Sunday, March 24, 2013


It was a reasonable ride from Bruges to Waterloo, about 80 miles or an hour and a half. It was the only thing reasonable about that day.

On June 18, 1815 the members of the Seventh Coalition, those formed by an Anglo-Allied army, a combination of the English under the command of the Duke of Wellington, and the Prussian's led by Gebhard von Blucher, defeated Napoleon at the end of a three-day battle, ending as well Napoleon's return to power post-exile, a respite which lasted a hundred days. Napoleon's forces of 72,000 had little chance against the combined troops of nearly 115,000 (depicted in this famous painting, The Battle of Waterloo by George Jones, The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images).

The Butte du Lion (Lion’s Mound) juts out of the ground, a grass covered mound reaching into the blue sky from out of a serene and flat plain, commemorates the spot where, it is believed, William II of the Netherlands (then Prince Frederick d'Orange-Nassau) was wounded during the battle. His father commissioned the monument topped with a lion from the Netherlands' coat of arms. 226 steps lead to the top of the 141 foot high memorial. The lion at the top weighs in at 28 tons (yep, tons) and measures 4.5 meters in length and 4.45 in height. The lion symbolizes not only victory but the new United Kingdom of the Netherlands. It's open mouth faces the defeated France and its front paw rests upon a cannonball in symbolism of peace. The monument was inaugurated on November 4, 1826.

Many of the kids spent the €2.50 it cost to climb the stairs to the top. Otherwise there’s not a whole lot to occupy a tourist at this location; there is a visitor’s center which provides a short slide show and a twenty-minute video for approximately five euros. Still, there was time to kill until we could go on to our next destination.

If only we had gone earlier, instead of lounging at another outdoor café, the next few hours might not have been so stressful.

Approaching the bus we spied our group leader, our incompetent guide and our militant bus driver in a close conversation. They did not look happy.

If our trip had not already been riddled with National Lampoonesque blunders and bungles, rough conditions and down right bad luck, this topped it off.

The bus was broken down.

The shock was palpable. The anger no longer simmered below the surface, it was in full, open boil. For a few minutes I felt personally responsible…that what I believed was my bad luck, my curse, had followed me across the ocean (this was before I believed that we create the luck we desire and the luck we believe we deserve). When the truth came out, I was certain it was simple human ineptitude.

The disabled bus situation would not have been such a crisis if the kids weren’t due to perform in less than an hour and a half. It was a small consolation that Reverend B, our host at the All Saints Church in Waterloo, was in his car in the parking lot, waiting to lead the way to his church.

We packed his car with five of the kids and Ms. Y, even illegally using the far back of his station wagon, and sent them off. Calculating the time the round trip would take and the number of kids remaining, it was clear not all of them would get there on time. Certainly we parents, who came to see our offspring perform in the foreign surroundings, unarguably the least important to transport, would never make it in time.

Some of us tried to get the small cart-like tram that circled the memorial site to take us all to the destination, but they only had a license for the museum grounds. We sat on the boulders in the parking lot, the ants crawling on our packages and our butts, counting the minutes as the good Reverend came and went, came and went. A glimpse of hope came in the form of a bus repair truck pulled into the parking lot. It only took a few minutes for the problem to reveal itself, to fix it, but the anger lingered for a long time.

The bus had run out of gas.

Yes, I said the bus was out of gas.

Waterloo; our Waterloo.

There was no time for further explanations at this point. We jumped on the bus, followed Reverend, and made it to the church on time.

The chorus and strings performed brilliantly for the grateful and enthusiastic audience members, regardless of the record high temperatures, rising far above the conditions they suffered. After the performance, after wonderful words of appreciation and praise from the Reverend, the church ladies offered the entertainers just what a group of teenagers would want…snacks, chips and sweets. With mouths overflowing with delights, it was quite satisfying to see the young people mingling with those from the church and making new friends.

