Thursday, August 30, 2018

Our Trip to Europe: We Go to Paris

Monday began early, as we were eating breakfast at 6am.  Despite being summer in a latitude significantly further north than Wisconsin’s – something we actually checked one evening (the latitude part, as we were all pretty confident about the summer part) because we were wondering why the sun was still up so late in the day – it was dark at that hour, so we ate inside rather than out on the picnic table.  Fran and Roeland picked us up around 6:30 or so, and we headed out.

One of the things about Europe that often takes the American mind by surprise is how condensed it is.  In the US it is entirely possible to drive at highway speed in a straight line for three days without crossing anything more significant than a river.  In Europe you can’t drive in a straight line for fifteen minutes without crossing some historically important border, whether currently recognized or not.  Those borders are old and were created at a time when nothing moved faster than three miles an hour, so they’re a lot closer together than American borders are.

From our breakfast table to the French border is less than a kilometer in a straight line, and from there to Paris is about a 3-hour drive – 3.5 in traffic, 2.5 without it.  When we were planning this trip Roeland offered to drive us there and we were happy to take him up on it!  Both Lauren and Tabitha study French (though I don’t think they actually got to use it while we were there), and none of us had ever been there before.  And seriously – who wouldn’t go to Paris given the chance?

We do have a friend who lives in Paris, but she was out of town when we got there so we missed each other.  There were other friends we have in Europe – in London and Amsterdam, for example, who we knew we wouldn’t have time to see so we didn’t even try to contact them.  It is a high-class problem to have more friends than you can see on a given trip.  We’ll try again someday, yes we will.

We crossed the border at a town called Halluin, which is pronounced “Halloween.”  Lauren in particular thought this was marvelous.  The actual border crossing was fairly anticlimactic, in this day of the EU – you’re driving along and suddenly the signs are all in French instead of Dutch.  We’d brought our passports just in case – we’re not EU citizens, so we weren’t sure if there would be more stringent requirements for crossing borders for us – but it turned out that they weren’t needed.  There wasn’t anyone to ask for them, even in theory.  Once you’re in the EU you’re in the EU and that’s pretty much it until you leave or go to the UK, which even though they’re part of the EU for the moment they still require passports.

So we never got a French stamp on our passports, sadly enough.

We drove across the French countryside, marveling at the fact that here we were in our second new country in four days.  French highways are full of speed traps and cameras, apparently, so we kept to the speed limit and worked our way around the construction detours that are universal on all the world’s major roads until we got to Paris.  The traffic was actually pretty light until we got just inside the borders of the city, whereupon it stopped dead and only moved intermittently for a while.  We got a chance to make a thorough examination of the new French national soccer stadium, though.  It’s right by the highway.  It seems very nice, at least from the outside.

Roeland had reserved a parking space in a garage just off the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, which is something I had no idea you could do.  Imagine, parking garages that will let you do that online!  We have seriously antiquated parking garages here in the US, let me tell you.

On the other hand, we spent a good half hour driving around the Avenue des Champs-Elysees looking for that garage.  Neither the GPS nor several willing locals – including employees of the neighboring parking garage that we drove into – were able to tell us where our garage was, so after a while we just found a place that had available parking and landed there.  It worked, but I hope Roeland got his money back for the first place.

Our plan, such as it was, was to do a Sampler Platter of the glory that is Paris, and we did our best.  Including the Avenue des Champs-Elysees itself, we managed to cover half a dozen tourist sites in the course of the day.  On the one hand, this meant that each site came and went fairly quickly, but on the other hand it meant that in our one day in Paris we could see a fair amount.  We know we didn’t do any particular site justice, but we had a wonderfully good time and someday we’ll go back.

It was hot that day – after a slight break while we were in Bruges and Ieper the temperatures climbed back up into the upper 30sC (upper 90sF), with a clear blue sky that meant a lot of strong direct sunlight.  We basically worked our way across Paris one shady spot and cold beverage at a time.  There were a lot of guys walking around with buckets containing a large chunk of ice and a supply of bottled water, which they would sell to you at one euro per bottle.  That actually wasn’t a bad price, and we took advantage of the opportunities as they arose.

