Memories are made of small moments and large ones. A favorite memory of my childhood is the trip I took with my grandmother and cousin to Chicago to visit my aunt. There are so many parts of that trip that I remember in detail to this day. Along with the memories is another little side note that little did I know that I would eventually live most of my life, not in the Pennsylvania of my childhood but in one of the very Chicago suburbs that I visited all those years ago. So when we had grandchildren I wanted to be sure that we would have similar times shared with them – new adventures, new and different places, new things to learn. And, happily, we have been fortunate to be able to travel with them many times since they were born. This year’s trip, however, was an experiment in holding their attention for six days about a pretty serious topic – the beaches of Normandy and then five days spent visiting the battlefields of World War I.
We had experience planning a similar type of vacation a few years ago. Since my son and my husband are also both avid runners, two years ago for my husband’s 70th birthday, my son came up with the idea of going to the PreFontaine Classic, held annually in Eugene, Oregon. It is one of the premier track and field meets in the United States. Initially my daughter in law, our grandkids and I were going to join them. As the planning took shape, however, we realized that this was going to be a relatively short trip over Memorial Day weekend that year with running events happening back to back. The kids had limited interest in track and field at that point, and we were going to be together later that summer visiting family in Italy, so we thought it might be best for my husband and son to take that 4-day trip without us. And it seemed to work out very well.
As we proceeded with planning this year’s trip, the thought again occurred to us that trudging through fields and landmarks of events that they had not yet studied in school might not capture the interests of our grandkids, ages 9 and 11. We took note that their studies of the American Revolution had sparked an interest so there was the hope that introducing them to the events surrounding the First World War might leave them with memorable impressions about what they were seeing but also about history in general. For kids whose vacations usually involve swimming, skiing, or hiking, this one, most assuredly, was going to be another type of vacation. And unlike the trip two years ago, this one was going to be their summer vacation. Maybe more importantly, we really wanted them to be part of their dad’s milestone birthday celebration trip.
We proceeded to research things other than the battlefields throughout the trip that we thought would engage them. We went through books, plowed through Google and also asked our guide, who is very familiar with the area, to recommend some entertaining spots for kids. Also being a retired teacher, he had a good sense of how to engage and hold a child’s attention, but also knowing when the subject matter would be too serious, too vivid, or too in-depth, for them to participate. We knew that we could be flexible in that my husband and son and our guide could go out on their own on certain days and my daughter in law and I could be with the children and entertain them with sites in whatever town we were along the way. For example, the first day out during the World War I part in the city of Arras, my daughter in law and I stayed back in the town with the kids as the men went on to the Somme area. We arrived on a Friday evening in the charming city of Arras with its Flemish building facades, and settled in to enjoy the large town square, called the Place des Heros.
The kids had ample room to run around, then enjoyed the bocci court that had been set up in the center of the square. The next morning, Saturday, the square had been transformed from a plaza with wide open spaces to a very large, active French market, jammed with stalls, selling everything, including toys, gadgets, clothes, French food delicacies, flowers and live roosters and chickens. My daughter in law and I and the kids took total advantage of sifting through all they had to offer.
We followed up the market with a tour of the majestic town hall, originally built in 1502, exploring the labyrinthine network of quarry tunnels used by soldiers during World War I, and then we soared up many stories to a spiral staircase to the Gothic bell tower which offered an expansive view of the entire city! The trip up the narrow, curved staircase was an adventure in itself since as we were going up, other people were coming down! In between taking in the tunnels and going up to the bell tower, there happened to be a beautiful bride on her father’s arm going up a long staircase in the town hall to an area on the second floor where presumably her groom waited. My granddaughter was excited to see the bride with her beautiful gown! The one disappointment in Arras was not being able to find any gelato (or even an ice cream shop) after dinner, which is always an end-of-evening staple for my husband and the grandkids!
Upon leaving Arras, the next day we went on to the Flanders and Ypres area in Belgium, memorialized in the John McCrae poem, Flanders Field. Here, the children, my daughter in law and I stayed with the tour during the morning where we walked through battlefields, saw the remnants of 100 year old artillery, had lunch (along with my husband and son and our guide) in a lovely outdoor cafe and then went on to an amusement park while the guys went on to the battlefields around Ypres.
I didn’t know what to expect when the park was recommended by our guide – maybe a sliding board and some swings? No, what we found was a full scale, pretty amazing amusement venue with a giant roller coaster and other major rides. The only thing I would have changed is that I think we should have gone to the amusement park earlier because we didn’t have enough time to see and do everything.
Next was Chateau Thierry in the Valley of the Marne. There were woods and craters that the kids could wander through. But, since this area was part of the Champagne region, we also planned for a side visit to the Pannier champagne vineyard. This was undoubtedly the kids first visit to a vineyard! They listened to the short introduction of the hostess, the film shown to us about the process of bringing the grapes to the bottle, the walk through the cellars and, my granddaughter brought the glass up to her lips, took a sniff, and, thankfully, at this tender age, she was not a fan of the bubbly!
Next, we went on to our final destination, Verdun, whose history goes back about 30 centuries. A quaint city, 85% of it was destroyed during the war, and subsequently rebuilt. While the guys went on to the battlefields, we wandered the historic heart of Verdun, climbed to the top of the monument dedicated to victory and to the citizens of Verdun and visited an art museum dating back many centuries. But, frankly, by this time, the kids were pretty tapped out so we found a cafe and had a nice, leisurely lunch.
What did they like or not like about our trip? My granddaughter told me that she liked seeing the tapestry in Bayeux while in Normandy and also the many craters we saw.
They seemed horrified and fascinated by the Ossuary at Douaumont. My grandson loved the giant roller coaster in the amusment park we went to; my granddaughter, not so much.
I feel so blessed to be able to travel to the places we’ve seen around the world and, now to share some of those experiences with our grandkids. For anyone reading this who may be planning a trip like this with their kids or grandkids, I don’t want to leave the impression that they were always fascinated and mesmerized. There were undoubtedly times, maybe many times, when they were bored since this was a long and mostly serious trip. But following this part of their vacation, my son and daughter-in-law went off on their own for a couple of days in Paris, where the kids got to enjoy some sweets at Angelina’s, then it was on to London, via a trip on the Chunnel, for a few days before returning to Chicago.
I believe there is no amount of reading or classroom study that can compare with actually seeing a place, talking with the local people, learning about their culture and how they do things, first hand and in person. Even before they had kids, inveterate travelers themselves, my son and daughter-in-law always said that when they had kids, they wanted to show them the world. I hope our grandkids enjoyed the lighter parts of this trip, but maybe more importantly, that in coming years when they do study these historic places and events in school, or even when someone mentions something that we saw – a town, a monument – that they will remember interesting facts about it and that they were there. I don’t know how many times my granddaughter had been watching something on TV where they show something familiar from one of their trips and she’ll say, “We saw that!”
And you will think that this is just too coincidental for it to be real but trust me this just happened! As I’m writing this, my grandson is watching a rerun of The Simpsons. Its an episode where Grandpa Simpson is imparting his wisdom to the family and he says something along the lines of “And let me tell you something about D-Day, the troops were landing on Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, Juno Beach………” To which my granddaughter eyes bulged and she exclaimed to me, “We know this!”
As for my son, I asked him if this trip fulfilled what he had been hoping to see and learn, he responded with an enthusiastic “Absolutely!” In fact, he is now listening over the course of many days to a 15-hour podcast about World War I.
Happy and safe travels, everyone! Until next time….