Banging your head against the wall?

I’ve been banging my head against a wall lately… a wall of indecision. I was planning to introduce you to the Top 10 Wonders of Brussels Wander in this post.
But recently I took a great group of people from the Aspria fitness clubs on the Wondrous Wall Wander and they enjoyed it so much that I changed my mind. Yup, today I’m focused on walls.

Living in Belgium can be a surreal experience

Aspria Wondrous Wander 12July2015Sometimes the wall analogy, combined with a very sticky piece of metaphorical red tape,best describes how you feel. Confused about processes or who to contact, you may think living in Brussels is chaotic. And that’s before you try to make sense of the layout of the city streets!

 

“The order in the chaos”

What you can’t see is the infrastructure that’s existed since the Middle Ages when Brussels became a wealthy and powerful city. What happens when a person becomes wealthy and powerful? Don’t we often see pictures of a huge house behind walls with electric gates and maybe a bodyguard or two? They build a wall around themselves and their property.

Well, so do cities.

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An incredibly detailed model of the medieval city enclosed by the first wall in the City of Brussels Museum on the Grand-Place.

Brussels was founded in 979 on an island in the Senne River (that’s right, Brussels had a river just like Bruges… but it became so polluted the authorities buried it).

By just after 1200, Brussels was rich enough and powerful enough to build a protective wall. After all, when you build a wall, you’re creating the illusion of strength and infallibility. Just over a hundred years later, the city had grown so extensively that a second, much larger, wall had to be built.

Guess what?

Although the second wall was deliberately torn down in the 19th century, the first wall — that original 4-kilometre long stone wall from the 13th century — still survives in many places in the historic centre of Brussels.

Sometimes it’s a big (really big!) chunk of stones and in some places it’s the structure of the streets or buildings that give it away. But either way, we can follow the route of the wall to see “the order in the chaos”, as one wondrous wanderer commented.

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Walls Protect Power, Wealth & Vulnerability

It may not be the Great Wall of China, but Brussels’ wall is every bit as important to the history of this city.

I’m fascinated with anecdotes that help to bring to life the 800 year-old wall and its role in people’s lives in medieval times…

…along with considering the role of metaphoric walls in our lives now, particularly those of us who have left our home country and moved to a new place.
We can actually decide how much, or how little, we’ll share with our new friends and colleagues, thus knocking down, or maintaining, our personal walls.

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Billy the WondrousWanderPup checks out out the Anneessens Tower

The Wall Connects the Past to the Present…. and to People

Have I made you curious about taking a storytelling walk to trace the route of history through Brussels? This is a unique walk I created after researching the wall in books and the city’s archaeological documents — they don’t exist in English so you won’t find them in the tourism office.

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A Wondrous Wander is a walk that makes a great way to connect with other expats — and Belgians! — while seeing a new side of Brussels. It’s a fun idea for something different to do with visitors too.

More about the Top 10 Wonders of Brussels Wander coming soon…

Are you going to be in Brussels on Sunday, August 2nd? Why not join me for a walk on the medieval side?! I’ll help you discover another side of this quirky and often under-appreciated city.

Click on this link to get more info and buy your ticket for the Wondrous Wall Wander! 

Turn a Wondrous Wander into a Mental Meander… in one easy blog post.

Last week I was in Athens for a travel blogger conference. Am I a blogger? No. Or rather, I wasn’t until today! What better inspiration to start a blog than to meet hundreds of world travellers who write about their motivational stories?

My friends have been begging me (OK, that’s a slight exaggeration) to start a blog for ages because they enjoy my stories. Why didn’t I? I’ve been focused on getting my business, Wondrous Wanders, up and running. And precisely because I love writing and telling stories, I knew there was a significant risk that I would get distracted from business with blogging. Which is a challenge in itself because in the travel and tourism world, sometimes it’s a chicken-and-egg story with bloggers and their businesses: which comes first? In my case, the business had to. I wanted to have ‘products on the shelf’, so to speak, when I started blogging so that people would have the option to try out the experiences I’d be writing about.

So what’s a Wondrous Wander, you ask?

