In May of 2015 I led a group of students on a tour of Western Europe. The theme of the tour was Canada and the world wars. We visited a host of cemeteries, took part in a special Remembrance Day ceremony at Ypres, walked on Juno Beach, and visited Vimy Ridge. The following are my thoughts as they occurred to me a couple weeks after returning home a man more appreciative of his country’s contributions to world peace.
Walking in Berlin at midnight alone was an eye opener. The buildings constructed by the Nazis were basic, grey, concrete, imposing structures. I imagined the sound of jack boots echoing on pavement and the sounds of yelling. I actually quite liked Berlin for the most part. I would be more likely to revisit Berlin than Paris. I enjoy walking in new cities by myself; it sort of feels like going on an adventure. I did the same thing in Washington, D. C., Montreal and Ottawa but didn’t get a chance to do it in Amsterdam, Ypres or Paris. I wish I could visit (almost) every city and remote place in the world. There’s so much to see but so little time to do it. I got to reconnect with a former student from Germany who I’ve maintained a correspondence with for the better part of seven years; we went to a café and had a great conversation about life and such; she is a brilliant young lady who can rest assured that her English is still top notch.
I’m not talking too much about some of the historical sites we saw because I don’t want to trivialize them. I will say seeing the poles at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp was eye opening. I remember seeing pictures of prisoners hanging from short stocks jutting out at an upwards angle from these very poles. Their hands were bound behind them and they were hung from the ropes, their shoulders dislocated. That was a messed up thing to see along with the actual ovens where bodies in the thousands were burned. I thought I would be more emotionally affected by the ovens, etc. when I saw these particular sites; instead, I was more affected by walking along a simple perimeter road seeing the buildings housing the camp’s SS guards. The SS were bullies. I don’t like bullies.
The Dutch whistler. On the train to Holland from Berlin some bespectacled, scarf wearing fashion aficionado kept blowing on my neck while whistling as we stood in line to order food in the dinner car. I would move forward to escape his creepy gale and he’d edge ever closer. I moved so my wife was in between myself and the whistler. I’m not sure how she tolerated it. I chuckled as he kept whistling.
The people in Amsterdam really, really, really, really like their bikes. Pedestrians and cars yield to cyclists. The bikes they rode were of the Wizard of Oz mean lady “I’ll get you and that little dog, too” variety. Functional bikes though ugly.
Amsterdam was my favorite city that we visited. I will return there someday I think. Lots to see and do; lots of character and characters. The teenage boys in my group were amusing: they innocently asked where the red light district was….you know…so they could avoid it and all. Oh, I got to visit the residence of one Anne Frank and one Rene Descartes. The Anne Frank house presented a meaningful experience. Anne is one of my heroes because she was such an optimistic person despite the circumstances she found herself in (she was also completely brilliant).
Speaking of red light districts I recall hearing how the people of Holland loved Canadians for helping free them from the Nazis during World War II. Yet, not a single beautiful Dutch woman kissed me in thanks. What gives? When I go back I will have to drape myself in a Canadian flag and see what happens. Supposedly if you show your passport at a bar you get free drinks. I didn’t try this. And there were some interesting stores (one of which had the hugest bong I have ever, or will ever, see). I’m so worldly.
It was interesting to be thrust in to situations where I had to communicate with people who spoke little to no English (I, regrettably, do not speak a second language). In Ypres I went in to a store to buy some gum. I couldn’t find where the gum was kept so I asked the cashier, “Do you have gum?”
An honest enough question; however, he didn’t apparently know any English. So we stood there dumbly together listening politely to metaphorical crickets. I mustered my best French and declared, “J’ameppelle Canadian.”
Not sure what I thought that would accomplish. (I suppose it was better than using my one other fall back phrase I learned from grade six French class, e.g. “Guy va à la bibliothèque.”)
I followed up by making some chewing and blowing gestures. Luckily he figured out what I wanted (fortunate for me because he might have interpreted my blowing gestures in some sort of unintended way…).
