The importance of water

Tags

, , , ,

Sometimes, living abroad and traveling a lot means it can be hard to meet up with friends. Especially when they also live abroad and travel a lot. Like my friend C. : when she is in BA I am in Belgium, I am in BA when she is in Spain, when I am in Belgium she is anywhere but. In between we are both trying to get it coordinated, but in vain. We don’t seem to be that good at timing.

So when she send me a message, as we say in Belgium, ‘between the soup and the potatoes’ (‘tussen de soep en de patatten’, between the 1st course and the main course, or when you really don’t have time to get into it), telling me she is in Belgium for just 5 days, I immediately answered that we should meet the next day, letting her choose time and place. She chose the most convenient and easiest solution : a renown and popular restaurant close to where she was staying. The Rubens in Knokke.

Her family, mine, friends ; we ended up being 10 and had a fantastic night together. So much to talk about and so much to catch up. My kids as well as well as hers are scattered around the world and she exchanged BA for Madrid…. The whole world but Belgium seemed to be the topic of the day. We didn’t even have time to notice the food : we all had a typical Belgian meal, either shrimp croquettes or mussels, not bad but not exceptionally good either.

It was but when we decided to get the dessert outdoors, an ice cream on the go, and asked for the bill, that we were put back with our feet into the Belgian ground. The bill was outrageous. When checking the details, -how on earth did we get to 50€ per person?- we saw the price of a bottle of water… our jaws dropped, we raised our eyebrows and stared at each other in disbelief. WHAT??!!

Isn’t water a primary right? Shouldn’t water be free? Why don’t the restaurants in Belgium offer the choice between bottled and tap water, like they do in our neighboring countries and in the US? Why didn’t we drink from the bottle of water one of the girls had in her handbag? These were all questions that came about. Unanswered. And useless.

One of us asked the waiter if she had not been mistaken. It can’t be that a bottle of water is 10€, can it? “Didn’t you make a mistake?”

And then came her answer. Our jaws dropped even more. “Well madam, you are in Knokke, you must pay for that!”

We were baffled.

We agreed to swallow our pride, take our loss, and blame only ourselves, because we were the foolish ones, getting ourselves robbed like that, by going to a mediocre place in a posh coast village, just because it was easy and convenient. It is again confirmed that nothing beats a good Belgian-Argentine Style Asado at home, with good Argentine wine, and liters, liters and liters of chilled tap water with some lime slices in it. Super delicious, cosy, relax, chill, and… cheap!

Alles voor het vaderland (tout pour la patrie)

Tags

, , , , ,

_KTI2609

It is our National holiday. 185 years ago our country was founded. All those long centuries before, the our surrounding nations have always tried to conquer our regions. We were wanted. We have been part of Spain, Austria, France, Holland and Germany (if we include the 2 last wars). Until our surrounding nations, including the UK, decided it was best to found a new country as a buffer between the rivaling big countries. They united 2 totally different people, the Flemish and the Walloons, and that was the beginning of the country called Belgium.

So it mustn’t surprise you that, on the national Belgian holidays, those that wear the Belgian national colors, are mostly tourists, maybe expats, and a lot of immigrants. (Thank God we have them).

_KTI2550

(one of the rare people wearing national colors)

Ok. That must be a small exaggeration. But well.

I was looking forward to the National Parade. Never ever had I seen it, and the mere mentioning that I would be going to friends and family made them roll their eyes. ‘Really?’ ‘You are going to see the ‘defilé’?’. But as I go and shoot every parade I know of in Buenos Aires (and there are many) I thought it was time I did something for my home country. I took the train to Brussels with my camera at hand. Tout pour La Patrie, alles voor het vaderland.

_KTI2650

Brussels is a small town, and to my surprise the festivities were concentrated in just a small part of the city. Streets full of French Fries (read : Belgian fries) boots and waffle stands. Dozens of them over a couple of 100 meters. Folklore music and activities passed through the main street, and then went back through the same, crossing and passing other groups, while the people just walked between them : it was totally disorganized. The bands had nothing of the sweeping Argentine drums that push up the adrenaline in Buenos Aires. Instead they played timidly. Carefully. Too controlled. They lacked passion. Fire. Energy.

