Writing about Venice the other day sent memories of other trips we took while we lived in Geneva flooding into my head. And of course, travel was one of the reasons we took our adventure in Europe.
Sometimes when I write these pieces, folks tell me that they want to go there, too. And frankly, that makes me nervous. Because sometimes when I’ve made travel plans based on what someone else thinks would be great, I’ve been disappointed. Sorely disappointed. Especially when someone is sure I’ll love it.
A little bit of background is needed here.
Just a few months before John was offered the job in Geneva, my Mom died, leaving my father devastated. My parents had a wonderful marriage, and they were devoted to each other for the 51 years they were married. I wrote a little bit about them here. Dad was, as he said, “a lonely polecat” from the moment she passed.
In spite of the fact that I hardly ever write about him, Dad and I were close. Very close. He was nearly 80 years old when John got the job offer. I wanted to go, but I worried about not being “close” to Dad geographically – we lived in Northern Virginia and he lived in Florida. So close was relative.
“Are you nuts?” Dad said when I expressed my concern about being so far away from him. “GO! It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Think of what you’ll see. Think of the places you’ll go. Me? I’ll be fine. I know you’ll make me feel like I’m with you every place you go.” And I promised to live up to that promise – I would send him all the details our our life in Switzerland and all the places we would see.
And of course, he came to see us, and traveled with us, too. But that is another story for another day.
So whenever we traveled, it was like Dad was there too. In churches across the continent I lit candles for Mom on Dad’s behalf. I bought picture books, postcards and gifts and remembrances of each and every place we visited, and sent them to Dad along with detailed descriptions of everything we did. I tried to look at the scenery and the architecture and look for details that Dad would find interesting or amusing. It was a labor of love.
When I mentioned to Dad that we were planning to spend Easter break, 1999, in Belgium and Holland, Dad said “Oh, you have to go to Waterloo! I’ve always wanted to go there.” We discussed the fact that just like the 20th Century began with the end of WWI, the 19th Century began with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. A turning point in the direction of the Western world. We talked of history and how the world might be different had that battle ended differently.
Waterloo sounded good to me. I’m interested in history, and I do find battlefields fascinating. Touring battlefields was a concession I’d made early on to my history major husband. By that time I’d gone with John to a zillion Civil War battlefields and to the WWII battlefields of Normandy twice. I like learning what happened to whom, what quirks changed history, and I love to imagine what it must have been like. I love to follow the displays that are all around preserved battlefields. In fact, I depend on those signs because I can never, ever, remember the details, no matter how much I read before going.
I find it fascinating to stand where history was made – to look at a landscape and imagine dodging bullets, mud, looking for cover. I spent my childhood playing soldier, I can’t help myself.
Convincing my boys to go to another battlefield was a snap, even though Waterloo was several hours away from where we were staying in Bruges (a favorite city). We got up early one morning, and headed off.
In spite of its large place in history, the town of Waterloo is fairly small. There were few indications that anything much had happened there, or that much had changed over the centuries. It was farmland when the battle took place, and it was farmland when we visited. I’m betting that it is still farmland now, 15 years later.
The main tourist destination starts here, in a building that did not witness the battle. That should have been a clue.
In we went. We quickly realized that despite what we knew from history, and from what we’d recently read in preparation for the trip, Napoleon actually won at Waterloo. Because everybody inside was speaking French. Not English (la langue de la victors). Not Flemmish, the language of the actual place where we were standing. French, the language of the guy who lost. Shit.
Important footnote here: By the time we arrived at Waterloo, we’d been living in a French immersion program for nearly two years. Still, our French sucked. As usual I was our designated French speaker – not because I was any better at it than John or Jacob, but because I have no reservations about looking like a dope. In fact, I’m a natural.
“Bonjour, madam,” I said to the woman selling tickets, “je voudrais trois billets.”
“Zree ticket,” she said as she gave me the tickets. “You must zee zee film. Zee next showing of zee film begins in 10 minute.”
“Oh, there’s a film? Ummm, what language is it in? Do we need headphones or are there subtitles?” I peppered her with nervous questions. The tickets were expensive and it would be a waste of money for us to watch it in French. We might just as well get no direction at all! And just in case she hadn’t realized it, I added: “Our French isn’t very good.”
“Yes I see. But you vill be fine,” she responded after a pause where she valiantly managed to not laugh. “You vill understand zis film as well as anybod-ee else.”
John and I looked at each other. Understand it as well as anybod-ee else? Clearly the clerk was overestimating our linguistic skills.
“I guess everybody leaves this movie clueless!” joked John.
Some things are best left unsaid.
So into the theater we went. In spite of the clerk’s introduction, we still expected to learn all about the Battle of Waterloo, The French, The Prussians, the English, and whoever the hell else participated in the Battle. To get an impression to go with what we would later see outside.
