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Archive for the tag “World War I”

30×30: Lesson 12: It’s about the process

I’ve written about this multiple times before, but I’ll write about it again: those two weeks in July 2010 when Lynn Palermo and I backpacked in western Europe in order to follow what had been the Western Front of World War I.

Those fifteen days beneath France’s cloudless skies still rank among some of my most eye-opening and humbling experiences. Lynn and I had begun our trek in Dunkerque, France (after not having seen each other for a year or so), then carried on to Ypres, Belgium (a city that was 90% destroyed in battle), and entered back into France by foot. From Amentières to Reims, we carried our packs along shadeless highways and between beet fields, zigzagged from village to village by following the church steeples, and stumbled over cemeteries tucked in forests and chapel yards.

We took the train whenever it was most logical, washed our clothes in hotel sinks, asked for directions and occasionally got lost, spent hours in silence only to pass hours more by singing, and cooled off in the dairy sections of grocery stores whenever the heat got too intense. We talked with strangers, slept in the shade, biked through forests, and wandered around public squares.

And I fell apart.

I wish this post was about the lessons I learned amid the grass-grown trenches, the damp caverns, or the threadbare villages with memorials to their fallen sons — although those places did provide strong, tangible evidence toward the pointlessness of war. (A discussion on peace merits a different post.) Instead, the greatest struggle for me during this trip was the seeming aimlessness of our wandering by foot, day after day, for hours on end, not knowing exactly — although this was the point — where or when we would land.

It was in Compiègne, France (where the Armistice was signed) when Lynn asked me what was wrong, and I blurted out that I really wanted to make a plan. Did she have any expectations for dinner? Did she wanted to remain in Compiègne for two nights or did she want to leave tomorrow? Where were we going afterward — was it Reims, or had I heard her say something about the Chemin des Dames? Was there a bus or train to either of these places? Had either of us checked the weather?

Lynn was genuinely surprised. “For me, it’s about the process, not the destination,” she said. “I’d rather not plan because then you’re open to whatever happens.”

In my life, I almost always curse the process. The training that goes before the half marathon. The schooling that comes before the degree. The climb before the summit. Too often, I brush off these moments as time wasted — obligatory dues to be filled before I can attain that which I feel I merit.

However, Lynn was suggesting that the process is almost more important than the place you end up. In other words, can the pain of the run be more important than the finish line? Can I look at the fatigue of grad school and realize that these days are actually moments to be treasured? Is it possible that I’ve already attained what I’ve been waiting for?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

Exit Glacier, where I inscribed "It's the Process, Not the Destination" on the wall. 2012.

Exit Glacier, Alaska, where I etched the phrases “It’s the Process, Not the Destination” into the emergency shelter wall. 2012.

Magnum ice cream bars, Compiègne, France

I used to think I was accustomed to heat from growing up on the farm and unloading hay bales in high-barn heat, but that was nothing compared to this.  It was July 2010, and I was backpacking along the Western Front of World War I with my companion Lynn.  The trip consisted of walking for 10 or so miles a day and visiting still-flat battlefields, towns that had been razed, graveyards of boys younger than I — a cultural experience which taught me that people behave differently toward each other when war took place in their backyard — but I was also unprepared for the heat and France’s lack of air conditioning.  On the farm, you could work for a handful of hours then come inside to stand in front of fans spinning behind screened-in windows, but in the north of France, I could find no relief.  We would stop for a baguette sandwich at a brasserie — no air conditioning.  We’d walk into a small store selling fruits and vegetables at the end of town — only the doors were propped open.  In Compiègne, we stayed two nights in a small hostel above the Rue du General Leclerc with two windows open to a breeze which did not exist, and each night I wrapped the sheet around my knees and willed myself not to move so that I’d become cool enough to sleep.

