Saturday, March 10, 2007

Bastogne & Hotel Melba

That's MeiMei, dwarfed by the enormous Battle of the Bulge Monument in Bastogne, Belgium.

We arrived in Bastogne hungry and tired from our busy day of touring (see Aachen and Blegny) and luckily we were staying at the lovely Hotel Melba, which is part of a chain (Best Western I think) but only for reservation purposes. Everything else about the hotel is one-of-a-kind, and the room was one of the nicest we've ever had.

We had the chance to choose two connecting rooms or a suite, and we decided on the suite--I'm so glad! Turns out the only suite in the hotel is under a peaked roof instead of a flat roof. Each room in our suite had double skylights right over the beds, so we literally slept under the stars, though we pulled the shades over the girls' beds so they wouldn't wake up too quickly.

The girls napped a bit more and played in the room until it was time for a group dinner in the hotel dining room. I wasn't expecting much, but we were so pleasantly surprised. Dinner began with Quiche Ardennes, named for the delicious Ardennes ham that was the main ingredient. The girls wolfed theirs down and were full, so I got them some little activity books to do over by a fireplace/lounge area in the dining room. One of the JMU students voluntarily kept them company while we ate our turkey dinners--I could have kissed her. The girls have to do a lot more keeping themselves occupied on these group trips, so it means a great deal to me that the students go out of their way to help--they certainly wouldn't have to!

After dinner I went up to tuck JieJie and MeiMei in, and by then it was absolutely pouring rain. I didn't realize til then how totally spent I was from all the touring...I sat and stared out the window at rainy Bastogne for a solid ten minutes, I think! John and Mr. K talked down in the lounge for a while longer and then we all went to sleep. I think some of the students actually went out looking for a good pub, despite the rain and their exhaustion, but if they did, I didn't hear them go out or return...I was dead to the world.

Saturday morning dawned rainy and raw. We had breakfast in the hotel, a lovely selection of meats, cheeses, and croissants, and we met Henri, the man who would be our guide for the day. Henri was 8 years old when the Allies defeated the German army in WWII's famous Battle of the Bulge, and he still remembers things like American GI's giving him chocolate. I have a bit of interest in WWII as both of my grandfathers served in the U.S. military, one in the Navy and one in the Army. My Grampa Defries, the Army guy, actually met General Patton, who was involved in the Battle of the Bulge. So I was excited for the tour, though not expecting to hear and/or see as much because I am Parachute Lady with the girls ("Tantrum! Tantrum! Eject! Eject!")

Our group boarded the bus and began the bus tour of Bastogne, where we saw more American flags than I remember seeing at home. There's a church that plays the first six notes of the U.S. National Anthem on its carillon bells, and whose stained glass displays an American Flag.

We arrived at the Bastogne Historical Center, watched an orientation movie (thankfully not too graphic) which the girls paid attention to enough that I could get the gist of it, and then went out into the exhibit areas, which I only wish I could have seen with Grampa. He fixed Jeeps, and there in the exhibit diorama were two full-size Jeeps and depictions of soldiers in uniform carrying out various tasks. I wonder what he would have been able to remember if he could see all of the artifacts collected in this impressive tribute to the Battle of the Bulge.

The girls got squirrely enough that I took them away from the group and we just looked at different tools, uniforms, canteens, and things having to do with soldiers' daily lives. Then we went back to the bus and hung out with Rene, the driver, who is a very nice grandfatherly sort of man. He let the girls sit in his seat and have their pictures taken "driving" the bus, I gave the girls some snacks, and read them "Rumpelstiltskin" which Rene said is called "Rempestentje" in Dutch.

We briefly tried to walk to the outdoor memorial with its view of the beautiful Ardennes landscape, but it was just too raw and rainy so the picture of MeiMei is about all that came of our attempts. When either of my daughters is tired of walking, it's no use trying to go another step (hence the invaluable STROLLER!) and once JieJie just whined "Coold! Tiiiired!" over and over, I knew it was pointless to argue.

John, Mr. K, Henri and the students returned to the bus, we drove out through the forest battle areas and looked at a "foxhole"--John says they can't be authentic because they had freshly broken tree roots as though they had been created or at the very least maintained much more recently than 1944. Still, it was moving to drive through the area and realize how cold it must have been, how hard it was to see through the dense pine forests. If you've seen "Band of Brothers" you know the terrain.

We said goodbye to Henri at the center of town, grabbed a Croque Monsieur (our standby for the girls - they will always wolf down a hot ham and cheese!) and got back on the bus for the trip to our final destination in this whirlwind overnight: Boullion, Belgium.

