We Shall Never Forget!

As I’ve mentioned in my first Remembrance Day post, November 11th is an important day to observe as it marks the anniversary of the official ending of World War I. That war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month thus explaining why Remembrance day is November 11th.  When in France recently, my wife and I visited the Normandy D-Day beaches. In case you don’t know the significance of those beaches, here is a history lesson.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, “Operation Overlord”, the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe started at 06:30. The target was an 80 kilometre (50-mile) stretch of the Normandy coast, which was divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beach. The Utah and Omaha sectors would be assaulted by the American Army, Gold and Sword beaches by the British troops and Juno beach by the Canadians. We visited the British, Canadian and American beaches. The success of Operation Overlord was a turning point in World War II and led to the liberation of Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany.

IMG_3091In regards to the Canadian mission, fourteen thousand young Canadians stormed Juno Beach on D-Day. The landings initially encountered heavy resistance from the German Division as well as Canadian soldiers faced mined beach obstacles. They also discovered upon their landing on the beach that the preliminary bombardment proved less effective than had been hoped, and rough weather forced the first wave to be delayed until 07:35. The Canadians took heavy casualties in the opening minutes of the first wave. Since they had strength of numbers, as well as fire support from artillery and armoured squadrons, the Canadian forces cleared most of the coastal defenses within two hours of landing.

IMG_3155The fighting they endured was fierce and frightening. The price the Canadians paid was high. The battles to take control of the beachhead cost 340 lives and another 574 wounded. John Keegan, distinguished British historian who wrote Six Armies in Normandy, stated the following concerning the Canadian 3rd Division on D-Day: “The opposition the Canadians faced was stronger than that of any other beach save Omaha. That was an accomplishment in which the whole nation could take considerable pride.”

It was very surreal to stand on Juno beach, knowing what happened on that beach 71 years ago. I knelt on the sand, ran the sand through my fingers as I thought about the D-Day invasion and what our troops endured that day. I toured the Nazi bunkers that are still there and envisioned how the Nazis would have operated. One of the most emotional moments at Juno Beach was during the video the museum showed at the end; a video titled, “They walk with us”.  It consisted of newsreel footage of the D-Day assault and ends with a father and mother walking down present day Juno beach discussing what happened there with their two children. I’ll say no more other than it affected both my wife and I deeply.

My wife and I also visited Pointe du Hoc located in between the two American beaches of Utah and Omaha. To understand the significance of this place, here is a history lesson.

IMG_3294
Pointe du Hoc lies 6.4 kilometres (4 miles) west of the center of Omaha Beach. As part of the Atlantic Wall fortifications, the prominent cliff top location was the most fortified part of the beaches by the Germans.

The American assault force was carried in ten landing craft with another two carrying supplies. One landing craft carrying troops sank and all but one of its occupants drowned, another was swamped. One supply craft sank and the other put the stores overboard to stay afloat. Once within  1.6 kilometres (a mile) of the shore, German mortars and machine guns fired on the craft. These initial setbacks resulted in a 40-minute delay in landing at the base of the cliffs, but British landing craft carrying the Rangers finally reached the base of the cliffs at 7:10 am with approximately half the force it started out with. The landing craft were fitted with rocket launchers to fire grapnels (a device with hooks) so ladders and ropes could be attached to the cliffs. The cliffs proved to be higher than the ladders could reach. As the Rangers (a U.S. WWII soldier specially trained for making surprise raids and attacks in small groups) scaled the cliffs, the Allied destroyers provided them with fire support and ensured that the German defenders above could not fire down on the assaulting troops.

IMG_3298The Rangers successfully scaled the 30 metre (100 foot) cliff only to find that their radios were ineffective. Those Rangers that reached the fortifications learned for the first time that the main objective of the assault, the artillery battery, had been removed. The Rangers regrouped at the top of the cliffs, and a small patrol went off in search of the guns. Two different patrols found five of the six guns nearby (the sixth was being fixed elsewhere) and destroyed their firing mechanisms. At the end of the two-day action, the initial Ranger landing force of over 225 was reduced to about 90 fighting men.

As it was in Juno beach, it was very surreal to be there, knowing what happened on that point 71 years ago. There are still some bunkers intact but the most noticeable markings of the event were the numerous craters caused by the air and naval bombardments. Some of the bunkers were in pieces. Some of the circular gun pits, which housed the 155mm guns, are still there. As we walked about the site I tried to envision what the American Rangers had to endure to succeed at their mission.

2015-10-08 17.16.25We also made a brief stop at Arromanches, located on the British Gold beach, where one of the two portable temporary Mulberry harbours is located that were built and operational within three days of the invasion. Mulberry A was for the Americans at Omaha Beach and Mulberry B was serving the British and Canadians at Arromanches. A heavy storm destroyed the American harbor on June 19, but Mulberry B remained in use for eight months. Block ships were sunk off the Normandy coast to create protection from the open sea. These ships are still there and my wife and I marveled at the ingenuity of the Allied planners. In the first 100 days following D-Day, the harbor landed over 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies for the Battle of Normandy; successfully contributing to the liberation of Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany.