A Wondrous Wander is a walk or event of discovery, of revelation… a meander with open eyes and mind through Brussels, elsewhere in Belgium, or further afield. It can take a couple of hours or a full day. It’s about finding hidden gems, inspiring images & intriguing anecdotes. My ‘tools of the trade’ are my red walking shoes, my camera, my passion, my curiosity, my pen, my notebook and usually a map, 734 Cigogne edited resizedjust in case.

Here’s how I define a Wondrous Wander…
Wondrous: the look of happy surprise on peoples’ faces at a new discovery. Wander: walking with a goal in mind, but being flexible enough to take the fork in the road if it looks more promising.

So, put it all together and Wondrous Wanders challenges you to look at places, people and things in a new way, see them through new eyes and, hopefully, with a new appreciation. It’s as if Bilyana, a tourism industry intern, read my mind when she wrote in her blog: “All of us managed to feel the magnificent spirit of Brussels by seeing things differently. All of us learnt so much about the city itself but also about ourselves.”

As far as my business goes I wander accompanied by small, intimate groups where I can create conversations and connections. Or I can bring people along on an exploration, a wander through a specific topic of interest…say, photography or wine. For the purposes of my blog, I can wander either accompanied or alone…I can wander through places or ideas with my feet or just my mind.

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I’m focused on enticing expats living in Brussels and visitors to the city to see another side of a place they often consider kind of boring and not too attractive. I’m out to prove them wrong by unravelling the mysteries of Brussels while following the remains of the 13th century first city wall.  Astrid, an enthusiastic expat commented: “Wendy made me see things I hadn’t seen in all these years — I completely rediscovered Brussels!” Wouldn’t you get a kick out of knowing you could do this for people?

I’ve also got some surprises up my sleeve for chocoholics – after all, Brussels is the capital of chocolate (no matter what the Swiss say!). To prove it, Brussels airport sells more chocolate than anywhere else in the world! I also create one-of-a-kind experiences for companies who are looking for unique team building opportunities or new ways to entertain visiting executives and their partners.

And for those who like a bit of emotive history mixed with their storytelling, a World War One Wander through northern France and Flanders fields in a small, private coach is a moving way to experience the stories of men and women from 100 years ago, standing on the very ground where so many thousands lived and died for their country in circumstances that are hard to imagine today.333 Smurfette G-P edited resized

Hopefully, I’ve made you a little curious, maybe inspired you to look a little deeper when you think of Brussels and Belgium. I hope you’ll join me on future blog wanders (hmm, would this be considered a bwog?). This may be the capital of Europe, but it’s the people, the culture, the history – and most importantly, the quirkiness — that make it such a wondrous place to live and wander!

 

Are you hearing voices? There’s only one thing to do…

It’s November 10th.

Tomorrow, on Armistice Day, we should all be hearing voices….

Voices from the First World War, calling to us from 100 years ago.

This is a short post, because these voices, and these visuals, say it all. No one can tell their stories more effectively.

Here are some of the voices I’ll be hearing tomorrow…


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Edith Cavell Quote on Statue

 

 

 

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So if you’re hearing voices, there’s only one thing to do: listen to them.

 

 

 

 

 

Well, actually, there’s a second thing that’s perhaps even more important.

 

 

 

 

 

Remember them.

#LestWeForget

 

 

Confessions of a Reluctant WWI Buff

As we approach Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, or any term you use to describe the day that commemorates the end of the First World War at 11:00 on 11/11 1918, and those who have fought (and are still fighting) in all wars, I’m looking back at my own journey of learning about the Great War and why it has become so meaningful to me.

Why do I say I was a reluctant WWI enthusiast?

Visiting Ieper, Ypres, or Wipers as the Brits called it during the war (Ieper is the Flemish spelling, Ypres is French) and the surrounding cemeteries were on my bucket list for years because living in Belgium made it almost a moral obligation.

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But somehow all those fields of white crosses and green grass seemed too sanitised, too proper, knowing the muddy hell so many thousands of men lived and died in. I thought it was verging on disrespectful to transform such an awful war into such a neat and tidy package for remembrance after the fact.