We emerged out of the parking garage and began to walk up the Avenue des Champs-Elysees.  It’s a wide cobblestone road with no lane markers or traffic laws that I could see, but it’s really lovely.  Our first stop, though, was at a small restaurant called the King George V Cafe, where we got drinks.

All iced tea in Paris is peach iced tea.  Just know that going in.  It’s good – relax and enjoy it.

A couple of blocks from the King George V is the Arc de Triomphe. 

The Arc de Triomphe sits in the middle of the world’s most insane roundabout.  There it is, square in the center of traffic, and only a fool or a tank would attempt to get to it directly.  No, in order to get to the Arc you have to go underground – there’s a tunnel that you enter at the end of the Avenue des Champs Elysees that brings you up right in the middle of it – because otherwise you’d die trying to get there.

It’s gorgeous in a bombastic sort of way, with sternly elegant carvings and the names of French military victories carved pretty much everywhere.  You can go up inside it if you want, but that takes time and a ticket and – in a precedent-setting move for the rest of our time in Paris – we decided that we could enjoy the Arc just fine without that.

We returned back through the tunnel and started walking down toward the Seine, with our eventual goal being the Eiffel Tower.  It was a pretty walk, and it took us through some nice areas and along the river for a while.

The Eiffel Tower is just one of those things that you have to see when you’re in Paris, and having stood there at the base of it I understand why.  It’s immense, for one thing, and yet it has a delicacy to its structure that is curiously at odds with its size.  It’s also brown, which is something I really hadn’t been expecting for some reason.  I’m not sure what color I expected it to be, but that wasn’t it.

In order to get to the Eiffel Tower we had to cross the river on a nearby footbridge whose railing was covered in locks, most of which had the names or initials of couples written on them.

This is a thing in Paris, and I thought it was rather sweet.  Although that is a lot of metal.  There was apparently another bridge where they had to cut all the locks off because they got so heavy they were threatening the structural integrity of the bridge.  This one seemed just fine, though, and we took the opportunity to get some nice photos with the Eiffel Tower in the background.

From there it was a short walk to the Tower, which is surrounded entirely by tourists, souvenir salesmen, and chain link fences.  Again we declined the long lines and tickets to go up inside and instead simply walked around the base and admired it from the outside.  It really is impressive.

By this point it was getting on lunch time and climbing well into the 30sC, so we headed off to find food.  Our only real criteria was that it be an outdoor terrace, because really that’s how you’re supposed to eat in Europe, isn’t it?  Even if the place does serve an odd mix of Middle-Eastern and American food, right?  That sounded good to us, at any rate, and when we found a place that fit that bill we settled in and had ourselves a good meal.

We also stopped at a nearby souvenir stand, where I got a keychain for my Christmas tree and we fulfilled Lauren’s quest to get some article of clothing from every country we visited.  Hey – everyone needs goals.

After lunch we headed off to find a Metro stop.  This turned out to be a long walk indeed, which was fine since it was through a leafy, mostly residential area that was interesting to see.  Eventually we found a stop and went in to buy tickets.

Buying tickets from a machine in a foreign language turned out to be more complicated than you’d think, particularly as the ticket machine was not impressed by either of the credit cards that I had with me.  This turned out to be specific to the machines – the cards worked fine everywhere else – and eventually I figured out how to use the cash I had with me to buy tickets.  So voila!  Le Metro!

We have now been on public transportation in five national capitals on two continents.  Six if you include New York City, which the natives think of as the center of the universe and that has to count for something, I think.  I like public transportation – you see an interesting cross-section of humanity that way. 

We emerged from the Metro not too far from Notre Dame and walked the rest of the way there.  Notre Dame sits on an island in the middle of the Seine – the Ile de la Cite, and you’ll just have to imagine the accent mark and circumflex that should be included in that phrase – and it comes up on you fairly quickly as you round a corner and turn toward the bridge.  It’s a beautiful building, really.

