Monthly Archives: October 2013

La Vendange

photopatrimoine.over-blog.com

photopatrimoine.over-blog.com

After a wet morning of picking coffee in a natty outer garment formed from two black bin bags I came back to the house and caught up on the blogs I follow…then fell on a post from Janice about the vendange in her area of France.
In an instant the red cherries of coffee high on their wands were replaced in my mind for the dusty purple grapes along the low wires in the vineyards I’d known so well.

I picked grapes with friends and neighbours all the years I was in France, with only a couple of gaps due to illness.
I have no experience whatsoever of picking on the industrial scale, so cannot comment, but the small scale job gave me a lot of pleasure.
For one thing, it was usually only one day, or one and a half and then perhaps another couple of days later, so it was hardly demanding in terms of time, the weather was usually good and the company excellent.

Papy’s middle son Jean asked me if I would help the first year….Mamie usually helped, but she was getting past it and needed to rest and another pair of hands would be welcome.

Now, this was the unscientific age of winemaking, wild yeast on the grapes, no idea of temperature control and the desired result a pink wine a bit on the sweet side to keep the family going through the year.
Accordingly, it was not necessary to stumble out in the dark before the dawn to take advantage of the coolest part of the day…we ventured forth in the afternoon, when the housework and the farmwork had been dealt with and the sun was approaching its’ zenith. It promised to be warm work, and it was.

Jean organised us.
Each person had a wide bucket and a pair of secateurs – so small that I found them difficult to handle and in future brought my own big gardening ones which were more suited to my paws.
I was put with Jean’s wife, to see that I knew what to do; we were assigned our rows of vines and off we went.
The object was to pick the triangular bunches of ripe grapes and, at all costs, not to include the round balls of immature ones, the secondary growths that an all too casual pruning had allowed to develop.
If they went in, the wine would be too acidic.

Most people squatted or crouched, but I found my best method was to shuffle along on my knees hoping not to encounter too many thistles or nettles…it must be a height question, or a lack of attendance at yoga classes on my part. Supple I have never been.
The technique was to place the bucket under the bunches you were picking so that they dropped neatly within and the challenge was to miss no bunch, while being aware that another pair of secateurs was at work on the other side of the plant and your fingers were in imminent peril.

We moved along and I was pleased that I could keep up with the others and not miss anything…Papy inspected each row, with crows of triumph if he found a bunch still hanging on the vine.
Conversation was brisk, the gosssip was hair raising and I was quite surprised to find how quickly the buckets were filled and taken to the trailer sitting behind Papy’s tractor at the edge of the field.
The women were grumbling that there should be someone in charge of the buckets to save them from having to get up and down and then stretch up to the trailer, so Papy was given additional duties which put a swift end to his inspection and crowings….he was too busy coming and going, his pickers keeping him busy.

The first third of the vines had been cleared when Jean called a break.
Papy, the man of the moment, was prepared.
He had the mustard glasses ready….the ones that you buy which contain mustard and then can use for drinking ever afterwards…and the bottles were brought from the bucket which had been hanging in the well….that cool, soft pink wine went down very well the first time – and the second!

Papy went off with the tractor and trailor down to the press but for us it was back to work on the rest of the vines and the afternoon began to turn into evening by the time we had taken our second break and were on the last stretch.

Papy had taken another load, and this was the last, so we all trailed after him down to the house to wash our buckets and secateurs under the tap in the yard, stacking them to dry and then washing our sticky and stained hands.

The modern – well, reasonably so – press was full and in action, a long cylinder which acted a bit like a syringe…the plate at the end pushing inexorably forward, but gently enough not to start breaking the pips, which would add a bitterness which was not desired, squeezing the juice out through the pipe at the far end into an underground concrete tank where fermentation would take place.

The last of the harvest had to go in the old press, a round wooden structure with a central screw where the levels were adjusted with wooden blocks, a long metal pole turned the screw and the juice poured between the slats onto the platform of the press, thence to buckets placed underneath.

We were all heading for home when Mamie appeared from the doorway of the house.
‘Don’t forget….we’re all eating down at Jean’s tonight….I always used to do it, but I’m just getting too old.’
It appeared that I was invited to supper, and, checking with Jean’s wife, who seemed remarkably cool for someone about to entertain the multitudes, that was indeed the case.
‘Should I bring anything?’
‘Oh….well, one of your salads would be nice. Jean liked that.’

