I was 16, on a student exchange to a small town just outside of Hamburg, Germany. After finishing the school year, four of us, two Canadians and two Germans, decided to purchase EuroRail tickets and travel for six weeks before two of us returned to Canada.
We had a loose itinerary, knowing only that we needed to be on a ferry from Brindisi, Italy to Patras, Greece in four weeks.
Shortly after leaving Amsterdam, we decided to take a break from the train to stretch our legs and have a look around. The next stop happened to be a small Dutch village near the Belgian border. Both Ron and I were sporting Canadian flags sewn onto our backpacks.
As we meandered down a side street away from the village’s centre, an elderly lady called to us and motioned us to come over. Pointing to the flag on my backpack, she pulled on my arm, inviting us into her home.
Over an impromptu lunch, through a combination of Dutch, low German, French and a handful of English words, we came to understand that her husband and two sons were killed by the Germans during the Second World War.
Faded black and white photos of her deceased family adorned the walls of her small living room. She had invited us in because it was the Canadians who liberated her village — this village.
Later, as we said our thanks and our farewells, she hugged first me, then Ron, whispering: “Thank you” over and over as tears poured from her eyes.
We visited Flanders Fields where row upon row of white crosses mark the graves of unknown soldiers, stretching almost endlessly across a verdant meadow.
“How many lying beneath the ground are Canadian?” I asked myself.
I knew that most had been my age or only a few years older, every one a volunteer.
After that, we made a point to travel to Dieppe on the northern coast of France, visiting the graveyard there to pay tribute to the Canadians who had fallen in 1942. Almost 5,000 Canadians took part in the raid. Over 900 of our countrymen died on the beaches while more than 1,900 were taken prisoner.
On the western side of the public walkway that fronts the city is a small park called Canada Square where the Dieppe-Canada monument stands, honouring the “Canadian cousins” who died and those who returned on September 1st, 1944 to liberate the city.
The Canadian flags on our backpacks elicited soft “merci”s, solemn pats on the shoulder, and gentle nods from French old and young.
That trip changed me. I hadn’t truly understood what it means to be Canadian. I returned, proud of my heritage and my homeland, with profound respect for those who choose to serve our country selflessly, to defend our freedom.
I will never forget.