As we made our way into the plaza by the entrance, however, the first thing we saw was a cat-sized rat scuttling through the crowd.  “Well here we are on the set of Ratatouille,” we thought.  But nobody seemed to mind, and Remy quickly disappeared into a grassy area, no doubt headed for cooking lessons.

The line to get into the cathedral was long, but it moved quickly and there were guys selling water.  When you go in you enter on the house right side of the nave and work your way slowly up to the front, across the back, and then back down the house left side to the exit.  You could, if you wanted, spend a day there looking at all the marble and stained glass and artworks – it really is that amazing.

Nothing creepy about this one, though.

Eventually we headed out, where we were greeted by this particular bit of artwork by the exit door.

Not really sure what the third guy did to merit holding his head at chest level like a bowling ball, but I’m sure there’s a rational explanation somewhere.  It did seem strange that they felt it was worthwhile carving it in marble on the cathedral wall for posterity, though.

After that it was a nice walk along the Seine to the Louvre.

Getting into the Louvre was perhaps the hottest part of our day, as the entrance – a giant glass pyramid with a big gold Artwork standing in the middle of it – sits in the center of a vast stone plaza that radiates sunlight and heat.

But the long serpentine line moved quickly and soon we were inside.

The Louvre on a Monday in August is a madhouse.  It is chock full to the brim with tourists such as ourselves, and it quickly became clear that we all had very different ideas as to what we ought to be doing with the time we had there, so we split up.  Tabitha went her way.  Lauren and Fran went a different way.  And Roeland and I went yet a third way.

I figured that since we were at the Louvre we should see the Mona Lisa.  Hey – I’m a tourist, and I’m going to enjoy doing tourist things!  Of course everyone else had the same idea so it was something of a challenge squeezing in past all of my fellow tourists, but eventually I got close enough to see it for real.  It’s very nice, though as with most art the full impact is probably wasted on me.  But now I’ve seen it!

Roeland also knew where the Venus de Milo was, so he and I visited that as well.

Afterward we met at the appointed time and place – which, to be honest, kind of surprised me that it actually worked – and headed off toward our next destination.  And at this point it would probably be appropriate to devote a few words to the fact that the person who designed the Metro stop at the Louvre was a gibbering loon.

Seriously – this is one of the biggest attractions in the entire city.  It is visited by literally millions of tourists every year, not to mention quite a few locals.  People need to get in and out, often in a foreign language with foreign credit cards, so trying to navigate the ticket machine can take extra time.  Put in more than one ticket machine! 

Just a suggestion.

At least there was a little shop right there where people could get snacks and drinks, so we had that going for us.  Eventually the entry gate got so overwhelmed that it broke down entirely and started letting everyone on for free, tickets or no, and nobody complained.

The Abbesses Metro stop at Montmartre lies deep in the molten core of the earth.  I know this.  For one thing it was noticeably warmer than the rest of Paris, even on that hot day.  And for another, I climbed every stair on the way back to the surface.  You start climbing when you’re at the platform level and every time you reach the top of one flight you think surely you’re done until you realize that there’s another flight of stairs, and you repeat this until you think “Clearly I have scaled some kind of cliff and will soon perish of oxygen deprivation” and then it’s just a few more flights of stairs after that until you come out at ground level.

The station sign is marvelous, though.

So you pause to admire the sign, but you’re not done.  Once you’re out, you still have more stairs to climb, and that’s when you realize that the “Mont” in Montmartre stands for “mountain,” and after that it makes a whole lot more sense.

Once you get up to the top, though, it’s a lovely place.  Montmartre was a center of French art in the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries.  If you’d gone wandering around those streets back then you might have run into Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, or Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, among others, and it still has something of that feel despite being hidden under layers of tourists such as ourselves.  There were many artists floating about as well as music and a generally festive sort of air, and if you made your way all the way to the top there was a grand white church.

