Wednesday, 21 November 2007

On Flanders Fields

I'd like to share a little family war story I found out about when I told Mum and my aunt that Lauren and I were heading to the World War 1 battlefields in Belgium.

During the war, my great grandfather Arthur Baynes was a Lance Corporal with the Royal Engineers Regiment, fighting in the trenches near Ypres. Arthur was near the town's cathederal when it was hit by a shell. The next day he walked into it and found the wrecked organ's ivory and ebony keys scattered about. Being a practical chap, though apparently not a terribly God-fearing one, he collected the keys and some fragments of the oak confessional box. A cabinet maker by trade, he used a penknife to carve the wood into a trinket box for his wife and inlaid it with some of the ebony and ivory. He took the rest of his war spoils home and used to beautify tables and other furniture. My aunt now has the trinket box.

My great grandfather, Arthur Baynes. They say he was a bit of a devil.

So when Lauren and I went to Ypres, I was pretty keen to track down the place my ancestor pillaged. Trouble was, I mistook the cathederal for the town hall, so we ended up at another church. As this one had also been destroyed during the war and in any case, we are not exactly sure if it really was the cathederal that curious Arthur had pillaged, we grabbed a snap of it.

Then, as we hurried off to a chocolate shop, I realised where the cathederal was, and took a slight detour.
Imagine walking into this after it had been shelled.

The land around Ypres is much like it was before WW1; low hills covered in fields and patches of trees. It's a pretty place and, like Gallipoli, is strange to think that this was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting ever. We got an idea of what it would have looked like at an excellent museum, which was crammed with photographs, slides, uniforms and the various shells, weapons, helmets and other paraphenalia the locals had dug up over the years. They had also kept a section of trench-crossed, shell-cratered battlefield intact.

There were four major battles here during the war. In just the third battle, which is also known as Passchendale, about half a million men were killed. Half a million.

Among the dead were 3,596 New Zealanders - making Passchendale the deadliest battle in our history. Many of them are buried at Tyne Cot Cemetary, the largest Commonwealth war graveyard. Tyne Cot also contains the Memorial to the Missing - the soldiers whose bodies were lost in the mud. There are nearly 35,000 names on it, 1,176 of them New Zealanders.

Tyne Cot. It was a cold, gloomy day, which suited the place perfectly.

Do you have any family war stories? If so, we'd be interested to hear them.

Monday, 19 November 2007

The land of beer and chocolate

Belgium is one of those places that many people drive through without stopping. It's often considered a bit of a non-country, a few fields squished between France, Germany and Holland. After having spent last weekend in Brugge and Ypres, though, I would totally recommend it as a place to visit.
A bridge in Brugge
Belgium may have been so cold we half expected it to snow, and while there we had our first experience of the loud and obnoxious species, Drunken English Yobbos, but it was a lovely weekend nonetheless. First, it really is the land of beer and chocolate. The chocolate shops are everywhere, selling some of tastiest chocolate I have ever eaten, in various shapes, sizes, and flavours.
I didn't want to post a photo of some of the R18 chocolate we saw
The beer was also in a league of its own. I discovered that my new favourite beer is cherry flavoured, and Tane discovered that drinking the 12.5% stuff at lunch is not as good an idea as you might think. Apparently in Belgium normal 5% is called 'table beer' and given to children it is considered so weak. A tiny section of the beer shop

Brugge, in particular, was lovely. It's a small town filled with either medieval or mock medieval buildings, as well as houses that look like they ought to be made with candy. We met and hung out with some great Australians, sampling chocolate, talking about the chocolate, sampling beer, swapping beer, complaining about feeling ill from too much chocolate, then buying some more. In between times, we also did a canal cruise which not only got us away from the chocolate shops but showed us Brugge at its best.
In a vain attempt to counter the excessive chocolate consumption, we also climbed the 300+ stairs to the Brugge Belfry. Climbing the tiny stairs was an effort, but the view from the top very much worth it, as was having the bells ring while up there. Lucky I am part of the i-pod generation that is accustomed to loud noises in my ears, although I won't be downloading "sound of bells while 2 metres away" any time soon.From the top
The way down. You would not want to try that after some 12.5%, that's for sure.