2015-10-08 16.16.41We also visited two of WWII cemeteries; the Canadian cemetery and the German cemetery. Again we were in admiration at how well-kept these cemeteries were, regardless of nationality. We were also saddened when looking at the various head stones when we learned many, many of these soldiers who died ranged between ages of 17 to 23. It was especially heart retching for my wife and I since our son is presently aged 21. Another very stirring moment for us was when we read the sign at the entrance of the German cemetery. The sign read, “Until 1947, this was an American cemetery. The remains were exhumed and shipped to the United States. It has been German since 1948, and contains over 21 000 graves. With its melancholy rigour, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all who had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.” As I’ve stated IMG_3333before, this speaks of the nature of the French nation. They have a great respect for the dignity of all fallen soldiers. The French value and honor all soldiers, no matter what side of the war they fought for.

As we did for the WWI soldiers, my wife and I now have a whole new appreciation for the WWII soldiers and the sacrifice they made to liberate France and other European countries from Nazi oppression. I will attend the Remembrance Day ceremonies this year with much more gratitude and appreciation of all soldiers, especially knowing what the soldiers of WWII had to sacrifice to  achieve their assigned goals.

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We Shall Remember!

November 11th is an important day to observe as it marks the anniversary of the official ending of World War I. That war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month thus explaining why Remembrance day is November 11th. In Canada Remembrance Day is a national holiday and all Commonwealth Nations observe this day as a day to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. For those that don’t know, the Commonwealth is an organization of 53 member states that were mostly territories of the former British Empire, which includes the United Kingdom. The United States has a day of remembrance called Veterans Day, which is an official federal holiday that is observed annually on November 11. Its purpose is to honor people who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, that is, its veterans. Armistice Day remains the name of the holiday in France and Belgium.

Now I’ve always felt that Remembrance Day was an important day to remember our fallen soldiers and I have often attended ceremonies, but since visiting the World War I and II sites in France, I have a whole new appreciation for this day. In this post, I will share my experiences visiting the WWI sites and cemeteries in France and Belgium. Experiences of my visits to WWII sites will be in another post.

2015-10-11 14.29.38The first site I visited was the Canadian National Vimy Memorial which has always been on my “bucket list” to visit. The memorial towers over the scene of Canada’s most recognizable First World War engagement, the Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought on  April 9 to 12, 1917. In 1922 the French Government granted land on the crest of the ridge to the Canadian nation and this piece of land is now a Canadian National Park. To help you understand the importance of this site, here is a history lesson.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a military operation fought primarily as part of the Battle of Arras during the First World War. The main combatants were the Canadian Corps, of four divisions, against three divisions of the German Sixth Army.

The Canadian Corps was ordered to seize the heavily German fortified Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Situated in northern France, this seven-kilometre (4 mile) ridge which held a commanding view over the Allied lines. In May 1915, the French army attempted to seize the ridge but failed with 150 000 casualties. In February 1916, the British Army attempted to take control of the ridge but the Germans were able to push them away from the ridge.

IMG_3473Attacking together for the first time, the four Canadian divisions stormed the ridge at 5:30am on 9 April 1917. More than 15,000 Canadian infantry overran the Germans all along the front. Canadians single-handedly charged machine-gun nests or forced the surrender of Germans in protective dugouts. Hill 145, the highest and most important feature of the Ridge, and where the Vimy monument now stands, was captured in a frontal bayonet charge against machine-gun positions. It was the first time all four Canadian divisions attacked together and men from all regions of Canada were present at the battle. Brigadier-General A.E. Ross declared after the war, “in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”

IMG_3444For me, visiting Vimy Ridge was an “eye opening” experience even though I’ve taught about the Battle of Vimy Ridge for many years. The first thing you notice are the craters left behind from the three-week bombardment that preluded the attack that occurred on the 9th of April. They were everywhere you looked. Large areas are fenced off with electric fences with signs stating that there are still unexploded devices in these areas. In fact, the attendant in the information told us that recently someone brought in a what they thought was a rock only to find out it was an undetonated grenade from 98 years ago.

When visiting the preserved trenches, I was struck by how close the Allied and German trenches were to each other. We were told that the trenches were 25 metres apart in places. In the area between the opposing trenches, known as “no man’s land” are several huge craters. We were told that these craters were from Allied soldiers tunneling under “no man’s land” and detonating explosives. My wife and I learned about the conditions of the trenches. Soldiers would spend months in these trenches often standing in ankle to knee-deep mud and water which caused many soldiers to acquire infections in their feet known as “trench foot”. The soldiers also had to contend with rats and head lice in epidemic proportions. The food was usually canned food and not much variety either. Many soldiers perished not because of battle but because of the horrific conditions of the trenches.