_KTI2657

(momentary chaos)

The official ‘defilé’, or parade, was just around the park in front of the royal palace, the narrow sidewalk not giving enough space to half of the people present, so the streets to and from the park were over crowded and there was hardly any police to keep the people lined up. I found a good space, defending it with my life and only accepting a bunch of small kids excited to see it all, in front of me, but soon, and over and over again or rather, the whole time, overly rude people just came to stand in front of us. But that is when Argentine fury came onto me : to go in front of someone in line is probably one of the worst sins in Argentina and totally not done.

_KTI2731

The soldiers and para-commandos passed right in front of me, proud and disciplined. The marines, air force, one group after the other. They passed by quickly with long periods of waiting in between. Meanwhile and totally unexpected and unpredicted, the sun had come out and was blazing on our heads, turning everyone’s skin red in no time. Drops of sweat pearling on our faces. Soon I grew tired and had enough of the struggle and tried to find my way through the crowds and back to the train station.

_KTI2799

Belgians need to get some national pride, and a bit more passion about their country would do no harm either. Belgians are too modest and should see celebrations a lot grander… Says the expert. ;-)

Vive La Belgique, Lang Leve België.

_KTI2786

“I kiss her on the mouth…

Tags

, , , ,

no matter her stinking breath” (Stephan Vanfleteren about Charleroi) 

KTIM5251

It is a dark and gloomy day. One of those that are typically Belgian, although, ever since I got here -it already seems months it is just weeks- we have had none. A day we decided was ideal to visit my grandmothers city of birth. City of birth, although her real roots can’t be found there : apparently her parents just happened to be there when she was born.

Charleroi, an old cole mining city in the south of Belgium. In ‘those days’, it was the 3th richest area of Europe. Cole mines and heavy metal factories were so blooming that they had to import ‘hands’ from the Flanders, Italy, Spain and Greece. That was probably the only reason why my great grandparents were there before the first world war, and why my gran had ‘Dampremy’ on her birth certificate.

Since then it has changed a lot. The mines are closed, so have the factories. And apparently, for the last 50 years nothing significant has been done to restore economy, to re-school the unemployed, no reconversion at all, to bring life back to this deteriorating place.

To us, Flemish, Charleroi has a bad reputation : we see it as the example of all that is wrong in the southern part of our dear country. It is poor, dangerous, dark and gloomy, and corrupt (‘Palermo by the Samber‘). More then 1/4 of the population is unemployed, and has been for years. It is also known as ‘the ugliest city in the world’.

Charleroi is obviously not the most logical tourist destination. But we went anyway.

KTIM5253

Driving past the center towards the Musée de la Photography made us think, just for a minute or so, that it might not be that bad. Beautiful city villas and mini castles, dating from the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, one next to the other, not all in ruins, witness some of the prosperity the city once had. Only to be put back into reality by the photos of Stephan Vanfleteren -my favorite Belgian photographer- : Touching, dark, hurting and depressive at times, if not always. Confirming our expectations.

Stephan Vanfleteren has a way of getting to people on the edge of society, and to express what he sees in a different way then most photographers. Over the years, he has spend weeks, days, nights, wandering through the town, which he learned to love, meeting with its people. Although poor and unemployed, the Carolos (inhabitants of Charleroi) are extremely friendly and hospitable. And although the situation is still extremely bad, some changes and improvements seem to be coming. Slowly.

KTIM5255

But also the words in which he describes the city are as catchy as the images.

‘The unemployment numbers are shocking. Nowhere in Belgium the numbers are visually translated into reality. You see it in the streets, the houses, in the bars, the gambling houses… There is a name for it : degradation. You can not only read the misery off the streets, but off the peoples faces. The face of poverty is pale, gloomy, stupefied, it has broken teeth. In the past pneumoconiosis caused early death, today it is alcohol and nicotine that break the adult bodies.’

