Shannon's Latest Adventures

In Flanders Fields
By John McCrae, May, 1915

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.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
Though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

I remember this poem from childhood and have often thought of visiting Flanders Fields.  On April 25, 2009, I was able to do just that.  Flanders Fields is a region of the country of Belgium and during World War I, there was intense fighting with a number of battles fought in that region.  We visited the EssexFarmCemetery where John McCrae, a Canadian military doctor, wrote this famous poem after conducting the burial service for a friend of his who had been killed by a German artillery shell during the Second Battle of Ypres on May 2, 1915.  John McCrae was a surgeon in an advanced dressing station at that site where the wounded were triaged (separated into three groups: the slightly wounded who were treated and sent back to battle, the “blighty,” a slang term that meant the wounds were serious enough for the soldier to be sent home, and the ones for whom there was no hope).  The dressing station still exists at the site.  Dr. McCrae was killed the following year.  After walking around the cemetery, our guide read the poem to us.

The town of Ypres was destroyed in the fighting.  British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand forces fought the Germans; the Americans had not yet arrived in this part of the Western front.  German military used poison gas here for the first time and trench warfare started here.  The fighting was brutal and there were 750,000 casualties.  The town of Ypres has been rebuilt and the largest Gothic building in Europe houses a most interesting World War I Memorial Museum.

In Flanders, there are 155 cemeteries: 137 British, 13 Belgian, 1 French, and 4 German. In the cemeteries there is a large white cross with a sword on it with the inscription, “Their name liveth forevermore” inscribed on the base. This quote, suggested by Rudyard Kipling, is from Ecclesiastes 44:14.  (Kipling’s son went missing in a battle in France; his body was never found.)  The British and Belgian cemeteries have memorial stones similar to those in Arlington Cemetery while the French memorials were white crosses and the German cemetery had groups of three crosses made of basalt-lava which were quite dark.   In the EssexFarmCemetery, there are 1200 burials including a 15 year old rifleman and a German.  One of the memorial stones had an inscription that read, “Sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war” – a poignant reminder of the heartache caused by war.  In another cemetery we visited, TyneCotCemetery, there are 12,000 headstones and panels naming another 35,000 men.  Thus in Flanders, there are an incredible number of dead and their memorials.  We were about two weeks early for the poppies but many of the graves had either fresh flowers or artificial poppies.

That evening we went to the Last Post at the Menin Gate at the edge of Ypres.  The Menin Gate, dedicated in 1928, is a memorial to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient, a region of the battlefield near Ypres.  At 8:00 pm, buglers from the local fire brigade close the road and sound the Last Post (a bugle call).  This ceremony has been carried on since July 2, 1928 (except during occupation by the Germans in World War II when the ceremony was conducted in Surrey, England).  As part of the ceremony, individuals and groups laid wreaths in and around the memorial.  It was most impressive, solemn, and moving.

To commemorate VE (Victory in Europe) Day, the Queen of the Netherlands lays a memorial wreath commemorating the fallen at 8 pm the evening before.  Everyone participates in two minutes of silence at that time; our tour group did as well.  We are so lucky that we were spared fighting on U.S. soil during that war and those that followed.  Thank God for the men (and women) willing to fight for freedom.

My husband, Bill, and I spent two weeks (November 7 to 21, 2008) in Greece and sailing around the GreekIslands.  We visited 8 of the Cyclades Isles.  It was a wonderful experience.  We flew from Phoenix to Los Angeles to Frankfurt to Athens where we were met by our tour leader and taken to the hotel.  There were 21 people in our group from all over the U.S.; a nice diverse group.