We stood with our backs to the church and admired the view of the city.

And then we found a little cafe called, oddly enough, the Irish Pub, and sat outside on the terrace enjoying our drinks.  Peach iced tea.  With actual ice!  Just the thing on a hot day.

One of the odd things about Paris is how much graffiti it has, and while most of it is the usual semi-literate scribbling that one gets from people who feel obliged to spraypaint walls some of it is actually quite clever.  The graffiti in Montmartre seemed to be a cut above the rest, both figuratively and – given all those stairs – literally as well.  I liked this one the best.

By this point it was getting late and we went back to the Metro (a different, less deeply buried station this time) and headed off to our car at the Champs Elysees.  It turned out that paying for parking was not as easy as you’d think – it’s hard to give people your money sometimes – and for the first time all day I ran into a Parisian who was actually rude when I asked for help from the garage attendant.  It was oddly reassuring.  All day, nothing but friendly, helpful people, and then - BOOM! - there's your stereotype, right there.

We eventually found our way out of Paris and back on the highways, and it took us about half of the journey home to get hungry again.  So we stopped at a rest stop by the highway and had a picnic out in the parking lot, which was a quiet and peaceful way to end a good, busy day.

We got back to the B&B around 11:30pm and poured ourselves into bed like day-old coffee.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Our Trip to Europe: We Go to Bruges and Ieper (Ypres)

Sunday in Belgium started out much as Saturday had, with a lovely breakfast outside at the B&B, chatting happily away with each other and with Ilse and Wim.  It was a warm day, sunny but not as hot – it only got up to 29C – which made it a good day to walk around.

When Fran and Veerle came to collect us we piled into the car and headed off toward Bruges, where we did a fair amount of walking around.  See how that works, kids?  That’s called foreshadowing.

There was a time when Bruges (Brugge in Dutch) was one of the world’s most important port cities.  During the medieval period it was a center of the Flemish cloth trade and ships from as far as Genoa would put in for trade.  This all came to a gradual end as the channel connecting the city to the sea silted up, and the city eventually fell into the shadow of Antwerp.  It was largely spared the destruction of the 20th-century world wars, though, and it retains much of its original fabric.

We drove into town and had a good look around as we headed for the old part of the city.  When we emerged from the parking garage we found ourselves in the middle of what felt like the biggest flea market on earth, one that stretched for hundreds of miles in either direction and which featured a vast and inexhaustible array of entertaining things to look at and purchase.  Naturally we had to stop there for a while and explore.

There were just.  So.  Many.  Things.  But we were limited by the fact that everything purchased would have to be hauled across the several large bodies of water under the watchful eyes of the Airline Baggage Weight Measuring People, so the big things were carefully examined before being put back down.  Tabitha and Lauren ended up buying pins, though – old ones that they’re probably not going to find examples of here in the New World, which was sort of the point I guess.  They were pretty snazzy pins.

From there we set out to wander the streets of Bruges.

It's a gorgeous city to wander around in.

It is also an expensive city, though, since it is in many ways geared toward tourists such as ourselves.  At one point we stopped at a little stand and got a glass of lemonade that cost five euros.  In fairness, though, it was really good lemonade.

In that same little market plaza there was also this stand.

Yes, I know that the French actually translates as “The Daily Bread,” but that’s not how I read it.  To me as an English speaker it looks like it says, “The Pain of Everyday Life,” which somehow seems quietly accepting of the ills of the world in a Stoic sort of way.  It appealed to me on a very basic level.

We passed by a magnificent church – Sint-Salvatorskathedraal – which we admired from the outside, and eventually we made our way to the main market plaza in the old city, which was lovely and had a very large belfry at one end so you knew you were in Flanders.  We didn’t go inside the actual tower, but we did wander into the interior courtyard which was both vast and filled with bleacher seating for an upcoming event of some kind.

