There’s nothing like a lazy, rainy day to reboot. A rainy day has the ability to provide the time, often needed to temporarily shift gears and clear the mind.
When you only have a couple of weeks to cram in miles of sightseeing, you really do try to make the most of every opportunity available to you. There is nothing like a full day torrential downpour to bring it all crashing to a halt. Don’t get me wrong, had the weather acted so inappropriately for the majority of our trip, I would have been thoroughly disappointed, but one, I can deal with. As the primary driver, a break from behind the wheel was much appreciated.
For me, this 24 hour monsoon increased my productivity and handed me a no excuses day to catch up on my writing. The pitter patter of each pounding drop inspired creativity and I managed to get more done that day than I had for the entire trip.
Although excessive rain often leads to my own personal depression, this dreary day served to awaken our senses and was a good reminder of why our surroundings were so lush.
We left Belgium on Thursday, after our historical Ghent city tour, and headed back into France. Destination: Longueval-Barbonval… and home of my step-cousin and step-cousin-in-law. Sounds like quite a mouthful, but the titles are not nearly as excessive in length as they rightfully should be. Long story, and though one reserved for when I finally begin my long-awaited family gossip blog… lol.
All kidding aside, together, ZeeCee and I could provide enough material for a thoroughly interesting, overly dramatic soap opera.
Having had put much importance on the historical significance, events and repercussions of both World Wars during this trip, we decided to break up the journey from Ghent to Longueval, with a detour to the Canadian National Vimy Ridge Memorial.
This impressive and grandiose monument is dedicated to the battle of Vimy Ridge and our fallen soldiers of The Great War. Canada’s most celebrated military victory, Vimy Ridge is often a mythologized symbol of the birth of Canadian national pride and awareness.
Two majestic white columns, adorned with beautifully sculpted figures and the names of 11,285 honoured soldiers engraved along the sides, dominate the surrounding landscape of the Douai Plain. The giant figures symbolize Canada mourning her fallen sons. The Western Front is honeycombed with tunnels and much of the ground is subject to frequent and unpredictable collapse. Underneath, buried in the preserved tunnels and trenches, are much evidence of land mines, gas shells and other wartime ammunition. They say the First World War still claims up to 20 lives a year.
It was a very emotional visit, as we paid our respects to the fallen soldiers. Slowly strolling between so many unmarked graves, was a somber reminder that the devastating consequence of war is undeniably, an unfair sacrifice of youth. I couldn’t help but sing along to the passionate and sentimental, anti-war lyrics of The Green Fields of France, playing on repeat in my mind,
While we were there, we had to work hard to keep our wits about us. A powerful wind storm was barrelling through the french countryside, and threatening to knock us right off the pillar, should we let our guard down, even for a moment.
Of all the war memorials and cemeteries we have visited, I think I was most… impressed, disturbed and heartbroken… at Vimy… if it is even possible to be all of those emotions at once.
did they beat the drums slowly
did the play the fife lowly
did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
did the band play the last post and chorus
did the pipes play the flowers of the forest…
the sun shining down on these green fields of france the warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance the trenches have vanished long under the plow no gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing down but here in this graveyard that's still no man's land the countless white crosses in mute witness stand till' man's blind indifference to his fellow man and a whole generation were butchered and damned...
Leaving Vimy Ridge, I managed to misread the driving directions, as I thought we were a mere 35 minutes from our destination. I could not have been more wrong.
Turns out we were another 2+ hours away. Errrr….
Sciatica, restless legs, poor circulation, bunged-up bowels, a bloated belly and a few days of little-to-no exercise did nothing to celebrate the extended time on the road, but we took the backroads and thought of it as more of an opportunity to see more of the picturesque landscape.
It was beyond incredible to see ZeeCee and Richard again. We calculated that my last visit had been a full 15 years ago, yet it was alarming how none of us had aged at all. Despite the time frame, we fell back into a comfortable banter once again. Each evening was overflowing with vin rosé, vin rouge, laughter, music, gossip and much interesting and enjoyable conversation.
Having had read my blog thus far, and fully aware we were becoming more and more overcome with malnutrition, Zelda greeted us the first evening with a delicious, homemade vegetable soup. Our bodies were bellowing out for vegetables, and this healthy offering was appreciated more than words could possibly describe.
Zelda’s cooking was beyond devine and they both went far above and beyond to provide the full French culinary experience.
From tarte aux fromages to pan au chocolat, we were lavishly spoiled, beyond any wild expectations . On our second night, they treated us to a raclette, a savoury surprise and a new experience for both of us. “Raclette” literally means “to scrape,” but that hint gave nothing away as to what we were about to experience.
An electrical contraption sat atop the dinner table, much like that of a fondue set… but the top grill is used for grilling whatever vegetables you might have on hand, as well as a variety of charcuterie. Each individual is given a metal pan to broil up a selection of various cheeses. Once everything is properly cooked, it is unloaded onto boiled potatoes and devoured. The emphasis in raclette dining is on sociable eating, often running several hours.
Although it was unique, delectable and a lot of good fun, it was Richard who really brought our introduction into French cuisine, front and centre. After scouring the streets of Reims for our perfect French feast, he finally led us into a local bistro called Les Trois Brasseurs.
It was here we met the Flammekueche… otherwise known as the tarte flambée. In simple and more understandable terms, it was a thin crust pizza. Thin rolled bread dough and covered with either cheese or crème fraîche… and then the rest was left up to differing menu selections. My lunch was smothered in caramelized onions and smoked bacon… and a lot of Swiss, mozzarella and goat cheese.
