Our Own Waterloo

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.

Waterloo Visitors Center and Theater. (Google Image)

Waterloo Visitors Center and Theater.
(Google Image)

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 beaten glorious.” 

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.

No Smoking!  (Google Image)

No Smoking!

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.

Sort of.

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.

Napoleon and His Horse, who is clearly rearing as a result of the time warp. Painting by Jacques-Louis David

Which way to Wellington? Zat way? or Zis way?
Painting by Jacques-Louis David

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.

Google Image

Google Image

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?


Filed under Adult Traumas, Dad, Family, Holidays, Huh?, Humor

51 responses to “Our Own Waterloo

  1. Pingback: Why I Don’t Pray | FiftyFourandAHalf

  2. Sorry Elyse, battlefield & churches are not my favorite sites to visit. Give me a beach, an aquamarine ocean anytime.


    • I like those too. But when you’re in Europe, well, it’s important to see what Europe has to offer. And European beaches? I HATE them. They line up chaise lounges with 2 inches in between them and charge you money to lay on them. I’ll pass on that!


  3. I think we skipped Waterloo. We didn’t skip WWII battlefields, wandering many. We didn’t skip other memorials of WWII including my parents dragging us through several (at least 3 but I think it was more) preserved camps. We also toured great old prisons including torture chambers, wonderful for impressionable children with active imaginations (me).

    Elyse, I loved this one. I loved how you included your father.


    • What? You skipped Waterloo? You were robbed, Val, robbed. I mean, it was such an informative place.

      Castles with torture chambers? Oh yeah, we saw a lot of them. Jacob, years later, still talks about the castle where there was a bed with a table next to it where they’d place food for the prisoner, just out of reach!

      We skipped the camps though. Jacob was too young — as I imagine you were. I don’t know at what age one should realize that horrors are closer in time than we’d hope, but we really weren’t ready to take Jacob there at 6-10. I still think that was the right decision.


    • And I really think I paid more attention and got more out of each of our trips when I was thinking about how to describe a place to my Dad. He was a terrific arm-chair traveler.

      His very first trip to Europe was to come and see us in 1998. He applied for his first passport at 80 — and the Dept. of State gave him a special leather case to carry it in. It was a wonderful visit (although I/we walked him all around Switzerland and France and he never quite recovered from the exhaustion of his trip.)

      Even since he’s gone, I sometimes still think of how I’d describe a new place to him.


  4. Hmm….reality doesn’t match up with expectations…isn’t this the very definition of a trip? At least you saw the humor in things. I love how your dad encouraged you to go in spite of losing your mother. He sounds like he was an amazing person.


    • Dad was great; I miss him sorely. I find it hard to write about him, though. I can let a little of him come through from time to time, but not much. I’m hoping that this piece will uncork me a bit.

      And yeah, the idea of a family vacation that doesn’t live up to expectations is, umm, expected, isn’t it?


  5. This is so hilarious. I laughed through the whole piece. The French have a penchant for illusion as opposed to actuality. (After all, what’s the fun in repeating facts?) But I also recalled the many churches I’ve lit candles in for my father, who predeceased my mother. Those churches in Europe have an aura about them. Don’t know what it is, but I feel a bit closer to God. Another great post, Elyse!


    • There is something mystical, magic and heavenly about European churches. They were built that way — churches here can often double as gymnasiums as the one I went to growing up did.

      And what can I say about the French except C’est la vie!


  6. This is one of my favorite posts of all times…


  7. Luanne

    Wow, what a wonderful (and not boring) trip you’ve taken me on. And all thanks to your sweet dad who said to GO. My dad would have said STAY ;). Of course, it’s good you made the climb. You got a great blog post out of it!


  8. Great story. I too am a history buff. I think you might have saved me from having Waterloo on a bucket list of any sort. Thanks for the heads up!


    • We went in late March. Maybe it’s better in the spring. I have read other people’s accounts that were more enlightening. But I’ll keep ours. It was pretty funny!

      Thanks for commenting!


  9. I do think the Europeans are so much more casual about their history because they HAVE so damn much more of it than we do.

    Thanks for the travelogue – it sounds fun when filtered through the Elyse-o-filter.


    • Exactly! That’s why European history is so complicated — too many notes!

