Thursday, September 12, 2013

A country steeped in history

It all started with “Downton Abbey.”

I've been watching the British TV series from the beginning and fell in love with the period it portrays, especially (I confess) the clothes, but also the nostalgia and romance of what seems to be a lost world. There's a sense that a certain style of living was coming to end, and that the twentieth century was about to start in earnest—with the outbreak of World War I.

Soon after “Downton Abbey” became a hit TV show, the BBC produced another miniseries set in the period around WWI. “Parade's End” was based on a British novel and filmed in part here in Belgium. It also focuses on the loss of innocence and privilege among the British aristocracy during the war years, but it takes a more serious approach than “Downton” and shows more of the horrors of the war.

I happened to end up working on the set of “Parade's End” for a couple of scenes shot in Flanders, and had to quickly learn about dining habits and recipes in the years 1914-1918. I was hired (at the last minute, out of desperation, I think) as the food stylist, which meant prepping meals for actors to pretend to eat on camera. It was a crash course in Edwardian cuisine and manners.

My curiosity about the Great War grew out of my interest in these TV shows and for the world they portray. I confess I was never very interested in military history and knew very little about WWI. I didn't even know that much of the fighting took place in West Flanders, or that Belgium was the site of the Allies' last European defenses, until I moved here.

Of course, now that I live in Belgium, I can't help but be aware of the great impact both World Wars had on the history of this country and the role that Belgium played in the military strategies of the great European powers. And with the centennial of the outbreak of WWI just around the corner, Belgium is gearing up to receive visitors coming to pay their respects at the battlefields and monuments along the former front lines in West Flanders.

I decided that I should learn more about WWI, not just because it's important but almost out of a sense of embarrassment that I know so little. I started with Wikipedia and then decided to read a book for a more thorough account of the war. After perusing a few dozen titles, I chose The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman as my starting point, in part because the book won a Pulitzer Prize and in part because it covers the outbreak and first days of the war, which seemed a good place to begin.

It's slow going. I'm reminded of the reasons why I never liked this part of history class in school: the jumble of foreign general's names, the descriptions of troop movements, the dissection of military strategies. And yet, I find myself getting drawn into the story, in large part because I now have a context for the events I'm reading about.

When Tuchman talks about King Albert I deciding to stand and fight, I can picture the equestrian statue at the foot of the Kunstberg in Brussels, and I feel I know this man. When she describes German troop mobilization towards Luik, I understand, for the first time, exactly where they are headed, and I understand the role that the mighty Maas river played in the armies' troop deployments.

This is the difference between learning about history as a bored American high school student, hearing about far-away, long-ago events in places with strange names... and learning about them as a resident of and visitor to those places, with a concrete grasp of the underlying geography, the culture, and the people who live there. Suddenly the events of August 1914 seem very real to me.

So I recommend that you expats and natives alike take the time to learn more about the history of Belgium, whether it's World War I or some other period. Read a book, or visit a museum. So much has happened within the borders of this little country, and I truly believe that you have to study the past if you want to understand the present.

Plus, as one of my American friends said during a visit to Belgium, “Europe: It's where the history comes from.”

(A version of this post appeared on the website of Fans of Flanders, an English-language TV program about expat life in Dutch-speaking Belgium.)

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