Hello from Belgium!
I am so impressed with these kids (young adults): a late night last night and up early to be on the bus to Dover at 7:15 and not a complaint out of them! (Maybe because they slept the whole way to Dover?!) Seriously, they are amazing. They handed in journals from the first three days today, and I was blown away by the depth of their responses: three days in and they’re writing like I usually see on day six or seven.
The ferry from Dover was pretty uneventful even though the water was a bit rougher than crossings in the past; this easy crossing made up for circling the parking lot because our driver got a bit confused! We made it here in great time, which meant we were able to have a tour of Calais by Caroline, one of our participants from last year, and Alice, our French participant this year. Calais is their home town, and it was impacted by both world wars. It was very interesting to hear how Calais played an important part in both wars, and how Canadians played a big role in the liberation in 1945. Caroline’s parting message was extremely moving as she told this year’s crew to learn all they can, understand why remembrance is so important, and take that message home to their communities and pass it on to their children because it really is up to them. There is no doubt that this program touches those involved deeply, and there is also no doubt that the program is, in turn, touched by the participants: our alumni is a pretty big presence here this year!
We are very pleased to be back on Franky’s bus as he knows our program and is so good about our requests to go off-roading to cemeteries and memorials! He is also great at pointing things out to us, so we were able to see Vimy Ridge off in the distance as we drove into the area. Franky had us to St. Mary’s Dressing Station in record time, allowing Elly to give her presentation on Rudyard Kipling at his son’s grave. This was the first cemetery the group was in, and as there is another cemetery in a field only 200m away it showed them right away that the fighting in the area was intense. And if they didn’t get that from the proximity of the cemeteries to each other, the fact that the majority of the headstones in St. Mary’s Dressing Station belonged to unknown soldiers certainly brought that home.
We stopped so Jeremy could do his soldier presentation, the first of 16 of those. There was a lot of emotion from him and it was evident with the rest of the group that they understood right away how emotional this trip will likely be; I had told them on the bus it would be, but until they were there they couldn’t fully appreciate that. I am sure there will be some pretty intense presentations in the days ahead.
After getting to the hostel and getting into their rooms, supper was very much appreciated! Of course we didn’t give them much time to digest it before we were getting back on the bus to head to Ypres for the Last Post ceremony. We gave them free time before the ceremony, and it never ceases to amaze me how much chocolate can be purchased in a frantic 15 minutes!
I think the highlight of the day will definitely be the Last Post ceremony. Kaleb and Roxanne laid the wreath on behalf of the group, accompanied by Rebeccah and Kerry, while the rest of us formed an honour guard. There was a huge crowd there, but our group was the only one laying a wreath, which made it very special. As we were getting the wreath-layers lined up, we were approached by a veteran, Mike, from Holland who had served in Lebanon and Afghanistan. He was accompanied by the cutest Labradoodle named Teddy, who is his assitance dog: when Mike lost his leg in Afghanistan three years ago, Teddy was trained to be his assistance dog, and Mike now trains assistance dogs for injured veterans across Europe, enabling them to live as normal a life as possible. He assured me that Teddy is as good for his mental and emotional health as he is for his physical assitance and well-being, and he asked if he could have his picture taken with the group after the ceremony. Of course we were thrilled, and a couple of the participants asked us if we could get a dog for the trip. (I told them I’d take it up with the Board and get back to them!) After we had our picture taken Mike got very emotional and he thanked us for what we were doing here, and said nothing means more to veterans than knowing their service is remembered. We thanked him for his service, and with tears in more than one set of eyes we bid him – and Teddy – farewell.
Four more students were able to do their soldier presentations at Menin gate: Claire, Kelly, Roxanne and Max all found their soldiers and gave lovely tributes to them. Having to search for the names, even when they knew the panel number, allowed them to see the sheer magnitude of the loss represented on the Gate, and looking through the 8 books of names to find the panel number was another experience for them.
Max did his presentation on Papineau at Menin Gate as well as Papineau’s name is written there, and we ended the day with Rebeccah’s presentation on gas warfare and the St. Julien memorial, so it was an emotionally charged day that was also full of a lot of information.
The group had some free time when we got back and I just went around to make sure they are all in their rooms. When I turned the corner I was greeted by a shrieking mob in front of one of the boys’ rooms: an admittedly very large spider was on the doorstep of the room, no doubt frozen in fear by the hysteria it was causing. Connor was outside dancing around, Max was on the stairs in the room, dancing around, and Kaleb was hiding in the closet; the rest of the group stood around the spider, either laughing at those freaking out, or joining those freaking out in freaking out. I can let you know that the spider was no match for my flip-flop, and everyone is now safely in their rooms, which are hopefully spiderless! If I hear yelling I’ll know what to expect …! (And as long as it’s spiders and not moths, I can assure you that I will be able to protect the children!)
Tomorrow is going to be a very busy day as we head off with Steve Douglas, proprietor of Salient Tours and a great supporter of our group, for a tour of the area. Steve is Canadian and very generously dontates his time to us each year to give the kids a memorable experience, and he never disappoints! We are all eagerly anticipating tomorrow!