Sunday, March 15, 2015

In Flanders Fields

Five days into our trip, it is wet. The sky above is a clash of greys. It’s not the clouds that van Ruisdael once captured on these sweeping plains, but it instead resembles the splatters of Pollock’s paint on clean canvas. The air shimmers with almost raindrops, and the wind whips along the accumulation of the almosts to create a pretense of a storm. Though we packed for winter, the damp air is still colder than expected. A biting frozen fog that hits you hard. The blow is enough to leave you with a bloody nose, but it doesn’t. And all this – the grey, the almost rain, the cold – is saturated in an unforgiving silence. From a distant country road, a too late Christmas carol is heard. Its words of merriment and chestnuts tumble out of the opened car window, so that the gutters it leaves behind glisten with defiled letters that once, strung together, spelled joy.    

The graves stand neatly aligned with pristine white headstones set stark against the grey backdrop. There are thousands, forever saluting the commonwealth flags that flutter in the space between their bodies and spirits. Its magnitude is overwhelming, but the lone serenity of the moment does it justice. Walking along, row after row of fallen soldiers, is an experience of emotional contradictions. There is a sickening sense of familiarity in the mass of graves from Normandy and Arlington; but also a feeling of distance in their individuality, even in those only known unto g-d. There too is a sense of deep sorrow for humanity’s loss, but a comfort in their peaceful rest amongst rolling green hills and blossoming red poppies. It is raw but surreal, confusing but focused.     

It is far easier to transcribe the physical bearings of a World War I battlefield than it is to translate the mental landscape it imposes on its visitors. The experience of visiting Flanders Field was incredibly memorable, but in a way the impressions it left me with cannot be put into meaningful words. On our day excursion from Brugge, we were guided by a French-born Flemish historian into the world of a World War I soldier fighting a seemingly endless trench battle on the Ypres Salient Battlefields. Our trip took us to three interactive museums that brought history to life through video, smell, sound, and artifacts in the In Flanders Field museum in the city of Ypres, the Tyne Cot Visitor’s Centre, and the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917. In the latter, we were able to get a small taste of trench warfare through the reconstructed trenches and underground system of tunnels, while In Flanders Fields we took on the personality of a WWI fighter and learned about their personal experience throughout the museum. We made visits to a number of cemeteries and to the battlefields themselves. Although most of the fields have since been converted back to farmland, the scars of such a brutal war still mark the earth one hundred years later. Leftover cement bunkers, enormous craters, and pieces of rusted artillery all pay homage to the mass carnage that once bloodied all of Europe. Though the land and people of Flanders have been reborn since 1915, “the iron harvest” that still goes on to this day as farmers till their fields stands as a contemporary reminder that a war of such magnitude never truly dies in the pages of history books.   

A few days earlier in Brussels – and on a much happier note – my sister and I began our weeklong adventure through the Low Countries. After finding each other in our overly chic hotel (complete with Yule Log videos on every TV monitor), we wasted no time in jumping off to explore the city. Our first stop was the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, where we spent the majority of our time cranking our heads at Magritte paintings in an attempt to understand their Surrealist meanings (our favorite was The Unexpected Answer). Although most of my memories of family trips to museums consist of me longingly looking down an unseen gallery with my siblings hurling themselves full force towards the exit, Magritte’s bewildering visual compositions and outlandish subjects brought my sister and I together through critiquing and laughter. Grabbing a burger and frites to go (there will be lots of double fried fries, waffles, beer, and chocolate in this post), we quickly made our way to the Grand Place – the central square of the old town. The Grand Place, with its magnificent golden guild houses, soaring town hall spires, and surprise wedding party, is stunningly beautiful and gives you a glimpse into the old world wonders of Belgium. It was in this central meeting place that we met up with our tour guide for the next three hours in a whirlwind walk across the entire city where we learned about its history, its culture, and its quirks. Though exhilarating, we were a bit exhausted from our first day and settled for a cozy dinner in a small cellar restaurant tucked away on a cobblestone street. We talked the night away warmed by a blazing open fire hearth, accompanied by some delicious carbonnade a la flamande (Flemish beef and beer stew).