I hared home, scrubbed my hands with bleach and tried to wash and change while racking my brains to remember what it was I had served when Papy’s family had last come to supper and, worse, wondering if I had the ingredients in the house.
It occurred to me that it would probably have been my standby…..tinned chickpeas, red beans and flageolet beans, combined with diced onion, black olives and parsley with a good slosh of green and tasty olive oil. Store cupboard stuff.
I put it together and included the batch of pork pies I had made the day before for good measure and was ready at the gate when Papy hoooted to take me down to the village in his old Renault van.
He and Mamie sat in the front and the rest of us crouched in the back with our various offerings, swaying in unison on the corners and combining to keep Papy’s dog from pushing his nose into the dishes.

The tables had been set in the courtyard of Jean’s house, lit by those bamboo outside lights that flare and cast shadows at their own sweet will, and the women were already setting out the dishes they had provided.
The whole thing was a glorious buffet, home made pate, rillettes, rillons, ham and charcuterie, salads, bread and cheese and, of course, wine.

We ate, we talked, we drank, and, eventually, we sang.

My best memory of that long day is the quiet courtyard with the tenor voice of Pierre soaring into the shadows and the warm full response of the chorus as we sang

‘A la claire fontaine.’

32 Comments

Filed under blogging, culture, expat, france, French wine, wine

Becoming an Expat…Costa Rica

BECR eReader coverWe first came to Costa Rica almost by chance…

It was a foul winter in rural France, the cold just seemed to go on and on and we wanted a break. More than a fortnight.
Friends agreed to house sit and we looked for a destination.

In his working life my husband had travelled widely…but apart from a promotional trip to Miami on Concorde had never visited any of the Americas.
So the Americas it was…the warmer bits thereof.

He had also been worrying for some time about climate change as it affected us in France.
When we were first there you could almost always have Christmas Day lunch outside in a sheltered garden…by the time we were looking for a holiday destination you’d have needed six layers of thermals and a death wish to have attempted anything of the sort.
The summers were rainy and dull, too and there were bursts of extreme weather, both hot and cold.
We needed to explore other options.
He had been thinking about it and came up with the idea that the tropics at altitude would see the least change….so that again narrowed the field of destinations.

So not just a holiday….a recce.

This changed the focus…not just a break somewhere warm…but somewhere we might think about living.
On to the internet to check out residence requirements and, most importantly, affordable and adequate health provision.

I fancied Uraguay…not tropical enough.
Ecuador? Costa Rica?

The flights to Costa Rica were decidedly cheaper….so that’s where we went.
We came, we saw and were conquered.
We bought a house in the country to escape the winters in France and, over time, decided to make the permanent move.

We did our research ‘on the hoof’….but the book whose cover features at the top of the page would have saved us a lot of legwork….and here’s my review of it.

Becoming an Expat in Costa Rica by Shannon Enete

I really rate this book for anyone contemplating a move to this country.
It is chiefly aimed at the U.S. would-be expat – you’ll note this in particular in the sections on tax and education – but the major part of the content has value for everyone.

It covers the usual path…residency, rent or buy, description of various areas of the country, but also takes you through the bus or car decision, the health options and how to move without tearing out your hair.
It is detailed…it lays things out for you.

It gives the author’s personal views, interviews with settled expats and well researched background material and for me it rings true to the Costa Rica I know.

Are there things I would suggest?
Yes, one or two….

Not all Ticos are ‘Angels’ – though a lot of them are: there can be Tico and Gringo prices where these are not clearly marked, and, if you’re buying property or doing a deal out in the sticks, there is the international phenomenon whereby a countryman thinks that if you don’t speak his language or patois you are an idiot and can have the wool pulled over your eyes.
Some can be quite annoyed when you can’t…..

A warning about not trusting someone from your own country just because he or she speaks your language might have been apposite too….the unscrupulous and exploitative expat is also an international phenomenon.

I would have liked a section on San Jose itself….but I’m prejudiced – I love the city and it has some wonderful places to live as well as to visit.

Yes, Costa Rica has greedy politicans intent on running the country into the ground…but tell me where hasn’t!
It is still a good place to live, and this book would be a great help in making up your mind whether it would be for you.

