Today, Sarah and I met in Ypres, Belgium to visit The Menin Gate. Read on to hear about each of our accounts.
So far for our “Mondays On the Move” project, Sarah and I have been able to meet and discover hidden places in and around Brussels. Now that I am living just beyond the Belgian border in France, we have decided to cross paths in places by the border between the two countries. We call this variation on a theme, “Monday On the Move: The Borderlands Edition.”
“Mondays On the Move” is meant to give voice to all those people around the world who dream of a safer, better life for themselves and for their families. We choose a migration song to sing each week from our book of songs we wrote with refugees and asylum seekers in Brussels as a form of performance art, a creative call to action in the spirit of social justice and freedom of movement for all people.
Sarah suggested for this Monday journey that we meet in the Belgian town of Ypres (Ieper in French…not leper with a lowercase “l” as my own gestalt sees it but Ieper with an uppercase “I”). The Dutch Ypres is pronounced “ee” as in “jeep” followed by prah” as in “Prussia.” Of course, the sound of “pr” is reminiscent of the rolling “r” in the French language, which is tricky to describe. Therefore, I am including a link to the Google Translate site so you can click on the little speaker icon and listen for yourself. You can also type into Google “How to pronounce Ypres,” and short YouTube videos magically appear (some better than others).
Our specific destination within the town of Ypres was the Menin Gate, which was originally a place to cross over the moat around the older fortified realm of the city. The Menin Gate was transformed into the Memorial to the Missing after the first world war. Engraved on nearly every surface of the structure are the 55,000 names of soldiers were killed in action and whose bodies were never found. In fact, the ate itself was not large enough to house every name, and an additional near 35,000 can be found on the walls of the Tyne Cot Cemetery nearby.
Where is Ypres? It is in Northwest Belgium in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders.
The morning dawned grey, foggy, and on the wet side. However, I dutifully loaded my car with rain gear and the usual “Mondays On the Move” traveling kit: ukulele, tripod, iPhone holder. Fairly simple tech, and I tossed in an umbrella for good measure.
My phone welcomed me to Belgium with a text message. On the return trip, I received a “welcome to France” message, as if this back and forth were completely normal. While the world has been turned upside down by the waves of change wrought by the pandemic of this year, my tech companions have been relatively unphased.
I met Sarah at the train station, where we planned our visit in the sanctuary of the car, masks on for safety (of course). Thankfully, Sarah speaks Nederlands (Dutch) and was able to ask if we could leave the car parked at the train station. The answer? Ja. Yes. Thankfully.
Met dank aan meneer Google (thanks to Mr. Google/grâce a Monsieur Google), we found our way to the Menin Gate, taking photos, pointing out beautiful buildings, and chatting like chickadees (north American cousins of the mésanges). We found the gate and were almost immediately besieged by students with surveys. I normally would not mind taking the time to respond, but I not speaking (not having) any Dutch and having a limited time together, we decided to respectfully decline. This did not stop other groups of youth from surrounding us from time to time, but we managed to stay on course.
At the gate, we studied the interpretive signs and Sarah explained that every night since 1928 (apart from a few years during the German occupation of the second world war) a single musician had come to play “The Last Port” at 8pm, no matter the weather or if they played for the night and no one else.
The song we had decided to sing was one called “Soyons unis,” which we wrote with an asylum seeker from Congo in Africa in 2018 at the Fedasil Arrival Centre Petit-Château (little castle) Klein-Kasteeljte. The translation from French into English of these words is literally “be we united” or more colloquially, “let’s be united.” It is a call to action for solidarity. We also refer to the song as “Treasure the moment.” This and the request for unity are two of the primary messages or themes from the song.
This song took its time to come into the world. The resident from Congo had shared several phrases in French with us, and they marinated for some time before we wove them into a more finished song. I say “more finished” because I am not entirely certain a folk song is ever truly finished. Once it is released into the world, it can take on a life of its own. People sing the song and make it their own, reshaping words and melody according to their own preference and style.
The resident had shared with us the idea that as human beings, we all walk a parallel path through life. We are born to the earth. We stay here for a short while. And then we leave. For this reason, we should be united (soyons unis).
