#78: My Defeat at Waterloo

#78: My Defeat at Waterloo

I have a faulty memory for most things, but numbers in particular fall out of my head with astonishing regularity. My grades in various history classes will bear out the sad fact that I can’t seem to remember a date to save my life. Fortunately, when you are traveling, you can usually count on a tour guide, informational brochure, or commemorative plaque to tell you what went down and when.

Back when I discovered that Belgium was an actual place that I would actually visit, I studied up on its history. Though a small country, a surprising number of important things happened there. Several of those important things seemed to involve Napoleon in some form or fashion. Remember Napoleon? Short guy, emperor of France, married Josephine, exiled to Elba? Surely you remember his infamous defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

Waterloo, Belgium, as it were.

(I told you I was bad at history! And geography, too, come to think of it).

As fate and all the maps would have it, the village where I stayed in Belgium was located just outside of Waterloo. While it was a fairly undeveloped area comprised mainly of soybean and corn fields, it stood between our house and the next major city. When we struck out to purchase waffles, sprouts, or chocolate, we were sure to think of Napoleon on the way. We also got to admire the Lion Monument that is picturesquely situated in the battlefields.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the Lion:

The Lion’s Mound (or “Lion’s Hillock”, “Butte du Lion” in French, “Leeuw van Waterloo” in Dutch) is a large conical artificial hill raised on the battlefield of Waterloo to commemorate the location where William II of the Netherlands (the Prince of Orange) was knocked from his horse by a musket ball to the shoulder during the battle. It was ordered constructed in 1820 by his father, King William I of The Netherlands, and completed in 1826. The prince fought at the preluding Battle of Quatre Bras (16 June, 1815) and the Battle of Waterloo (18 June, 1815).

The hill is surmounted by a statue of a lion mounted upon a stone-block pedestal. The statue weighs 28 tonnes (31 tons), has a height of 4.45 m (14.6 ft) and a length of 4.5 m (14.8 ft).

The mound is 43 m (141 ft) in height and has a circumference of 520 m (1706 ft) [and] offers a splendid vista of the battlefield. A fee of €7 is charged to ascend the 226 steps leading to the statue and observation area at the top. Orientation maps documenting the battle and telescopes are provided.

ALooking up cropped smallfter driving past the Lion countless times on our way to other places, my friend Kate and I decided one day to go see it intentionally, up close and personal. Armed with one of the poorest cameras ever made (Kodak Disc 3100, holla!) we paid our entrance fee and began the 226 step climb, straight up.

Here’s what I remember about those 226 steps straight up: Absolutely Nothing. Kate and I climbed them without a second thought, enjoyed the view at the top, snapped some terrible pictures, and then climbed back down. The End.

A few decades pass, and I find myself, miraculously, back in Waterloo, and at the foot of the Lion. I was kind of excited to be there, truth be told, armed as I now was with a Canon Powershot, plus an iPhone with a handy panorama feature. I could not only gaze on the corn/soy/battlefields, I could finally capture them in glorious color for posterity. I snapped one picture at the bottom of the steep steps, then commenced to climb.

Sadly, I discovered rather quickly that what I could do without a second thought in my early twenties, was beyond my regretfully out-of-shape capabilities in my (mumble)forties. The twinges in my knees began almost immediately, and by the time I got to step 125 they told me in no uncertain terms – they were done. I could have convinced them to power me through to the top, but back down again was another story altogether. I took a few shots from the midpoint, then began a careful descent.

I didn’t get to enjoy again the wonderful view of the place of Napoleon’s greatest defeat. I was denied the glorious panoramic shots I had wanted for years to capture. I had to do an embarrassing 180 degree turn on some steep steps, while elderly tourists shouldered past me headed straight to the top. And back on the motor coach, I got to hear all about the videos and Facebook check-ins of proud iPhone owners whose knees had been more agreeable to the climb. I had been defeated just like Napoleon! [Yes, that is utter hyperbole.] But! After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon spent the last six years of his life as a prisoner in exile, dying of stomach cancer or arsenic poisoning, depending on who you ask.

And I was driven in air-conditioned comfort to Brussels, where I enjoyed one of the finest waffles in the world.

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