The book is available from Shannon’s own website

http://www.becominganexpat.com/%23!costa-rica/cxbx…

She tells me that Amazon have a wait of between 1 to 3 weeks….or by order from Barnes N’Nobles,and is also available in Kindle, Nook and iBook editions.

27 Comments

Filed under Costa Rica, cultural differences, culture, expat, immigrants, integration, tropics

Victor…A Word…

john-piper-mosnac-dordogne.jpgOn a wet afternoon in western France a gendarmerie van pulls into the farmyard…its sole occupant gets out shouting

Hoy, Victor! A word!

Hello Jean-Yves! What brings you here? I’m in the barn…just a minute while I shut the doors and we’ll have a drink…

No, don’t shut the doors, Victor….it’s about what you’ve got in that barn that I’ve come about.

On your own, I see.

Yes, I’m trying to do you a good turn….let me see what you’ve got there. Yes, just as I thought!
Victor, you’ll have to get rid of it…put it back where you found it…and quickly.
There’s all hell to pay.
Everyone’s out looking for it and they’ve even taken us off speed traps and breathalysers.

Must be serious then!

Yes, it is!
Apart from you having stolen property in your barn…what the blazes do you want with a bulldozer that size? You haven’t got enough land to make it worthwhile – and how did you get it here from the new bypass anyway?

Ah! Typical!
Us farmers are getting robbed all ways…..diesel syphoned off, animals killed in our own fields, tools stolen, irrigation pipes nicked – even whole crops gone!
Look at that poor guy who had his whole field of garlic nicked….and the forty hectares of grapes that went missing overnight….not to speak of combine harvesters vanishing into thin air!
And where are the Gendarmerie? Breathalysing some poor sod who’s been out drowning his sorrows!

Well it’s not my fault….only a few more years to the pension, thank goodness.
It’s not what I joined for I can tell you…

No, I know Jean-Yves.
When you started there were still bars in your stations – and you were a hell of a lot nicer for it! I reckon that the rot started when they closed down them down.
You turned nasty about then…applying the law to people you knew…
Still, what I mean is that us farmers can have our stuff nicked left, right and centre…but let some big roadworks contractor miss his bulldozer – you’d think he’d got enough, wouldn’t you? – you’re all on red alert!
No wonder we’ll all be voting Le Pen in the elections!

That’s as maybe…but I can tell you that a big firm like Crapule gets a lot more attention in high places than you lot. Might be different if you were cereal boys…in the big league…but you’re not!
The firm thought the ‘dozer had been whipped off to Germany….like a lot of other stuff. You boys are lucky you’re not nearer the frontier.

Clever buggers, the Germans.

What do you mean?

Well, they worked out they didn’t have to have a war to get what they wanted this time….they thought up the E.U.
See, in the war they had to go round requisitioning…this way government – our government – does it for them.
They get cheap veg and flog expensive cars.
Bit like Vichy, really, but more efficient. Very hot on efficiency the Germans…

Come off it Victor! You’re not telling me the Germans are using the E.U. to nick combine harvesters and fields of garlic…

No, but they run the show, don’t they! Remember when Hollande got in and what he was going to say to Merkel?
Turned out to be ‘Jawohl’, didn’t it…
No, the E.U. lets these crooks from Transylvania in and they nick the stuff, take it to Germany and the Germans get it on the cheap…
Clever buggers, like I said.

Never mind all that! You’ll have to get it back there…or dump it somewhere…and sharpish!

Well, we’ve finished with it now anyway, so I’ll get Laurent to run it into Ste. Conasse tonight, dump it round the back where it’s dark. Just make sure you’re not out breathalysing between here and there.

No, all right…but who is ‘we’? You and Laurent?

No! There’s me, of course, and Jean-Antoine and Popaul…here, you’re not taking notes!

No, just interested to know what’s going on. That’s what policing used to be about…
So what the blazes were you three geriatrics up to? Put together you don’t have enough land to make that ‘dozer worthwhile…

That’s where you’re wrong!
It’s the eco tax…you know, the one on lorries that comes in in January. Going to be taxed by the lorry…tollgates going up all over the main roads…
Gerard over at the roads department in Benitierville put us wise! There’s going to be one between us and the abattoir! It’s only down the road…but we’ll have to pay as if we’d been coming from Normandy!