The first day we walked to the Acropolis and all around the Parthenon, by the Erechtheion (the most sacred of the structures).  The Porch of the Maidens on the Erechtheion (5 female figures that are used as columns to support the structure) is spectacular. Lord Elgin took a sixth one to decorate his mansion but later sold it to the BritishMuseum.  We saw Mars Hill near the Acropolis.  On Mars Hill, in ancient times, there was an altar dedicated to the Unknown God.  St. Paul preached there to judges of Athens and talked about Jesus as the Unknown God (I thought that was pretty clever).  However, it took 600 years to convert the Athenians to Christianity.  Pope John Paul II said Mass there.  Bill and I walked on to the ArcheologicalMuseum—just spectacular.  It is hard to believe that items that old could survive that long and be in such good condition.  Then I went to Mass at St. Denis Catholic Cathedral.

We drove through mountains and little towns, along the Ionian Sea and DelphiHarbor.   We walked around the ruins of a temple dedicated to Athena.  We overnighted in Arachova, a very picturesque town.  We had a Greek cooking lesson and then for dinner were served the food that we prepared.

We visited the Museum of Delphi where we saw “The Charioteer,” a famous bronze statue prepared by the lost wax method.  There was also a wonderful sphinx.  We walked to Apollo’s Sanctuary the site of the Oracle of Delphi, the most important shrine in Greece. The shrine dates back to 1400 BC and was built around a sacred spring. Delphi was considered to be the omphalos – the center (or navel) of the world.  Pythia, the priestess of Apollo, in exchange for gold, answered questions about the future.  There was a 5000 seat theatre and treasuries to hold the gifts to the Oracle.  Bill and I walked on to the top of the hill where there was a stadium where games were held.  From there we could see the Bay of Itea and olive groves.

We drove over 4 hours to reach Kalambaka.  On the way we stopped at an icon workshop.  We were given a tour and shown how the wood and canvas are prepared for painting.  We watched an artist at work.  I bought a couple of icons (the Blessed Mother and St. Paul) and they were signed by the artist.  In Kalambaka, I visited the Church of the Assumption (9th – 11th C).  It contains frescoes by Neophytos, a 16th century monk from Crete.  It is interesting to me that all Greek Orthodox churches have paintings of the Dormition (Assumption) of the Virgin.  I didn’t learn the origin of that practice.  That evening, we had a Greek lesson which was most interesting.  There are many English words that come from the Greek.

A highlight of the trip was visiting the monasteries of Metreora.  These monasteries, some of which date back to the 16th C, are built on the top of “towering rock formations.”  One of them appeared in the James Bond movie, “For Your Eyes Only.”  We visited two of them; one dedicated to St. Barbara which has 30+ nuns and the other dedicated to St. Stephen.  That evening we went to a local restaurant (delicious food!) and were entertained by a young man who played a traditional stringed instrument.  Some of us danced.

We had a long drive from Kalambaka to the port of Pireaus where we boarded our sailboat, the Panorama.  Another group was also on board making 35 passengers and 18 crew.

We sailed first to the island of Tinos which is mountainous and has about 40 whitewashed villages.  We visited the Church of the Virgin (another Assumption!) and saw the ancient icon of the Virgin Mary which was recovered under miraculous circumstances in 1823. Later we sailed to Mykonos.  We took a bus to the old port and walked around.  There are many windmills and churches.  I had my first Greek coffee which was quite good. Then we sailed to Paros where they used columns and pieces of temples and buildings to build new buildings.  Paros had a temple to Poseidon in ancient Greek times.

Santorini was the next island we visited.  It is the remnant of the rim of the caldera of a volcano which erupted in 1600 BC.  We visited the island of Fira on the caldera rim, about 1000 feet above the water.  We had the choice of riding a funicular or riding a donkey—I chose the donkey.  The museum there is spectacular—pots and other artifacts from 17thCBC, much of it from excavations at Akrotiri, an ancient Minoan city buried by volcanic ash.  We took a bus to Oia—the old city.  It was absolutely beautiful with white buildings and blue-roofed churches and a lot of volcanic rock.  We took the bus back to the funicular, then the funicular down, and a tender to our boat.  We had an evening of wine tasting and then dinner.