The park also does a tour of the tunnels. The tunnels at Vimy Ridge were part of a 20 kilometre (12 mile) network of tunnels stemming from the city of Arras. The soldiers would exit these tunnels to go onto the battle field. While soldiers were in the tunnels awaiting battle, they had to be perfectly quiet as they could be heard in the nearby German tunnels. The lighting in the tunnels was minimal so when our guide demonstrated what it would be like in there in 1917, it was almost pitch black. The temperature in the tunnels is a constant 10 degree Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit).

IMG_3726In the nearby city of Arras, my wife and I visited the Wellington Quarry (la Carrière Wellington) a museum that opened in 2008. The museum is a section of the many kilometres of tunnels dug by the British Army in WWI. Here is another history lesson.

From the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, the chalk beds underneath Arras were extensively quarried to supply stone for the town’s buildings. In 1916, during the First World War, the British forces decided to re-use the underground quarries to aid in a planned offensive against the Germans. The quarries were to be linked up so that they could be used both as shelters from the continual German shelling and as a means of conveying troops to the front in secrecy and safety, so 500 miners from the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, were brought in to dig 20 kilometres (12 miles) of tunnels. They worked alongside the British coal miners. Many were soldiers of below average height who had been rejected from regular units because they did not meet the height requirements.

The tunnel system could accommodate up to 20,000 men and these tunnels were outfitted with running water, electric lights, kitchens, latrines, a light rail system and a fully equipped hospital. Thousands of soldiers were billeted in the tunnels for eight days prior to the start of the Arras offensive on 9 April 1917. At 05:30 that morning, exits were dynamited to enable the troops to storm the German trenches. The Germans were taken by surprise and were pushed back 11 km (6.8 miles). However, the offensive soon bogged down and it was eventually called off after casualties reached 4,000 a day.

When you visit the quarry which lies 20 metres (65 feet) below the surface you are immediately struck by the numerous tunnels down there. A guide takes you through showing the many bottles, cans, shoes, and other WWI artifacts that are still there. You are also shown the graffiti on the walls left by the soldiers as well as one of the exits that led to the battlefield. It was truly one of the most moving and spiritual experiences I have ever had.

IMG_3434My wife and I also visited the many, many WWI military cemeteries in the area. We were actually overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. We visited three or four commonwealth cemeteries, which lay many Canadians. We visited a German cemetery and a French cemetery. What was astonishing to us was the number of unknown soldiers in these cemeteries. One of the cemeteries we visited had over half of the graves as unknown soldiers. Another surprising observation we made was how well-kept these cemeteries were. There were flowers growing between every headstone, the grass was always well-groomed  and monuments were found in every cemetery. I IMG_3518think this speaks of the character of the French people and nation. It says they have great respect for the dignity of all fallen soldiers. The French value and honor all soldiers, no matter what side of the war they fought for. I was also struck by the sense of peace in these cemeteries. It was truly a humbling and touching experience to visit these resting places of WWI soldiers.

Notre Dame de Lorette is the world’s largest French military cemetery. Beside this cemetery is the Remembrance Ring  (Anneau de la Mémoire) officially known as Mémorial International Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.  This new memorial was inaugurated on November 11, 2014 and takes the form of a 328-metre ring of concrete with 500 sheets of bronzed stainless steel inside listing 579,606 German, IMG_3528French and British names. Now that is a lot of fallen soldiers and that does not include the many unknown soldiers whose names are not part of this memorial. What was so unusual to me was the fact that the French Government collected as many names as they could obtain of soldiers who perished in WWI regardless of their nationality; regardless of which side of the war they fought on. Once again this speaks of the character of the French nation. My wife and I wandered around in awe of this memorial finding our family names. It is very powerful and humbling experience to stare at 113 people with the same surname as me who fought with the Germans, the enemy of the day. As you might have gathered, my ancestry is German.

My wife and I now have a whole new appreciation for all soldiers and the sacrifice they made to maintain freedoms. Even though WWI was such an unnecessary war and a world war caused by the big egos of the leaders of the day, it was still necessary for soldiers to keep France and Belgium from being occupied and controlled by a foreign empire. I will attend the Remembrance Day ceremonies this year with much more gratitude and appreciation of all soldiers, especially knowing what the soldiers of WWI had to endure.

Those Crazy European Drivers

On our flight over to Europe, I watched the recently released movie called Spy whereby the main character, Susan Cooper, played by Melissa McCarthy. is a desk bound CIA analyst who volunteers to go undercover to infiltrate the world of a deadly arms dealer, and prevent a global disaster. The movie has a very funny driving scene where an Italian agent named Bradley Fine, played by Jude Law, picks Cooper up and drives her to her hotel. During that scene the Italian agent, driving a sporty convertible speeds through the narrow streets of Rome, paying more attention to the girls he is passing by than to his driving. The scene is very funny and typifies the way Europeans drive. Anytime I’ve watched scenes like this, I’ve always thought that the movies must be majorly exaggerating drivers in Europe. After returning home, I no longer think that.