Well you weren’t thinking of using the ‘dozer to knock the tollgate down, were you?

No! We might be old but we’re not stupid!
We had a word with Olivier down at the abattoir and he reckons that we can get in on the back road from St. Ragondin round by les Deux Biscouilles without any problem.

But how are you going to get to St. Ragondin? You’ve still got the main road to deal with.

Ah. that’s why we wanted the bulldozer.
We’ve made a road across our fields to link up with the footpath that brings us out just this side of the village….where the old railway line used to be. A bit of hardcore in bad weather and we’re sorted.
So they can stuff their tollgate…we won’t be paying!
Eco this, eco that….just another word for tax!
It’s bad enough with their blasted windmills…electricity bill up through the roof…but a tax on going a few kilometres is a step too far!

Well, just get rid of it Victor…tonight! You don’t want anyone else knowing you’ve got it…the adjutant is up the wall!

Hang on a minute, how did you know to come round here?

Well, it couldn’t have been the manouches….they were having a face off with our boys with chainsaws at the campsite that night…..so the only other alternative was a totally irresponsible idiot…and that’s when I thought of you!

That evening, at the gendarmerie station, the adjutant answers the ‘phone.

Here, says a voice, I reckon you should know….

Know what?

Well, that windfarm at the back of Ste. Conasse…someone’s driven a bulldozer in there and there’s a hell of a mess….metal all over the place and the gyppos are carting it off by the truckload…….

The illustration is ‘Mosnac, Dordogne’ by John Piper.

22 Comments

Filed under ecology, Europe, French farmers, police, tax

Should This Woman Be Put Down?

trip 075 This is my mother at Southampton airport on her way to celebrate her 97th birthday in Spain….the which she did…in style. Thank you, Maggie and Adrian.

She hasn’t changed a great deal since this photograph was taken a few weeks ago…….so does she look to you as though she should be put down?

When she had a hip replacement operation at 95 and a knee replacement at 96 her surgeon certainly did not think so…he told her she would be good for another ten years: but a more junior medic clearly did not agree.

Mother asked for a house call recently as she had a heavy chest cold and did not feel up to going to the surgery in the miserable weather to see whether or not it was an infection of some sort.
There was no problem with obtaining the house call – her G.P.’s surgery is well organised – but there certainly was with the result.

Mother and her friends have a mutual assistance agreement.
If they have a doctor calling one of them, another of their number is with the patient… not that they are expecting anything in the nature of a cross between Carry On Doctor and The News of The World – as they say, chance would be a fine thing at their age – but they think that two heads are better than one when remembering a doctor’s recommendations, so when the young female doctor arrived, mother’s friend Adolpha was in attendance.
Which is how I know what happened.

After the usual pleasantries, the doctor examined mother, looked at her notes and prescribed a diuretic which mother refused: there was some civilised discussion about mother’s blood pressure and then the doctor said that while she was there she would take the opportunity to update mother’s notes.
Just a routine matter, nothing to worry about.

‘In the event that you have to be taken to hospital in an emergency, would you like to indicate now if you would prefer not to be resuscitated?’

Silence in the room for a moment….then

‘If you want to kill me you’ll have to shoot me first.’

I first heard of this from Adolpha, full of rage and fury and was struck by something she said.

‘What did this young madam see; an old woman living on her own feeling miserable with a rotten cold and she has the cheek to even think that her life isn’t worth living.
I wouldn’t mind betting if she’d seen her in the villa in Spain, enjoying her holiday, the thought wouldn’t even have ocurred to her!’

I heard it from mother too. Her initial fury subsided, she was sad and downcast that the question had been posed.

‘I suppose she thinks that I’m on my own…you live the other side of the world…there’s no one here…they can do what they like.’

Then, angry again,
‘If they want to be rid of us let us have a dose of morphine to do it ourselves, not to be tortured to death without food or water!’

She and her friends, all people with their wits about them, hold the local general hospital in fear and loathing.

‘But you had both your ops there and nothing could have gone better…’

‘Yes, it’s all right if you go in for something like that….where they know it’s for a limited time and then you’re out into rehab……but you don’t want to be taken there helpless if you’re old…’

A gentleman living down the road from mother was taken ill and came to himself as he was being loaded into an ambulance. He fought his way out of it, terrified that he was being taken to die.