When I got around to organising a trip to the Ieper / Ypres area, I discovered how very, very wrong my impression had been. I wasn’t reluctant any more… in fact, I was sorry I had waited so long.


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The very first cemetery I visited was Sanctuary Wood. How apt a name: it really felt like a sanctuary. There was absolutely no one in sight when I arrived in this peaceful oasis in the middle of farm and woodland and saw, for the first time, the message from the Belgian people that is prominently placed at the entry to every single commonwealth cemetery.

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Reading it brought tears to my eyes. And I soon discovered I’d be in a heightened emotional state for the whole four days.

I had decided to focus on visiting sites of importance to Canadians, given my Canadian heritage.

And, although I wasn’t searching for graves of relatives (the only one I know to have died as a result of the war was my great-uncle whose lungs were ruined by mustard gas, but he died back at home in Toronto), I wanted to honour the men who came from the country I will always call home (even though I’m also a Belgian citizen).

I drove to many evocative monuments and cemeteries, like Vancouver Corner in St. Julien with its stirring statue of the Brooding Soldier who commemorates over 2,000 Canadian soldiers who died in the first large-scale gas attack of  the war in April 1915.

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But Sanctuary Wood will always have a special place in my heart because it’s where I learned about the special messages from family members to the deceased soldiers. I was down on the ground taking a photo (as you do) when I looked at a headstone near me and saw this message:

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When I started looking for others, I found them all around me. And no one can keep a dry eye when reading the last known words of any family to their dead husband, father, son or brother. Especially when you know that they had to pay for every letter that was carved in the stone, and some of them could ill afford the lengthy messages they left.

I now have a collection of headstone messages from each WWI cemetery I’ve visited.

Why are these messages so important to me?

Because that was the moment the First World War took on meaning for me. I connected with the emotions of the human stories, the people who lived, died, grieved and remembered.

The mother who asked people of a foreign country to watch over her son’s grave because she would never be able to visit him, the daughter who would never see her father again because he was shot for treason for wanting to leave a futile muddy battle and return home, the young boys who would never become men, the women back home — like my two great-aunts — who would never marry, because there weren’t enough men of their generation left alive.

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The war became a series of stories for me and it’s stories that drive my interest in any subject.

So although I’ll never be a military enthusiast, I will always be interested in war because war is, after all, a series of human stories linked together to give us context on how one person, a family, a community, a cultural group or an entire nation is torn apart and impacted for generations.

I’ve become passionate about WWI and will share more of my photos and fascinating facts with you over the coming weeks.

We, especially those of us living in Belgium, owe it to the men and women who gave their lives to visit the sites that honour them.

Tuesday is Remembrance Day. If you aren’t already a WWI buff, isn’t it time you became one?

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You can get a head start by downloading my WWI Factoids eBooks:

Top 12 WWI Factoids for Canadians:
http://wondrouswanders.com/ww1/ww1-canada/

Top 12 WWI Factoids for the UK & Ireland:
http://wondrouswanders.com/ww1/ww1-uk/

Even if you’re not from one of these countries, you’re sure to find the information a fascinating and fun way to start conversations about the Great War with your family, friends and colleagues.

Why your walk in Brussels shouldn’t just be about getting from A to B

Late this afternoon I did a ‘test run’ of a short walk I’m leading as part of an event later this month. As I was walking the route, thinking of the details I’ll point out and the anecdotes I’ll tell the group, I pondered why I find the simple act of wandering so wondrous.

I realised part of it is simply being in central Brussels when all the fair-weather tourists have gone home! Mostly, it’s the small things that make walking around the city so enjoyable. I love letting a walk just sort of… unfold. 

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Here are the ways that help me make sure that every walk is not just a mission to get from here to there.  Sometimes it is, and that’s OK. But it’s much more fun when I can stretch time.

Being flexible. I usually have an idea of where I’ll start and/or where I’m going, but if something catches my eye I’ll change direction. Today, I made a last-minute decision to stop off at my favourite hotel lounge for a cup of tea while I planned the details of my­­ walk. I chatted with the waiter, organised my thoughts and did some people-watching (life’s best, and cheapest, form of entertainment!).