Rising bright and early the next morning, we embarked to have a most nutritious breakfast meal – chocolate! For four hours, we zigzagged across the city in search of the best confectionary cocoa creations (and succeeded!). Throughout our tour we learned about the long history of chocolate in Belgium, the process of making it, and the stories of each of the chocolatiers we met along the way – Marcolini ou Gerbaud, Mary, and many other. We also got the chance to try our own hands at creating cocoa masterpieces. Through a workshop, we created, decorated, and filled our own chocolate with sea salt, peppercorn, nuts, marzipan, caramel, and a variety of other ingredients. Though we tried many different unique combinations of chocolate with other flavors like preserved lemon, rose Champaign, and Earl Grey tea, perhaps the most astonishing part of our tasting was the raw chocolates (no sugar) we sampled from different countries. Tasting the pure chocolate from Madagascar, Peru, and Trinidad, you could also taste what was happening in the air and soil of their origin – a banana tree growing nearby, fresh red fruit being harvested, or a robust finish from a local smokehouse.

With stomachs overly full of chocolate, we continued our sensory journey through Brussels with a trip to the Musical Instrument Museum, housed in a breathtaking Art Deco building of undulating metalwork and deep oak staircases. The museum was a tour de force of sound. Given audio guides at the door, we made our way through three floors. Each time we stopped in front of an exhibit case, the audio guide would jump to life and play us a short sound bite of the instrument at hand. Hearing centuries of musical innovation from across the world was welcomed progression away from the typical, hushed-voice museum experience. Making the most of our last few hours in Brussels, we took a tour of the Hotel de Ville – the town hall – where we saw incredible interiors and tapestries from the Middle Ages, the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, supplemented with a sweeping political history of the city and its leaders (of first of many warnings that the Belgians don’t like Napoleon). Grabbing the most delicious waffle I’ve ever had from a hole-in-the-wall vendor, we hurried along through the rain towards the train station and then onward to our next stop – Ghent.   

Though off to an un-Belgium (though still delicious) start the night before with a late-night Chinese dinner, the rest of our day in Ghent was filled with castles, churches, and an unending staircase. We began our day at the Castle of the Counts, the Gravensteen Fortress. First fortified in 918, the castle would go through many drastic changes and restorations – right up until the present day. It was home to many counts and their opulent lifestyles, but also to a dark history of torture, injustice, and executions. While some rooms were decorated in period furnishings, a part of the castle was dedicated to a torture museum with drawings and historical torture tools. After a walking tour through Ghent’s traditional Flemish architecture, intersecting rivers, and church peaks rising into the blue sky, we continued our leg workout by climbing the seemingly endless (and increasingly narrow) spiral staircase of Ghent’s Belfry to get a full view of the city. Along the way, we also learned a thing or two about the history of bells. Late in the day, we made our way to the St. Bravo Cathedral to see van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, painted in 1432 on wood. Tucked away in an intimate room of the cathedral, the altarpiece is enormous – measuring 11.5 feet by 15 feet, and presents larger than life versions of Mary, Jesus, Adam, and Eve, among others, in eight panels of painstaking oil brushed detail. It is truly one of the masterpieces of all mankind, one that was unfortunately stolen (and a panel never found) by the Nazis during Occupation in World War II. Throughout our trip, we would come across many stolen pieces of art, like Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges that the Allied forces’ Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program (Monument Men) dedicated their lives to retrieving. As a student of Art History, I am incredibly thankful to those who saved these masterpieces, and also thankful to the Syrian archeologists, engineers, and artists who are preserving the masterpieces of the Middle East today from ISIS, and hope to one day visit Syria to see the magnificent culture they are working so hard to preserve.    

Saying our farewells to Ghent with a goodbye treat of cuberdons, a cone-shaped “Ghent nose” raspberry-flavored candy, we again headed to the local train station for city number three – Antwerp! Getting off to a better start with a mouth-watering dinner of meat, fries, and trappist beer, we began our first full day in the city with a walk into the old town to tour the Plantin-Moretus Museum, a house museum preserving the world’s oldest printing presses, books, antiques, tapestries, and art. Removed from the hustle and bustle of the modern city, this book-lovers paradise, and UNCESCO world heritage site, is a breathtaking journey into a prosperous 16th Century printer’s home and store, complete with still original leather wallpaper, bookstore counters, and imposingly grandiose printing machines. After many hours and a quick lunch of waffles at an Art Deco cafĂ©, we continued on to tour Rubens House. Though smaller and not as well preserved as the Plantin-Moretus Museum, the house gave a glimpse into the painter’s domestic life and smaller works of art. Taking the opportunity to see some of his larger masterpieces, we spent the rest of our day in the Cathedral of Our Lady, or the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (my French didn’t quite help us beyond the city borders of Brussels). Though the Cathedral itself is an incredible work of art, Ruben’s The Raising of the Cross, Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and The Descent from the Cross made the visit stand out amidst many other European churches.