While we figured out what to do next we stopped into a convenience store for drinks – a running theme throughout our time in Europe, really – and then wandered across the street to the souvenir shop. 

I have reached the point where I don’t really need much in the way of souvenirs from places, having acquired enough Stuff in my life, but everywhere I travel I like to pick up a keychain with something clearly identifiable about that place on it.  We use them as Christmas ornaments.  Someday we will have a Christmas tree decorated with nothing but reminders of places we’ve been, people we’ve visited, and things we’ve seen.  It’s not a radical goal, but I like it.  I got my keychain.

By this time we were hungry for lunch and, remembering a string of nice little places that we’d walked past to get to the market plaza, we headed back the way we’d come until we found a restaurant that we liked.  It was an Italian restaurant, and here we ran into our first real difficulty regarding tree nuts, namely that the waiter spoke only Italian (which meant our carefully prepared cards in Dutch, French, Spanish, and Latvian were pretty useless and the few words I remembered from my grandparents and from the year I spent not really learning the language in college did nothing to help either) and even when we managed to get the point across to him he didn’t really seem to understand it very well.  Eventually, after much back and forth and at least one exasperated comment from a fellow diner across the courtyard (who couldn’t believe the waiter didn’t understand after all that), we worked out that it was safe to eat there and we ordered. 

The food turned out to be both tasty and non-lethal.  Veerle also said that for being in the heart of the tourist region of Bruges it was actually not that expensive, so win all around.

One of the things you really must do in Bruges is go for a canal boat tour, so that was our next stop. 

First we had to get there, of course, which meant another walk through the town.  Tabitha’s quest was to find chocolate somewhere – anywhere – in Europe that did not have nuts in it.  Belgium is full of chocolate shops.  Apparently the idea of making chocolate without nuts has not made it to mainstream Europe yet, however – she would have to wait until we got to Cornwall to find such chocolate – but it was worth looking since it took us into a lot of really great-smelling shops. 

Eventually we found a little overlook by the canal so we knew we were on the right path.

It’s actually easy to find the canal when you get right down to it, since it’s pretty much everywhere you look and the medieval part of the city isn’t that big.  It would be hard not to find the canal, in fact.  That’s one of the nice things about the place.

We bought our tickets and went down to the dock.

The boat tours make a loop up and down the canal, heading up to a certain point before turning around and going back down the way they came past where you got on to another point where they turn around again and head back to your dock.  They’re low-slung craft with seats along both sides and the middle, and they cruise along at a pace slow enough for the guides to get their stories out without rushing.  Our guide kept up a constant stream of stories in Dutch, French, and a curiously working-class-accented British English, and it was interesting to hear the chuckles spread around the boat as the jokes came across in the languages people understood.

It’s really a great ride, if a bit splashy, and you can wave at the other boats as they go by.  They wave at you, after all.

Those bridges are really, really low.

Afterward we found the chicken, because of course we did.

At this point it became clear that there were divergent interests, and we split up.  Lauren and Fran returned to the flea market, where we met them later.  Tabitha, Veerle, and I went to the Groeningemuseum, which was a relatively small art museum featuring Flemish art from the medieval period through to the present, some of which is very well known to those who know art. 

I think Tabitha got more out of it than I did, really, as she is an artist and spent a lot of time looking at the various works and analyzing their techniques and so on.  Me, I just kept looking at the medieval paintings and wondering why the Baby Jesus always looked like a middle-aged New York City cab driver who’d just been stiffed for a fare.

Yes, I know.  Art is kind of lost on me.  You don’t have to tell me again.  But it was interesting, so I considered it an hour or so well spent.

Eventually we met up with the flea marketeers and wandered around the market again as the vendors closed up.

The great irony of all of this, it turns out, is that less than 48 hours later some very good friends of ours from Our Little Town here in Wisconsin were in Bruges.  No, we weren’t going to try to catch up with them in Belgium.  We can see them here in Wisconsin.  At some point soon, though, we will gather together to talk about our trips, and won’t that be a time?