Tane will do a write up on the WWI sites we also saw while there later in the week as it didn't feel appropriate to entitle this entry 'The land of beer, chocolate, and en masse death in the trenches'. In the meantime though I will leave you with a photo of us in Brugge, and then go and eat the last of my chocolate.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Letters vs emails

Ten years ago when I was living in Italy, NZ felt so far away it might as well have been on Mars. The only way of keeping in touch with friends was letters that took two weeks to arrive, so it was unusual to hear from anyone more often than once a month and the news was often out of date. I used to look forward to the moment I would get home from school and see if any post had arrived that day, and if no-one had written, I would wait another 24 hours till the next time the post came. The only NZ news I read was the odd newspaper that Dad would send, which while great to read was always old news by the time I received it.
Apart from the odd photo that someone would send me, I spent a year of my life not knowing what most people looked like. As a result I didn't even recognise one of my sisters when I returned, as she had grown taller and had a totally different haircut than a year earlier. I did not have an email address until a year later, and thought that cellphones were something only owned by very wealthy people.

Now, ten years later, I am living overseas again. Emails arrive a few seconds after they are sent, text messages take the same length of time, and I can keep up to date on the smaller details of friends' and family members' lives through Facebook, Bebo, blogs and cheap phone calls. I read the NZ news every day, and look at photos other people post. The only addresses I know by heart are my parents', and don't have any one's landlines. I don't even know what my own is without looking it up. On the other hand, at any given moment, I always know exactly where my cellphone is. .
In only 10 years, things have changed completely. I wonder - which way is better? On the upside of now, I love being up to date with what's going on at home, hearing from people easily, and being able to read the news to find out about what's going on in the world. I love that I can get texts from Dad that say "goodnight, Lauren!", as well as funny joke email forwards from Mum, not to mention all the other communications I get from everyone else. Blogs and Facebook mean that I can see what other people are up to in a way that requires minimal effort and no direct communication. I feel closer to home than I did in Italy, because while I might not always write or text, I know that when I do they are immediate.
On the flip side, though, as everyone else probably thinks like me in terms of using blogs and Facebook to see what people are up to, I receive fewer emails now than letters when I was in Italy. Emails are generally shorter than letters used to be, and I wouldn't recognise the handwriting of some of my closest friends. Emails and texts get deleted and email addresses get de-activated, so I hate to think how future historians are going to research the people of now. Another pro of the old days is that I still have the letters of people who used to write to me that have died, and I would much rather have something to keep that they wrote in their own handwriting than a printed email written in 12-point Times New Roman. There were other benefits of the old method too - once the postman came, that was it. I wouldn't worry again until the next day, unlike now when you can obsessively check emails, cellphones and the Internet.
On balance, I am happier the way things are now. Things are easier, faster, and I like feeling close to home when I'm not. But, still, I feel that this has come at a cost. What do you think?

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Die St John

When Stephen first told us he was planning on going to Bury St Edmunds, my first thought was 'who is St Edmund and why do you want to bury him?' Turns out Bury, which Lauren christened Die St John and Cremate St Bruce (depending on how sacrilegious she was feeling), is in fact a very cute historic small town a couple of hours by train from London, where the Christian Saxon king Edmund was said to have been turned into a pincushion by Viking archers. Stephen, history hound that he is, had sniffed out an opulent country mansion called Ickworth that he wanted to visit. Ickworth was built by the Herveys, a scandalous and showy noble family. And by scandal I mean scandal - from a bisexual 17th Century cabinet minister to a bankrupt gay jewel thief, the Herveys were a racy bunch.

Amazing what you get when you put money and looniness together. And I don't mean Stephen.

To get to Ickworth, we had to do a bit of a cross country walk. Given how unfit Alice, Stephen, Lauren and I are, and how many bits of Suffolk we had to cut across, this was a bit of a mission. There were turnip fields. There were wrong turnings. There were black-faced sheep. There were sore legs. There were pheasants bursting from the bushes. There were cow pats. There was the old lady with the vacant smile. And there was the mental institution, where four lost Kiwis carrying an assortment of packs and sticks fitted in quite well.

Alice, Lauren and Stephen a-wandering

Tane, God of the Turnips

It was a great weekend - fireworks, a really cool little museum where you could see a lock of Mary Tudor's hair, a restaurant with very tasty French wine, a huge ruined abbey and bed and breakfast in a house dating back to Anne Boleyn's time. History, food, drink, fireworks, exercise and turnips. What more could you want from a weekend in the country?

The former St Edmund's Abbey