In Remembrance

Travelling through Europe and visiting sites heavily impacted by the two World Wars makes Remembrance Day feel particularly poignant this year.

White grave markers against green grass and rich brown soil

Grave markers at the Adegem Canadian War Cemetery in Belgium.

From cobblestone memorials for Holocaust victims in Berlin to photographs of bomb-devastated German cities at the German National Museum of Contemporary History (Haus der Geschichte) in Bonn; from the massive Canadian Memorial in Vimy to the many roadside memorials in rural France and Belgium, this past year has allowed me to experience war in a highly impactful way.

My first experience with a war cemetery was last January while driving from Antwerp to Bruges. We had taken a minor highway and stumbled across the Adegem Canadian War Cemetery. I was unprepared for the emotions that came up while walking along the rows of grave markers.

My heart swelled with pride, my stomach clenched with horror, my throat choked with the sense of loss, and my eyes welled with tears. I thought of all the people who fought against fascism and Nazism. All the people that didn’t make it home to their families. All the people injured and traumatized. All the grave markers without names. All the freedoms granted to subsequent generations.

We came across many war memorials during the three weeks we spent in a camper travelling across France. Every memorial, marker, and cemetery brought on that same convoluted gut-punch, choked-up sadness tinged with appreciation.

Four flags and a long set of stairs mark the German war cemetery entrance

Entrance to the German cemetery at Mont-de-Huisnes.

And it wasn’t just the Canadian memorials that were emotional.

We stopped at a war cemetery in Normandy (Mont-de-Huisnes) that houses almost 12,000 German dead – from both the First and Second World Wars. I didn’t feel the sense of pride that Canadian or Commonwealth memorials bring on, but the feeling of loss and futility was certainly there.

So many dead. So many families broken. So many loved ones lost. So many stories untold.

War cemeteries are light on context. There might be a plaque explaining the battle or operations that precipitated needing such mournful grounds, but generally the tombstones are left to speak for themselves. Memories of high school humanities and Wikipedia searches filled in some of the details for us, but often emotion took precedence over history.

Visiting the Juno Beach Centre, at the site of the Canadian D-Day landing in Normandy, and the privately funded Canada War Museum (which also had a Polish contingent) near Adegem provided some necessary background. As did the small info centre at the Vimy Ridge Memorial.

Two Canadian grave markers

Dual grave of Canadians who died in the same plane at the Dieppe Cemetery

Sadly, there was no such context for our stop in Dieppe as the 19th August 1942 Memorial Museum is open very limited hours in the winter.

On our trip to France last week, we specifically visited Dieppe to learn more about the predominantly Canadian raid on German-occupied territory that took place there on 19 August, 1942. Almost 60% of the over 6,000 men that went ashore in the Dieppe Raid were killed, injured, or taken prisoner. And the loses in the skies and at sea were calamitous as well.

The magnitude of the operation was clear as marker after marker gave the same date of death – 19 August, 1942. A few pairs of brothers were buried beside each other and there were a number of dual graves with Air Force members who must have gone down in the same place.

Imagining the process of sorting out human remains and respectfully interring them brings up that stomach clench of reality again.

How horrible must that have been. How awful to see your comrades fall. How tortuous to identify the dead. And how dreadful to convey the news to their families.

The limestone Monument at Vimy Ridge

The Vimy Memorial Monument.

After Dieppe, we stopped at Vimy – the site of a major Canadian battle in World War I, which has since come to symbolize Canada’s coming of age as a nation. In addition to the giant limestone monument honouring Canadians who risked or gave their lives in the First World War, the Vimy Ridge site contains graveyards, smaller memorials, and preserved tunnels, trenches, and craters from frontline fighting.

Seeing the proximity of the trenches and the deep craters from shells, bombs, and mines was a harrowing sight, but that distress was trumped when we reached the giant limestone monument erected in the mid-1930s (and pictured on the back of Canadian $20 bills).

The lower walls of the monument are inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed in France whose final resting place was unknown. Thousands of unidentified bodies buried in nameless graves. Not being able to identify soldiers after their deaths (for whatever reason… all the scenarios I can imagine are simply awful) deeply troubled me.

One of the cemeteries at Vimy has a plaque inscribed “Their Names Liveth Evermore.” But many of the tombstones have no names; they read “A Soldier of the Great War | Known Unto God.” Sometimes a regiment name as well, but often just a country – and occasionally not even that basic detail.

Dieppe Cemetery

Rows of grave markers at the Dieppe Cemetery.