IMG_1172Based on our experiences in Europe, it would seem that the stereotype, perpetrated by Hollywood movies,  that European drivers are crazy is true. Have you ever seen an intersection packed with cars at all different angles, none of them moving, many of them tooting angrily like it will possibly help? Well, we did in Paris when our shuttle driver entered the very large round about that encircles the Arc of Triumph (Arc de Triomphe).  There were no clear lanes and cars were everywhere and numerous horns were tooting. This is just one of the many driving experiences my wife and I, along with our friends, experienced when we visited Continental Europe. Even though I was aware of the stereotype, I was still “shell shocked when witnessing it”.

Our first taxi ride was on the island of Santorini, one of the Greek islands.  After a nice dinner at our hotel, we decided to visit the nearby village of Kamair, so we had the hotel call a taxi for us.  When the taxi arrived, My wife and our friends got in the back seat, and I got into the front with the driver.  No word of a lie, the driver put the “petal to the metal” and the car accelerated quickly.  Now in Greece, there are no side walks so pedestrians walk on the narrow roads.  There was a group walking down the road as the taxi driver sped toward them, showing no signs of slowing down.  The pedestrians scattered very quickly, as you might imagine.  The village was two kilometres from our hotel. and our taxi driver speeded the entire way there.  Thank God, we made it to the village alive.  We all were so shocked that all we could do was laugh. I would label this taxi driver as one of those stereotypical crazy European drivers.

IMG_1166Like the driver in Santorini, the taxi driver who took us to the airport in Athens “floored it” at every opportunity.  At one point he narrowly missed a car door that was opening. What made the situation even more humorous was the fact that just before the taxi arrived, a huge thundercloud moved over the city and a torrential rainstorm occurred as we were driving off.  Now as in many cities, Athens does not have the infrastructure to handle torrential downpours, so needless to say the streets of Athens were semi flooding, or in some case fully flooded.  That didn’t slow down our taxi driver.  He just sped through the water sending water everywhere.  Now we were nervous to say the least and I suspect our driver must have sensed that since he put in a CD of Greek music and “cranked” it up.  It worked, as we did relax and started swaying to the music. This driver fit the stereotype.

IMG_1738Being a pedestrian in Europe is truly an adventure.  Really you take your own life into your hands every time you step out onto the street as there was no other choice since sidewalks are rare in Europe.  There were many, many times when our friends and us would be walking in what we assumed was a pedestrian zone only to be shocked when a vehicle would drive through scattering all the pedestrians.  That happened in Florence and Sorrento in Italy, Mykonos town in Greece, and Bayeux in France, to name some places we experienced this.  In fact, at our vacation rental in Sorrento, the gate opened right onto the road, and I’m not kidding when I say the vehicles did not slow down on that road.  Numerous times we literally ran to cross the road for fear of getting hit by a car.  It was most entertaining when you watched some else doing so.

In places like Rome, Paris and Athens it is common to see the narrow streets jammed with unruly drivers, streetcars, buses, mopeds, and double-parked trucks.  It is also common in these cities to see massive horn-honking traffic jams.  The mopeds and motorbikes were plentiful on the streets and would weave in and out of the vehicles, and often would drive between two vehicles to get ahead.  There didn’t seem to be any sense of abiding by rules and such.

IMG_2752Then there is the parking.  In Rome and Paris, for example, you would see vehicles parked in every which direction.  There would be trucks parked in lanes with their flashers on.  We saw this often in Paris on the shuttle.   Vehicles would be parked up on sidewalks, if there was one, and it was not uncommon to see cars double parked.  Vehicles would just park beside other parked vehicles and turn on their flashers.  It just seemed liked chaos to me.

Now I realize that the reason drivers are so aggressive in Europe and why people park in any available space they can find in cities is because Europe does not have the space that North America has. Most of the cities in Europe are ancient.  To give you some perspective, parts of Rome are truly ancient.  If you look at the famous Roman Colosseum and inquire when it was built you would learn that it was commissioned around A.D. (CE) 70-72 by Emperor Vespasian. Paris existed long before Notre Dame Cathedral was built and the cathedral began its construction  in 1163 AD (CE). The site of Athens has been inhabited since before 3000 BC (BCE). The earliest buildings date from the late Bronze Age, about 1200 BC (BCE), when part of the town spread to the south of the citadel on the Acropolis. The Acropolis is an ancient citadel (fortress) located on a high rocky outcrop above the city of Athens and contains the remains of several ancient Greek Temples.  So as you can see, these cities are truly ancient thus explaining why the city streets are narrow.  They were built in times before vehicles were around.  These cities were never intended to have modern vehicles on them.  In fact, many of these streets are still cobblestone. Space is at a premium over in Europe.

