Friday, August 28, 2009

Brussels - Waterloo (Pt. XXIII)

Note to readers: This is the twenty-third part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XXII here.

Nighttime in La Grand-Place de Bruxelles
A high speed ride on the Eurostar took me from Paris to Brussels. Zipping along in a bullet train at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour, I strummed my guitar until the coachmen told me, "You can't play music."

I arrived in Brussels, where a single occupancy room was to be had in the Jacques Brel Youth Hostel, not far from the station. These months of traveling made me leery of roommates. Those who are not afflicted with nocturnal log-sawing can never know the onus.

The hostel is named for Jacques Brel, the Belgian folk-singer, a Flemish Woody Guthrie. Early in his career he was humorous, irreverent, light-hearted. But later, wizened by age and disillusionment, he became morose, darkly philosophical. Monsieur Brel, Belgium's favorite son, epitomizes Belgian duality: optimism and resignation.

That night I strolled to La Grande-Place with all the 17th century Guild Houses packed side by side around the stone plaza.

Nighttime in November and, yes, it was cold. Restaurateurs plied their cuisine aggressively, recognizing the end of tourist season. I seated myself at a bistro, there to dine on cold lobster, shrimp, mussels, and oysters. I braved the challenge of raw oysters alone with none to witness my courage. Yes, oyster shooters. Mais, c'est finis. I have tried them. And that is enough.

Waterloo battlefield
The next day, I made a trip out to see the place where l'Empereur Napoleon Bonaparte was undone. His last gasp. His swan song. His failed encore. Waterloo. Here it was, in 1815 that Nappy, with his reconstituted Old Guard, fresh from exile in Elba, faced off with Duke Wellington and the British army.

The field is surprisingly small, considering that some 140,000 men came to lethal grips on it. For six hours, two armies grappled, bloodily, but indecisively. In the late afternoon, reinforcing troops were spotted hastening down the road that ran to the east. A moment of suspense . . . was it d’Erlon and the French? Or Blücher, with his Prussians?

When word came that the latecomers were Prussians, Napoleon, they say, muttered, "The one mistake I made in my life was deciding not to burn Berlin." From there, it was a foregone conclusion. At the crucial moment, the Old Guard made a valiant, desperate charge to break the Allied lines. Into withering fire, they set forth, hesitated . . . and broke! The sight of Old Guard flying in rout before the enemy changed the world. The mystique was ended. And so too Napoleon.

Marshal Ney leads the charge
After the battle, victorious Brits raised a mound atop which stands the triumphant British lion, one massive paw resting on the world. A proud and valiant people, those Brits.

Armistice Day Commemoration, Waterloo
I took a taxi back to the train station, to await the train to Brussels. A small, sober parade of Belgians, mostly elderly, marched to mournful music. It was Armistice Day: a commemoration of the end to the Great War in 1918. And, after all, these Belgians had suffered as much as any in that colossally unnecessary horror. Gray skies reflected the sad elegy. Nobility and resignation were written on the faces of these people, marching much as the determined Old Guard must have marched. But for these, there was no hope of glory or recognition: just small voices defying history, begging us to find another way.

I played guitar in the common room of the Jacques Brel hostel that night. I played with a heavy heart, pulled down by the many hands of the unnamed dead.

To be continued...

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