I was more upset leaving Vimy than after any previous war memorial or cemetery. The monument eloquently expresses the grief and sadness felt after the First World War, but yet the Second World War arose out of the reparations of what was presumed to be the only Great War. The sheer volume of tombstones inscribed with ‘Known Unto God’ clearly reflects the chaos and horror of war, but we are unable to stop repeating it.

The scope of all the cemeteries, all the memorials, all the monuments shakes me. It’s one thing to hear the figures (more than 17 million civilian and military deaths in WWI and an astonishing 22-25 million military deaths and 38-55 million civilian deaths in WWII) and quite another to stand amongst the rows of gravestones commemorating the real human sacrifice. The white stones carved with maple leaves mark the final resting places of some of my countrymen – 61,000 Canadian soldiers killed in WWI and more than 42,000 in WWII. Part of the over 118,000 Canadians who have died while serving our country in uniform.

Visiting war memorials, monuments, and cemeteries has really driven home the enormity and incredible loss of war for me. The quiet moments spent walking along the aisles of white stones are among the most profound I’ve experienced in the last year.

Remembrance. Sorrow. Gratitude. Pride. And above all, the fervent hope that war will be no more.

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And the walls came down…

Lichtgrenze (light border) art installation commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Aerial view of the 8,000 lit balloons tracing the path of the Berlin Wall. Photo from Wired.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and there’s a maelstrom of media coverage about the event. (Sadly, the word maelstrom has Dutch origins, not German ones.) Given that this time last year we were living in Berlin, I’ve been following the celebrations and reading as much as I can about the event itself.

Here are a few of my favourite reads:

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Chunnel excitement

Driving towards the Eurotunnel trainAbout this time last year we took a jaunt to Denmark and were aboard a train that was on a ferry (and then got stuck in Northern Germany in a wind storm). We thought that was crazy (trains on a boat!), so when the chance to take the Eurotunnel Shuttle (cars on a train!) arose, we jumped at it.

Not only is the Eurotunnel crossing a lot shorter than taking ferry across the English Channel (about 40 minutes vs at least two hours), their website also promised hassle-free pet travel – and they delivered. Getting Sofie cleared to travel to the UK was easier than I had feared it might be; pet reception was easy to find, the line moved quickly (and we met a gaggle of golden labs while waiting), Sofie’s microchip was scanned and her pet passport was scrutinized… and we were presented with a windshield sticker and bid continue on our way.

The next step was self-check in, where we secured a spot 40 minutes earlier than our reservation, and then on to French and UK border control. The French agent barely even looked at our passports (prompting a little panic that we hadn’t gotten exit stamps and might need them). The British agent made small talk about Dover (where we were headed and he lived) before stamping our passports in the requisite spots and sending us on.

After a short wait and a little cursing at British tourists being idiots (I generally consider the British good at queuing, but the bathroom line-ups were utter chaos!), we proceeded to the loading area.

We had little idea what to expect and were maybe a little too excited when we were directed along a causeway towards a railyard. Though we logically knew that vehicles went onto rail cars, the reality of it was a little surreal. Cars on a train!

While my husband and I were pointing and gasping, rolling our windows down and taking photos, the occupants of the other cars (all with GB plates) seemed totally nonplussed. I suspect it was not their first times 😉

The excitement built as we actually saw cars driving onto the train – and then reached fever pitch as we realized that we would be driving onto the upper level of the rail car. Cars on a train… stacked on top of each other!

Aboard the Eurotunnel shuttleOnce we were settled on the second level (which resembled public transit trains the world over – very Expo Line SkyTrain), the front and back of the train car was sealed off, the legally-required safely notifications were delivered, and our review-mirror-hanging ticket was re-checked. Then we started to move…

The railyard outside the windows was quickly replaced with blackness. We could feel the angle of the car change and knew we were dipping down to the 75m depth of the Chunnel. Cars on a train… stacked on top of each otherunderneath a huge body of water!

The ‘you are approaching your destination’ announcements started well in advance of our actual arrival and their overeagerness, coupled with the distraction of fiddling with the sat nav, dimmed our excitement of arriving in the UK.

But the adventure of travelling by car loaded onto a train was everything we had hoped – and maybe even a little more.

We took the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe on our way back to the continent and vastly preferred the car/train option. While the ferry was less expensive than the Eurotunnel Shuttle and had amazing views of the southern English coast, it took four hours and we had to leave Sofie by herself on the car deck.

Much more fun to be all together in a car on a train that goes underneath the English Channel!