Then there is the population factor. Italy, for example, has 60,808,000 inhabitants and is 33 times smaller than Canada and the United States. Canada’s population is about 35 million and the population of the United States is approximately 319 million. Now that doesn’t mean much until you compare the number of people to the land area, otherwise known as their population density.  According to the World Bank Data Website Italy has a population density of 209 people per sq. kilometre (km) of land area.  Canada, on the other hand, has a density of 4 people per sq. km of land area and the United States has 35 people per sq. km of land area.  So as you can see, Italy is much more densely populated than either Canada or the United States. In light of these statistics, it is easy to understand that Italy has much less space to handle its vehicles and pedestrians.

After returning home, I have come to appreciate  the amount of space we have in North America.  Our wide streets, our sidewalks for pedestrians our large, straight highways, our open space in rural areas  are so refreshing after being in Europe.  All the while we were in Europe we heard about the refugee crisis.  It was on the news.  It was in their news papers.  We even witnessed a demonstration in support of the Syrian refugees in Athens. North America has so much more space and fewer people when compared to the European nations, therefore we should not be afraid to take in more of the Syrian refugees, especially in light of the fact that Europe is experiencing a refuge crisis right now. North America can easily encompass more inhabitants.  We have the space!

What is with the Stereotypes?

Well, I’m back from my European adventure and I have many stories to share with you in this and future blogs.  This is the third time I’ve been over to Europe and every time I come back amazed by the ancient historical buildings there and how different the culture is from North America.  I can never get enough of that wonderful continent.

A common stereotype of the French people is they’re rude and snobby.  Articles such as Common French Stereotypes and French Stereotypes allude to this stereotype, I would like to share some of my thoughts on France.  I have just visited this country for the third time and I cannot say enough good about this beautiful country and its citizens.

Over the years, and not long before leaving on this trip, I had many people tell me how rude they found the French people, especially the Parisians.  People often would tell me to expect the French people, especially in Paris, to be rude and snobby.  Well, I can tell you in all honesty that I have never experienced this during any of my three visits to France, and yes I was in Paris all three times.  In fact, I found French people to be most kind, welcoming, and always helpful.  Let me give you some examples from our most recent trip.

IMG_1207While still trying to “get our bearings” on the first day in Paris, we stopped in a wine shop to ask for some directions to the Metro.  Since neither my wife or myself speak the French language, the first words we would articulate would be, “Parlez-vous anglais?” that is, do you speak English?  Almost everyone we asked this question, replied, “Qui”, and then proceeded to speak to us in English.  We were always very grateful for this.  Anyway, this particularly kind man in the wine shop told us where to find the Metro, how to use the Metro, and where to purchase tickets.  Now that doesn’t fit the stereotype.

On another occasion, while making our way to the Palace of Versailles, we were helped by a very nice young man.  To get to Versailles you take the RER, which are the Paris commuter trains as the palace is about 28 kilometres away. Commuter trains are like the Metros in the sense that they make numerous stops along the way. Anyway, the stop to get off at is a stop called Versailles Rive Gauche, Chateau de Versailles. Knowing that the stop was Rive Gauche, when we arrived at the Viroflay Rive Gauche stop,  we panicked and got off;  two stops too soon.  Standing there wondering if we were at the right place, likely looking like confused tourists, a very nice young man came up to us and asked us something in French.  My wife responds with, “Parlez-vous anglais?” and the nice young man responds in English, “Can I help you?”  We explained our dilemma and he quickly got us straightened out.  We got on the next train, and were in Versailles in no time. This young French citizen didn’t fit the French stereotype.

The previous evening, while in the Paris Metro, my wife and I were discussing how to get to the Palace of Versailles. My wife is very meticulous and has a need to know exactly where she is going before embarking on an adventure.  While we were standing there, looking at a Metro map on the wall, some random older lady walks up to us and says something in French.  We gave our usual response and then speaking in English she explained to us how to get to the palace.  Keep in mind that her actions were of concern for us as we did not ask for help.  She explained to us to take line C of the RER to Versailles, and to get off at Rive Gauche.  We thanked her and started walking to our exit.  A minute later this kind lady comes running up to us and asked us if we wanted to go to the castle or the city of Versailles.  We clarified and she explained that she wanted to make sure she gave us the right stop.  This Parisian lady took time out of her I’m sure busy day to run and catch us so that we would not get lost the next day.  That was an action of kindness, not snobbishness.  We were very thankful for this lady did not fit the Parisian stereotype.

Outside of Paris was no different.  We were always greeted with kindness and friendliness.  Allow me to share some examples, again from our recent trip. When we arrived in Bayeux, France, a city near the Normandy D-Day Beaches, we were tired and hungry. We ventured out on foot to find a restaurant.  Using a map to navigate to the city centre, as was often the case we got confused and therefore lost.  A man, obviously a local, along with his daughter and dog were walking towards us.  We stopped him and asked if he spoke English.  Thankfully, he did and he directed us in the right direction.  He was most kind and most friendly.  He didn’t fit the stereotype.

