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On Sunday April 25 I commemorated ANZAC Day at Ypres or alternatively Ieper (as always in Belgium, everything has a Flemish and a French version). Alex kindly invited me to attend a commemoration service organized by the New Zealand Embassy in Brussels. Our tour bus was joined by a busload of kiwis who had driven all the way from London to be there.  Our bus also included an embassy staffer hilariously reminiscent of Murray the cultural attaché in FotC and Scott, my bus buddy, whose pedo glasses and odd affinity with striking up a friendship with the 8 and 11 year old girls sitting in front of us struck me as rather unfortunate. He seemed happy though, and isn’t that really what we all ultimately want?

We arrived at the small village of Messines (Mesene). This has particular relevance for kiwis as the New Zealand memorial commemorating New Zealand dead in this theater of the First World War is located there. The traditional angular obelisk stares down a gentle slope a few hundred meters to where members of the New Zealand 1st Division launched an attack on the German line during the battle of Messines, 1917, which involved blowing up massive mines stuffed with explosives under the German lines. This successful manouvere is in stark contrast to the sickening waste at later battles in the area such as Passchedaele where hundreds of thousands casualties were spent in the ultimately futile acquisition of mere kilometers, a few hundred metres or even nothing at all. The scene of the world’s first calculated application of biological weapons (mustard gas) as well as haunting and everlasting prose such as that of John McCrae:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We later proceeded in a parade from the town hall of Ypres to the Menin gate, erected in 1917 to honour those dead not found and inscribed with 54,896 names of Commonwealth soldiers (except the New Zealanders who are inscribed at Tyn Cot Cemetery). Trailing a full marching band of drummers, brass and proud local veterans holding aloft the flags of Belgium, New Zealand and Australia. The Last Post was precisely sounded by an association that has been doing that same every day since the end of the War. Rebecca, a New Zealander, gave an incredibly goosebumpy lamentation, piercing in the silence, the gate providing superb acoustics.

My own connection to Ypres is not particularly personal. I had no relatives that I know of who fought in World War I, The Netherlands being a neutral country. In an interesting aside, my grandfather was made an honorary citizen of Ypres. My reason for travelling there was that I believe it is important to remember the futility of war, and there is no better way to remember that than attend a ceremony honouring war veterans. It is not about glorifying war, extending it a certain undeserving mystique or politicising it to aid current political debates. War is hell and there is no better way to see that than visit mass graves, concentration camps or torture camps.


Well. There it is. I have come to an interim end in Belgium, ensconced with my family in Kortrijk, West Flanders, Belgium and very close to the French border. My slothfulness in updating this blog I think is a reflection of that which every traveller dreads, the end of the trip and the depression which envelops you at the return to normalcy and all attendant cares, worries and concerns. Indeed the challenge is to process all the experiences wrought and decide whether to implement change in your life so as to live a life more enriched from the travel undertaken. Alain de Botton again comes to the fore in The Art of Travel with a chapter entitled ‘On Habit’. He rightly points out that “we meet people who have crossed deserts, floated on icecaps and cut their way through jungles – and yet in whose souls we would search in vain for evidence of what they have witnessed.” Hope you can see some evidence when we next meet.

Despite the apparent end, I can retain the travelling mindset newly enhanced. De Botton:

“What then is a travelling mindset? Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic. We approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is interesting. We irritate locals because we stand on traffic islands and in narrow streets and admire what they take to be strange small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall. We find a supermarket or hairdresser’s unusually fascinating. We dwell at length on the layout of a menu or the clothes of the presenters on the evening news. We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs.

Home on the other hand, finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about a neighbourhood, primarily by virtue of having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new to find in a place which we have been living in for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind.”

Germany. Spent a couple of super decadent nights in Frankfurt with Corin and Nico in their palatial residence. Tasted the delights again of Corin’s orange coffee monster machine, all the way from Trademe, NZ. I proferred my opinion (politely rebuffed) on the flea market ‘bargains’ including an elephant wastepaper basket and an elephant light. Apparently safari is in. Also nipped over to Heidelberg, a cute old university town nearby with an awesome romantic ruined schloss. Later on in the month I returned to Germany to visit Damon and Donathea in Cologne (Germans call it Köln) and then up to Bonn. All so close via train! Visited the christmas markets complete with kabouters and roly-poly Germans stuffing themselves with waffles, bratwurst, glühwein, crepes and stolle. Fun, fun, fun!

Belgium. I zoomed into Brussels and immediately rolled on up to Alex and Nicole’s pad in central Brussels. It’s really cool to have friends from NZ living so close! I visited the new Magritte Museum (if you’ve seen Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair you’d know one of his famous works) and also the Belgian Comic Strip Center which was neat. Tintin was created by a Belgian (Georges Remi aka Hergé) and reading comics is huge here in Belgium. Things of note in Belgium include its schizophrenic nature as far as language goes with most of the population at the very least bilingual with mother tongues of either Flemish (basically Dutch) or French. Because Belgium politics really revolves around language, this means that there is a incredible number of domestic politicians here, and then you have the EU also based in Brussels. In fact it is probably easier to become a professional politician here because there are just so many damn parliaments and councils! Brussels is drenched in politics with the EU Parliament and thousands of EU bureaucrats making their living writing discussion documents and developing policy proposals no-one will read.

The Netherlands. I painfully pulled myself out of bed at 3.30am to accompany my uncle on one of his weekly trips to a flower auction in Naaldwijk near Rotterdam. Pretty massive place and fascinating. Tractors zipping around inside with dozens of trolleys holding flowers and plants destined for wider Europe and arriving from places like Guatemala, Israel, Mexico, South Africa, Florida, Costa Rica and New Zealand! The Netherlands has a massive flower industry and your interesting factoid of the day is that the world’s second largest building by floor area is the Aalsmeer Flower Auction which is also the largest flower auction in the world.

I also attended two hunts with my uncles, very traditional affairs with ties, knee high socks and Holland & Holland shotguns.  The first one netted 4 rabbits, 47 ducks and 20 pheasants making a bag of 71 animals killed by 6 hunters and assisted by 8 beaters including myself. The second time included a fox. I have mixed opinions on hunting but the main benefit for me was to get out into nature, which The Netherlands has precious little of. I’ll post some pictures of the land soon.

Joyeux noël to you all and hope to see some summer action on the beach soon.