across the countryside do you get the sense of this war's utter futility. It took us only seconds to drive across a bit of land that would have cost the armies hundreds of thousands of lives to capture. The landscape is permanently marred by four years of massive shelling. Every Cross of Sacrifice that appears in the distance marks another cemetery: in the woods, in village centers, in people's backyards. On the sides of the road lie old shells and other bits of weapons that are still dug up from the fields. Even today farmers find skeletons almost weekly, and new space is constantly in demand for new cemeteries. It is the kind of juxtaposition that defines the Belgians: continuing to live in the shadow of history's deadly past.

15 March 2007

Rediscovering Belgium

I see that I've become a slacker. I haven't posted in almost two weeks, and yet so much has happened! I can actually blame my parents for this lapse in communication. Last spring, when they first heard I would be spending the year in Belgium, they wasted no time in getting their passports and planning their vacation. Monday morning, after ten wonderful days, they boarded the plane home, and I've been scrambling to catch up.

One of the great things about entertaining friends and family from home is that I get the chance to rediscover my love for this country. I happily pull out my white sneakers (or, as we say in the Midwest, "tennies") and my Rough Guide and hit the sites like a tourist. We visited the usual suspects--Leuven, Brussels, Bruges--and a couple of new places for me, including Ghent, Ypres, and Paris. And my parents, bless them, cheerfully endured my dragging them across miles on train tracks and cobblestone streets. And with the promise of a coffee and biscuit or new Belgian beer at every street-corner cafe, who could complain?

My intention is to post a little something about each destination, but let me start with our first adventure: Ghent. Ghent is a bit of a forgotten city in Flanders. It lies half-way between Brussels and Bruges and is usually a place to pass through on your way to someplace more exciting. Like Bruges, it is a city of canals and churches, and though not as picturesque as its northern neighbor, it is an immediately likable place. As the Rough Guide states: "If you're put off by the tourists and tweeness of Bruges, this is the place to decamp."

Ghent's star is Sint-Baafskathedraal, a marvelously Gothic building that was 250 years in the making and was completed only two years before the Reformation wars threatened to bring it down again. While Sint-Baafs itself is rather dark and unremarkable as far as Belgian cathedrals go, its greatest treasure is the famous Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan van Eyck. It is undeniably one of the most famous Flemish paintings of the 15th century, both for its beauty and its realism. It has a checkered history: the Calvinists tried to destroy it, Philip II of Spain tried to buy it, Emperor Joseph II tried to censor it (he replaced the nude Adam and Eve on one of the cover paintings with a clothed version in 1784), and the Nazis stole it and hid it in an Austrian salt mine until it was discovered by American soldiers in 1945. And, unfortunately for us, we didn't get to see it because the guy running the ticket counter stepped out for coffee. *sigh*

Sint-Baafs is only one of three churches that lie within 200 meters of each other. It is remarkable that one can stand in the middle of the center square and see three huge churches, all built at roughly the same time, and each vying for "top dog" in Ghent's religious community. Sint-Niklaaskerk dominates the center of the main square, and Sint-Michielskerk rests alongside the canal. It's hard to say if this kind of close proximity is the result of an "Oh yeah, well I can build an even BETTER church . . .", but it is fun to speculate.

Ghent's other great draw is the deliciously-sinister Gravensteen castle. It was built by the Counts of Flanders in the 12th-century, as much to protect Ghent's citizens as to intimidate them. Having missed the tour of the inside by a mere five minutes (it wasn't our day), we contented ourselves with a stroll around its grounds. As one of Flanders' only "urban" castles, it has survived the centuries to provide us with a more secular view of medieval times.

03 March 2007

It's a Library Thing

I've never been a big reader. English has always been my weakest subject, and when all my peers in AP class were discussing the merits of Brave New World, I was scraping my brain for the tidbits of "knowledge" I gleaned from CliffsNotes the night before. But then at some point in my early twenties that changed. I moved in with Z whose shelves were lined with such heavy titles as Being and Nothingness and Night. My mom started working at a bookstore and offered to contribute to a library that would ideally grow beyond various music texts and my Complete Works of Bloom County collection. And so I started reading.

Now that I am living in Belgium and forced to live with whatever I could bring in two suitcases, I have a very limited library. And Belgian bookstores have "English-language" sections that are generally restricted to bestsellers and cookbooks. So I have been borrowing from generous friends. (The same ones, mind you, that have also let me borrow microwaves, coffee makers, pillows, pots and pans . . . I'm going to own people big time when I leave in June!)

I have noticed that my interest in books has tapered off a bit this year. This probably comes from the fact, for the first time in YEARS, reading is all I do. I read about Peter Philips, early seventeenth-century music history, Eucharistic devotions in the Catholic church, the book trade in Antwerp. By the time I am done for the day my brain is drenched, and all I can do is eat my humble dinner and watch bad Australian soaps. But when the adventures of Mitch and Terri just won't do (and when the riveting Geschiedenis van Sint-Joriskerk has left some room in my brain for words), these new reads have provided perfect relief. They are heavy, satisfying books, and were both recommended by Belgian friends.
  • The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers. A stunning book about a young man of mixed race decent who is trying to succeed as an opera singer in mid-20th-century America. The book is told through the point of view of his devoted but slightly-less-talented pianist brother.
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. An intriguing book told in six separate narratives that unfold in chronological ascending, then descending, order. The characters seem wholly unconnected at first, but gradually their relationship becomes clear in subtle, intricate ways.

If you are a big reader, you might like to check out www.librarything.com. It's a cool website in which members can post their virtual libraries. Feel free to check out mine: muziekmeisje.