A Canadian in France
By Aaron Rowe
Rising out of the plain above the little French town of Arras is Vimy Ridge. Wind sweeps up the grassy slope and through the forest towards the gigantic marble monument to the fallen Canadian soldiers of the First World War. The monument, while in France, is actually on Canadian soil. The land was given to the Canadian government by the French government as an honour for the sacrifice of its citizens in the defense of France. As a Canadian traveling in France, the Vimy Memorial is a warming reminder of home. Often, when we venture far from home, we long for something familiar, something to remind us of where our home is, and in northern France, I was in desperate need of this.
France is a beautiful place. It’s regional diversity gives a traveler the feeling of being in a few different countries. My journey in France began in the north and quite honestly, did not prove to be the most enjoyable experience. Making my way from Belgium I hitchhiked along the highway towards where I knew Vimy Ridge was. As a history student I knew I had to see the Monument first and, having hitchhiked rather easily in Holland and Belgium, I figured my fortune would continue in France. However, this was not the case. I spent hours standing on the side of the road, in different places and different spots, trying to get a lift. When I was just about to give up, a kind French gentleman saw me, gave me a shocked look like he was supposed to pick me up and caught himself before he drove past, and took me in. He didn’t speak English and my French stopped at grade 11 but we understood each other well enough. I told him I wanted to go to the memorial and he drove me right up to the top of Vimy Ridge.
At the Ridge I was overwhelmed by the sheer size and beauty of the memorial. The artistic design of the statues, the weeping lady, the angels, portrayed a sensitivity to the spirit of sacrifice that men underwent to defend a country they really had very little if any connection to. The forest leading up to the monument has a tree for each man killed and the grave sites around the Ridge bear their tombstones. I as pleased to find Canadian university students like myself working as guides at site. I quickly struck up a conversation with one and within a few minutes I was offered a place to stay for the night. One of them gave me a tour of the trenches and tunnels and when the day was over, I hopped in their van and we headed into the village. Tourism Canada had set these guys and girls up with a nice flat where I bunked on the couch and we had pasta dinner (which I much welcomed since I hadn’t eaten much of substance for a few days). After dinner we went out to a local pub, played cards and drank Guinness, and played pool. Having been on my own for much of my trip around Europe I felt a warm comfort and peace about my trip that I hadn’t felt since being in Europe.
I left the next morning with the sun shining out across the plains of northern France and a better confidence that the rest of my time in Europe would be a great adventure. I had a much better feeling about France. The people hadn’t changed but I realized that the people were not the problem. People are people anywhere you go. I just needed to adjust my outlook and come to terms with the fact that I was alone in a foreign land and it was up to me to make the most of my travels. What being with other Canadians gave me was a dose of home and that dose was enough to carry me through.
Aaron Rowe is a writer and high school teacher in Langley BC. See more at http://adrowe.wordpress.com
He has a passion for European travel and you can learn more about the countries of Europe at http://www.learnabouteurope.com