When we visited Fort des Dunes in France, I had my view of reverence and how one should be reverent challenged. It was pretty great. Fort des Dunes in summary is a WWII fort on the English Channel that was crucial to the British operation Dynamo and the end of WWII. Anyhow when I explored the bunkers on the beach I found them covered in peace graffiti, the tops of the bunkers were covered in smashed alcohol bottles. Now one might be outraged at how disrespectful it is to paint and smash glass on something so historically significant and more importantly in a place of reverence. However I disagree, I do not think that it is because the people that did those things do not care; rather quite the contrary. I think that this is their way of engaging with the site because as a North American I do not live with my beach being a D-Day landing spot. Life has to go on; if you want to go to the beach you do not want to see bunkers reminding you that this is a place of death. I believe that the people were trying to spread their message of peace through art and that they wanted to engage the site in their own way; trying to show reverence by having drinks and painting peace on the buildings that were symbols of death; now I ask to you as the reader a question I asked myself on that beach. “What would a WWII survivor do?” There is a memorial at the entrance to Fort des Dunes, I think that keeping the site as it originally was back in WWII is important but we also need to heal and have a modern engagement with history or else what was the point of all of those men fighting for freedom? We need to allow people to engage with history in their own way, now I am not saying let the sites be run over with graffiti everywhere; but it can be appropriate in certain instances. I know pausing and engaging with the worldview on the beach helped shape the way that I viewed this potentially ‘disrespectful and ignorant behavior’. I think if we try to control how people want to engage with history then it starts to sound like what all of the young men were fighting against.
Over the trip, it was a great blessing to visit the home of Fawn and Ken White in Rome, and that of the Murray’s in Vienna. It was an incredible opportunity to interact with “the locals” as we spent time in their homes eating and visiting. Gordon Murray is retiring from teaching Harpsichord at the University and treated us all to a bit of music while we were at his house. He also had two of his students come and share their music with us as they are working through their masters programs. I enjoyed visiting with the students and helping to see that though we are from different countries, we can have similar loves and interests in music. It was a great opportunity to be able to experience the home of someone who lives abroad; as it had more to offer than the hostels and places we stayed, for it had authentic people. It was such a treat to have these home visits for a meal/reception. I found that it helped me to see that I could one day live in a foreign city and thrive.
We’re finishing up our time here in Paris and I still can’t figure out what the Eiffel Tower is all about. I pondered this many times before, and even now it seems so strange. Why is it such a symbol of love and a wonder for women? I don’t think I can answer the question for everyone but this got me thinking. What was my first experience with the Eiffel Tower?
We had just arrived in Paris. It was afternoon, and we had a few hours to burn so we decided to go find food. As I set out with a group of people we quickly came to a bridge and began walking across it. When I finally took the time to look around, there it was, the Eiffel Tower! What was it doing there? It was as if it came out of nowhere. Each one in our group turned and expressed our awe with a Woow!!!
Now, I was not so excited every other time I saw the Eiffel Tower but the city planning is done in such a way that it is a focal point. It is easy to see the Eiffel Tower from many different places in Paris.
I’m musing now, I think the Eiffel Tower has eclipsed its monument status to become a cultural symbol associated with the French language and love. The fact that it is a large monument gives awe, the lights they shine on it give awe and beauty. What cannot be materially created is the idea that’s been planted into women’s hearts. French, Paris and the Eiffel Tower, who decided you would be a symbol of love and romance? Maybe it is because a lover can look lovingly on something else, something other than their lover?
Nudity is something that most people shy from. However, in countries like Germany—where nude beaches and parks are a thing—they don’t seem to bat an eye at it. But, I am not here to talk about nudity in the real world, but nudity in the artistic world.
It seems that no matter what gallery you go to in Europe you will encounter a nude painting (mostly female). However, today, people struggle with body image, so how does nudity in art change our perception?
We all know that magazines, ads, movies, etc. all depict bodies which are not what the average human form looks like. These images bombard our minds with the idea that the perfect body is thin, muscular, big breasts, small thighs, etc. But I think a small portion of people look like that. Though some of the pieces depict the subject with rolls and all, we admire the beauty of the human form no matter what shape as illustrated. Furthermore, as I—and people I had conversations with—experienced these nude paintings we came to realize how beautiful they were with “a little meat on their bones”. We saw the human body depicted in a new way, and it was beautiful!
This is part of why I support plus size models, men and women. This is why I support others loving their bodies for what they are, what they can do, and what they look like. I want a world where self-love and healthy life styles are the “in thing”. Because we are all beautiful creatures, so love what you got!