On July 9, Lynn and I biked to the forest where the Armistice was signed that had ended World War I.  The cool of the forest and the breeze of biking brought a bit of relief, but on the way home, the heat flamed off the pavement, and my feet sweated so much in my flat shoes that I could barely keep them from falling off.  I didn’t know what to do.  I remember thinking vaguely that people who had lived before the dawn of air conditioning had survived before.

“We stopped by the river, ditched our bikes in the shade, and laid down in the grass with our hats over our faces like an impressionist painting,” I wrote in my journal on July 9.  “I was so hot that it almost was painful to move.  A slow breeze pushed the air along. A father and son fished to our left.  Downstream, the air was filled with splashes and children’s screams.  We biked reluctantly back into town and bought two chocolate ice cream Popsicles and ate them slowly in the shade. We did not talk — I was too hot to. The chocolate melted thickly and gagged in my throat, and my body oozed with it.  For the first time in life, I sucked on the ice cream, drop after drop, because I needed to savor.”

When there are no easy options to becoming cold, you have to resort to the techniques of older times: lemonade, sprinklers, and swimming pools. For Lynn and me, this meant that we’d eventually stand up and bike to a French store called a Monoprix and linger by the refrigerated cheese section, me carrying a 4-pack of yogurt around on my arm that I never intended to buy and rubbing pinches of salted ice from the fish display on the back of my neck.

But I will most remember the Magnum ice cream bars, Belgian chocolate ice cream bars which were recently introduced to the US, and how Lynn and I had shared ice cream not just on that day but also on others: ice cream (after we’d tasted the famed, monk-brewed beers) at the Abbaye de St. Sixtus outside of Westvleteren, Belgium; ice cream that we ate on the edge of a French small town that I no longer remember, ice cream in Albert, France, after touring the small but good Somme 1916 Trench Museum.

A few days ago, I ate a Magnum double chocolate bar, purchased from Target, anticlimactically in my apartment after a few solid hours of cleaning.  This time, it was more of an indulgence than a method of cooling down — thick chocolate ice cream with fudge rimmed with a double wall of Belgian chocolate. However, when I bit into the bar to test the chocolate by its crunch, I could still hear the echo of the gravel beneath our hiking boots.

Albert, France, July 2010

Albert, France, July 2010

Friday Photo: World War I: Personal Photos of the Battlefields

One week ago was the anniversary of the end of World War I — the Great War which took 10 million lives.  On November 11, 1918, the armistice was signed in a train car in the woods east of Compiègne, France, a train car which I visited by bike with Lynn Palermo during our backpacking trip in July 2010. This trip took us along almost 270 miles of the Western Front, 76 of which we walked.  Through our footsteps, I realized that war is not just an event on the news or in the history books; it is disease that cripples a nation in a way that is only still visible in its landscape.

To fully appreciate the following post, first read this article by Mail Online which showcases some stunning photography by British photographer Michael St. Maur Sheil of the scars left behind in present-day France.  I recognized many of his scenes and have duplicated my own photography below.

shadows shifting on the grass-grown trenches at Beaumont-Hamel, France
Thieval Memorial, one of the largest British war memorials, commemorates 17,000 dead or missing

early evening twilight at the Thieval Memorial, one of Great Britain's largest war memorials, commemorating 73,537 fallen English and South African troops

Hawthorn Ridge mine crater near La Boisselle, created by the detonation of 40,000 pounds of explosives

underground trenches at Arras, France, underneath la Grande Place

explosives dug out of the field of Philippe, a farmer and a Couchsurfer near Albert, France, with whom we stayed for the night

a German national cemetery along la Chemin des Dames north of Reims, France, of 6,000 crosses marking 12,000 dead

Harrisburg, ‘Hardship,’ and Tropical Storm Lee

I have been homeless once before.