We had lunch in the center. It had started to drizzle, it was darker and gloomier still. Not the most glamorous way to see any city. It was crowded with people going to the Sunday market, lots of fruits, nicer and fuller then on the market in my town it seemed, and other food, plants, clothes… We didn’t stay long enough to feel the poverty and misery Stephan Vanfleteren found, but honestly, we weren’t really looking. I am no Vanfleteren wannabee, nor am I what we call a ‘disaster tourist’ (ramptourist), enjoying photographing other peoples misery and then quickly go home to forget all about it. I am glad to have seen the exhibition, and what better location could it have been than in the town that is its subject. It certainly is a place with potential, and I can only hope that the situation gradually improves, and thad one day, we can see Charleroi again in its full glory.

If you can’t make it to Charleroi (you should at least try), buy the book :

‘Charleroi, il est claire que le gris est noir, mais Charleroi sera blanc, un jour’, Stephan Vanfleteren. 

exhibition until dec 6, 2015

photos : one of the main square of Charleroi, in front of the ugly church, the others images of the exhibition. 

NB Charleroi is also known as ‘Brussels South’, the Ryan Air hub. It is 50 km from Brussels.

Lists

Tags

, , , , , ,

I think everyone has a list of places he or she wants to visit in his or her life. Historical places, see the land where your favorite tv show or movie was filmed, hear say : about everyone you know has been there and loved it. London Paris New York, New Zealand, Patagonia, Bora Bora… 
I am quite sure that Scotland figures high in many a list. It is a country rich in history : you could stay in the same place for days and visit castles around you, or travel around and see one every single day. Its nature, at least in the north, is mainly unspoiled and in a way it resembles some parts in Patagonia, but then without the sun and the wind. Several places have definitely been used in various movies. It is full of water, lochs or seas, so plenty of opportunity to do water sports. And if you enjoy some Scottish heritage that tastes good, there are plenty of whiskey distilleries to visit. 
If only the weather were a bit more cooperative, but then I would imagine it way too crowded to be fun. Many a time we told each other that this is probably a great place in summer, until we realized we actually are in summer. The wild landscapes go perfectly with low dark clouds and the sun coming out just occasionally, but it’s the lack of agreeable temperatures that withholds you from getting in a true summer spirit. Temperatures between 7 and 14C are more like Buenos Aires winter temperatures then what we expect in summer. On the over hand, days are so long it hardly gets dark at night, so however cloudy it is, you are sure to get enough light in a day. 
While Europe is suffering and sighing under a terrible heat wave, temperatures towards 40 and more, tennis players almost killing themselves on the main court in Wimbledon in 40 degrees, northern Scotland will get a mere 22 degrees. A perfect place for heat haters. 
But whatever the weather, Scotland is Scotland, and actually should be on everyone’s to do list. Lots to see, lots to do, good food, and great people (if only you understand what they say).

Although my biggest disappointment being not having seen any of the William-Lawson’s-whiskey-commercial men in quilts. Do they only exist in dreams? 😁
William Lawson’s whiskey commercial men in quilts

flatties

Put me in a luxurious beach hotel under a palm tree and I will die of boredom. Going on road trips is what I like. Especially with the family : nothing quite as intense and fun, as spending days in a row in a car with your kids. 

Of course being on the road for long hours does have it risks. Calculated risks, I suppose, but still risks. Traveling on gravel roads through Patagonia, for instance, requires 2 spare tires. You never know when your tire will run flat and you know even less when you will be able to get it fixed or replaced. We had 3 flat tires in 40 days. Apart from the expense of buying a new one, there is not much to it, it certainly makes you fluent in changing the wheel. 40 minutes the first time, less then 10 for the last. God knows how fast we would become the 4th or 5th time. 
But that was in Argentina, a country that is -after all- still a third world country. Patagonia even being cut off from the world. You can drive hours without seeing a living soul. No cell phone reception. Pure adventure. 
So we thought we’d try a road trip in the first world. First of all I had to plan every little detail in advance -so unlike me- but well, it had to be done : it’s almost an impossible task to find places to stay for 5 people in a country like Scotland. Some days our schedule is tight, because we just couldn’t find a place at the right distance. 
And then the inevitable happened. Flat tire. How fun that is in these cars of today that don’t come with spare tires. Instead, they come with a phone number. A number you must call when you run flat, a free service comes to help you out. First of all you need cell reception for that, which is on and off here in northern Scotland. Eventually we got hold of them, and the administration process could start. A calls B who then calls C to say that D will eventually come and tow the car, which will be brought to E and then be brought back to us more then 24h later. Twenty four hour later. Meanwhile, -4 hours after the tire ran flat- we are brought a replacement car, half the size of ours, where the 5 of us or stowed in together with som of our luggage, so we can get to our B&B we have booked for tonight.  
Living in a third world country teaches you to be patient. Patience you need when you run flat in the first world. A flat tire. What a terrible waste of time!

