It was a misty and foggy day as we headed out for today’s tour. We had a fascinating tour guide, Jo, on the bus. He didn’t give you facts; he told you stories. He told us how King Ferdinand and Queen Sophie were killed, which was the start of WWI. He told us how bad the economy was before the war, how the men were laid off and the women and children worked instead, because you didn’t have to pay them as much as the men. With nothing else to do, the men tended to congregate at the pubs. Yeah, that sounds like a great situation, doesn’t it? Jo works with children a lot and I would bet he makes it fun to learn history.
Did you know that Belgium holds the record for the number of days without a government? 540 days with no government and it doesn’t seem to have hurt them. They do have 6 different parliaments, which I don’t understand, but it all seems to work. They obtained their independence from Holland in 1830 and they haven’t had a civil war yet, even with all the different local governments!
We heard a lot about what the Belgium people have given the world. Did you know that French fries were actually invented in Belgium? We all called them Belgium Fries from that point forward. I don’t think the name will catch on though. They also make Stella Artois there and have done so since the 1300’s.
In Brussels, even though we didn’t get to see it, there is a statue of a little boy peeing. It might be free to see it, but it will cost you 50 Euro cents if YOU need to pee!
On to Ypres. I learned quickly that they pronounce it “ee-pers,” why I don’t know. We saw the Tyne Cot Cemetery, which was a very sobering place with their City of Gravestones and museum. We also saw the In Flanders Fields Museum and that was just overwhelming! It was well done but, since we stopped and got something to eat for lunch, there wasn’t a lot of time to go through it all.
Dr. John McCrae wrote the “In Flanders Fields” poem during WWI, as he was sitting near the bunker he used as an operating theater, after his friend had been killed in action. We visited the bunker, all of us huddled inside so that we could feel how cold, dark and claustrophobic it was. Talk about shivers! We also saw the headstone of the youngest person to be killed on the battlefield, a 14 year 11 months old boy. Someone had placed a small teddy bear on top of his gravestone so someone still cares about him.
Jo explained to us that, when he works with kids, he explains to them how much the Belgium people owe to other countries for their help in the past and that includes the United States. He tells them that people they didn’t know came to their aid and helped to defend them against invaders, that these people wanted nothing in return except to see Europe free from enslavement. It is not our thanks for the tour that he was looking for. He wanted to say thank you to us. How humbling was his statement. How honored we were to have met him.
There’s one last piece of information about WWI that I will leave you with. There are different kinds of cows all over Belgium; black, white, brown, black & white, brown & white. The reason? When the Germans invaded Belgium, they took all the cows, either for the troops there in Belgium or to be sent back to Germany. There were none left after The Great War. Part of Germany’s restitution was to repay 1 million cows to Belgium. One million cows??? Germany didn’t have one million cows!!! They had to buy cows from all over the world in order to send them to Belgium and they didn’t care what kind of cows they got.
Oh, no matter how humbled we were, we still tipped Jo and I felt that any amount was too small for the pride he gave us in our own ancestors.