It has only been over a month since we returned from our trip to France and it feels like a dream far in the past. I still find myself thinking about it and reminiscing on our experiences everyday. The past 10 months preparing for this unbelievable experience have been life-changing. I have formed lifelong friendships, and had countless once in a lifetime experiences.
Before I applied for this trip I wasn’t even aware that I had ancestors who fought in WW1. At that time I wouldn’t have imagined that I would be visiting his grave 10 months later. I wouldn’t have imagined that I would be attending the Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Élysées, or watching the the Football World Cup finals in a French pub, or eating foie gras with a French family.
In New Zealand I had learned about WW1 since I started school so I expected to have a broad understanding of it already, but boy was I wrong. Seeing first-hand the impact of WW1 on France gave everything I learnt so much more depth. I realised that I only had an understanding of the impact of the war on New Zealand and not any other countries. Listening to the stories of gruesome battles, seeing fields where thousands of New Zealanders had died, and walking through ‘old’ towns that were rebuilt after the war really illustrated to me the massive impact of the war on France and made it feel like so much more than the stories told by my history teachers.
This trip was absolutely full with unbelievable experiences and if I were to make a list it would be pages long. One of my personal highlights was visiting Le Quesnoy. I remember learning about a quaint, walled town in the north of France that was liberated by New Zealanders, in primary school and then later on in year 10. It was a surreal experience actually visiting the town and seeing the walls that the New Zealand troops had climbed over in the stories. We had the privilege to meet the mayor and spend some time with some children from the town. They explained the deep rooted connections with New Zealand the town has and the French children performed a haka! We also visited the New Zealand garden, Rangimārie which has been given to New Zealand by the town of Le Quesnoy.
Another highlight was going to the Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Élysées. This was an insane experience. We saw the French president and his wife drive down the Rue and watched the planes fly over and paint the sky blue, red, and white. It was such an honour to attend such a renowned and distinguished event, especially in the company of the French Jeunes Ambassadeurs as this was the last day we would spend with them on the trip. We also had the opportunity to attend the relighting of the flame ceremony under the Arc de Triomphe. What made this very special was this was held at the same time as the Football World Cup parade down the Champs-Élysées. While we were attending the ceremony, half of Paris was crowned down the Champs-Élysées waiting to cheer on the Champions du Monde. Once the ceremony was complete we stayed under the Arc to watch the team go past in the bus.
One personal highlight was visiting my great great uncle’s grave. Aro Keith Baker was buried in in the small town of Armentieres in the north of France. As I previously mentioned, before this trip I was unaware that I had an ancestor who died in the war. None of my family members had ever visited his grave so it was a great honour to be the first one. It was a very emotional experience and I’m so grateful I was able to visit it. So many soldier’s bodies weren’t found and they have no grave so it is a miracle in itself that there was a grave for me to visit.
The hospitality and compassion given by the French Jeunes Ambassadeurs, families, teachers, and tour guides was incredible. Thank you to Aurélie and Emma and your families for your incredible hospitality and patience with my somewhat fractured French! The time I spent with your families was so special and I hope we can visit each other again. Thank you to so much Jennifer, Robin, Donny, Cecile, Dauphine, Gerald, Pascale Hyboud-Peron, and Pascale Seignolles for making this trip possible for us. And finally, thank you to my fellow kiwi Young Ambassadors who I was so blessed to share this experience with. I enjoyed every moment bonding with you guys, whether it be waiting for an hour at a cemetery while one of us was filming, in the back of a van driving through the rolling french countryside, or in an overpriced restaurant on a balmy Parisian evening, the moments we spent together were golden and filled with happy memories. The friendships we’ve made and experiences we’ve shared on this trip have been unforgettable and I hope we shall see each other again soon!