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Pancakes & packing – part 2

All of our stuff... packed!In addition to becoming better at clearing out a kitchen (as I posted about yesterday), moving frequently has also made me better at living minimalistically. All of our stuff (clothes, shoes, toiletries, electronics, reading materials, random housewares, my husband’s beloved road bike) fits into one bike case, two large duffle bags, and a couple smaller bags.

This is almost everything we own.

It all fits into a tiny alcove in our Munich flat and should easily cram into our rental car for the trip to Mannheim, our homebase for the next two months.

When I think of how much stuff used to fill our two-bedroom condo in Canada, I’m shocked (and impressed!) that we’ve condensed so much. We left a few pieces of meaningful furniture and some items we’ll need to stock an unfurnished apartment in a small storage locker, but otherwise we travel with pretty much everything!

We were at the absolute weight limit of our baggage allowance on the flight from Calgary to Frankfurt (and paid an extra bag) and have been paring down since. We moved from Frankfurt to Berlin via train and then between flats in Berlin by taxi; the physical difficulty of moving all our stuff spurred us to keep only essentials.

Sofie's luggageThere are no moving companies, no wheeled dollies, and no family & friends to lift cardboard boxes – just the two of us. And a dog who really can’t carry anything – although she has a fair amount of her own stuff!

Because we’re travelling by car rather than plane this time, we’re transporting Sofie’s stuff in her carrier (where she goes when we fly). Her bed and her black bag are all she needs 🙂

One of the upsides of minimalism is that packing is pretty quick. All our bags were filled in under an hour and there’s limited risk of accidentally leaving something behind!

We hit the road in a few minutes and are hoping for a smooth trip between Munich and Mannheim – and then more adventures as we explore Baden Würtemburg!

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Pancakes & packing – part 1

We’re leaving our flat in Munich tomorrow for one more new-to-us German city. We’ve done a lot of relocating in the last year and I’ve definitely gotten better at not leaving good stuff in the pantry.

In order to clean out our cupboards over the last week (and because baking is one of my stress-relievers), I made ham & cheese loaf, applesauce muffins, two batches of brownies (one that failed miserably), and super-easy pancakes (recipe below).

These come together super-quickly (as you’d expect with pancakes) and don’t require any measuring equipment other than a teaspoon and a mug – very useful for ill-equipped kitchens, lazy cooks, and short-on-time mornings!

Sadly, I doubt there will be more pancakes tomorrow morning. Probably just last-minute packing, breakfasting on the remaining random bits in the fridge, and grabbing leftover ham & cheese loaf for the drive 😉

Berry-banana Pancakes

Banana berry pancakes with strawberriesIngredients
  • 1 mugful of flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 overripe banana
  • 1 mugful of milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1 mugful of berries (if frozen, roll them in little flour before adding to the batter to prevent their colour from running too much)
  • butter for the pan (or nonstick cooking spray)
Method
  • Stir together flour, baking powder, spices, and salt
  • Mash banana and mix with egg and milk
  • Add wet ingredients to dry and combine; then gently stir in berries
  • Heat butter in pan over medium heat and spoon in dollops (about a large tablespoonful) of batter
  • Cook until golden brown on both sides
    • the first side is ready to flip when bubbles appear
    • the second side is ready when pancakes look and feel firm and slide easily on the pan
  • Serve with maple syrup, cut up banana if desired, and any remaining berries
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Road trip recovery

My dog, Sofie, curled up in the backseat of a car

Sofie happily snuggled in the backseat

The past month has been all about road-tripping. We’ve been through seven countries and driven more than 5,000km since the middle of September (my husband’s time in the car has been even longer and he’s hit an additional country!). While travelling has been fantastic (and Sofie loves being in a car!), hours in the passenger seat have taken a toll on me; my low back is sore, my hips are tight, and my shoulders are hunching.

I had a couple car-free days earlier this week and I knew yoga would help me feel better, but was feeling really lazy and unmotivated. Thank goodness for the wonder of YouTube!

Yoga with Adriene logoA quick search for ‘yoga for low back pain’ turned up a short sequence from Yoga With Adriene that looked promising.

15 minutes on the mat relieved a lot of the tension in my low back and prompted me to do another sequence with Adriene. Turns out she has a whole series of free online yoga practices!

I like Adriene’s relaxed, friendly, unscripted style. Her slight rambling and occasional diversions remind me of a good friend and overall Adriene seems approachable and very real. It’s also great to follow someone else’s sequence rather than thinking about what’s coming next!