IMG_3359While driving from Bayeux to Lievin, France, we stopped in the French village of Aumale as  my wife liked the town.  We parked and walked toward the huge church, which every village has.  As we turned the corner around the church, we discovered a market.  Walking about the market we came across a table with croissants on it so my wife asked if she could have one.  The lady at the table spoke no English, but understanding what my wife was asking, answered, “Oui”.  Then the lady points to the coffee urn, says something in French,  and looks at me.  Understanding that she was offering me coffee I said, “Oui”. This pleasant, friendly lady then pours my wife a juice.  The people of Aumale were most gracious and hospitable to us, the strangers in town.  The people of this French village certainly did not fit the French stereotype.

Just before arriving in the wonderful village of Aumale, we were stopped at an intersection.  Drivers around us were pointing at our vehicle and we immediately presumed that we had done something illegal or that something was wrong with our vehicle.  Then one man gets out of his car, comes running up to our vehicle and says something in French, while pointing down by the car door.  My wife, driving at the time, rolls down the window and looks out the window and to her horror discovers that her coat was hanging out the car door. This kind man had made the effort to alert us to our carelessness.  We were truly thankful for this man who was not stereotypically French.

While coming into Lievin, France, where our Bed and Breakfast (B&B) was located we drove to where our GPS said was our B&B, yet we couldn’t see it.  We walked down to the intersection and spotted a lady working in her yard.  Unfortunately, she didn’t speak English but we showed her the address and she pointed us in the right direction which was up the street.  It turned out that we had not walked far enough up the street.  She didn’t hesitate to help us lost tourists.

Our B&B lady was most welcoming and helpful.  She did speak English although with a strong French accent.  In fact, she kept apologizing for her accent.  We assured her that we could understand her.  She went out of her way to make us feel welcome and to help us plan our days.  She would even put addresses into our GPS of sites she recommended we see, such as the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.  Any time we tried to put in an address, our GPS could not find it.  It seems there is a certain way to put in French addresses. This lady was a fantastic hostess; not stereotypical at all.

IMG_3744While walking to a recommended restaurant our B&B person told us about, our GPS took us to a residential area.  The GPS said we were there, but there was nothing that looked anything like a food establishment. So we started walking back.  We first asked a random stranger standing at a street corner who also could not speak English where the restaurant was, and using gestures he pointed us down the street.  We kept walking, unsure of where we were going.  Seeing a lady in her yard, we asked her if she spoke our native tongue.  She did not so we showed her the name of the food place.  She rambled on in French and pointed us down the street.  We walked further down the road and lo and behold, there it was.  Those kind, non stereotypical people helped us move in the right direction.

Now I could go on and on with many more stories of experiences with friendly, kind and hospitable French citizens, but I’m sure you get the picture. The bottom line is the French people we encountered definitely did not fit the stereotypical mould of being rude and snobby.  Quite the opposite really. Ed Koch, an American lawyer, politician, political commentator, movie critic and reality television arbitrator once said, Stereotypes lose their power when the world is found to be more complex than the stereotype would suggest. When we learn that individuals do not fit the group stereotype, then it begins to fall apart”. That is so true. When you’ve been to France and see that their population is so diverse, you realize that not all citizens of France fit the stereotypical mould, although I’m sure they have some that do.

It just isn’t right to stereotype all French people as being rude and snobby, just as it isn’t right to stereotype all Americans as being arrogant and boastful, even though we did meet a couple of Americans who were.  Having said that, we met far more Americans who did not fit that stereotype. It’s equally as wrong to stereotype all Canadians as being extremely polite.  I have met my fair share of Canadians who are not stereotypically polite.

What is the matter with our youth?

niBBgppxTOver the last few years, because I was a veteran teacher, I’ve been asked many times if kids or youth of today are different compared to those when I started teaching.  That is a really interesting question; a question I have pondered for a while. There is no doubt that there are differences in the youth of today compared to say 35 years ago when I began my teaching career, or even 15 years ago for that matter.  But does that mean young people are different from the youth of previous generations?  That question always brings me back to a couple of quotes I first read in a book many years ago.

“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.”

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint”.

So have “kids” changed?  Are the youth of today different?  I don’t believe the youth of today are any different from the youth of previous generations.   Children have always been mischievous.  Young people have always been self-centred. Kids have always rebelled against authority when they could.  There has always been a generation gap. All one has to do is remember the beatniks and hippies of the 1960s and 1970s  The two quotes above also illustrate this.  Does the first quote sound like something an older person of today might say?  You bet it does!  The surprising thing is it is actually a quote from a sermon preached by Peter the Hermit in  C. E. (A.D.) 1274.  That was said 741 years ago.  The second quote is reported as being said by Hesiod, a Greek poet in 8th century BCE (BC).  He is generally thought by scholars to have been active between 750 and 650 BC. so that means he said this well over two thousand years ago.  I don’t know about you, but it sounds like youth have not changed in thousands of years.

So why does the youth of today seem so different compared to previous generations?  I believe there are two key reasons for this.