No wonder I’m bunged up…
Too much information… I am fully aware… but it has been five… going on six days now. A LOT is going IN... but nothing is coming out. Despite the abnormal amount of food I’ve managed to shove into my ever-enlarging lard mass, relief has not yet surfaced… or dropped, which would be a more appropriate verb.
As soon as we had all managed to finish off our Flammekueche, Richard had the brilliant idea to make us acquainted with café gourmand… translating very loosely, yet very appropriately into greedy coffee.
Greedy, it certainly was. Also excessive, gluttonous, fattening, sweet... the list goes on.
An espresso arrived in front of each of us, accompanied by a tasting of many homemade desserts. We had originally had it described to us as a small sprinkling of sweets, but there was nothing small about it. A buffet had arrived in front of us all.
Each plate had a glass of chocolate mousse, a bowl of vanilla ice cream topped with fresh whipped cream, a slice of raspberry champagne mouse cake, a slice of chocolate banana pudding pie, a slice of apple tart, a soft cinnamon swirl biscuit and a Speculoos cookie. It was decadently displayed with a berry drizzle and chocolate shavings.
My expression as it was approaching our table, was a mixture of terror, interest, disbelief, shock, surprise…
Maybe this will be the bowel relief I am seeking?
Though… probably not.
The sad thing about eating too much is that it has the uncanny ability to force you into hibernation.
We had done that the day before… and had taken the rainy day opportunity to laze away most of the day. We did venture out for a bit, and made a jaunt into the champagne district.
Mercier is a Champagne producer based in the Épernay region of Champagne. The house, founded in 1858 by Eugène Mercier, was an enticing option, as it not only had a train ride leaving you through the underground cellars of this historical and posh bubbly, but it also had a very unique oak barrel. This particularly massive 20-tonne barrel has a capacity of 200,000 Champagne bottles and was made for the 1889 World Exposition in Paris. Eugène had the fanatical idea to haul this monstrosity 145kms… with the help of 24 oxen and 18 horses. It was so big that five buildings had to be demolished, walls deconstructed and bridges reinforced. It was a spectacular example of innovative marketing… and gigantic crowds gathered along the cobblestone roads to watch it go by, Paris bound.
For all his efforts, Eugène ended up losing to the Eiffel Tower. His promotion skills far exceeded his time, and to this day Mercier champagne is known as a fresh, intense and spontaneous cuvée. I would have to say, if you are going to lose to something, the Eiffel Tower seems like a fairly decent adversary.
Richard and I found a mutual adoration for the 70’s punk song, Ça Plane Pour Moi… and spent much of our time together perfecting the repetitious lyrics and the ooooh ooh ooh ooh’s. We even went as far as to make a small music video, much to the embarrassment of Aunty Lin and Zelda… and much to the bewilderment of the pedestrians surrounding us.
***more to come… phone died, iPad died, free airport wifi crapped out, typing disappeared, photos wouldn’t load… and now my plane is leaving… more to come!!!
And we're back...
We took advantage of our one sunshine day and took off to explore the nearby town of Riems. I had been there in 2007, but I could hardly remember much of it at all. Of course, no visit to Reims would be complete without visiting the Notre dame de Reims in all its glory. Meaning "Our Lady of Reims," this high gothic cathedral was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and was once the location for the coronation of the Kings of France.
For someone who complains constantly about church-hopping, I certainly get around. To be fair, I don't mind wandering in, snapping a few photos (if I'm permitted) and then making a hasty exit... but I hate to linger... and I refuse to pay.
One of the Reims highlights was a small museum… found inside a little red brick house. Today, the still functioning school is called the Lycee Roosevelt; back in 1945, it was known as le College Moderne et Technique de Reims. It also happened to be the commandeered home of the operational headquarters of SHAEF, the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, headed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
On May 7, 1945, this was the exact location of the FIRST unconditional surrender of all German forces, East and West.
We were standing in the exact spot of such a significant historical event... and it was one of the many poignant moments we have experienced along the way, a momentous occasion in a war that touched every aspect of society. The room had been untouched by the past 77 years, and the original chairs and tables were still intact, commemorating the signatures that began the end of the war. Very moving moment...
"The Russians celebrate May 9th as Victory Day to this day. The Reims surrender wasn't even reported in the Soviet press until a day afterward, proof according to some observers that the second surrender was a propaganda move orchestrated so Stalin could claim a larger part of the credit for ending the war. In the rest of the world, though, V-E (Victory in Europe) Day is celebrated on May 8, the day the ceasefire was officially slated to begin."
The hospitality of ZeeCee and Richard was second to none, and I cannot wait to host them, should they ever venture over to our side of the world. If I'm here! From delicious food to cheap laundry service, personal bedrooms, hot showers, free-flowing wine and an abundance of laughter... they are simply the best.
On the evening of our final night in Longueval, ZeeCee put on some of her daughter, Anna's YouTube travel videos. Both Aunty Lin and I were absolutely BLOWN away by, not only the talent of this kid, but also the insight and her pure zest for life. It really served to make me miss my own youth, and made me suddenly realize how precious time is. It's so important it is to live life to the fullest, and Anna is certainly taking advantage of every opportunity presented to her.
Such a carefree spirit.
A true global-trotting, hippy heart... 💙