Having had our day in Bruges we went back to the car and headed toward Ieper.

In the United States, Ieper (pronounced EE-per) is usually referred to by its French name: Ypres.  There are a lot of towns in that corner of the world that have both Dutch and French names, a legacy of centuries of shifting borders and the fortunes of battles that few remember anymore, but if you know anything about twentieth-century history the name Ypres has a resonance to it that few other places do.

World War I was a brutal and bloody conflict, and the Battle of Ypres – which lasted, more or less, for the entire run of the war – was one of the worst examples of that.  Historians often divide the battle into five smaller battles, and depending on what estimate you take there were something like a million casualties in total at Ypres.  Probably more.  We don’t know.  For most of the war these casualties went for nothing.  The Battle of Passchendaele – sometimes simply the Third Battle of Ypres – cost between 400,000 and 800,000 casualties for a net change in the front lines measured in meters.  These are the Flanders fields referred to in the famous poem, after all.

If you want to understand the horror and futility of trench warfare and what it means to fight an industrial war of attrition, you can do no better than to study Ypres.  There were infantry charges, poison gas attacks, sapping assaults where huge tunnels were dug beneath enemy lines, filled with explosives, and then detonated, and vast artillery barrages, mostly to no lasting or marked change in things until the very end of the war.  When I teach WWI in my Western Civ class, one of the statistics that I like to throw at my students is the fact that during the course of the war the two sides fired roughly a thousand artillery shells for every square meter of ground in Ypres.  Think about that – hold your hands that far apart, first sideways and then up and down, and imagine 1000 artillery shells exploding in that space.  Now imagine living there.

This is what the city looked like when the war ended.

Ypres is a place that quiets you down and makes you think.

This is a good thing.

It’s been rebuilt now, of course.  You can walk around the town and see people going about their lives, and there’s a message there if you listen for it.

Our first stop was actually an art installation outside of town, not far from Hill 60, one of the key pieces of land in the battle.  It’s an interesting piece – a giant clay egg out of which tumble thousands of more or less spherical clay things – each one from a mold, representing a soldier of the Great War.  They crowd-sourced the small clay things, and Veerle actually made a few of them.  There’s also a small covered area with dog tags representing the soldiers who died there.

On the path back to the parking lot they have these iron plates in the ground.  The one in the foreground of this photo is where the German front lines were in December 1914, not long after the war started.  If you click on the picture to make it bigger, you can see down the path someone standing on the right side wearing a light shirt and dark shorts.  That’s where the British front lines were at the same time.  It takes less than two minutes to walk that distance today.

Perhaps the most striking monument to all of this is the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in central Ypres.  Built by the British and finished in 1927, it is a monument dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died at Ypres without graves.  It’s a massive thing – until you get right up on it you really don’t understand how big it is – and it is entirely covered in names, each one a soldier, each one without a grave.

What’s really amazing about the monument is that it is not just a static pile of stone.  Every evening since 1928 there is a ceremony that takes place.  At 8pm buglers close down the road that runs underneath the Gate and sound “Last Post.”  We didn’t stay for it – there were seven or eight tour buses parked behind the Gate and we needed to go home for dinner – but there it is.

Of course, you can’t have just that – Ypres is a living place too, and where there is life there is enjoyment.  That is how it should be.

Lauren spent a some time there working on her quest for Instagram-worthy photos.  Tabitha had chocolate, Lauren had Instagram.  Or Snapchat.  One or the other.  Hey – I’m old and technologically antiquated.  I cannot be expected to keep all that straight.  But it was fun to watch the girls work on her project.

We drove back to Wevelgem and had a lovely light supper of cheese, sausage and crackers – what we often refer to as “Swedish Breakfast” when we have it for dinner in Wisconsin – and sat around the table once again, sharing the day’s events and discussing the differences in driving between the US and Belgium.  There are many, it turns out.

It was a relatively early night, though, for the next day would arrive a lot more quickly than the last.