Coincidence

Tags

, , , , ,

Finally.

The Belgians are very patient people. For days, for weeks even, the weatherman has been promising summer temperatures (whatever is above 22°C), which -the same weatherman- has been postponing and canceling, time after time. Some Belgians don’t mind the cold, and with average temperature of 13,2°C in May, they wore summer clothes anyway, (light short dress or shorts, bare legs, sandals), after all, it is spring, isn’t it? Only looking at them caused me to get goosebumps. Many others were just like me wearing layers of warm clothes and boots, just patiently waiting until the weatherman finally stood by his promise and gave us some heat.

To the Belgian, the ultimate summer experience is sitting on a terrace, having a drink with friends, dinner even, much more even then let’s say, a dip in the pool, or a day at the beach. As soon as the sun comes out, and even before the earth heats up, all of us are pulled towards the ‘terraces’. Each restaurant and bar that has the slightest possibility to put some chairs and tables out, does so. Many of them even put heaters to attract early courages people in, or rather, out. Some hand out blankets.

We call it ‘terrasjesweer’ (terrace weather) and we even have a verb for it ‘een terrasje doen’ (to do a terrace).

Today is real terrasjesweer, for the first time this year. It must be around 30°C. Just for the day. Thunderclouds are supposed to be packing above us in an hour or so. And exactly today, one of the major Belgian newspapers De Morgen, publishes an article ‘the 19 best terraces in Belgium’. Of course this isn’t a coincidence. They probably had this article ready since Easter.

But just check out number 16 on the list. Well isn’t that ’t Oud Gemeentehuis? Isn’t that where you can see my #urbancars collection? There is no room for coincidence here. This is just great. So please have a good look around when you enter the restaurant and enjoy it all, the summer weather, the terrace and especially the photos!

Article in De Morgen, restaurants’s website, the #urbancar collection

It’s an ill Wind

Tags

, , , , ,

In Argentina they have a thing called the “Piqueteros”. Wikipedia defines it as : ‘The word piquetero is a neologism in the Spanish of Argentina. It comes from piquete (in English, “picket”), that is, its specific meaning as a standing or walking demonstration of protest in a significant spot.’
In Buenos Aires they are famous (or rather, infamous) because whenever you have to cross town you might come across them, personally or in the shape of huge traffic problems. Mostly it doesn’t seem to make much sense : most people don’t have a clue why the workers actually go on the street, chanting, waving with flags and beating the drums, against what exactly they are protesting. But mostly Porteños, or Argentines in general, think they are the only people in the world suffering from pointless protesting that only annoys people that have nothing to do with it.

Not! Tomorrow, for the 7th time this year (seventh) (and yes, the year is not even 5 months old), the Belgian train conductors are going on strike, again. Hundred thousands of passengers will not get to work or will take the car (which will cause huge road saturations, traffic jams even longer then usual), students do not reach school, etc. Nobody knows why. Usually strikers in Belgium spend the day at home, an extra -paid- day off always comes in handy, and can not count on a lot of sympathy. In this case, apart from the NMBS (the train company) it are mostly just the many people that take trains daily who are the victims.

Or people that occasionally take the train, like when they are going on a holiday and their flight leaves around rush hour, like, let’s say, our daugther. Impossible to get to the airport on time by car. 1 hour easily becomes 2 and if you are unlucky you are stuck in traffic for 3 hours and arrive just in time at the airport to see your plane take off before you. On a normal day. How will it be on a strike day? Thanks to this particular strike we will be getting up at an ungodly hour to drive her to Brussels and be in time.