The next morning we bid goodbye to our wonderful hotel and set off for Amsterdam. As we embarked on the drive that would last approximately 140 miles and a little over two hours, our bus driver picked up the microphone. In his sputtering delivery he confessed that the previous day’s debacle with the bus was his fault. My first thought was that it takes a big person to admit to such a large mistake. And then he went on to claim that the gauge was broken. Oh, so it wasn’t his fault after all; he wasn’t admitting to it anyway. Like so many people today, he claimed it was someone else’s, or something else’s fault.

The man is a professional bus driver. We had driven from Paris to Normandy to Rouen to Bruges then to Waterloo. He didn’t realize that somewhere along that long line, regardless of what the gauge might say, that he would need to refuel the bus? Unless this was the same bus the Beatles used on their Magical Mystery Tour, how could it not need fuel? To admit fault deserves respect for courage; to make excuses does not.

Waterloo; our Waterloo.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


There are a few places, among the multitude of sights visited on this trip, which I will always treasure; Bruges is on the pinnacle of the list. A place less well known than many others in this journey, but one highly recommended for any European traveler.
            The small town located about sixty miles north east of Brussels is a charming and inviting city called the Venice of the North. Canals web through the town for miles, crossing and running parallel with narrow streets. Both passageways are lined with small, quaint buildings, holding true to the long ago centuries in which they were built. Among them are some of the oldest churches we had encountered. 
            From the moment we stepped into Bruges, it felt like we were in a magical place, not only beautiful but welcoming. Prevalent theory dates the founding of Bruges by Vikings sometime in the 9th century. The very root of its name is derive from the Scandinavian 'Brygga,' meaning harbor. The settlement was linked directly to the North Sea by the river Zwin, which quickly made it an important stop on the international trade route. 
            But as the world expanded and trade routes changed and new ones were discovered, Bruges' history became a familiar one of highs and lows. And though it lost its 'power' by the 20th century, it soon became an international tourist destination, one greatly deserved by its breathtaking beauty.
            The first site to greet a visitor to the city is the gracefully arched walking bridge. This bridge (pictured) is considered a lover’s bridge; newly married couples cross it to bring their union good luck. The streets, though filled with with chocolate shops, waffle vendors, and souvenir shops, they are constructed with such quaint architecture, one fills transported to another time as well as a foreign place. 

            Churches are a specialty of the small city, boasted not one, but two of the oldest still standing, both from the ninth century. This picture is my son's favorite of all those I took of him on this trip; in the background is the spire--one over four hundred feet in the air--of The Church of Our Lady. It is, in fact, the tallest structure of the city and contains the tombs of Charles the Bold, the last Valois Duke of Burgundy and his daughter, the duchess Mary. 

                   No time spent in Bruges would be complete without spending time upon the water, the winding canals that have earned the city the moniker of the Venice of the North. Boat tours of Bruges last approximately about half an hour and are captained and narrated by charming natives. From the motorboats that cruise along the thin strands of water, we could see how the people lived, a private peek into their backyards, the secret gardens, and secret places created by plants and stone that looked separated in time as well as space. I could have sworn I saw muse faeries peeking out among the dazzling petals festooning the balconies and patios (oh, what could be written amidst the sheltering, encouraging arms of this place?). A long-time resident of the city, this lazy canine has watch tourist pass his window for years, and is considered a 'celebrity' of this magical place he calls home.