It put me in the perfect mood for setting off to time my route. Sometimes, I find it’s better to veer off the established path when the mood strikes you because you end up discovering something new or having an experience you would have missed otherwise.

Connecting with people along the way. As I wander, I often create small moments of connection. These are my way of interacting and never feel lonely when I’m alone. When I see people trying to read maps I ask if I can help them, I give people directions, I help old people in and out of a bus or over a curb. When I see people with cameras, I ask them if they’d like me to take their photo. Today I took a group photo for a family from Spain and left them laughing as they looked at themselves on the camera.

I smile at people and have even been known to chat with them on the bus (something that is taboo for many of us, especially big-city people!). Today it was a young boy with a gigantic backpack who was clearly a little nervous about taking the bus all the way downtown.  I have brief exchanges with people that impact my entire day.

Admittedly, this is something I do much more often now than when I was a walking bag of stress in the busy corporate world, usually focused on what was going on in my head rather than around me. I’m amazed at how a simple of exchange of smiles can brighten my mood.

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Photo opportunities. I’m a very visual person, so when something catches my eye, I take a photo of it.  I might see something I haven’t noticed before, or maybe I see it from a new angle. I love digital photography because I can take several pictures and decide later which one I like the best. My biggest challenge is filing them all so I can actually retrieve them (to add to this blog, for example)!

A photo is a memory, and I can recall entire days just by looking at my pictures. I love the fact that my photos of Brussels tell stories that intrigue other people too.

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Letting my curios978 Windows of Old House edited resizedity get the better of me. I find that the past several years of always having a camera with me has opened up a whole world I might have missed otherwise. There are so many fun photos I woudn’t have if it weren’t for following alleys or little streets, entering buildings or asking people for spots to capture with my camera. I’ve had people invite me to get a closer look when they see me taking photos; they might recount an anecdote about their house or the neighbourhood, or tell me about renovation work they’ve done.

Having a camera has allowed me to overcome my fear of being in places I didn’t belong or doing something I shouldn’t do. If someone’s there, I’ll ask if I can take pictures, but generally, I follow my curiosity and if someone asks me to leave, then I leave. At least I make the effort to see the thing or the place that intrigues me.

Some of my favourite pictures — and conversations with people – have happened because I followed my curiosity and didn’t stop to question whether or not what I was doing was ‘allowed’.

Speaking the language. Speaking French has had a huge impact on my meanderings. Sometimes I don’t even realise how much. I realise that speaking Brussels’ main language gives me an advantage over many expats because I can communicate with just about anyone. It’s probably one reason I get so much pleasure out of living here. If you’re a new (or not so new) expat, I’d highly recommend taking a French course to give you confidence. It helps break the ice in social situations, which will enrich your life incredibly. 

Public transportation. I’m not going to try to convince you it’s perfect, because we all know it’s not. And after I bought a car during my first six months here, I don’t think I took a bus for another 10 years! But parking has become more and more difficult and more and more expensive. And traffic has become… well, a nightmare. Plus, when I’m wandering, I may veer off my original plan and I’ve often had to do a lengthy walk back to my car, whereas when I take public transit I can hop on wherever I am (assuming I remember to take my transit map with me or I can access wifi!).

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I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but I actually had a ‘blonde moment’ one day not too long ago. Because  I almost always go to the centre by public transportation, I forgot I’d actually driven my car (it was a Sunday and street parking was free)! I left my friends, hopped on the bus and went home. The minute I walked in the front door I realised I’d left my car downtown. So, I headed back to the bus stop, went downtown again, got in my car and drove back home!! At least it gave me a funny story to add to my arsenal… (I guess you won’t be surprised when I write an upcoming blog about how my sense of humour has helped me survive expat life!)

So, what’s my best advice for wandering in Brussels? Don’t be too busy rushing from A to B to miss all the fascinating opportunities to have wondrous moments of connection with people and with Lady Brussels herself. You might be surprised at how much you enjoy the experience!

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