Okay, okay, not in the dirty-in-the-gutter kind of homeless, where the money in my pocket is all I have to my name and I am sprouting an unshaven beard.  And as I write this on a dreary, barely-raining day, my cat is purring in my lap and I’m sipping coffee out of a mug bought on clearance for an exhibit of Roberto Cappucci’s innovative dress designs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that ran in the spring.  But outside my window, the Susquehanna River is rising due to Tropical Storm Lee and is anticipated to crest at 29 feet by tomorrow evening, bringing the water, by some estimates, to my front porch.  School’s been canceled for today, and I have packed a suitcase to leave.

The packing process reminded me of last summer, when I stuffed all I deemed important into a hiking pack and set off with my friend Lynn Palermo on a 15-day walking trip along the Western Front from Belgium into northern France.  The walk in itself was amazing: our path curved through farmer’s fields, wound along country roads between pointed-steeple villages, marched up mountainsides, and stomped across borders.  We passed through Ypres, a Belgian city that was 90% destroyed by 3 battles; through Aizy-Jouy, a tiny French town where most of the young men were killed in combat; la Caverne du Dragon on the Chemin des Dames where the fighting took place underground, the underground tunnels chiseled at Arras to hold 24,000 men before a surprise attack.  I was stunned at the scale of destruction experienced by normal people whose descendents described the effect of growing up beside the graveyards, the effect of still unearthing shells when planting flowers each spring.

But what also struck me about Lynn’s and my trip was the process of displacement.  After day 1 in France, I knew I had packed way too much to be carrying: I had too many water bottles (read: heavy), despite the heat; too many extra snacks (also heavy), despite the need for energy.  By day 2, I had thrown away tour books, ticket stubs, any extra maps, and the heels I had cut off from my insoles to make them fit better.  I think I even tossed a couple tissue packs which could have weighed, like, less than the change in my wallet (Euros are freakin heavy), but in my mind, they had become ludicrously unnecessary.  (Why would I ever have packed such silly things “just in case”?  Well, if I ever came to a toilet without toilet paper, well, I’d figure out a way around it, that’s for sure.)

But when you are carrying the weight of your possessions, your mentality changes.  Every item which I kept in my pack was selected deliberately, a process which whittled my belongings down to what I deemed essential: my journal, my camera, one water bottle, a rotation of clothes, some toiletries, and my portion of food. On day 3, I was longing to be among those who had a key to their own apartment and who slept in the same place every night, but by day 15–when we walked into Reims, France, the city of champagne and the crowning of French kings, I abhorred the idea of owning more than what I had on my back.  I had determined my difference between luxury and necessity.  I realized I was capable of living with very little, less than I’d anticipated.  It was liberating.

When I packed this morning, it’s too easy to say that I packed the sentimental (a tin box with stones from Ireland, my journal that my sister purchased in China that I filled with writings on Chile) along with the necessity (clothes for school, toothpaste, ungraded eighth grade essays).  Of course I did.

But what I noticed this morning, my choosing what to leave and what to take–just like my act of packing for voyages before–wasn’t a panicked take-only-what-you-can-carry.  My packing took over 3 hours with a couple of coffee breaks with Roberto.  I am not in a refugee camp in Kenya.  I am not fleeing as bombs are dropped on my home.  I am not displaced for my ethnicity or religion.  I’m not even one of the residents evacuated from Shipoke this morning, and, frankly, I have enough money to buy a night in a hotel room or Chinese take-out or a half-gallon of Turkey Hill graham slam if I find my relatively-undramatic situation too depressing.

Layers of luxury still shield me from true deprivation.

When reading Robinson Crusoe with the 11th grade lit class last week, I asked them to consider the commentary of Rick Steeves in his book Travel as a Political Act, which states: “In the midst of relative affluence, Americans seem to operate with a mindset of scarcity–focusing on what we don’t have or what we might lose.  Meanwhile [impoverished people] embrace life with a mindset of abundance–thankful for the simple things they do have” (89).

I then asked the eleventh grade to consider the Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor.”

I had meant to show them the lesson that I already learned.  But now, sitting with my suitcase and car keys and an empty mug, I ask myself if I am still willing to do the same.

north of Reims, France, July 2010

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