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.
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!
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.
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.”
Not particularly radical or profound, but true.
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.