Dave in Pompeii
A pint of Guinness for Dave
Dave at the Red Fort in Dehli
Dave meeting Jean Papillion in New Orleans
This Is The End….
But only of my Waterloo trip blog. Thank you to everybody who has joined me. I’ve had a wonderful time sharing my adventures with all of you. And again, as I did yesterday, I encourage everybody to discover something new this year, whether it’s in your neighborhood, your city, your state, your country or the world. There is so much out there to see and do.
As many of you know, I’ve been taking the ashes of my friend Dave around for the last few years, including my trip to Waterloo. And yes, for those who asked, I am writing a book about it(I already know the title: Travels with Dave: What Sunglasses, a Pill Bottle and Passport Have Taught Me About Life, Death and Friendship). And what I’ve realized as I’ve been writing the thing is that Dave, who was forever taking huge bites out of life like a big ole hamburger, reminded me of one of the most important lessons in life. That we are a species that explores. We are always seeking, learning, striving. Or we should. There is so much to explore, so much to learn, so many people to know, if we only try. I’m not entirely sure if I would have done as many crazy things as I’ve done recently if I hadn’t first thought, “Wow, Dave would love this.” Because I got out of the habit. I got complacent.
Well, no more. It was for him, but now it’s for me. I will live by two adages that I’ve always loved, but have kind of let slip. One, that life is short, but wide. Isn’t that great? It says so much. It offers so much. And two, a motto I’ve stolen directly from my mom, who stole it wholesale from Auntie Mame. Life is a banquet, and most poor bastards are starving to death. I’ve had the rare privilege to be able to afford to travel. But even if I didn’t, even if I had a very limited budget, there is so much out there to learn and see and hear. And we’re letting ourselves down if we don’t seek it out. Even more than that, if we don’t share it when we do.
On Which Eileen Reflects on the Pros and Cons of Taking a Tour
Okay, let’s start this little piece with the admonition with which I begin every talk on writing. The quote on writing is from Somerset Maugham. “There are three hard and fast rules to writing. Unfortunately nobody can agree on what they are.” Now, there might not be actual rules, to travel, but for me the same rule applies, basically that you have to travel the way you are comfortable. You’re not going to get anything out of a visit to the Parthenon or Grand Canyon or Taj Mahal if you’re so consumed with worry over travel plans, safety, surprises and irritations that you don’t even remember to take a picture. On the other hand, you also want to be given the chance to savor the amazing things, places and people you get to see in a way that gives you pleasure.
As I said on a previous blog, I’m not the best tour person. I tend to be a bit headstrong. I want to see what I want to see. I want to go to the back roads and small streets, interact with the locals and learn their preferences, recommendations, ideas. I prefer to view architecture from a double-decker, open-air hop-on bus than a Greyhound. I want to discover the hidden gems that only the locals know about. For instance, you can see my picture here of the Bruges Madonna. Everybody knows about her. And she was everything and more than I’d hoped. Ethereal and exquisite, well worth my pilgrimage. But what most people don’t know about is the Holy Blood Chapel tucked into a crypt at the edge of Burg Square. Because they don’t have the time to wander, they miss this amazing statue of Christ tucked back in the corner. They never have a chance to sit with him, or listen to the soft echoes in the shadows and smell the old incense embedded in ancient brick.
It’s hard to take that time on a tour, hard to build in such time for wandering. If you’re in a big group, only certain places can handle your number for things like meals or shopping(parking lots are important–because where one bus goes, all buses go). My favorite thing to do is linger. NOT something you can do as well on a tour.
I took a trip that lasted five weeks. Of those weeks, four days were on a tour. And it was a beautiful organized and executed tour. We saw just about everything there was to see at Waterloo; the battlefields, the landmarks, the re-enactment bivouacs. We learned a lot from a recently retired British general and his cohort, a Captain of the Welsh Fusilliers. They were fabulous fun, and gave us insights we couldn’t have discovered on our own. We ate in lovely places, and we ate well. We stayed in a hotel that could easily handle our numbers(ask anybody who attends a conference and you’ll find out that the hotels that advertise as a conference or business hotel do really well until they actually have…a conference). But….