Our final stop in Belgium took us to Brugge, an enchanting small city of waterways, merchant houses, and quaint squares of sun and street performers. Early our first morning, we made our way from our boathouse (where we were staying), into town to visit the Saint John’s Hospital and Museum, a unique combination of medical and religious history told through paintings, sculptures, and medical tools of practice. After a lively tour from a juggler across the city, we turned in at the Halve Mann Brewery for a tour of the still-family run beer making facilities, dating back to 1564. Treating ourselves to a fancier meal later that night, we headed to the outskirts of the city to a small cottage. The restaurant, Pomperlut, held only a handful of tables, surrounded by oversized mushrooms and an even more oversized roaring fire to heat the room. The perfectly cooked lamb and warm goat cheese were good accompaniments to reflect at the halfway point of our trip.

Our last two days were spent in Amsterdam – an energetic city filled with medieval and modern contradictions. We took another walking tour to get our bearings of the city and spent most of the first day delving into its rich Jewish history. We began at the Portuguese Synagogue, a wonderfully large building that withstood Nazi occupation (and modernity – it is still unelectrified and is lit by candles). While my sister left for the Anne Frank House (I had been on my last trip to Amsterdam), I stayed behind to explore the Jewish History museum, where the artifacts of the lives Jews left behind before World War II and the impressionist artwork depicting quiet moments of pious practice brought the museum to life. After feasting on one of our last meals of the Low Countries (huge pancakes with chocolate and fruits in a four-tabled landing of a very steep staircase), we (or perhaps I dragged my sister) to the Late Rembrandt exhibit at the Rijksmuseum. Peeling myself away from his (very overcrowded) masterpiece show, we caught our plane back to London. Making our last night together memorable, we squeezed in a dinner of Indian food and went to an incredibly staged musical, Assassins, about the successful and would-be assassins in American history.     

On our walk back to Kings Cross to catch the train to Cambridge, the rain was cold, and reminiscent of the World War I battlefields in Belgium. It came down steady the way you see it in movie sets as lovers shiver in their last moments together. But close to midnight on the backstreets of London, there were no star-crossed lovers. No cameras, no makeup crew, no director. Just the veracity of the every day. A man shuffled his feet at the bus stop. A woman hurried along, tired child in tow. A homeless man waited for a kindness that was as imaginary as the lovers and cameras and crew. 

In the German cemetery back in Flanders, a wreath of red poppies was laid by British school children – its ribbon inscribed with the phrase, “All are equal in death.” Seeing it had surprised me. I visited the battlefields of Normandy a year ago, and the thought of any forgiveness to German soldiers there, even seventy years later, seemed impossible. But here, in Flanders Fields where the poppies blow between the crosses, row in row, there was forgiveness. A century later, British school children had not taken up the quarrel with their departed countrymen’s foe as Major John McCrae had urged in his poem. They chose forgiveness over blame; compassion over hatred. And although I may not have entirely comprehended it, that phrase, “All are equal in death,” was beautiful.

And yet seeing the homeless man, downtrodden face and empty cup, those poetic words were decontextualized. In a way, it is easy to forgive those who fought and killed so many millions in 1915 – it is easy to believe in equality in death. It is harder, however, to practice all are equal in life. We cannot lay a wreath at the feet of those who ask for charity in the streets and walk away with a clearer conscious as we do at the graves of German soldiers. Practicing all are equal in life is just that - a practice. It takes sustained acceptance, commitment, and action to ensure that all men and women are given equal opportunity. And when life has deprived someone of opportunity, it requires tzedakah, charity, and empowerment. It is a mitzvah for my sister and I to place a stone on the grave of the only Jewish soldier in the Commonwealth WWI cemetery, to be forgiving to those who fought, killed, were killed, and rest in Flanders Field. But giving to those in need in our time and our cities, being forgiving of their missteps in life is perhaps an even more powerful mitzvah. No, we cannot lay a wreath of poppies at the feet of the homeless, the disenfranchised, and the impoverished. We can, however, give charity, give time, give agency to say that we – humanity’s children of two World Wars – do not only lay memorials for all being equal in death, but also practice all being equal in life.