You might notice that it's taken me a couple of weeks to write about these two densely packed days of touring. I can't wait to finish with Boullion, which must be mentioned since it is so gorgeous. Still, this "assignment" has brought out my inner rebel, the part of me that drags my feet when I know I have something big to finish. I want to get caught up! I want to tell you about JieJie's birthday, about our little trip to Leuven, and today's daytrip wandering around Brussels. I'll get to it, and soon--I have to, because we've got five solid days of touring coming up later this month (including our first ever trip to Paris), and The Decks Must Be Clear!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Halfway Point

Well, this Friday is JieJie's fifth birthday, and next week is the halfway point of our time here in Antwerp.

I still say I wouldn't live here long-term, as much as I am enjoying the day-to-day. People are nice here, it's easy to get around, the food is great, there's always something fun to see and do, but city life can be constraining. I miss my big back yard, our house, our neighbors and friends, and I am looking forward to getting all of that back. I realized the other day that I hadn't driven a car in two months, and have only been in a car three times since getting here...weird.

What's going to stay with me from our time here? A deep appreciation of the nuances of truly great chocolate making and eating...a love of beatiful wrought iron work...the plan we have to see how long we can get by with only one car and the bus system back home...wanting to try a gorgeous crystal chandelier in an otherwise casual room...being reminded how good a fresh loaf of bread can be...loving train travel.

What I'd like to leave here: JieJie's mad days, MeiMei's whining, my inability to listen to more than one person at a time when three people are all trying to tell me Something Really Important and my head feels like it's going to implode. It's so odd, but this small apartment has made the girls' clinginess (justified of course by the fact that so much is unfamiliar) seem so much more ludicrous. They want me (daddy's no good, apparently) right on their beds with them to fall asleep, and fight over whose bed I'm sitting on. They want me to sit next to them at meals, they want my lap on the tram, they want me to dress them, feed them like a's hard on them sometimes, which makes it hard on me and on John, who does his best to insist that Mommy Can't Do Everything, or (my favorite) "Mommy delegated this job to Daddy."

Still worth it? Ultimately, yes (who knows what the girls will say?). But there is about a half-hour of every day when I just want to run around like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.


After our visit to Aachen / Aix-la-Chapelle, we went to Blegny-Trembleur, Belgium to visit the last working coal mine in Wallonia (French-speaking Belgium) which shut down a couple of decades ago.

I was fairly sure the girls and I would skip the mine tour, because I wasn't sure how we would be able to get out if MeiMei decided she was "SKAWED!" all of a sudden. I'd heard that there were lots of playgrounds at ground level. I made sure we had a couple of snacks handy and we waved goodbye to John and the university students as they headed into the tour orientation area.

There were indeed playgrounds! One was for toddlers and one was for bigger kids. I have to say (again) that the playground equipment here is so fun, due in part to the novelty value for us Americans, but also due to the fact that the liability insurance issue is not as major here. There were things on that playground that no American playground planner would touch with a ten-foot pole. Long multi-person swings that basically look like seats on a swinging battering ram...the merry-go-round things that U.S. playgrounds did away with when I was still a kid...really really tall slides that have no guardrails on the top and seem greased for the ride down. Needless to say, the girls had a blast!

After about an hour of that, they started to wander from thing to thing and I thought okay, enough of this. I told them it was my turn to pick what we did, and we headed off down a tour path toward who-knows-what. Turned out to be an exhibit of the different types of coal cars and miner transportation vehicles, digging machines, etc., all connected to each other and displayed on rails. The girls seemed interested in all the little cars (short of course so they could fit through the narrow passages). And then: ANOTHER playground! And a little zoo with birds and farm animals!

Finally I saw a path that led up this enormous slag heap. It was so amazing to me that just the waste from the mining operation could create a mountain which now sustains a whole ecosystem of birch trees, moss, various animals, birds, etc., but which still smells faintly of coal. We climbed the mountain together, the girls and I, and I was impressed with their ability to make it to the top with a minimum of whining. The view from the top was reward enough (see photo). We had such great weather that day. It was a really fun time, just following our noses to see what we could see.
We headed back down and the tour was just ending, so we met John and the students and went back to the bus. They said the mine tour was really interesting, and the guide (b. 1943) had actually worked for the mine (mining and then managing) from age 16 til his retirement when the mine closed. They told some pretty horrific stories about the conditions the miners worked in, and how awful the lives of the horses were that had been used to pull loads of coal down in the mine before machines were available. The horses were sometimes kept down in the mine for years at a time, never seeing the sun and often going blind down there.
You might wonder, what's the value of this tour for a group of American university students? But coal was a major industry in Wallonia. The students no doubt learned the association between an industry, the local economy, the culture and identity of a place. Perhaps in the future they will think to inquire about the major industries and "economic heritage" of the places they visit and work.
Next: Bastogne and a great little hotel

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