Anyone who has been reading my blog for the last year will know I have an interest in all things WWII. The beaches of Dunkirk are a memorable place where the British and French allies were “pushed” to by Nazi Germany during the war. I’d read about Dunkirk, watched the Hollywood movie about Dunkirk, but never thought I’d actually visit Dunkirk.
When booking my most recent trip to Belgium, I was looking at a map and noticed Dunkirk was just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Brugge, where I spent the first half of my trip. You’d have thought I was a five year old waiting for Santa when I realized I could drive to Dunkirk and stand on the beaches of history.
I was thankful that my roommates also had an interest in seeing this beach, so we scheduled the drive into our plans. We had no idea what to expect, but we weren’t aware that Dunkirk is currently a very popular beach to lounge on. We all agreed it felt a bit morbid to go swim in the waters of Dunkirk, so we spent the morning on the coast of Belgium in a town called Ostende.
I can’t remember the last time I swam at a beach, but this calm water was very inviting. We arrived before the crowds and spent a good hour and a half sunning our skin and soaking our toes. For a girl that doesn’t care much for the beach, I sure enjoyed my time in Ostende more than I thought I would.
I remember thinking to myself (and then aloud to my roommates) “I’m in the North Sea, in Belgium, swimming at the beach. What is my life.”
We made sure not to spend too much time in Ostende, because the goal for the day was Dunkirk, and I wasn’t sure how much time we would need to explore the area. Upon arrival in Dunkirk I was a bit surprised to find that the town was bustling with half naked French folks on the beaches like any other European beach.
I believe there are many things in life that signify success, and one of the biggest for me is the ability and willingness to never stop learning things. Things about the world and things about yourself. Something I have learned about myself is that I often let myself down when I have preconceived expectations. I am a work in progress with this, but I am trying to expect less when traveling somewhere new.
As I said, I’m a work in progress, and I had expectations of Dunkirk that were not reality. I had images in my head of a historical war memorial, with visitors coming to pay respect to those who lost their lives. I envisioned a beach lined with plaques recalling the events that took place, providing a brief synopsis of history for younger generations to read and learn.
Instead, I was met with the above photo of beach lockers and bronze French folks. I was met with teenage kids blasting French rap music weaving a soccer ball around the other people walking on the boardwalk. I was met with endless restaurants and gelato shops feeding the masses of people sunbathing when they should have been at work.
I was met with life, continuing on.
At first glance, I thought I was in the wrong area. I wandered around until l found a tourist office and went in to ask where the memorial was. I found the only English speaker and asked him where we could find the memorial. His reply shocked me when he said: “what memorial?” I hesitated and asked where the memorial for the war was, to which he replied, “there is a museum around the corner, at the end of the board walk there is a memorial wall, and on the other side of town is the British memorial.”
He then handed me a map and sent me on my way.
Thankfully my roommate found an additional pamphlet that had spots along the board walk signifying historical spots such as: “this is where the British hid”, “this is where the evacuation took place”, and “this is where the ships came in to save the men.” This was a great concept, but as we walked the boardwalk it was impossible to know exactly where these places were. Hence the desire for my original expectation of plaques along the beach.
The memorial wall was beautiful, and I was thankful to have found it. I still expected more, but as my dad perfectly put it this was now “a solemn place (history) that sounds fairly ordinary today.” Perhaps my original expectations were too skewed, and perhaps the best way to honor the men who died during this tragic situation was to enjoy the freedom the beach provided.
I didn’t go into the museum, so perhaps I was looking too much outside of the museum for remembrance. After walking the boardwalk a bit we drove over to the British memorial, which was exactly what I was expecting.
I sometimes feel odd discussing war so passionately, because while we always feel the need to choose sides, a human life is a human life regardless of what side you’re on. Each person makes a decision based on what they believe to be correct and they then stand behind this decision regardless of the outcomes.
The human mind is a complex web of tangled emotions that some are better at untangling than others.
I can only hope we continue to find success in learning about the world and about ourselves in an attempt to prevent history from repeating itself, however this is sadly a problem I don’t think will ever be “solved.” All I know for certain is I find great joy in visiting historical places and sharing them with my small circle of a community here on this blog.
Dunkirk was not what I expected, and if I had the power to I would make the simple addition of boardwalk plaques for just “a little bit more.” If you don’t know much about the Battle of Dunkirk I highly recommend reading more about it. I’m glad I visited regardless of what I thought I would see, and it was another reminder to let go of expectations and live more in the moment.
Q: How do you bounce back when you have expectations that are shattered by reality? Were my Dunkirk expectations unrealistic?