These were his written words:
Ici nous arrivons
Ici nous partirons
Sarah and I sat with his words and crafted a song around this theme. We added the idea that we should also treasure the moment, as each moment of life is a gift, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. We were overjoyed when we perchance crossed paths with him again several weeks later and were able to sing his song with him. There is something powerful and poignant in a person hearing a song written from their own words for the first time.
We walked up the stairs on one side of the gate and up onto the landing on the rampart beside it. We chose a place to stand with the gate framed behind us and created several videos, beginning with a description of the significance and history of the monument and then singing our song. As the wind blew, the rain misted, and the carillon bells of the church rang, we sang.
We explored both sides of the gate, pointing out names and looking at the little poppies and wreaths people had carefully placed. Sarah showed me the Memorial Register, where people can look up a name and also sign the guestbook.
Then it was already time to finish our exploring and begin making our way back to the train station. We had not anticipated that most places would be closed on a Monday, but we did manage to find a small shop with flower masks, which were poppy-esque in design. We decided to gifted each other one. Somehow, they seemed a fitting and unique souvenir from a city that has known such loss. We passed one café, which we decided was a bit too grim and carried on down narrow roads that became less and less indicative of a place that might be home to a small coffee or tea shop.
We never managed to find a coffee shop. The places we found by the train station were either definitively closed or seemingly open but then told us they were closed when we opened the door (very European to close the kitchen by mid-afternoon).
On our circuitous route to the train station, however, we found a construction site where the entire façade of an ancient stone building was being held up in order to rebuild the rest of the interior. It felt like another hallowed ground with so many stories to tell were we able to listen and understand.
We stood and chatted on the platform the train station. There was also no coffee shop at the station. All we found was a bit of a questionable vending machine, where we could choose from many varieties of coffees and also lemon tea and tomato soup. I tried to imagine how these seemingly conflicting flavors might affect one another if pour through the same individual shoot.
As Sarah boarded the train, we waved and waved and blew kisses from masked faces. I drove home, passing a small monument and military cemetery along a tree-lined road. I felt, as I often feel, the closeness of these regions to both world wars. I don’t feel this connection or memory in the United States. The haunting loss is still so present all over Belgium and France and I am sure many other countries.
The energy and emotion at the gate speak to me as a wandering person. I am just a name to many people and places I have once lived and then left. I wonder with each move who I am, and for a time I find that I have forgotten. Singing with Sarah at the Menin Gate, I felt the stirring of remembrance. Were I not a nomad, I might never have stood on this ground and sang this song to honor those who came before and gave their lives for freedom. Perhaps, my entire life thus far has been leading me to this place in this moment.
It was special to go with Marieke to Ypres for this week’s Monday on the Move and the Menin Gate provided a fitting backdrop for our song ‘Soyons Unis’: ‘Together we laugh. Together we cry. Together we live. Together we die.’ The Menin Gate is a memorial to the missing. 55000 names engraved in stone. From this spot, over 100 years ago, thousands of soldiers from all over the world set off to the Front, many never to return.
There is something both public and intimate about this monument. Official events take place here with the accompanying pomp and ceremony while individuals come on a quiet pilgrimage to trace the names of their loved ones. Even its position as a gate open at both ends feels significant. So many go missing in conflicts all over the world and there are still so many unaccounted for. But unlike the rows of graves in the war cemeteries with the inscription ‘known only to God’, here everyone has a name and each name takes up the same amount of space. In life there were huge differences in rank and status but in death nobody is worth more than anyone else. In our song we sing ‘Ici nous arrivons. Ici nous partirons …’ and I remember the man we wrote it with explaining the idea behind these words. We all come from the same earth and we all return there when we die. ‘This is our earth. This is our death.’ The great leveller.
Another special thing about the Menin Gate is the amazing fact that every night since 1928 (except during the German occupation) the Last Post is played by someone from this town to express their gratitude and commemorate all these lives. The Last Post was a bugle call to mark the end of the day’s work and here it represents a final farewell to the fallen. Come rain, storm or snow, whether there is anyone watching or if the place is deserted, the Last Post is played at 8pm every night at the Menin Gate. They are not forgotten. They are not missing. They are here.
To read more about the writing of this song, visit: Guiding Song: Soyons unis
[About] Soyons unis
[Singing] Soyons unis
Images from Ypres
The Menin Gate
Memorial to India and Nepal
The Last Port
Ramparts and Sculpture