            After a lunch of individually, freshly made crepes stuffed with cheese, ham and tomatoes in preferred combinations, my mother and I set off on a free-time excursion. We returned to The Church of Our Lady, for we had been told of the treasure that lies within (why the tour wouldn't bring the student to see this sight, is one that I am still unable to fathom. Enshrined within the altarpiece of the southern side is one of the most magnificent of Michelangelo statues, one of the few pieces of his artwork on display outside of Italy. This Madonna and Child was created in 1504, long before Michelangelo had begun his work upon the Sistine Chapel, and is now, rightfully known as the Madonna of Bruges.
            I was captured by the work, soothed by the smooth lines and curves of stone. I was enthralled by the Virgin’s face, her expression; she appears mournful but accepting, as if she could see the anguish of her future, the turbulent fate of her son, but its inevitability as well. During my research, I was shocked to find how many others saw the same thing as I had in her pensive face. This creation of Michelangelo's is, in fact, famous for this alternative treatment of this very common subject matter. It relates, no doubt, to his own grief at the lost of his own mother while a child, a loss that was to appear throughout the artist's complete scope of work.
            Making our way to the bus, we stopped and bought souvenirs including some of the famous, deservedly so, Belgian chocolate. Our meanderings brought us passed waffle shops; they are as prevalent as the gift shops and the enticing sweet, vanilla odors reached out to the street like powerful arms…and grabbed us. We bought one piece each and walked a block further to sit on a stone bridge. Across the water resplendent with graceful swans a bride and groom posed for pictures on the Lovers’ Bridge.
            Settled happily among a few other tourists, we took our first bites. The fluffy yet thick consistency melted on my tongue. The abundant sweetness burst in my mouth. With just a light coating of sugar (surely to put syrup on these waffles would be a sin against nature) it was a delicate sweetness, not an overdone cloying one. Pure heaven.           

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


   The four-hour ride crossing 155 miles (250 kilometers) took us out of France and into the Netherlands, most precisely into Belgium. We were surprised there was no tangible borderline and no passport checks as we crossed. Broekzele, a village of the marsh, was the settlement that became Brussels in the sixth century, a stop on the trade route between Cologne and the towns of Bruges and Ghent. The town grew and prospered under the leadership of the Hapsburgs, and became the capital of the Spanish Netherlands.