I could not imagine it. I could not even process it. How could I? The pain, the agony, a death so horrible: feeling yourself wasting away, being forced to push yourself beyond your physical capability with the labour you had been ordered to do, being beaten if you show signs of lagging behind, being given insufficient portions of food. I could not process it. I did not know what to do with what I had learnt that day, knowing too that I had only caught a glimpse of the grim reality of what happened in these concentration camps.
That evening, I reflected on how I often think about myself and my own little worries, so small in comparison to the final experience of all these people’s lives. I thought to myself the best I can do with the new insights I had been given is to wake up every morning thankful for being so blessed with the life that I have. I made a promise to myself not to worry so much about my own little concerns each day.
Appearance, money, wealth, technology, popularity, etc., these are things deemed important by man in today’s society. God has already given us exactly what we need, these being the basic and most simple things in life. I see love and community being part of this list. I wish to take these essential things and do my best with them, and to not worry so much about that which is of lesser importance.
During our European learning adventure, I had so many different firsts in terms of experiences. Some of these included dancing and singing barefoot in the rain, falling in love with museums and artists, utterly being disturbed by some art while also developing a love and attachment to these places, peoples and cultures. I really cherish opportunities to interact with people, so I will share an experience I had in Agny, France.
While we waited to enter our new hostel, there were a variety of young people around. I later learned that they were preparing to counsel at a camp. As we sat or stood near a stairwell, we watched the youth work on a dance routine. Personally, I really enjoy dancing to music and I was missing this form of expression, because my previous travel semester to Asia was filled with music and karaoke. So as I was trying to copy their actions from across the small parking lot, I was invited to come over and join in. As I walked over there, I expected to participate in their routine, but was told to stand across from them as if they expected me to teach them something.
I don’t know how it exactly happened after this point, but someone started the music and I began putting moves together. Normally I don’t lead a dance, but it was lots of fun as I made actions up on the fly. Dancing back and forth, I looked over to the stairwell and saw my classmates smiling and videotaping the group that was following. Some of the many moves included in this dance were from the dance preformed during the Indian meal flash mob. After finishing the song and having run out of ideas, I walked back to my fellow students, grateful for the opportunity to interact with local people. Later, as I watched the youth, they tried to imitate the dance and show their friends. I thought to myself, “maybe they think I taught them an official dance.” This was a unique experience, and one that I will cherish.
In Flanders Fields, the Poppies Blow.
How many times have we heard that poem?
When I was in high school, I was part of a choir that every year would sing a haunting version of this poem that has since stuck with me. I wish that I could sing it to you through words alone, but I can’t.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
between the crosses, row on row,
that mark our place; and in the sky
the larks still bravely singing, fly
scarce heard amid the guns below.
It is a strangely haunting poem. Poppies, growing up for me were always a mysterious flower that I only recognized by the pins so many of us dawn each November. But poppies grow everywhere in France; between cracks in the sidewalks and amidst soil that most other plans would die in.
I think that that’s the point of the poem. War is ugly. But beauty still manages to sneak through. Even amidst death, poppies manage to grow and larks still sing. To me it seems like such a juxtaposition.
We spent around a week in Northern France and had the privilege of visiting a number of WWI memorials including Flanders Fields and Vimy Ridge. They were beautiful places. Beautiful, with an ugly past.
One evening, a group of us visited a cemetery filled with tombs of men who died during WWI. Many of them were the same age as me. Many were younger—the youngest I found was 17.
And yet the cemetery was a strangely peaceful place. It reminded me that there is more to the story after these men died.
God still has the final say
And fortunately, he is much more merciful than man is to each other.
Despite something so ugly, beauty will sneak in between the cracks and grow.
Just like the poppies in Flanders Fields.
Throughout the trip, I found myself focusing on different entrepreneurial ventures that went above and beyond the call of duty. Growing up in a have-not province, I have grown accustomed to what I call “subsistence-entrepreneurship”, otherwise known as the service industry, knick-knack shops, and unappealing tourist traps. It is not to do a disservice to the lovely people who get these up and running, or to gloss over some really keen individuals who have worked hard to bring something more to the province’s economy. However, most of these endeavors fail by circulating money within the same poor demographic until it all dissipates into taxes and bad investments. Other than these vain attempts, the major industries rely on exporting non-renewable natural resources.
Marta’s Museum of Giuditta Brozzetti in Perugia deeply impressed on me the understanding that industry can be rooted in processing and artistry, and not only in harvesting. The buildings at the Lungarotto vineyard gave me a new appreciation for concrete and stainless steel, which I had heretofore found aesthetically intolerable. I walked jealously through the warehouses, where so many people are gainfully employed in meaningful work. And as I watched the machines spin and spin in the Lungarotti labelling room, the cogs of my mind began to turn as well. Slowly at first, then more firmly.