There is clearly something terribly wrong where such a lack of confidence exists and I don’t see much sign of the hospital concerned doing anything to allay the concerns of the elderly in its zone; especially those living alone who don’t have a family member close by.

Mother may not be able to get about as once she did…her eyesight is not what it was…but she enjoys her food, her music…and the sport on television.
If you want a re run of Krakatoa exloding just ring mother when the Hennessy Gold Cup is on the box….

She has cleared all her clutter – to save me doing it after her death; she has just what she needs and wants to stay independent and she very much resents anyone even asking the resuscitation question.

She doesn’t want to be kept alive if the obvious outcome is life as a vegetable…but she wants a doctor to assess the situation on the facts…not to use a consent to non resuscitation form to bump her off just because she is old.

40 Comments

Filed under health, old age

To Market, to Market….

busescostarica.blogspot.comUnder normal circumstances we take the bus to San Jose….it’s a lot cheaper than taking the car and it doesn’t get lost, despite the best efforts of traffic policemen, accidents and roadworks to divert it from its destination…like the bomber, the Comtrasuli bus will always get through.

It’s a good service, in clean modern buses, although whatever the age of the bus there are always those signs of religious observance which strike the eye of an anglophone protestant….Jesus bearing a crown of thorns hovers over the entrance; you are informed that He is Lord; His mother is asked to pray for you and some buses even bear the information that one is travelling the same road as Jesus and if one does not return to base it is because one has followed Him.

Whether this has any relation to a new notice behind the driver’s cabin on all buses I am not at all sure.
This one asks passengers to observe the driver and, should he use a mobile ‘phone when at the wheel, they are to take a photograph and denounce him to the bus company.
Perhaps Comtrasuli are worried that the Almighty, omnipotent as He is, will use technology to summon the driver to His bosom and, more to the point, that he’ll take the bus with him.

Taking the car is an altogether trickier operation.
The diesel costs a lot more than a bus fare….which is about 85p per passenger….and The Men are driving and navigating.

Leo – navigator – is used to London driving where you are either quick or dead.
Danilo – driver – has no direction bump.
The combination makes for an interesting ride for the passenger – me.

The whole thing is further complicated by a collapse on the capital’s ring road which has turned the rush hour into the plural at both ends of the day and has led to roads unfit for major traffic being pressed into service.

First port of call is a major clinic, the Moreno Canas, where Leo has an appointment.
With shrieks of ‘Go, go go!’ from the navigator at the Sabana Park interchange The Men manage to get themselves onto Avenida 10 and we crawl past the concrete fortress of the Municipalidad – the town hall – its forecourt sporting a pink cow which was left behind when the Cow Parade hit town.
It also has fairy lights in a tree – perpetually Christmas for our worthy administrators.
Then past the Mercado Mayoreo – the city’s official wholesale fruit and veg market – though much better bargains are to be found up at the Mercado Borbon – where, The Men permitting, I intend to do some shopping later.

panoramio.com

panoramio.com

Past more traffic lights and we are alongside the cemetery – or cemeteries: first the Cementerio Obrero, the cemetery for the poorer classes – the workers

cemetery general sj

and then alongside it the Cementerio General, where the better off lie under a gallimaufry of urns, spires, domes and angels…but both places of rest are protected by razor wire and have police in attendance to deter theft, which is endemic in Costa Rica since the drugs trade began to regard the countries of Central America not just as being in transit for drugs on their way from Columbia to the U.S.A. but as new markets in their own right.

Turning right…and squeezing past a lorry which has come to a halt across the junction…we head for the clinic through a depressed area of the city…roadside garages, broken down pavements…and past the waterworks to the clinic entrance. Cars parked in every roadside bay and taxis double parked beside them.
Leo gathers his papers and heads for his appointment. Danilo and I head for the shops.

Swinging back right handed up between the cemetery and the waterworks – what a combination, I think – with the Numar factory behind us, souce of the palm oil cooking fat which fuels Costa Rica’s kitchens, we turn once more onto Avenida 10, squeeze past the lorry again and we’re off on the four lane downhill slalom past the Raul Blanco Cervantes geriatric hospital on the hunt for the shop which carries the best value for money house cleaning products that I know.
We have the car and we’re stocking up.

panoramio.com

panoramio.com

Well, we will be, when we get there.
We have to get to Avenida 6 and thanks to the one way system that means a left turn and then another…but how far to go before we turn?

