Finding My Roots in Wallonia

Well, we have safely arrived in the Hague, The Netherlands. We have gotten behind on our blogging because we were celebrating our anniversary in Bruges. Lauran is going to blog about that amazing experience later. I am going to talk about the day before our anniversary when we took a brief trek to Wallonia to visit the hometown of one of my Heraly ancestors.

My great-great-great-grandfather, Jean Joseph Heraly, was born in Corroy Le Grand, Belgium. His family emigrated to America in the mid-1800's. I am not sure why they came or why my other Belgian ancestors came around the same time. Corroy Le Grand is a tiny farming village about 30 miles to the southeast of Brussels. Nearby is a university town built in the 1960's called Louvain-la-Neuve. We weren't sure how we were going to get there, but we knew we could take a train to Louvain.

We were surprised by Louvain. It was built because the oldest Catholic university in the world is in Leuven, a town of mixed Flemish and Walloon heritage. Belgium is kind of like two separate countries, but the areas around Brussels often have a strange mix of the two. In the 60s, the university had a huge split over the language of instruction, and the Walloons decided to start a completely new town and take part of the university with them so that all the classes could be taught in their language, French.

The town was built as a pedestrian only city. All the roads go underneath the city. It is built like a giant outdoor mall above the ground, kind of like a less futuristic version of the Jetsons. You park or take a bus or train, and then take stairs up into the town. It is just as strange as it sounds. The town looks like a giant shopping plaza made out of reddish-brown brick. People live in what look like dorms with shops and cafes on the bottom floor. They must walk or bike from place to place because their cars (if they have them) are parked in some garage below. It was a strange and unique experience to say the least.

When we got off the train, we saw a tourist office. The woman their was very helpful. She gave us a map and told us how to get to the bus station. She was not sure how the buses would run that day, but she found a line that went to Corroy Le Grand. We had some time to kill, so we ate lunch at a waffle place. We had waffle sandwiches (a uniquely Belgian cuisine I am sure). They were very tasty. Finally, we caught the bus to Corroy Le Grand.

Corroy Le Grand is still a small farming village, just updated and now with more commuters who drive nice cars and live in nice homes. The countryside bears a striking resemblance to the part of Wisconsin where my ancestors eventually settled. It is also filled with dairy farms and barley fields. We also noticed that Belgians are fond of taverns (places where you can get a beer but also a pretty good meal if you like). This is interesting because my grandparents ran a tavern for several years, and the small towns in Wisconsin are full of them.

The bus dropped us off right next to a small dairy farm at the bottom of the hill the town is on. The familiar smell of dairy farm greeted us, and I laughed and told Lauran, "It even smells like Wisconsin." The village was beautiful. There were old brick homes with beautiful gardens, probably not much left from the days of my ancestors except for a few stone paved streets and perhaps the Catholic church at the top of the hill. We walked through the whole village in thirty minutes or so. The rolling hills full of fields of crops, the spotted dairy cows, and the lone Catholic church all reminded me of the town in Wisconsin where most of my family lives. One of the main streets was called Rue Eglise ("Church Street" in English), and my grandparents now live on Church Street, one of the two main roads in their town.

It was a really incredible experience. I walked on the same streets my ancestors walked before they came to America. I saw the connections between the Old World and the New. I experienced my heritage in a really unique way. It was a real privilege. It took a bit of ingenuity and traveling savvy on the part of Lauran and I, and it took a lot of patience, but it all paid off to be able to connect our European travels to my own family history. It gave a greater significance to the rest of our time in Belgium, knowing that even though I am far from my home, there is something of home here too.

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