In Flanders Fields

While the Northeast of the United States is covered in snow and Europe is just recovering from its own snow incidents I am using the time given to me by the blizzard and a canceled flight to catch up and take you back to my trip last month to France and Belgium. During my visit to Belgium my friend Wim decided that I had already seen the big cities and major tourist attractions of Flanders and it was time that I learn about the countryside. He suggested a bike trip and I quickly concurred. The only problem was that morning I woke up to wind-driven rain tapping insistently on my window. Not to be deterred and knowing that the weather changes in Belgium as quickly as it does on an island we packed the bikes in the trunk of the car and headed west towards the coast. As our luck would have it, there seemed to be a mysterious break in the clouds right over the area we wanted to bike in so we got the bikes out of the car and headed on our way quickly.

Biking on the Cobbles

Belgium has a system of interconnected bike routes that are market by numbered points. These make it really easy to navigate, because to find where you want to go you just choose which points you want to cover and connect the dots. Their signage is clear and you are not left in the lurch like so many American bike routes. Of course, it helps to go with a native!

Bike Silhouette

We began our journey in Dijksmude, home to a monument honoring the Flemish solider who died in WWI. The original monument was blown up by Flemish separatists and the “AVV VVK” on it means “Everything for Flanders, Flanders for Christ.” This seems to take away the peaceful message of it a little bit.

Peace Bikes

Then we headed out where the town immediately gives away to green fields with incredible light and sky. I can see why Flanders produced so many amazing painters. Rolling slowly on our European cruiser bikes along winding country roads and bike trails it was hard to imagine that these still, silent, peaceful fields were the site of brutal trench warfare during World War I. The air was cold and the soil was clearly heavy and wet, providing me with a little bit of an idea more of just how awful it would have been. When I really started to imagine those fields trenched up with bombs flying and mustard gas wafting, as the damp wind cutting into my back all I could think of was, “War is the stupidest thing that humans have ever done. We say never again and we keep doing this over and over again. And for what.”

Flanders Fields

Not particularly radical or profound, but true.

Close Up of Kathe Kollwitz Sculpture

Kathe Kollwitz sculpture in German cemetery in Flanders

And I could not get this poem out of my head (though its message it’s not totally pacifist):

In Flanders Fields

by John McCrae, May 1915

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.

There are more photos on my flickr photostream.

Gainsbar, Gent

The gang
Originally uploaded by killerfemme

In lieu of singing kareoke at a disreputable student joint, Wim and Annelies took us to Gainsbar. Related to my other favorite bar in Gent, Pink Flamingoes, if only by the kitchy decor, this tiny bar is devoted to Serge Gainsbourg. It also seems to have a fair amount of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet represented in its decorations, but somehow it all works together. From the twelve-year-old Charlotte Gainsbourg sulking over the door from her album cover of “Charlotte Forever” to the “yeh yeh” cocktail, this is the work of someone with vision. It’s also probably the only bar in Belgium where you can’t order beer, but no matter, the specialty drinks and decent wine is good enough.

Gent Again

Gent Canal
Originally uploaded by killerfemme

Two hours on the Thaly’s rail and another hour on the commuter train (because we took the local train that goes by Aalst, despite Wim often warning us that it “leaves first and gets there last, remember the story of the tortoise and the hare?”) landed us in lovely Gent, Belgium. Gent also goes by Ghent or Gand, depending what language you are speaking (Flemish and French, respectively). In Belgium it matters very much what language you speak. For a little country with so much history the divisions between language groups and geographic areas can get pretty intense. However, one could say the same about Brooklyn. I described Gent to my friends in the US as similar to a cool college town, but with canals, a castle from the middle ages, a transfixing number of cobblestone allies and an important place in art history.