For in time she must be, if you know what has happened in Belgium today. Hundreds of flights to and from whatever airport in Belgium were canceled, because the Belgian air traffic control Belgocontrol, had a power cut, a power cut, that lasted all day! For a whole day not one plane (except the ones flying at a very high altitude) could fly over this little country. Imagine the amounts of detours made, the amount of people being ‘shipped’ to Belgium from neighboring countries by bus, the trip by bus taking twice as long as the original flight time. Imagine the people waiting to be rebooked on next -already full- flights. Imagine the delays on flights that had nothing to do with Belgium in the first place, except that they had to cross/fly over it. It will take days until things are back to normal, until everyone is on the spot where they should have been now.

But as long as my daughter reaches her destination tomorrow, which I am confident she will, the only damage done to me, is that I can take over long sold-out theatre tickets of a friend who got stranded in Spain because of this power cut. She was supposed to be home today, bus has been rebooked on a flight on Saturday (that is, in 3 days!). Thanks to the Belgocontrol incompetence (what else can it be?) we will enjoy a good night’s out…

It’s an ill wind that blows no good.

Thanks!

(ps Kathy, I hope you get home soon!)

E.U. avant la lettre

Tags

, , , , ,

Long before (almost) all the European countries united in the European Community, now known as European Union (E.U.), the Europeans had this one yearly event that united them more then ever. The Eurovision song contest. It all began at the beginning of international broadcasting, (1956) which nowadays seems as natural as rain that falls. In those days TV was still something, and broadcasting over the boarders seemed like science fiction. Many people probably still remember the first European Eurovision Contest. For me, this contest has always existed. As far back as I can think, I was allowed to stay up late and watch. It was a big feast : it was the only night I could stay up late, and very often I could invite a friend to sleep over so we could pretend we were voting from out of our sofa.

In those days the singers had to sing in their native language, there was a big orchestra, everyone had to bring their ‘conductor’ who even got a seperate applause, and there was also a limit in people that could go on stage, which meant there was no room for dancers and complicated choreography. And it was prohibited to play the music on the radio beforehand. Whatever you saw and heard, you heard it for the first time.

But then the Iron Wall fell down and all the Eastern European countries and even Russia started to participate, and everything changed. First of all it became necessary to split up the contest in semi finals and finals, because there were just too many countries (40 this year). Ever since that day Belgium only got through the semi’s twice. Well, even before that day Belgium did not exactly have a history of winning or sending in strong candidates, usually one of the bets we made was if we would end last, or one but last, but at least we knew we were participating.

Where as the contest usually had the same typical quite boring ‘Eurovision-songcontest-style’ -say Abba, Celine Dion, Johnny Logan…- with the coming of the Eastern European countries the style has become very bombastic and theatrical. The more shocking, the more provocative, the better, it seems. Participants can now sing in whatever language they chose, which usually means English as that language sells better. The orchestra has been exchanged for recorded music, the stage is bigger and more impressive then ever, which makes the performers seem to disappear in the total extravagance.

The ‘European boarders’ do seem to have expanded over the years. Israel has been participating for years, Azerbaijan is a member, and this year even Australia will be participating.

We used to record the songs on tape, and listened to it for weeks afterwards. I remember my aunt having the full collection as a piece of pride in her cupboard. Very often we bought the winning single. But now the whole show seems too big, too commercial, too many countries I don’t even know, too much of everything, that I am not even sure if I will watch.

But one is certain, tonight I will not bet that Belgium will end up last. Loic Nottet, the 19 year old Walloon, who ended 2nd in The Voice 2014, will certainly not embarrass us.

Go Belgium Go!

The Oldest House in Town

Tags

, , , ,

KTIM4910

I am told that there has been a lot to do about the oldest house in Antwerp, also known as the city hall. Living abroad means I usually miss out on this kind of news, so when I am visiting I totally rely on friends and family to get me updated.

This year Antwerp is celebrating the 450th birthday of the city hall, which is already ‘dressed up’ with 67 flags, and they intend to fully take advantage of the opportunity to organize exceptional tours, visits, and a small exhibition. If you are lucky, Bart De Wever, the mayor himself, who seems to be passionate about history -after all, he has got a history degree- and even more so about his town and its town hall, might be the one guiding you.