      Now if we had paid trans-Atlantic fares just to go there, I probably/maybe/oh of course I would have been mad as hell. But it was one day out of our trip, so it wasn’t a big deal at all. But it was quite memorable!


  10. This was such an enjoyable and highly entertaining travelogue of what you didn’t see when you visited Waterloo. The butte might have been the high point (all puns, of course, intended), but I love it that you turned a non-event into a fond memory by focusing on the humor, rather than on the disappointment. I loved it even more for feeling what surely was the corners of your Dad’s mouth turning up in delight as you peppered him with the details of the trip. Waterloo may have been an ill-advised side trip that didn’t exactly deliver as expected, but in the end, both you and your Dad surely enjoyed the trip. Thanks for sharing this one. So delicious.


    • and you’re right, I didn’t … click on the link … but then, of course, I did … which reminded me of just how handsome your Dad was … dashing, even.


      • Thanks, 99. Yes, Dad was dreamy. My first love. And I was the acknowledged favorite of the five kids. Everybody knew it — there was no pretense. Somehow, my siblings didn’t end up hating me for it! (At least I think so, anyway!)


    • There was nothing to do but see the humor — and I mean that literally. Apparently when you go you can take guided tours that perhaps tell you, like what happened and stuff. But it was March when we went, not high tourist season. In looking this up, I read a couple of other posts by people who went and found it fascinating. Which was part of my point (albeit a small one). Just because someone you know or like found a place enjoyable/memorable/worth a trip, doesn’t mean you will.

      I’m not sure I ever did tell John that it was all Dad’s fault!


  11. It does seem to be a “North American” thing to erect monuments to war and re-enact them. Have grown up in an area of historical significance for our country, we all new facts of the “War of 1812”. There were all kinds of monuments and plaques and (at least since 2012) re-enactments. Travelling through the US that is common as well. But, now that you mention it, I do not remember seeing anything like that anywhere else I have travelled. At least you had your own personal historian with you to set you straight.


    • It is often convenient to travel with John! I do read up on the history of a place before hand, but I frankly never remember it. I remember the stories of the people well, but not necessarily the fact. Oh well!

      I think that European history is just so full of things that happened, and the Europeans have been there for a while. We here in N. America are newcomers, so I think maybe it these commemorative locations help give us a sense of history amongst the newness. Newness to those who emigrated here anyway. My apologies to Native Americans!


  12. As you I have often been disappointed or surprised when I visited a “highly recommended” site. I was surprised when I visited Greece as most of the antiquities were crumbling (as another blogger noted). We weren’t allowed near them. I visited The Alamo in San Antonio and was surprised at how small it was. There was a lot of information about it but it was frightening to think that these folks thought they could win! Some of my favorite trips have been ones that came up unexpected and with no prior fanfare. I loved Rio de Janeiro. Traveling is always a surprise and it can’t be predicted!


    • I completely agree, Kate. If you have no expectations when you visit a place, you can’t be let down!

      My husband visited Greece in his 20s (the 70s) and found it crumbling and frustrating. I really wanted to go there, but we didn’t manage it. Maybe that is just as well!


  13. The French are something else…


  14. So many things to love about this story. What an understanding father to encourage you to go! How nice to know you had his blessing, and that you embarked on each “field trip” with him in mind, to remember the details and tell him about it.
    My brother took us to Waterloo when he and his family lived in Mons, Belgium. Everything looked so bucolic, agrarian and that mound with the lion on top so incongruous, The Butte du Lion. Obviously, it wasn’t a mountain or a natural hill but man made. I never did find out the story behind the “butte”. That circular building housed mainly a semicircular theater to view the film and there was a gift shop. There was no curated museum with artifacts explaining the history that we saw. Brother took us to the Wellington Museum which offered much more about the history.


    • I’ve read that the mound was built out of the bloodstained soil of the field. But it is so incongruous as you said. So very out of place! And not at all informative! Did you see the same film we saw? The kids? It was a hoot in retrospect but at the time it was merely confusing. (It figures that the Wellington Museum would offer more info …)

      As for Dad, yes, it was wonderful that he was so supportive. And I kept true to my promise. I had as much fun writing to Dad about our trips as I did taking them. My letters were hilarious, and Dad kept them in a file for me to write a memoir when I got back (I am seriously paper challenged.) Sadly, when Dad had to go into a nursing home a month or so before he died, his house was cleaned out and my letters lost. It breaks my heart to think of it, truly. (Although I have a couple that I later found on an old computer’s disc drive — they weren’t nearly as humorous as I thought they were.)