I find it so ironic that the most lasting impact of this Europe trip, taken as part of a Liberal Arts program along with my wonderful, hippie, communist companions, has been to inspire me with capitalist aspirations. But no worries friends; should I ever get a bit of stainless steel to myself, I will make sure to pay all of my taxes.
My primary struggle on this journey has been, for me, an unexpected one. Periodically, and as early on in our itinerary as London, I have been nearly paralyzed by homesickness. I’m not isolated. I’m surrounded by friends. I adore the cities that have welcomed me. But, in a truly horrific throwback to middle school, I have felt shapeless and ungrounded. I crave a context to recognize myself in, an identity formed by participating in a familiar environment, and not just looking on. I have grown sick to my stomach of “hanging out”.
This feeling struck me especially hard in Paris, on the day we visited the Louvre. I remember walking through golden rooms filled with masterpieces from the Romantic Era. The passionate images surrounding me seemed to mirror my feelings. No matter their stories, the characters seemed dreadfully homesick to me. The Gypsies in Leopold Robert’s “L’Arrivée des Moissonneurs dans les marais Pontins” ceased to be wayfarers- I was certain that they had loaded their carts and harnessed their determined looking oxen with an ocean voyage in mind- New Brunswick bound!! Girodet’s “The Entombment of Atala” was not bereaving the death of his lover, but the loss of a family farm. Gericault’s gaunt survivors on the Raft of the Medusa stared longingly for home, imagining in the distance the poplar trees that line the driveway of my parents’ home. What incredible strength of feeling these artists transcribed with their brushes and oils! The wretched faces surrounding me were not comforting, though. Our shared misery did not relieve our suffering at all.
What was incredible about the torture of the Romantic paintings, was that we fell short of communion. Atala and I suffered in relative silence, validating each others’ pain without subduing or healing it. This is not a critique of the art. The expressions and emotions on the canvases were exquisite. But it is a common human pitfall that in recognizing our pain, we all too often venerate it, and give it a home in us. I have nothing against feeling strong feelings, but it is important for home sicknesses, heartbreak and weariness to remember where they belong on the food chain. The priest at the hostel in Paris knew this, and spoke in his homily of how we should not always pray, “God, I have such a big problem,” but “Problem, I have such a big God!” I can’t spend my whole life commiserating with Delacroix.
Praying that prayer, I moved on from the Louvre to the Musée d’Orsay- where there hangs the most realistic portrayal of a cow in the known universe- by Rosa Bonheur. And that was home. Cows are not great sympathizers. But there is something about rural living, and livestock, that can snap you out of a reverie as if to say “Get back to work!” I walked out of Musée d’Orsay feeling ready to really live, to engage with the city, and ended up spending the afternoon making a new friend. I made a temporary little home in Paris.
So, I would like to thank the Romantics for helping me to feel and process, and the Realists for giving me courage and for kicking me in the butt. As far as art is concerned, I am gaining a valuable lesson in the importance of its movements. One perspective is never enough. Just as the needs, desires, and responsibilities of people change, our art needs to change as well. Try not to brush off a period in art as “too sentimental”, “to rigid”, “too absract”. Enjoy your favourites, of course, but art can be like cod liver oil. You might need what you don’t enjoy.
I have been struggling for weeks trying to think about how I can summarize my two month trip into 250(ish) words. Do I only write on an event that happened after the last blogs were posted (ensuring I won’t write on the same topic)? Do I write on my favourite thing I’ve seen or something funny that has happened? Or what about the most beautiful thing I’ve seen?
None of those things touch on the topic that has impacted me the most this trip. That’s because none of those questions look at the ugly topic of death.
Jokingly, I have become the resident vampire on this trip because of my strange fascination with graves, tombs, and crypts. I have literally started “punch dancing” at times because of my excitement.
The two events that have impacted me the most, though, were not due to excitement, but to sorrow. These two events were visiting Mauthausen and Vimy Ridge.
Mauthausen was the hardest. This was my first time seeing a concentration camp and really understanding the depth of what happened in World War II. The hardest part for me was walking into a room about the size of the Red Room, hearing that around 200 people slept there every night, and, at the same time, being hit by a scent that reminded me of happiness and summer vacation with my family.
Vimy was also very hard for me, but in a very different way. We were standing on Canadian soil learning about how catastrophic World War I was. It felt a bit like home, and I started to feel a connection to the Canadians who died there. This connection was then amplified when I saw (for the first time as far as I can remember) my mother’s maiden name twice in the list of Canadians who died there. I did not expect to be as impacted as I was, but for the rest of my time at that colossal monument I could feel my heart racing. Questioning if I was related to these two soldiers, if I had other family I didn’t know about, or even what the soldiers were like.
Over all, these two events really opened my eyes to the sorrows, and to the hopes that these tragedies will someday end.