The spirit of Ypres: A war city’s response to the coronavirus


A journalist from Manchester shares her thoughts about her partner’s hometown – which has seen much worse than this

Calm and carrying on

The trees in Ypres have coloured bands on them to show you how far away you are standing from what was once the frontline in the First World War.

It’s a sobering experience, the first time you spot a red marking. It means you’re standing on the exact spot where the two sides faced each other. Physically, you’re right there. Trying to wrap your head around the fear that must have been felt here and the amount of blood in the soil beneath your feet can be overwhelming.

For me, it’s these little markings, or the small huddles of unannounced pearly headstones, meticulously cleaned and manicured, that spring up in the fields and forests of this farming province that strike the hardest. While the Menin Gate is a colossal tribute, it’s the smaller gestures of remembrance that run through the veins of Ypres’ people. It’s not a gimmick – it’s a way of life, a community’s collective personality, handed down through generations.

You’d think with all the tourists – the number of Brits alone flocking to pay their respects year after year – that they’d get tired of it. And while there is the odd joke made that the staff at bars and restaurants around Ypres’s main square will always speak to you in English first, there’s a genuine pride here, a sense of guardianship over the fallen – of any and all nationalities.

Where else in the world would a lone trumpet player perform The Last Post every day in the gripping midst of an international lockdown?

But Ypres commemorates new life with their trees, too. For every baby born in the town, a young tree is planted – a birth tree. Each has a little tag wrapped around it, naming the child it was planted for and listing the date on which the child was born. Tree and child grow together.

Don’t mention the war? Here you don’t have to; the place radiates with a hush of respect. While we all clap for our carers, where else in the world would a lone trumpet player stand under hallowed marble archways in the gripping midst of an international lockdown to play The Last Post every day, at the same time, without fail? It is in these times that the town and its ethos come into their own.

Belgium, and the world, is facing a new challenge – one that is all too readily compared to war. However you feel about that analogy, it seems we could all learn from the people of Ypres.

While the keep calm and carry on quip rolls easily off British tongues, we don’t always live by our own advice. My partner Jeroom, born and bred in Ypres, and his family have a unique outlook on the current circumstances.

Would worrying change the situation? Would getting frustrated change the situation? Would wishing things were otherwise change the situation?

This level of acceptance is undeniably calming. Jeroom is indeed keeping calm and carrying on... painting his kitchen walls and digging up the garden. And while he is privileged to have the time and ability to do these things, it is his and his hometown’s resolute ability to know that this, too, shall pass – as all things always do – that I find most impressive.

The town has been through hell and back before. So its people are well versed in the need for and employment of coping mechanisms. But they also know how to live. They drink the best beer in the world brewed by monks.

Ypres can and always does seem to meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.

Photos, from top: ©EasyFotoStock/BELGA, ©Last Post Association