The first reason is due to the fact that today’s culture is very different from previous generations, and the biggest difference is technology.  The generations of today have all sorts of technologies that were not prevalent 20 years ago.  Today we have cell phones, computers, calculators, and the World Wide Web, otherwise known as the internet.  When I was in school in the 1970s, there weren’t even calculators.  We had to use slide rules when attending high school math classes. For you youngsters reading this, that was a ruler-like contraption that was used primarily for multiplication and division, and also for functions such as roots, logarithms and trigonometry. Addition or subtraction had to be done using pencil and paper. In my experience, computers did not really start appearing in my world until the 1980s when the Commodore 64 came out in 1982. I never had one, but I was envious of those individuals who had one.  The internet became available to the world in 1991.  So the youth of yesterday did not have access to the vast amount of knowledge the internet provides.  For the most part, people still had to rely on libraries to get information. Today, the culture is very different. Young people have come to expect things instantly.  They expect instant calculations using calculators.  Kids expect to find the answers to their questions within seconds and not to look in books to find them.  This is why the youth of today are not as patient.

The second reason has to do with parenting.  Today there are so many parents who “smother” their children.  They are always hovering  and waiting to swoop in and rescue their child whenever their child whimpers. We in the teaching world call these parents “helicopter parents.”  The kids of today for the most part are not allowed to “fall flat”.  They are not allowed to learn from their failures because their parents are always rescuing them.  This is why we are raising a generation that may not know how to handle failure.  Young people need to fail from time to time so that they learn how to be stronger; so that they learn from their mistakes.

Not only that, sometimes kids need to be taught values like respect through discipline.  They need to be taught that some behaviours are undesirable.  When I went to school, my parents always reminded me and my siblings that if we got in trouble at school, we would be in trouble at home. And they meant it. In my experience, this doesn’t happen much any more. They typically blame others for their child’s behaviour. So many parents of today do not “parent” their children.  They give children whatever they want.  This creates a generation of entitlement. The youth of today expect all things immediately, such as a new car or a new house.  Previous generations just accepted  this would take time to get and would have to work for it.

So, are young people different today compared to the youth of generations past?  The short answer is NO!  It is the parenting that is different and the culture that is different.  Kids learn these behaviours and develop traits like impatience from the older generations. This is why children behave differently.  So don’t blame the children, blame the parents; blame the culture; blame the adults.

Now don’t get me wrong.  There are a lot of great parents out there who don’t always give in to their children and who believe in strong discipline and not of the corporal kind either.  It’s just that they are in the minority.  Parents need to be parents. There are lots of great things about our culture and its technologies.  We just need to learn as a society how to use the technology appropriately and respectfully.

Change is inevitable!

I recently received this quote in an email and the quote got me thinking. The quote was:

Change cannot be avoided in life. So do not resist change, embrace it!

There is no doubt that life is changing all the time.  I’ll use myself as an example.  This year, 2015, has been very much a year of change for myself as well as my family. As I mentioned in some of my other posts, I retired as a classroom teacher after 35 years of teaching.  So to say that this is a huge change for me personally is an understatement.  Really, retirement is a new beginning; it is the beginning of a whole new journey.  For me, that has meant following some of my passions.  One of those passions is writing which is why I started this blog.  I needed an outlet for my writing.  I needed a place to share my stories and my opinions.  It means change because now there will be no more having to get up for work unless I decide to work somewhere.  Working is more of a choice now, rather than a necessity.  That is a good change.  I’ve heard it said, “some people work to live and others live to work”.  I was always one of those that worked to live.  I needed to work to support my family and to feel useful to society.

My wife and I have three wonderful children,  All three of our children have gone through some sort of change this year.  Our eldest daughter has moved to a new place to live after being in her previous place for five years.  That was a major change for her as she is not a person who freely embraces change.  Our youngest daughter is returning to university this year after living and working for the past year in her home town.   Our son is also off to university after spending two years at the local community college.  He is excited for this change as he has been living with us while getting his Diploma.  So as you can see, there has been much change in my family.  The only one that is remaining at her same job is my wife.  Having said that, she has taken a three-month leave of absence from her work place so that we can do some travelling this fall.  So even she has to endure some changes, although they are good changes.

If you listen to the news regularly, then you would also know that the day-to-day conditions on our planet are changing now in ways we could not have anticipated.  Climate change is one of the biggest changes our planet has had to endure.  Every year seems to be reported as the hottest on record.  Storms seem to be getting more and more frequent and progressively more violent.  According to the Union of concerned scientists, “As the Earth warms, the amount of rain or snow falling in the heaviest one percent of storms has risen nearly 20 percent on average in the United States—almost three times the rate of increase in total precipitation between 1958 and 2007.” That is definitely change, and not good change. Our planet needs help.