At the garage – the bomba?
No, at least another block….yes, by the Castillana…
Are you sure?
No, but we can always go round again..
Yes, look, there’s the.Chinese tat shop. Go straight on another block and then left again.

Yes, we’re on the right road. There’s the dubious looking discotheque and the butcher advertising meat from a nearly virgin cow; but we’re stuck in traffic.
Avenida 6 serves as roadside terminal for a number of suburban buses; its high quota of bars means beer delivery vans litter the place and there’s always someone who just has to park right outside the barbers.
We approach the side street where the shop is situated…is it this corner?
No, we haven’t passed the booze shop yet.
Yes, here we are…that’s the Ropa Americana (new and second hand clothes shop) …turn left.
We’ve made it – and as we’re early there’s even parking right outside.

Loaded up, watches checked – yes, we have time to do the Mercado Borbon before returning to the clinic.

BN SJUp the street, another left turn and eyes peeled for the tower of the Banco Nacional to make our turn into the centre.
We crawl up to the junction with the main road through the city – the six lane Avenida 2, wait for the lights and then we’re across and into the street running past the coffee shop on one side and the Banco Central building on the other, with the bronzes of the ordinary people of Costa Rica in front of it.
banco central statues sj

Down Avenida 1 – an accident between a car and a bus, so a quick right turn up to Avenida 3 with all the tool shops in creation and then left again to return to Avenida 1 and the undercover parking lot.

mercado borbon sj Now, I like a bargain and I like the Mercado Borbon where you can buy retail at wholesale prices, but if you read the guide books it’s more a question of ‘here be dragons’ so you don’t find many foreigners doing the weekly shop there.
It is a noisy maze of alleys, steps, stalls and warehouses, but once you have your bearings all is well: I buy bacon on the bone to slice and freeze; kilos of tomatoes; Scotch Bonnet peppers; whopping prawns and then cheese for maturing at home.
I seek out cheap potatoes – only just over half the price of my local shops – and strings of onions.
We load the car and walk over to the better known Mercado Central to buy ten kilos of well fleshed bones for soup…a bargain at about 50p a kilo….and corvina to make ceviche.

Off to the clinic…down traffic clogged Avenida 1 and out onto Paseo Colon….looking for the towers of the tax offices to judge our turn up to Avenida 10.
Yes, there they are…turn left, up through the little park at Don Bosco and we’re back by the Muni….traffic lights, the lorry still not towed away and we’re back at the clinic where Leo is waiting by the chap selling fresh orange juice.
We’re off again, but this time following the road by the Numar factory at the back of the cemetery, to join the road home at Sabana.

How did the appointment go?

He said my optician must have good eyesight if she could see cataracts that small….I have to go back in two years’ time but he doesn’t think much will change.
Hoy….where are we going? This isn’t the right road!

No, but the police are up ahead and the traffic’s piling up….we’ll go back on the old road.

And so we do…crawling through the suburbs until we emerge into the countryside high above the Central Valley and head for home climbing up through the hills.

No joke, San Jose traffic…but then I came across this video which shows that things could be worse….pity the poor train drivers shown here!

46 Comments

Filed under Costa Rica, transport, travel

Gorgeous George and the Killing of Tony Blair

I came across Kickstarter through a lovely blog…that of Adullamite…who featured a young female photographer who was asking for help to finance her show at a gallery.
Having looked at her lifestyle as depicted on her blog I thought that a few less weekends in Paris might have done the job without assistance…but that is by the by.

Further investigation on Kickstarter brought me to something much more in my line….

George Galloway was asking for money to make a well researched film about Tony Blair….and the killing he has made from the killing of others.

As usual, I’m there at the last moment…as usual, I have reservations about Gorgeous George…but I’ve put my money where my mouth is on the question of that whited sepulchre Blair…I’d love to see him arraigned for his crimes and it won’t happen unless people push governments into action.