We were mistaken. Because the film was not what we expected. It wasn’t in French, it was French. Very French. And by that I mean that it was lovely, had great music. And it was incomprehensible. Obscure. It made no sense at all.
It said “You Americanz, you should have learnt your histoire better before you came to zee zis battlefield where we French were
Because that film sure as hell didn’t tell us a thing about The Battle of Waterloo. It didn’t mention Napoleon. Or Wellington. Or tell us the name of that Prussian general. It didn’t help me put into context what I had read about the battle. It didn’t match landmarks with armies, for example. It didn’t tell us who, what, where, how or why.
Nope. Because, apparently, that battle that’s in all the history books? It all happened, um, in a dream.
At least, that’s the impression we got. The film started out with three children in modern dress. Two boys and a girl played in the yard of a centuries-old farmhouse. They approached the house, and noted bullet holes in the walls. Just as they touched one of them, the yard filled with smoke. Gunfire was heard – and not far away. It was coming from near the film’s children!
I started worrying about those kids in the film almost immediately. I mean, didn’t they know they were playing on a battlefield? Run, kids, Run!
Suddenly, there were soldiers surrounding the kids, wearing old-time uniforms and pointing old time guns. Some even sported bayonets. The soldiers pushed through the yard of the farmhouse, marching, stepping on everything in their way. Shooting those guns at the unseen enemy. Some soldiers wore blue; others wore red. Everything was oh, so confusing!
Gasp! The kids were caught in a battle! Maybe even the Battle of Waterloo!
Jacob leaned over to John:
“Dad,” he said, “This is weird. Why aren’t they telling us what happened?”
Based on what we learned from the film, the Battle of Waterloo occurred in a time warp – and it included soldiers in multicolored uniforms and kids in modern dress. And smoke and noise. With an occasional scream from the little girl, the wuss.
John, Jacob and I giggled throughout the movie. In fact, we left pretty sure that the movie was a joke, played only for American visitors, because you see, we were the only people there that day — it was early in the season. Yup, that film certainly didn’t tell us anything about what happened on June 18, 1815, in one of the most celebrated military encounters in world history.
Luckily, though, Jacob and I regularly traveled with our own military historian. So without really any more understanding than any of us had gone in with, we headed out the door to the actual battlefield.
Because the landscape doesn’t look like it did when the battle we were not learning about allegedly took place.
Nope. If Napoleon Bonaparte himself got caught in that very same time warp, he would take off his bicorne hat and scratched his head as well as his tummy. His horse would be pretty confused, too. As would Wellington and that Prussian guy, whatever his name was.
Because where there was perfectly flat farmland in Napoleon’s recollection, there was now a mound. A man-made hill. An enormous pile of dirt covered by grass with a sculpture of a lion atop of a very long, steep staircase.
I thought of Dad as we climbed the 226 steps to the top of the 141 foot Butte du Lion (allegedly it’s the Lion’s Mound, but you do get the best view of the Lion’s butt) to view the battlefield. The Lion’s Mound was not there when Napoleon and Wellington were; it was built as a memorial to the soldiers who died there.
And it was just as well that Dad wasn’t with us on this trip; the climb would have finished him off, for sure. Plus he wouldn’t have learned any more for his climb. I certainly didn’t.
You see, the view from the top was, ummm, boring.
In addition to the lion, a pretty cool sculpture, there was only a very narrow pedestrian area from which you can see the battlefield/newly plowed farm fields that surround the mound. You get a panorama of farm fields, from where you see a few farmhouses (including the one in the film!) and the Visitor’s Centre.
And that is all.
There was no information up there about the battle. Nothing. Nada. Not a map, not a pointer, not a clue.
Nothing up there told us what happened below to change the course of history. Nothing explained how what happened there stopped the French conquests under Napoleon which resulted, albeit indirectly, in my poor French. There was no map, no arrow, no indicator pointing to where the troops had come from or where they went. Where were the French? Did the Prussians come from East or West? And the Brits? Where did they start? Where did they finish. What the hell happened here?
And why were those damn kids in the middle of all of it?
Fortunately for Jacob and I, John, who knows everything, pointed out to Jacob and I what had happened and where. How the Brits and the Prussians joined forces, how Napoleon was defeated and fled on foot for a while before being captured. And so we learned a lot, Jacob and I, in spite of the absence of information at the information center and on top of the mound.
And I knew that I would thoroughly enjoy explaining the Battle of Waterloo to Dad with my rendition of the Tourist Board’s film.
* * *
I wanted to go to Waterloo because my Dad wanted to go. And since he couldn’t, well, I did. We did. And it was a riot – we had a blast.
That is the thing about travel – it’s important to temper what someone else enthusiastically loves or wants to see with what you want to see. But no matter what you encounter, if you find the fun even in disappointment, well, you won’t be disappointed.
Unless you get your travel tips from my Dad, that is.*
*You didn’t click on the link like I told you to, did you?