We were on the tour’s schedule. We moved at the general’s pace(and don’t think that generals have gone all soft and lazy. I walked my cute Irish ass off) (okay, I didn’t. But that might have had more to do with Belgian fries and waffles than the exercise). The one place I wanted to see and understand more than anything was Chateau Hougoumont. For some reason, I’ve always been drawn to it. The fight there resonated. And yes, we got to go. For half an hour. Heck, the instructional movie lasts longer than that. I felt rushed, harried and unsatisfied. I’ll have to go back. I tend to absorb the sense of a place by standing sill and just listening. Hard to do when you’re surrounded by 30 chattering people and a guide who’s talking about the next site we’re visiting. And I don’teat quickly. Not at all. Another way to keep my weight down, anyway. And most of all, I’m very particular about my hotels. I like the little hotels, the B&Bs and family places staffed by characters. In Bruges we got to stay in the Duc du Bourgogne, a little boutique hotel at the most photographed spot in the city. But it’s steep, small, and has a staff usually of 3 or 4. Not a place you’re going to see a bus(during the day, you can’t even bring a car near it)
But at the same time, I had guaranteed seats at the re-enactment and passes to everything. All of the details were taken care of (and after five weeks of mostly being in charge, I can’t tell you what a relief that is.) Instead of carrying around an expandable folder stuffed with every bit of info I might need, from B&Bs to restaurants to sites to passes to tickets to maps to schedules, I was able to just leave it all up to the military guys. But….
I guess it comes down to how independent you are, and how competent you feel in the place you’re visiting and whether you can gain access to what you want alone. I’m happy to plan Europe or the US, and even most of South America. But when the engineer and I went to India, I used the services of Amex’s Travel&Leisure Elite to help me plan the trip(especially guides and drivers) and be there for back-up if I got in trouble. If I’d been somebody else, I might well have taken a tour the first time, just to get my feet wet and find out where I wanted to return.
However you do it, though, please. Take a chance. Get out. See the rest of the world. Even the rest of the country, or the rest of the state. There is so much to see and learn, so many wonderful people to meet. You don’t have to go far. But you should go.
Re-enactments are thrilling. They’re noisy, flashy, and have horsemen riding full-tilt across the field in elaborate and colorful uniforms awash in gold and silver braid and buttons. And when you have a cast of 6000 people, 300 horses and 100 guns, it gets a lot flashier, noisier and more elaborate.
The re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo took two nights(thank heavens the real battle didn’t). They did not bother to include the preceding battles at Ligny or Quatre Bras. That would have complicated the situation. They did, however, commit their mayhem across a large portion of the actual battleground. And while they inexplicably decided to carry on the battle about a quarter of a mile away from the stands, it is still a visceral thrill when a line of cannons belch fire and smoke, seconds later letting off a deep crack that echoed across the sloping fields. It is thrilling to see a line of cavalry thunder past, tack jangling and feathers and fur rippling in the wind, hooves pounding through the high wheat and riders raising a harsh cry. It is fascinating to watch the lines of red and blue snake across the ground, led by the thin wail of pipe and fife and punctuated by the rattle of drums, breathtaking to see the slash of fire and smoke as the first volley rips out from an infantry square.
And then you think that there weren’t 6000 people fighting, but over 130,000; not 100 horses but 25,000 horses. You see a line of twenty horsemen cresting the hill and you think of it lined from end to end with pawing mounts, strong men carrying sabres that glinted in the sun, possibly metal breastplates called cuirasses(in fact, one of the lingering images from the actual battlefield was the blinding glare of the sun striking off hundreds and hundreds of cuirasses lying over fallen cavalrymen), possibly lances with red and white pennants lifting a bit in the breeze. You hear the crack of those cannons and you think what they must have sounded like multiplied by four. When the gunfire begins popping and tearing non-stop, and the smoke rolls out from thousands of muskets and a tens of cannons, and you can’t see a thing but smoke and fire, you wonder how anyone could have possibly been able to unravel just what was going on and direct it.
It is an impressive display, no question. It was amazing, as much in the dedication of the people who replicated the battle as in their movements. It was a lovely tribute to the men and women who occupied that battlefield, for those who survived, and those who didn’t. We even had a moment of silence before the onset of the conflict to remember the actual combatants.
What it wasn’t, was realistic. After all, how can you possibly know what Waterloo was really like unless you saw its impact; the ground carpeted in the bodies of horses and men contorted into grotesque shapes? How can you understand the cost if the soldiers fighting stay clean and unbloody, their movements carefully choreographed to keep them safe? If Chateau Hougoumont, even as a plywood replica, doesn’t become a horrific inferno from howitzers igniting thatched roofs? Those who actually fought and survived, even those who came later to search for survivors, all spoke of the dead and dying, the wounded crying for help or water or surcease, the dying and dead horses, the hell inside Hougoumont.
Reenactments are amazing. They’re theatric. They’re as true to the maneuvers and players as they can be. But they aren’t real. Not real enough. If we are going to honor the boys and men who had the unspeakable courage to cross that killing ground again and again, and stand in an implacable line against those attacks, we should show what it cost in blood and sweat and sanity. But we can’t. Thankfully, we’re far too civilized for that.