            There were obviously no structured plans for the group this afternoon, for we were brought to another square, a most sizable and impressive one called, in English, The Grand Place and set free for four hours. The Grand'Place or de grote Markt is considered one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. Dominated by the Town Hall (pictured), the Guild Houses, and the King's house. The square dates back to the 12th century with the grand stone buildings coming in the 14th.
         As a mom, one with a slight tendency to be protective, I was a little concerned with the teenagers sent off in a completely unknown place--a foreign country--for four hours, especially one with such a potential for getting lost. From the main, large square, the roads branch out like the spokes on a wagon wheel with multiple short, cross streets, streets that just keep going and going. Once venturing down them, it was very difficult to look back and distinguish which way to return. If one could find the high rising spire of the Town Hall that dominated the square between the gaps of the other tall buildings, it was possible to get back to the square. This is exactly what my son and his group did when they became lost.
            Mom and I didn't wander too far. The spider web of streets was daunting in its confusion to say the least. We were looking for a newspaper; it had been quite some time since we had seen one or even watched some news since, so far, we hadn’t really found English speaking television. The Hezbolah problems in Lebanon had just begun when we left home and I felt a niggling of fear at what may be happening, at not knowing. Since 9/11, fear had become an inherent part of life, thoughts of it were an infection of every mind.
            We were also looking for a bookstore, one that sold English language books; without television to fall asleep to and with all the long bus rides, my mother had quickly burned her way through the two paperbacks she had brought with her. Ironically we soon found just what we were looking for at a BBC store. BBC Audiobooks of America was the largest financial sponsors I was able to secure for the trip; the irony of the find was lovely.
            There were plenty of clothing stores in a small mall-like area and, of course, an abundance of lace and chocolate shops. We returned to the square and found a lovely café to eat our lunch. Our charming waiter spoke English and Spanish and something that sounded like Russian or German. His linguistic abilities, and that of so many others in the service industry, impressed me.
            The food was excellent; a wonderful Waldorf salad with everything in it, but my attention and worry were on the whereabouts of my son. I mentioned my concern to my mom who advised me to say a prayer. I offered up a quick one then craned my neck to search the square for the face so dear to me. And there he was. It was quite startling in its obvious, immediate response. I have often felt God’s presence in my life, the power of Source, and been grateful for it, but I have equally as often wondered at her ways, confused by the directions it’s taken me in.
           Feeling better for having seen my son, we did our shopping but it was just too hot and we were too tired to keep it up for the whole four hours we had available to us. We took a couple of seats at another outdoor café where we had a fantastic view of the King’s House and slowly sipped soft drinks just to retain the chairs. The King's House (pictured) called Broodhuis (bread house) derives its name from its origins. In the beginning of the 13th century, a wooden structure stood in its place, from which bakers would sell their wares.
       We read the paper, I kept my eye out for Devon, and we talked. The close chair-up-against-chair configuration made it hard not to become acquainted with your neighbor and we soon began talking to ours. He entered the dialogue as we spoke about, what else, my sons. A charming Italian man, perhaps a little older than myself, children were obviously a dear topic to him as he shared his angst over his own eighteen-year-old who longed to spread his wings and fly on his own. He and my mother really hit it off and continued the conversation as I continued to search for Devon. There might have even been some flirting going on, which my mother completely denies, though she does refer to our nameless acquaintance as ‘my Italian friend’.
            Once we were all back together, we moved en masse a few blocks to the area’s most popular and intriguing tourist attraction, what I call the pissing boy. The official name is the Manneken Pis, which translates to ‘little man piss.’ A most bizarre object of abject adoration, it is a sculpture of a cherubic, curly haired, muscular boy peeing. Many of us were confused by the intense attention given to this, plainly speaking, obnoxious artwork. The crowds around him were, at most times, ten or more rows of people deep. They pushed and jockeyed for a good position to have their picture taken in front of him. He was everywhere, in every shop and souvenir store, in every possible form; the corkscrew with the well-placed spiral was a particular favorite.
     Two legends attempt to explain the Manneken Pis. The first and most famous is that of two-year-old Duke Godfried II of Brabant. His troops, while battling the Berthouts, put their lord in a basket and hung him in a tree, where the child urinated on their enemies, who eventually lost. The other popular postulation contends that as attackers were laying explosives at the base of the city walls, a small boy named Juliaanske, spying the attempts, urinated on the burning fuse, dousing the sparks, and saved the city.
            Even now that I know the history and meaning, I can’t help but tilt my head at such an unlikely city patron, scrunch my face in confusion and ask: “What the hell?”
            Back on the bus there was a distinct anxious tension as we headed for our hotel, an ominous silence prevailed over us all as we scanned the streets and buildings along our route. We passed a surplus of American hotels, sighing as the inviting and familiar facades faded behind us, Hiltons, Sheratons and even a Holiday Inn (you ain’t seen nothin’, til you been, in a motel, baby, like a Holiday Inn).
            We turned the corner and there we stopped, in front of the Forum Art Hotel (Avenue du Haut-Pont 2, Brussels, Belgium). It is a modern looking building which was promising in itself, but what really got us all buzzing like bees come upon a meadow of wildflowers, was the windows. They were all closed. Why would they have all the windows closed on a sweltering day unless…AIR CONDITIONING!!!
            Everyone started talking faster and louder. We yanked our bags off the bus and rushed to open the doors. The blast of artificially cooled air hit our faces, caressing our skin. It felt like the touch of salvation. The rowdy cheers bounced off the surrounding stone building of the small, alley-like street.
            We all rushed into the lobby as they passed out our room keys. Again, there were only two elevators that could only fit two people and their suitcases. But who cared? We were happy just to be in the comfortably appointed, cool public room. Many of the kids were on the first floor so they skipped the elevators all together.
            After making my way to our room and marveling with my mom over the amenities, I set off to alert the kids that the stuff in the mini-bar was not free, but rather very expensive. When I got to their floor, there was an undeniable party-like atmosphere. They rushed from room to room, calling out to each other and laughing.
            “Did you see the great beds?”
            “Did you see the bathroom?”
            “Did you see the two toilets?”
            It wasn’t a second toilet but a bidet, which, once I explained what it was, brought on a whole bunch of other interesting questions. I laughed and joked right along with them.
            The high spirits carried into dinner served on the premises. While once more of a somewhat bland offering (pork ribs with no sauce, French fries, vegetable soup, pasta salad, green salad and fruit) it was an all you can eat buffet, another reason the teenagers felt like rejoicing. There was something relieving and soothingly joyful to be enfolded in the comfort offered to us for the first time. Perhaps we are, as middle class Americans, spoiled. But, if we work for those comforts, earn them, why do we not deserve them?