Saturday, August 1, 2015


We're just finishing up a very concentrated week in Lille, France. We're two of the 2,930 participants (from 82 countries) at the Universala Kongreso (UK). That's the big annual meeting of Esperanto speakers, held in a different place each year. Some people go every year, but for us, it's only our third time; we went to Yokohama in 2007 and Reykjavik in 2013. The week is so jam-packed with classes, meetings, workshops, excursions, plays, concerts, etc., that one can only take in ten or twenty percent of all that's offered.

The 100th worldwide meeting

We signed up for a lot of excursions, each time with a local Esperantist serving as guide. In places with a professional tour guide, our own guide would translate from French to Esperanto for the entire group with its many tongues.

We spent an entire day at various sites related to World War I, which was going strong in this area a hundred years ago. We visited Notre Dame de Lorette, where 20,000 soldiers are buried, and the ashes of another 22,000 (the unknown ones) are held. A huge "ring of remembrance" memorial lists, alphabetically, 580,000 soldiers killed in the area, from all countries (on both sides), with no regard to rank or nationality.

Notre Dame de Lorette

We found out that the memorial at Vimy actually belongs to Canada, because France gave them the 250 acres in gratitude. Vimy was so important in creating Canadian identity, that it is pictured on the $20 bill and also inside Canadian passports.


The trenches at Vimy

At the Wellington Quarry we went underground to see where 500 New Zealanders spent six months connecting old mining tunnels and creating holding areas, with the aim of tunneling under the German front lines; when the work was done 24,000 soldiers hid underground in the tunnels for a week awaiting the call to battle. (The action in that area didn't actually go well; for the next two months 4,000 men lost their lives each day.) We also visited the lovely town of Arras, which was reconstructed after being 90% destroyed during the war.

The final steps up to the battlefront for those hiding in the Wellington tunnels

Another all-day trip was to Boulogne-sur-Mer. Almost every Esperanto speaker knows this city, because the first Universala Kongreso was held here in 1905. The reason this year's was held nearby in Lille is because it's the 100th one; for the mathematicians out there, it's not the 111th because there were no meetings during the two world wars. For an Esperanto speaker, going to Boulogne-sur-Mer is probably a bit like a Civil War buff walking around the battlefields of Gettysburg. Our group went to the theater where the UK took place in 1905, where we watched a filmed rendition of Zamenhof's inaugural address at the 1905 meeting. The mayor greeted us, and told of plans to construct an Esperanto center in the city.

Statue of Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto, in Boulogne-sur-Mer
Normally only the French flag or the city flag are allowed to fly over the belfry, but for this week they made an exception and flew the Esperanto flag.

During our walk in the Old Town we had a strange experience. Two punks were stalking our group, following us everywhere. When we all went inside the basilica, the young men stayed outside, then hid behind a planter as we came out. We knew they were up to no good, but weren't sure what to do. Then one of them tugged on the sleeve of a member of our group while asking him for the time, presumably as a distraction so the other could pick his pockets or grab jewelry or whatever. Just at that moment a police car appeared, two officers jumped out, and they quickly had the culprits against a wall for frisking. I was very grateful! We later learned that crime is a big problem in that tourist area.

Pickpockets being arrested in Boulogne-sur-Mer

Another excursion was to the coal mining museum of Lewarde. We went way underground in a lift, saw lots of neat stuff in the tunnels during our 45-minute tour, then discovered at the end that ... we'd only been 20 feet down! I felt quite disillusioned to discover that it was all a reconstruction, not the real mines, but Les already had his suspicions from lots of clues that I failed to observe. The area is dotted with huge mounds of the debris from the mines, visible from miles away.

The shortest excursion was a walking tour of Lille. Our guide has lived most of his life here, so he knew everything about the old town, which is very attractive.

Lunch was provided for the two all-day excursions, and—being used to a smallish lunch—we were taken by surprise by the size of the restaurant meals. At one meal they brought out a beautiful large salad: Bibb lettuce, lovely fresh tomatoes, boiled potato, green beans, cantaloupe, etc., along with tasty fresh rolls. I finished and thought, "That was a nice meal," when suddenly they were bringing out the main course; the salad had just been the starter. I could only eat half of the main course. Then out came the beautiful dessert. We didn't have any food for the rest of the day.

When we weren't doing excursions, we enjoyed a lot of programs. An entomologist did a nice presentation about animal communication, and other experts (physicists, linguists, educators, etc.) shared their knowledge and enthusiasm about their subjects in other talks.

A talk about animal communication

The UK always does a series to teach the local language, and we learned a bit of Japanese and Icelandic that way in previous events. This time, besides a class for beginners, they did a class for those who already knew some French, and this turned out to be a favorite daily activity. The teacher was amusing and energetic, the quintessential French character—even down to the beret. Considering that I had four years of French in high school, it's embarrassing to me how little I remember, but in the class it started to come back to me.

Our favorite musical group Kajto (Kite) performed. Even better, they had a session of singing canons, one of their specialties, with the SRO crowd split into two groups for each song.

Singing canons with the Kajto musicians

Many of the sessions were for special-interest groups, such as mathematicians or doctors or Communists or Catholics. The only ones that fit us were the atheists and vegetarians, which both occurred during our excursions, but we did take part in a restaurant meal for 35 vegans.

We ran into a lot of familiar faces. Some people we've known for years, others were people we first met this summer at the events in Toronto, Scotland, and Slovakia. I even saw the young Korean man who shared our apartment in Herzberg. I was particularly happy to see a Polish woman who'd been in our class in Slovakia, and she'd even brought a package of yummy Polish cookies specifically to give to us. We met a nice young couple from eastern France, who, immediately upon hearing that our granddaughter wanted to come to France some day, offered to find her a place to stay in Paris with relatives. We got to meet the sweet woman from Copenhagen who had already offered to host us there. (That'll be in September.) And a real treat was to meet the Budapest couple with whom Julie lived for four months back in 1991; they told us some stories about Julie from that time that we hadn't heard before.

Our friends from Leipzig, whom we stayed with a few weeks ago, planned a vacation in the Bruges area for this week, so that they could see us again. They came down from Bruges on the first day to see the opening ceremony and have lunch with us, and then on the last day for the closing ceremony and again have lunch (this time to celebrate Les' 71st birthday). They gave Les several cute presents, among them a small wood carving of a stork family, because a few weeks back I mentioned in this blog how wonderful it was to see a pair of storks in their nest.

Just as at the first conference in Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1905, scads of people from many countries met old friends and made new ones, learned a lot, had good discussions and a lot of fun. As familiar as it's become for us now, we always marvel to see how a common second language brings people together on equal terms (without the imbalance of one having mastery of the language while the other struggles to some degree) and makes the world seem smaller.

We liked the city of Lille for several reasons. For one thing, pedestrians seem to have the right of way at most intersections; cars are supposed to watch out for them. Also, I didn't notice any tourist shops. And lots of people use scooters—not motorized ones, but the type that young children use in the U.S.

Meantime, July 27 was the 10th anniversary of the introduction of Les' Morse KOB program. He got congratulatory notes from lots of fans. We both suffered somewhat from colds this week, but are on the mend. We're two thirds of the way through our trip at this point. As always, Les is anxious to be on the move again.