A number of years ago, a friend and I decided to take this week long dash through some European countries we had not visited in a while and to see some friends – a week long journey of planes, trains, buses, trams, boats to the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands. Why we chose a week when Europe is often bitter and cold is a mystery…. but off we went anyway into the early November gloom to eat and drink our way across the days.
In London, we had pub lunches and visited the queen – well, the outside of her house anyway. In Amsterdam, we rode canal boats and drank lots of coffee and hot chocolate to keep ourselves warm. In Brussels, we ate fries (or chips for my Brit friends) with mayonnaise, drank far too much beer (the whole special glasses thing for special beers – not sure I’ll ever recover – was like getting a sort of present every time I ordered a new kind) and of course devoured the street vendor waffles.
On the morning of Veterans’ Day or Remembrance Day, we got up at dawn to spend a day in the beautiful medieval town of Bruges or Brugge – depending on which language you favor in Belgium.
It was foggy, cold and maybe a bit rainy and we were certainly half asleep for the drowsy train ride. Like small children woken from a nap, we got off the train, disorientated, and took the bus to the center of town to start walking around.
In London, we’d seen all the paper poppies for sale. World War II is very much D Day to most Americans and the action in the Pacific, a time for patriotism and, after 1941, sacrifice but it all happened so very far away. Our personal safety as Americans was threatened but bombs didn’t drop on our houses, most people didn’t disappear by the dark of night (not discounting the internment of Japanese Americans) and the U boats while close to our shores, never really threatened the day to day life of the average person, except in theory and in the news.
My mother’s birthday is in December and she remembers hearing about Pearl Harbor on the radio, she gathered peach pits for charcoal and had a ration booklet. My uncles served and one was shot down and spent a long time in a German Prison Camp. So, please do believe me, I am not saying it wasn’t part of her childhood and that we didn’t feel the loss of loved ones but America remembers that war differently than our allies overseas.
The first thing we heard were the drums and then we saw the crowds – all ages, waving flags, cheering, smiling, lining every street and few people deep and then we saw the parade and then by accident like the greatest of travel memories, we were marching in the very back of the parade – a sombre occasion to be honored but there was celebration in the air too.
And of all my travel memories, there’s something about this magical morning where I touched a part of history I was not really a part of except I was and I am, the joy of marching to the beat of a drum, to see a part of history honored and remembered, to have an ancient gentleman of a Vet smile and march along beside me – showing me how it was done and refusing to allow me to just walk beside him, demanding I march too.
It certainly helps that of all the medieval cities of Europe, Bruges is a gem and retains her other worldly beauty. The fog stayed with us all day and in a place where you can wander off the main square and still hear the clopping tourist horse carts, it’s a time traveling place. It was a post 2000 morning, but it was also 1949, 1620, 1840 all at the same time – old and new memories blending together for just a moment when the best part of traveling happens, the traveler has a window into something so much bigger, larger than just one lifetime and remembers that with sadness, there can and always should be joy side by side .