I’m so distracted today by US news–going from the amazing Supreme Court ruling to the funeral of Charleston shooting victim Rev. Pinckney—that it’s hard to get my head back 200 years to Waterloo. So instead I’ll give you a quick thumbnail of my visit to Amsterdam(and I promise. There’s a reason).
The reason I decided to go to Amsterdam was purely a logistics one. I had been in Ireland, and my friend Sally had been in England. The easiest, cheapest gateway city onto the continent was Amsterdam. Besides, I’d always wanted to go see the Van Gogh Museum. I really had no interest in the city itself, nor its history, nor its social situation. I admit, that most times when I saw pics or heard people talk about it, my response was “Meh.”
Yeah, I was wrong. What. An. Amazing. Place. I admit that except for the Nazi years I don’t remember much about the history I was told. It seemed to be mostly about burghers and trade and guilds. Which is fine. The architecture was fascinating, street after street of brick rowhouses with unique stepped roofs with huge windows(obviously no taxes there. It was on the roofs instead, which explains the very tall, very narrow houses). I admit, I love windows. I love light and a view. So the houses there were right up my alley. (Okay, the stairs were a weensy bit steep. I figured that if worse came to worse, I’d just slide round the center pole like a firefighter to get down).
We were lucky enough to stay in a fun, historic little hotel on the Prinsengracht Canal, which is right in the middle of historic Amsterdam. Our room had a view over the canal, and we were right at the bridge, which I swear to God should have been named Hot Guy Span. I could have spent my whole day watching guys bike over the bridge. At night, it was dark and quiet (except for Fridays. If you want peace and quiet, NEVER go to Amsterdam on weekends), and the staff friendly and funny.
We did go to the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum and we walked and rode boats through the canals. And here’s the thing that applies to the events of today, when we seem to be talking a lot about equality and where our country currently stands. One of the things that struck me most about Amsterdam wasn’t the architecture or the food or the canals and history. It was the amazing mix of people who lived, worked and visited there. Sitting in my room over the canal, I watched people biking and walking, standing and talking, laughing, arguing, and something struck me. I couldn’t remember a greater mix of races in one place. More, I couldn’t remember such a mix interacting so easily. So I tested my theory. I watched wherever I went to see if, maybe the phenomena I was seeing was limited to one area, maybe a tourist area.
But it wasn’t. No matter where I went, there were myriad skin colors, costumes, behaviors. And it seemed as if their integration was seamless. I wish I could explain it better. It was an intangible lack of stress, an ease of interaction, a looseness of body language(I have seen editorials that deny that harmony in the Netherlands. I just didn’t see it) We later went to Brussels, and there, too, were a mix of races. But the minute you arrived, you felt the tension, the difference. Brussels might be the home of NATO and the EU, and the city tour buses might extol the Brussels friendliness, but I just didn’t see it. I didn’t feel it. Not like Amsterdam. Brussels is a beautiful city, thick with Art Nouveau treasures and history from my favorite period. But I never ever felt comfortable there. I felt that people maintained a real separation from each other, and especially any visitors. Given the choice between the two cities, I will return to Amsterdam in a second. I would avoid Brussels. Because in Amsterdam I truly felt as if every one of us was welcome there, no matter who we were. It is the very feeling I wish for my own country. We stumble and strive and retreat at times. But I have to believe that all of us want to live in that kind of harmony.
So there we were in the Wellington Museum in Waterloo, sited in the little white inn in which he kept his headquarters, and there we learns about…Napoleon. Oh, there were the tributes to Sir Alexander Gordon, Wellington’s aide who died in one of the rooms, and behind in the garden is the memorial to Lord Uxbridge’s famous lost leg (which memorial used to be a shrine with the famous leg famously residing). Now, since the leg has been repatiated, it’s just a stone slab. But inside, what you learn about are Napoleon’s generals, his army surgeon(who truly deserves praise, but that’s a different post altogether), and the many famous paintings of Napoleon battles. You really have to look hard to find out that Wellington was ever here.
Then we went to the brand spanking new interactive Waterloo Museum built underneath the Lion’s Mount, and…you guessed it. More Napoleon. His family lineage, his bucolic early life, his love for cannons and gaudy coronation robes. We followed his advances across Europe and see a mock up of a staff meeting. His staff, his maneuvers, his great triumphs. And then, like it was a great surprise, the loss at Waterloo. Quelle domange! Even the announcer the first night of the reenactments, narrated the battle in…French. Because, you know, Napoleon. But here’s the thing. The reenactment ended with English chasing the French off the battlefield just like before. So maybe you want to find just a few more memorabilia from oh, I don’t know, the winning side.