  15. I laughed about your commentary on using languages – always key is the willingness to look and sound like a dope. I’ve humiliated myself in numerous languages as well as possibly causing a few international incidents. There are few places that I’ve really gotten a sense of history, be it battlefields or monuments. And much of the time, like when I visited the Parthenon, crumbling buildings are surrounded by scaffolding. It really wrecks the ambiance!


    • Yes, Michelle, I have been a dope in many different languages and lands. IN fact, whenever we went into the German-speaking parts of Switzerland, I spontaneously tried to speak to people in Italian — which I don’t speak either. John would look at me like I was a dope along with the locals! I’ve never figured out what made me do that, but it always happened.

      The Parthenon was scaffolded? That is tragic! We did a lot of our traveling 1997-2000 and much of Italy was covered in tarps and scaffolding as cities prepared for the big 2000. We managed to get around it, but it does take something from the overall impression of the place, doesn’t it? Oh well.

      One of the things that always gets to me is to feel the way stone on staircases has been worn down with the passage of time. My first experience was walking down a staircase in the Tower of London in 1973. I could feel where Elizabeth I and Ann Boleyn had stepped. That may have been when I stopped looking at history as the study of what happened and began looking at it in terms of “to whom” it happened.


      • What is really sad is that pollution is playing such a heavy corrosive role on many historic monuments, hence the work on the Acropolis.


        • Not to mention the damage that people do.

          When my husband went to Greece in the 70s, he could walk up into the Parthenon, sit on the stones. Now you can’t even get close (and me, I didn’t even get to Greece!). It’s sad what we do intentionally and unintentionally.


  16. I enjoy history, but I have no interest in visiting the battlefields. Too often, these are the places where thousands of people killed each other for the crime of wearing a differently-colored uniform.


  17. Thank you, Elyse, for this great travelogue. Never got to visit Waterloo when in France, but now that I found out all about it, I’m glad I didn’t make that trip! I also appreciate the historic places where battlefields happened. Yes, they are hallowed ground and are to be respected. You’ll have to excuse me for laughing a lot while reading your Waterloo escapade.


    • You are always welcome to laugh at me, Sunshine. I don’t write about things I’m really sensitive about — and this one? Nope.

      Waterloo is kind of away from everything else, right smack in the middle of Belgium. There are many other things to see — so you didn’t miss much. Maybe the Belgians didn’t want to make a big deal over the fact that armies have been marching across their farms for a milennia!


  18. You should have known it wasn’t accurate from that 2nd pic. Did any Frenchman ever say “No smoking”?

    I have two minds about this. Visiting a battlefield or historic location, it’s fascinating to stand on the same ground and see the same views. On the other hand, it’s just as interesting to me to see how that hallowed ground has changed in the years since the battle.

    So yes, walking the fields at Gettysburg and lying behind the stone wall gave me a better perspective of the battle, but I can also live with the 7-11 near the center of Antietam.

    So when you told him about it, what was your Dad’s reaction to that visit?


    • Guap, you’re right about the French and smoking. But I guess it depends on where the smoke is coming from!

      One of the biggest shocks I got in Europe is the way they preserve history. Or rather, that they don’t preserve it. If you go to a major American battlefield, here in the US or in Normandy, for example, it is hallowed ground. Preserved. Stopped in time so that folks could visit, view and learn. It is different in Europe. It took me about 3 years of mouth-dropping frustration to get the fact that the Europeans don’t — and can’t — preserve battlefields the way we do. Because every inch of European soil has been fought over for thousands of years.

      What did my Dad say? He laughed. And laughed. I will admit, though that I accentuated the silliness of the film while minimizing the disappointment in the battlefield. Because I loved my Dad, and I wouldn’t ever make him feel bad if I could help it. (So I was very glad indeed that that wasn’t one of our destinations when he came to visit us!)


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