International Summer Tour 2017:
Next Stop: Oostende, Belgium
*All photo credits courtesy of Casey Atkin
Good morning readers,
Welcome to the first of many, Adrea-Adventures. After a less than adequate, previous day in Heusden, I made the choice to make this day better. Within forty minutes of waking up I made breakfast, changed, and decided on a road trip (aka. train trip- is this the same thing?), and then invited Casey to operation: lets-have-a-beach-day! Other than finding a beach and accomplishing my weekly Sunday long run, the agenda for the day was blank. It did not require a lot of convincing, because within twenty second decision making time, Casey agreed to come to the beach with me, despite most of our group going to the beautiful tourist town Bruges. We hopped on our bicycles, boarded the train and were off to Oostende, Belgium. Prior to arriving I knew Oostende as a coastal town at the Northern point of Belgium, along the North Sea. Other than that, I was a full-time tourist for the day. It was nice to relax and enjoy being in Europe again!
To avoid running in the forecasted heat that afternoon, Casey and I put our backpacks in the train station lockers and went through the city for our long run. This in itself turned out to be an unexpected adventure. First we saw the breathtaking views of the beach and I watched us both let out an exhale of relief as the view washed over us. We agreed we would do our run through the city and make sure we ended up watching the waves at the beach. As we weaved our way through the touristy bits of town we found ourselves entering a sinister neighbourhood. There were beautiful, older homes with thatched roofing, traditionally lined houses, and parks. It was disturbing to see the normalcy of this neighbourhood directly across the street from a silent, walled off graveyard lined with barbed wire. There were no people on the streets, no children at the parks, and no birds chirping. The silence was only broken up by wind gusts that rustled wild grass overgrowing the lined tombstones in the Begraafplaats Stuiverstraat Cemetery.
I apologize to my coaches, but it was so stunning I stopped during my long run to try and understand this overwhelming feeling of dread, chaos, and reverence as I approached this graveyard. Both Casey and I concluded it was a graveyard yielding from a World War, but we did not know which one. As we walked through the endless rows of family graves, I found myself struggling to comprehend this massive graveyard as the equivalent to a sporting stadium of people, all perished to the tragedy of war. Many were women and children, along with soldiers and unnamed heroes. I did not know a single person, yet I still felt grief and pain ball up in the pit of my stomach. Once our eyes took in what our minds could not, we proceeded to finish our run, landing in an outdoor multi-sport complex.
The feeling of dread had not left, because we soon realized the park was built over top of War bunkers which likely had been through the same turmoil as the previous graveyard. We took the time to explore inside a few bunkers, see where cannon remnants were cemented in, and embrace damage only explosives could cause. In hindsight, I am happy to have shared this moment with Casey because the powerful measure of this experience is something I am still struggling to put into words. It seems ignorant to be unable to explain this passing through, but here is my fragmented attempt: knowing soldiers shot cannons in the exact spot I stood, and likely died there too. Singular words are all I have been able to muster for this experience. Humbling. Powerful. Thankful. Terrified. Sadness. Silence. Speechless. Reverend. Holy Ground. These are the emotions that went through me as I walked along the inside of the bunker remains. Casey and I did not share a lot of dialogue, there were no tour guides, signs, enactments, or dangers presented to us, but the land and area still demanded the utmost respect from us.
As we went to head back into town, I was still trying to comprehend the devastation that had occurred here, and I wondered aloud, why would the city build a park over such an area?! I am not sure if Casey recognized, but her answer really opened my eyes to the situation. She responded with, How else is a city supposed to heal and rebuild?”
This response made me realize I had wanted the war-affected grounds to be left as they are- preserved, and a space belonging to history, not our current jog in the park. The overwhelming feelings of tragedy and devastation we both felt at the graveyard and the Sportpark de Schorre built around war bunkers, were emotions I did not want to face. It has been 100+ years since this tragedy and today I realize the answer to Casey’s question of how to heal and rebuild, requires full acceptance of the tragedy, the strength to learn from the past, but most importantly, the conscious effort to actively participate in being better to enable moving forward.
This town survived German takeover in World War 1 and again in World War 2. Now that I have had a chance to walk through the fields, trails, and paths that have been recreated on these war grounds, I agree, building a park over the war area was a good choice. At first I thought this seemed disrespectful to those who had given their lives in the very places I stood, but I also realized these paths and trails created a peaceful way for the community to congregate people together again. I do not think I can imagine a better change for the grounds than what I saw that day: the laughter of children, dogs running free through the field, and gardens full of singing birds. I think this moment I am able to be enjoy is what the soldiers were willing to give their lives for, and my appreciation can never find words with enough meaning to express my gratitude. Although the graveyard will likely always have a silence surrounding it, I saw first-hand an example of peace having been reached when I observed a few residents still coming in with flowers to remember their loved ones.
Not a lot was said on our way back to the beautifully sanded beaches, but I left our run refreshed by the amount of class, and heritage Oostende has and its harmonious ability to move forward. Although it initially made for a dark war-themed conversation for our long run, I wouldn’t trade the experience I had as a present-day passerby. Once we collected our belongings and bicycles from our lockers, it was time to head off to the beach for some lunch and relaxing. Personally, I needed to hang out at the beach to try and comprehend the long run experience. Despite the occurrence at the graveyard, the afternoon was very enjoyable and full of laughter due to a good beach day. The following photos are evidence of this good day!
During our time at the beach, we saw possibly the biggest slip and slide I have ever seen, and a pedestrian covered bike bath that seemed to go endlessly along the coast. We did some seashell collecting, a quick dip in the water, lounging, and biking, before we tried some fresh vendor seafood on our way home for dinner. For some reason beach days seem to leave my mind refreshed, but my body tired. This meant when I arrived back to Leuven, I was able to go to bed fully satisfied with another good day under my belt.
In summary, the experience of this day trip is something I will never forget, and the dialogue it created in myself regarding peace and freedom has truly humbled me. Considering I woke up from a race that I did not want to claim as my own, I was happy to have found myself re-entered, and focused on the more important things in life. Despite the dark undertones, Casey and I still managed to have a really awesome day! Check out the photo evidence (courtesy of Casey Atkin) for more details!
And until next time!