Whilst daydream in the company of my ever faithful Flag Scroll (a common occurrence, actually), I realized that I have thus far neglected to detail my time in Belgium. This is odd really, since it is perhaps one of my more educational and emotional adventures. So, without further ado, here is my fourth edition of 5 Things I Learnt.
1. Chocolate tastes better when it is free
When it comes to being master chocolatiers, only select countries come to mind: Switzerland, Britain (I’m not bias, I swear) and… oh yeah, Belgium. When visiting Ypres for a year 10 history trip, the itinerary was clearly set. Thankfully, this itinerary included a stop at the local chocolate factory. My allergy to nuts kept me cautious enough to avoid purchasing any of the delicious morsels myself, but I later won a gift basket during a student voted competition. And hooray, it was nut-free! Belgium chocolate, with a subtle hint of victory and fortune.
2. Strict enforcement create problems.
Did you know that the drinking age in Belgium is 16 and that alcohol rules are rarely enforced? As a group of thirsty British 15 year olds, we certainly did. A few daring souls attempted to guzzle down a couple o’ brews but were caught and subject to the wrath of the teachers. It’s funny how liberal the laws were and yet there was not one Belgian teenager in sight who appeared to abused them. I’ve always figured that exposure from a young age encourages acceptance and tolerance, rather than exhaustion and exploitation. You always want what you can’t have.
3. Friendship knows no bounds.
My last name is fairly uncommon, so during the many visits to engraved memorial sites (the quantity of which is astonishing), I aided my friends in their search for potential ancestors. Without thinking, I extended this offer to my (then) most ethnically distinct friend, to which he replied ‘my grandfather was killing your grandfather’. Eeesssh, we’ve come a long way since then. Let’s just… make sure this never happens again, okay?
4. Perspective is pertinent
Another thought-altering moment occurred at Ypres’ In Flanders Fields museum. If my memory serves me correctly, each student was issued a card with the real-life details of a WWI participant. At numerous locations within the exhibit, the card could be scanned, displaying chronological updates about your characters wartime situation. I grew quite fond of my young farmer-turned-soldier boy; but in the end, almost everyone’s adopted persona died – expect the person fortunate enough (or not) to get a one, Adolf Hitler. Attaching visitors to a historical character made the reality of war at once relatable and regrettable, with enough blunt impact to remain significant in my mind even today.
5. Never forget
The trips climax was indisputably the attendance of the ‘Last Post’, a remembrance ceremony conducted at the Menin Gate memorial. Brass instruments echoed around stone walls, etched with the names of the missing, as our student representatives lay down a wreath of poppies. Shoulder to shoulder with those old enough to remember the repercussions of The War, as well as gentlemen adorned with medals of honour, we, as humble students, were somber. This emotional event occurs daily as a sign of gratitude for those who fought for the freedom of Belgium. In this respect, why confine remembrance to just one day, when the events in question changed the course of history forever?
For more on my WWI zig-zag tour of France and Belgium, click here.