We sailed to Naxos which is the largest and most mountainous of the Cyclades islands.  MountZas, 3,294 ft, is there.  This island was sacred to Dionysos and still produces excellent wine.  We drove to the village of Kournocharie and then walked a little over an hour to Melanes with lots of fruit and olive trees.  We saw the kouros (young man) – a ancient, huge statue carved of marble lying on the ground.  He has a broken leg and that is why he was not transported from that place.  Our “home cooked meal” was in a family restaurant.  Delicious food.  We also had music and we danced.  That evening, we had “Greek night” and a group of young people come from Melanes to dance for us; we also danced.

The next island we visited was Delos, the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis.  The island is not inhabited now.  There are extensive ruins with much more to excavate.  It reminds me of Pompeii: houses, stores, columns, mosaic floors, frescoed walls, statues.  There are 4 lions that are striking.  Then on to Syros where we had a walking tour.  After the tour, some of us walked to the Church of the Assumption where there is an early El Greco painting of the Dormition of the Virgin, painted when he was 19 or 20.  Bill visited the Casino and came out 10 euros ahead.

After a walk in the morning, we sailed all day and docked in Poros about 6 pm.  We had the captain’s cocktail party and dinner that evening.  After a morning walking tour of Poros, we had lunch and our disembarkation briefing.  Our wakeup call was at 2:30 am, breakfast and luggage out at 3, and to the airport at 3:30!  On our last evening we had a couple of men come and dance; they were really good and got us all involved.

We arrived at the airport and flew to Frankfurt where there was a storm and we had to stay in a holding pattern for awhile.  After a short connection time, we boarded our plane for the 11 hour flight to Los Angeles.

It was a wonderful trip.  Educational, spiritual, relaxing, and entertaining.  Great Greek food and drinks (although you can have ouzo!).

My daughter, Julie, and I took our third annual mother-daughter trip—this time to Puerto Rico in 2008.  We visited a rain forest, gorgeous beaches, a light house built in Spanish times, went snorkeling (and got a terrific sunburn) near the island of Culebra where we saw many colorful fish swimming around among the coral, and stayed in a country inn surrounded by the sounds of the Coqui, a very small and loud frog.  We had bananas for breakfast from the back yard of the inn, papaya, grapefruit, and oranges—very fresh and lovely.

In Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan), we visited El Morro, a large fort built in 1539 to protect the city from invaders by sea and FortSan Cristobal built in 1793 to protect the city from invasions by land.  We went to Mass in the Cathedral of San Juan, the second oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere; construction began in 1521.  Ponce de Leon is buried in it. There are very upscale stores in the city (Gucci, Cartier, Ferragamo, etc.) as well as McDonalds, Burger King, and KFC.  We ate in interesting restaurants, drove through a number of small towns, visited the town squares where the church and mayor’s office is located, and looked through souvenir shops.

We carried a Spanish dictionary and worked on our Spanish.  At one stop, I went in to pay for parking and greeted the attendant with “Buenes tardes.”  In rapid Spanish, he then told me how much we owed.  Then I had to tell him that I needed the amount in English since I couldn’t understand what he said.  He replied, “Buenes tardes, is it, huh?”  I had to admit that it was.

Since Puerto Rico is a semi-autonomous region of the United States, a passport is not necessary for those with U.S. passports, a U.S. driver’s license is adequate identification, and U.S. currency is used.  The speedometers in cars are in miles, but markers on highways are in kilometers.  A number of the parks are run by the U.S. National Park Service, thus my Golden Age Passport would have been honored and my daughter and I admitted for free.  Telephone calls to our cell phones from the U.S. were free; from Puerto Rico to the U.S. was 69 cents per minute.

The best part of this trip was spending time with my daughter who is 21 weeks pregnant with our first grandchild, a boy.  So this was a doubly good mother/daughter and mother/son trip.