The exhibition shows the history of the town hall, with interesting video messages telling different aspects of history, the work of the mayor, how the town council worked etc, and there is also a lot of information about the restorations.

The city hall was inaugurated in 1565 after some financial troubles in financing the construction, only to be burned in 1570 by the Spanish Soldiers, a fire that destroyed the interior and the roof. Only 2 years later they started the reconstruction.

Even though the a guided visit should definitely be on your to do list, tours are fully booked until mid October 2015, although I am told that during the period of the festivities (until february 2016), you can have an unguided visit to the city hall in weekends. For all those far away or not able to get a ticket, you can always console yourself by taking this virtual tour in the City Hall, although this might make you feel bad for missing it.

But if you have no ambition to get inside, you should come to the Grote Markt to admire the outsides where, from June 4 until June 13, the area will change into an oasis of green, when the ‘flower power’ takes over. A flower carpet will be put into place, which can be visited from the 4th onto the 13th, the last will be harvest day, the day you can take some of the flowers home.

tickets for the guided tours, festivities end in February 2016

Folklore Junkie

Tags

, , , , , ,

_KTI1257

Where ever in the world I am I look up Folklore,  but when in Belgium it seems folklore has to come to me. I always seemed to think that there was no such thing as folklore left in this country. And although I had heard of the Procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges, it had always seemed too far off and inaccessible. Until my friend took me to Bruges today.

_KTI1250

It is the count of the Flanders, Diederick van den Elzas, who brought a crystal flask containing Christ’s’ blood from Jerusalem in 1150. The first known Procession dates back from 1304, the oldest known program booklet dates from 1722, and in 2009 the Procession of the Holy Blood became UNESCO Cultural Immaterial Heritage. About 1700 people participate in this big parade through town. Most participants participate every year, some characters go from father to son to grandson. Some groups are so traditional that it is difficult to get in. But there are also ‘new’ participants, schools help out, youth clubs, all volunteers, and for many this is the event of the year.

_KTI1261

Also city officials and church representatives are present. The procession shows scenes of history of the city, and religious and biblical scenes. It all has a very medieval touch and style, costumes from that era, wagons pulled by the big beautiful Flemish horses, only the spectators are from today.

_KTI1270

Not that I saw all this in person. After checking out how they were all getting ready in a big hall, putting on their beautiful, perfect costumes, some ready to go and having a beer while waiting, others still on the big catwalk-style stage to get a thick layer of make up, or waiting in line to get the final approval before the processions starts. A lot of old people but as many young and even small kids. Boys and girls. Sheep, horses and camels. It promised to be a perfectly organized magnificent folklore show that parades through out the city of Bruges.

_KTI1267

I was so ready, so I went back into the street looking for the perfect chair that would give me the perfect view on the coming -perfect- procession. Guarded with camera, raincoat and even an umbrella -you never know in Belgium- I finally sat down waiting while the crowds were arriving and taking their seats. It started ; a typical Belgian style fanfare came from the opposite direction, on its way to pick up the beginning of the procession, when just before my eyes, they were stopped by a police car, literally 5 minutes before the due start time, telling the people through a microphone that the Procession was canceled due to bad weather, and there would be no refund of the tickets (the 5€ you had to pay to sit down, or the more expensive places on the tribunes).

_KTI1274

Disappointment was big. Lots of people just held on to their paid chair, long after every one else had started to move. Last time it got canceled was in 1997 and it all seemed so surreal! I started walking around town, looking for the Holy Blood, which surely was going to be brought back to the chapel, when I was told that the expense of drying the whigs and costumes is so high, that they can’t and do not want to risk getting wet. The whole Procession is now postponed to … next year.

_KTI1283

beat queens

hold on to your paid chairs

_KTI1291

_KTI1288 _KTI1296

The Procesion of the Holy Blood takes place on Ascencion Day in the city of Bruges. Put it in your agenda check out their website for details. The best way to get there is by train. You can pay for a ticket on the tribunes, or just pay a few euros for a chair on the sidewalks, or stay standing. The Procesion takes 1:30h. Canceled when raining.

_KTI1312

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 460 other followers