Vimy Ridge, France
I took maple leaves from the ground from all of the Canadian battle sites we visited. I am going to combine them with leaves I took from Ottawa during a trip I took last year and make some sort of collage for my boys when they graduate from high school. I also have some sand from Juno beach and a small piece of chalk from the floor of a Canadian constructed tunnel at Vimy Ridge. Vimy Ridge presented a powerful experience. The cool thing is every member of the group received a Vimy Pilgrimage medallion for going there; and it was a pilgrimage in every sense of the word. I took advantage of a photo opportunity—where everyone in the group was sitting together on the steps of the monument—to explain why the site was and should be considered so hallowed to a Canadian. Vimy was the site where the Canadian Corps accomplished the impossible, i.e. it did what Britain and France failed to do which was to take the ridge away from the Germans. The Germans regarded their position on Vimy as basically impregnable. Canada’s accomplishment gave it international recognition from both allies and enemies. We became a nation on April 9, 1917.
During my final night in Paris, I was walking with the group and noticed some man pushing around someone who appeared to be his girlfriend; it was all quite public. I wasn’t impressed with the man and the lady looked me square in the eye for assistance. My immediate instinct was to embarrass the man by drawing attention to him and/or finding a gendarme. Then I got a weird feeling. She broke his grasp and ran away (but not convincingly).
He sauntered after her catching her near the entrance to an alley. I followed a little ways and they started “fighting” again. Then my spidey sense kicked in. I felt like they were staging the episode and they were trying to lure a Good Samaritan type in to a vulnerable position. I backed off and rejoined the group. I hate the thought of being one of those apathetic people who stand by and do nothing; then I reminded myself I wasn’t in Kansas (so to speak). Paris is as dangerous a city as any and the couple just seemed to be pretending.
The Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris was a sort of intellectual home coming for me. The bookstore has been around for nearly a century and many intellectuals and writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Elliot, Hemingway, Ezra Pound) and philosopher types (Sarte, de Beauvoir) worked, read, and convened there. This was the one place in Paris I really wanted to see (having read about it in William L. Shirer’s autobiography).
The store had some interesting nooks and corners; people from around the world left notes for other travelers. The notes I read filled me with a great deal of optimism and hopefulness; there are so many bright and beautiful people out there; which makes me wonder: where are they when it comes to religion, politics and economics?
I rummaged through shelf after shelf, floor after floor of old books. I finally settled for a book on neuroscience by Sam Harris. I tried to get in to the antique bookstore adjacent to Shakespeare and Company. I entered this store and was turned away; the store had closed and I left defeated by the clock. I wanted to buy a rare edition of anything. When I go to Italy I will fulfill this need.
Paris is well-known for pick pockets. One of the students in the group was assailed by three Oriental ladies with red gloves who diverted his attention, divided him from his friend, and then quickly fondled him looking for a wallet or some such thing. He wanted to kick the one lady who fondled him down some steps.
The day after we left Paris the police conducted a huge operation arresting a bunch of Romanians who were stealing from tourists and then investing the proceeds in to real-estate at home. The average pick pocket makes about 4,000 Euros a day (this translates to over 4.5k CDN). That is pretty lucrative. So in the spirit of pick pocketry I kept all the students on their toes by pick pocketing them whenever possible; they returned the favor. It was amusing…until it got annoying. I really should think these things through sometime.
I made a good friend in our tour guide (Mickey O’Reiley). His name makes him sound outrageously Irish but he’s actually English. He and I spent a lot of time talking philosophers, history, current events. If for no other reason, I’m glad I went on the trip to get to meet him. He’s easily one of the coolest people I’ve met (funny and intelligent). We laughed a lot. I suspect I found something of a kindred spirit (and when I find such people I tend to ascribe a great deal of value to them). Perhaps I’ll return to Berlin to visit him some day. At least I hope so.