From London to Brussels to Ypres

At London’s St. Pancras station while standing in line for the Eurostar to Brussels, a women next to me remarked that she had never before today taken a long-distance train. I replied that the Eurostar wasn’t really a long-distance train … that it would best be referred to as a high-speed train.

That seemed to startle her. “How fast does it go?” she asked.

I told her that top speed was 300 kph or about 187 miles an hour. She blanched and turned to her husband. “Charles!” she said accusingly, “Did you know our train went so fast?”

We made it to Brussels smoothly and safely at 187 mph, then with two changes of trains, to Ypres.

I had a conversation with a young man in one of the railroad stations where we changed trains. His summer job is to assist people passing through that town with their rail connections. He speaks English fluently with only the trace of an accent. Also Flemish, Dutch and German. I asked a question in French, which he immediately answered in French … then apologized and said he was really still learning French. This young man couldn’t have been more than 17 years old, but he speaks four languages and gets by in a fifth. Someday, an American kid is going to compete with him for an important job and get his clock cleaned!

Bruce and I went out to dinner tonight and were escorted to a table and given menus by a hostess. A few minutes later, our waitress appeared and asked in English if we were ready to order. I asked how she knew to address us in English and she said “Your menus have brown covers.”  Turns out that’s how the hostess tells the server which of three or four languages you’re speaking. Blue cover=French. Green cover=Flemish, etc.

We had a tour “In Flanders Field” this afternoon and it was interesting, but mostly depressing. There are cemeteries everywhere, some with just a few hundred graves, but others in which the gravestones number in the many thousands, row upon row upon row in a visual reminder that young men—British and French and American and Canadian and German kids—were fed into that war mercilessly and in vast numbers, until the Germans essentially had none left to give. 

And listening to today’s leadership strut and bluster and make casual threats, it’s clear that after one hundred years and all those dead young men, we really haven’t learned a damn thing.