Where are we now? About 50 kilometres from the Belgian border in France. Kind of close to Calais. North of Paris. Why are we here? Because we want to visit Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada located a few kilometres from here. Where are we staying? Thank-you for asking. We are being hosted by a couchsurfing family. I think I am becoming a convert to couchsurfing and if ever there was a family to convert you, this would be the one. First of all, when I sent the request to surf with them, they emailed me to say they were on holidays but would ask a friend to open the house for us so we could stay. Excuse me?
Then when it turned out that we would be arriving the day they got back from holidays, they were perfectly cool with us descending on them after their week away. Have you ever been away for a week? You know when you are tired and you have a lot of laundry from your trip and you have no groceries and you have to get ready for work in the morning? Would you offer to have seven strangers stay with you right then and there? No, you would not. Or if you would, you would make an ideal couch surfer. Me? Not so much. Anyways, they are happy to have us and we offer to bring a ready-made supper so we can all eat after a long day of travel. By the way, they got up at 4 a.m. to drive 8 hours to get home.
We forgot that everything is closed on Sunday so despite all our various insane detours, no groceries or prepared foods could be had. Luckily we had a 4 1/2 hour drive to figure out a menu (a very DETAILED menu as insisted on by Chef) of van-pantry items. “Chopped” challenge – cook for twelve people in a strange kitchen in a foreign country using only endive, canned tuna, avocado, white asparagus and a half-dead pot of basil (that sat in a garage in Normandy while you toured Iberia). I kid you not. That is what we used.
The kids and I made spaghetti with oil and basil; lentil salad with canned tuna; endive and blood orange salad; white asparagus; avocado with football sized lemon (from Portugal); garlic spinach with fromage blanc. And I must say, it was pretty darned good. But enough about me. The couchsurfing family pulled the tour de grâce when they announced that they would all be staying at the grandmother’s house so we could have the whole house to ourselves. For two days. Okay, that is the bomb as they say these days. And they are “sympa” (nice) and normal. Wow. And the house is beautiful. What’s not to love? We had a wonderful meal with them. They have travelled so much. They’ve even been to Canada! To our hometown! They have three teenaged boys but it is no problem to travel with them because in France kids get 2 weeks off school every 6 weeks. Basically the whole country is homeschooling. Wink.
Today we went to Vimy. I had heard that it was a special place but going there really is a moving experience.
Onlyboy is a pretty jaded 13 year old who switches from sarcasm to flippancy with the drop of a hat. His modus operandi is slouching along behind us with a bored look. But it really made an impression on him to learn that “runners” in the Great War had a life expectancy of 1-2 weeks in the height of battle. And that Adolf Hitler had been a runner for the Germans during WWI. And that he had been a runner right there, in Vimy. And that he had been injured in a gas attack so he wasn’t at Vimy when the Canadians took the ridge. At the end of the tour, Onlyboy filled in a comment card and wrote that they should permanently lower the Canadian flag on site to half mast to show our sadness for all the lives lost there.
At the monument, we had a nice chat with a Canadian interpreter. Firstborn was interested to learn that the guides were all hired by the Canadian government through a federal summer employment program. They are Canadian university students who spend four months living and working in France at Vimy. I could see that her resolve to master French was strengthened.
Lastborn had many, many questions. She has never really been told anything about wars or people shooting each other. She wanted to know which country had the most people who weren’t killed. She wanted to know why people were fighting. She wanted to know how they planted landmines but didn’t blow themselves up. You know, simple questions to answer. Oh wait, Onlyboy’s sarcasm is rubbing off on SWMBO.
There are many sad things about war but one of the saddest is how it doesn’t end when a peace treaty is signed. The Great War might have ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1917 but for all the people who lost loved ones, for all the soldiers who returned home “shell shocked” and unable to resume daily life, the war was not over. For all the European farmers who have been blown up while tilling their fields and for all those demining experts who have faced the same fate, the war is not over. I was moved to see that Colonel Watkins was killed in 1998. An interpreter at Vimy Ridge later told me that last month, on March 19, 2014, two construction workers in Ypres were killed when they dug into a First World War shell with their heavy machinery.
Tomorrow we will visit the Wellington Quarry in Arras. Arras was almost completely destroyed in World War I but has been rebuilt as it was. The architecture here is Flemish style and different from the other parts of France we have visited. The old city tunnels were expanded and used by New Zealand and British troops to house 24 000 troops. These troops were hidden under the deserted, bombed out city until they would emerge to launch a surprise attack.
Peacefully yours, SWMBO