While Sofie really looks forward to road trips (she’s small enough to stretch fully in a car!), I’m happy to have almost two weeks off before our next car adventure. Plenty of time to try a few more of Adriene’s sequences 🙂

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Christmas comes early

Christmas chocolate display that went up in SeptemberMost Novembers I’m annoyed with retailers who slap up Christmas decorations and promote holiday merchandise the second Halloween is over. Turns out Canadian stores are more patient than German ones.

The Christmas treats and product displays started appearing in Munich’s stores in September – before Oktoberfest even started! Festbier (the strong brews created to celebrate Oktoberfest) and Lebkuchen (gingerbread-like Christmas cookies) have been side-by-side on the shelves of our local supermarket for weeks and no one seems to think it strange.

At least I haven’t seen department store Santas yet and the shopping malls haven’t started with the fake greenery, shiny ornaments, and holiday music! And the Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas markets) won’t be open until the last weekend of November – long after the Oktoberfest tents have been dismantled 🙂

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Book overboard

Bookcase with 'begone writing guilt' textI came back from the yoga retreat in the Czech Republic feeling relaxed and happy. Maybe a little too relaxed as my drive to write entirely disappeared.

The perfect balance of scheduled activities and free time at the retreat left me a lot of thinking space, which included pondering my ambition to write a book. I’ve been mulling over writing about breath and breathing from a variety of perspectives,1 but haven’t buckled down and gotten much of anything done.

No solid outline, nothing drafted, just a bit of research, some scattered ideas, and a few bookmarked websites. My initial goal was to have an outline complete by the end of 2013, but almost 10 months have passed and I have found all sorts of other activities to occupy my time.

With the space to think about my nebulous dream to write a non-fiction book as enjoyable and informative as Mary Roach’s Stiff, I realized that I don’t have the necessary ambition – at least, not right now. I’m unwilling to muster the motivation and discipline to make it happen, which is making me feel guilty and delinquent. Those feelings, in turn, make me less willing to commit to writing and less likely to produce anything meaningful.

So, I’m tossing the idea of writing a book overboard. I’m abandoning my thesis on breath and breathing… and letting go of guilt.

Perhaps I’ll circle back to the idea of writing a book later on, but for now I’ll content myself with posting travelogues and recipes!

 

 

 

1 Possible perspectives on breath and breathing:

  • physical – drawing on my own experiences with blocked breathing and nasal surgery
  • spiritual – informed by my religious studies and yoga background
  • athletic – tapping a network of athletic experts and high-level athletes for insight
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‘Currant’ conditions

Three currant lemon muffins and some currantsMunich is rainy today and I’m feeling a little down; the perfect conditions for snuggling with a dog, reading a book, and noshing on homemade baking. Sofie’s got the cuddling taken care of, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is at the ready, and I’ve just pulled muffins out of the oven.

This is a modification of the world’s easiest vegan muffin recipe, adapted for what I had on hand. It’s not longer vegan, but still super-easy!

Fresh or frozen blueberries could easily stand in for the currants and subbing in orange juice and zest would be delicious. Cranberries would also work well.

Red currant & lemon muffins

Ingredients

  • 120ml (1/2 cup) milk
  • 80ml (1/3 cup) apple juice
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 egg
  • 240g (2 cups) unbleached all purpose flour
  • 100g (1/2 cup) granulated sugar, divided
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 150g (1 cup) fresh red currants
  • 2 tsp grated lemon zest

Method

  • Preheat oven to 200°C (400°F) and prepare 12 cup muffin pan (using paper or silicone liners or greasing with oil or butter)
  • Mix together milk, juice, oil, and egg with a whisk or a fork
  • In a separate bowl, combine flour, half the sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt
  • Add liquid mixture to flour mixture and stir until just combined (a few lumps are better than overmixing)
  • In a small bowl, combine currants, remaining sugar, and zest
  • Fold fruit mixture into batter
  • Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups, filling each cup 2/3 full
  • Bake 15 – 20 minutes or until lightly browned and firm to the touch

Sofie looking comfy

Now to make a cup of tea and convince Sofie to share her comfy spot!

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Permission to be yourself

You need no one's permission to be yourself.While at an isolated yoga retreat, I read an article in Quartz about a three-day work week. In this very business-focused publication was a gem that fit in perfectly with all the self-help peace-love-and-happiness philosophy that a yoga retreat implies:

You need no one’s permission to be yourself.

Mohit Satyanand
Entrepreneur, mountain-dweller, actor

At least in this instance, the business and spiritual worlds agree: discover who you are and don’t let anyone prevent you from being true to that.

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