Changes the world will endure, according to the article, 5 ways the world will change radically, are:

  1. The world is becoming over populated.  The article states that,” India’s population will overtake China’s around 2020, and Africa’s population will overtake India’s by 2040″  That is not change to embrace since Africa is one of the world’s most poverty-stricken continents.
  2. Urbanization will rapidly increase.  The article says, “the number of people living in cities will climb from 3.5 billion today to 6.3 billion by 2050”  That means there will be much less farmland to grow food to feed the people.  That is not good change.
  3. Conflicts over water shortages will probably play out on our planet.  That is not positive change, for that means many people will die because the world is running short of fresh water.
  4. At this time in history, there isn’t enough energy being extracted from known sources of fossil fuels to sustain 10 billion people. That means humans will be forced to turn to new energy sources before the end of the century.  In my opinion this is good change as hopefully these new sources will mean less pollution.
  5. The article maintains, “biologists [not all biologists] believe that with the current rate of extinction, 75 percent of the planet’s species will disappear within the next 300 to 2,000 years”.  That is just sad as this planet has so much biodiversity.  That definitely is not good change.

So the fact of change is real!  The quote at the beginning says, So do not resist change, embrace it.”  When change happens to us individually, then yes it should be embraced.  As it has been said, “A change can be as good as a vacation.”  I think there is truth in that.  Many spiritual writers will say that when change happens to an individual, it is God’s or the universe’s way of forcing you to do what you are not choosing to do yourself, because God knows what is best. Having said that, sometimes individuals need Ostrichto resist change such as when individuals or groups of people are being forced to do something against their will. An example of this might be when groups of people are forced from their homes due to conflict like what we are witnessing in areas of the world like Africa and the Middle East.

However, when it comes to changes affecting this planet, such as climate change, or loss of biodiversity, then change needs to be resisted.  It is time for us humans to “get our heads out of the sand” and start resisting planetary changes that will only cause our planet to be less desirable to live in.

Will there ever be peace?

According to International Relations.com, there are ten wars where the fatalities are greater than 1000 every year and  five serious armed conflicts with fatalities just under a 1000 per year, happening on our planet at the present moment. According to the website, Syria remains the most lethal and overall “biggest” conflict, with an estimated 250,000 deaths in the past three years, of which fewer than half were battle-related deaths. The website goes on to list 15 other conflicts where less than a 1000 people are killed per year. For me, that is appalling.  For me that says something about the world’s sad state of affairs. It begs the question, “Will this planet ever experience peace?”  An even better question would be, “Is peace on this planet even possible?”

Personally I believe it is.  At the beginning of the Great War, otherwise known as World War One, the Christmas Truce of 1914 gives me a glimmer of hope. According the BBC,  a scattered series of small-scale cease fires did happen between some German and British forces. But this brief festive reprieve was not a mass event as some people have come to believe. In many places along the Western Front, December 25, 1914 was a day of brutal fighting like any other day in war times. Where it did occur, accounts suggest that men sang carols and in some cases left their trenches and met in No Man’s Land. If events where enemies put down their differences and celebrate, in this case Christmas, then those actions suggest to me that peace is achievable because of personal choices.  Each soldier involved in one of those brief cease-fires made a personal choice to make efforts of peace and goodwill towards their enemies.  It was a choice.

So is peace possible? Hans Küng,a scholar of theology and philosophy and author of many books, wrote in Christianity: Essence, History, Future, “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions”.  Many of the conflicts in the world involve tensions between the world religions. Hans Küng holds part of the key to the solution for world peace.  World religions need to understand one another and to practice what their religions teach, which is the ideals of their faith’s.  All world religions teach ideals of compassion, love and tolerance.

There have been and still are many spiritual leaders in history that have given us ways to achieve peace. The historical Jesus, the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and the Dalai Lama to name a few. Gandhi once said,”An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind”.  In other words, violence begets violence. History has demonstrated to humanity that most human conflicts have been as a result of stubbornness on the part of our leaders.  If our leaders could just learn that most disputes can be resolved by showing a willingness to understand the issues of our opponents and that by using diplomacy and compassion these issues can be solved peacefully.  Mahatma Gandhi also said, “There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no cause that I am prepared to kill for”.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal”.  His wisdom holds true not only for peace in our world, but for peace within ourselves.  Mr. Gandhi taught, “We must become the change we want to see in the world”This is by far Mahatma Gandhi’s wisest teaching. To achieve peace, be peace. How does one be peace? By a sheer act of Will. By the decision to always act peacefully and by causing others to experience what you wish to experience, that is peace.

peace-signThis especially holds true for our leaders, especially our political leaders. One cannot bring world peace to all unless a leader demonstrates peaceful acts of kindness daily.  Just think how different the world would be if our political or even religious leaders didn’t act like bullies, but instead always acted out of love, understanding and tolerance. It would be a very different world. A world living together in peace.

So what is my point simply put? Seymour Miller & Jill Jackson, a husband and wife songwriting team, say it much better than I could when they wrote the 1955 song, “Let There Be Peace on Earth,  with those beautiful words, ” Let there be peace on earth, And let it begin with me”. Peace begins with you and me!