Should freedom, liberty and personal safety interest you…then take a look at Gorgeous George’s Kickstart website here

28 Comments

Filed under international court of justice, misuse of power, tony bair

Home from Home Abroad

trip 041Just over a month ago I was in Belgium as part of the whistle stop tour of lawyers’ offices in Europe

I like Belgium….but that could well be because that’s where my husband’s cousins live -the tribe with whom he spent his holidays as a child and the tribe which made me so welcome, even though said husband was languishing in faraway Costa Rica raking through the freezer for packs of the meals I had prepared before leaving.

They have to be the most hospitable people I know…and I know a fair few for whom their house is your house and their time at your disposal…with a wild sense of humour and the intention to make as much of life as possible. You cannot but be happy in their company.

I had some business to conduct in Tienen – lawyers and taxmen and land registry officials – and one of the young men took a day off work to escort me and help with the language for while I can understand a fair bit my spoken Flemish is limited to one word the meaning of which is apparently so appalling that I can never use it.
But business accomplished…joy was unconfined!

trip 050 Based with one family living just outside Brussels in a village set among fields and woodland, the house was so comfortable that it would have been no hardship to have stayed put…but staying put is not on the tribe’s agenda!

leuven town hall

We went to one of my favourite places…Leuven, capital of Flemish Brabant. You might be more familiar with it under its name in French – Louvain – but the duality of nomenclature is one of the things you have to get used to in Belgium, though it can come as a shock when driving when you are looking out for Mons and find it signed as Bergen!
Scene of wanton destruction in the Great War the buildings were rebuilt, but you don’t go there just for the monuments…tucked away from the centre is a well tended herb garden with the plants all named, and on the other side of town is the Groot Begijnhof, once home to the women of a lay order in the middle ages and now restored as part of the university and used for housing students and academics.
It seems quiet enough now in the daytime, the brick buildings and grassy squares set amidst the canals, but I can’t see students maintaining the tranquillity of the original occupants when dusk falls on Leuven.
Furthermore…there are cafes, music in the streets…and shopping!

A pause for coffee in a busy street joined by friends who had visited us in Costa Rica…a son arrived…beer was called for….the whole group went to lunch in a pub where the beer arrives by way of a brass pipe from the brewery next door…we went shopping…the sales were on…the son carried the bags…
Oh yes, I like Leuven!

On to another son’s house for dinner…not only is he a chef, running his own place after working in a Michelin two star restaurant, but he is the same kind thoughtful person that he was as a boy when he used to come to stay with us in France.
Grey shrimp…the little ones that are a beast to peel…were served in abundance as he knew I loved them and could not get them at home… before he pulled out the culinary stops for the other courses.
Family, friends, a new boyfriend, we sat round the table in the garden while the collie looked for a free lap on which to cuddle up, the new boyfriend produced a guitar, and the story telling began…the stories everyone wants to hear again as much for the delivery as the content.
The chef told his story of making spaghetti bolognaise for the first time when he visited us as a teenager….his father told the story of how he first met his wife.
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It was a time when UFOs were very much in the news – cigar shapes here, saucers there – and as he drove her home after their first date he became aware of lights in the sky…moving lights. He looked at her, but she seemed oblivious and the lights went away….only to return.
They reached her parents’ house and he was invited to sit out in the garden for a beer. Again, the lights. The parents seemed oblivious.
He mentioned the lights, somewhat nervously.

Oh yes…they had the lights every night.

He drove away, severely puzzled and wondering whether his girlfiend and her parents had been subject to alien influence and it was still bothering him when he went in to work the next morning.
He mentioned it to a friend over coffee.
Where do they live?
He mentioned the name of the village.

Idiot! That’s not UFOs! It’s under the flightpath for planes landing at the airport….those were their landing lights!

The next day we wemt to a flea market in an out of the way town…well, out of the way to me, driving on quiet roads under an arch of trees, traditional farm houses back from the road among the fields.
Parking was a beast, but we were soon among the stalls and I could not believe how cheap it was after France…people actually seemed to want to sell things!
The cousin added to his classic camera collection, his wife found a cupboard to house it and I was tempted by…but did not buy…a super dinner service for a stupid price.
Transport again.
But I am sorely tempted to hire a van and do a round of Belgian flea markets and warehouses to furnish the house in Spain. At those prices – and for what was on offer – it would more than pay the transport and hire charges.
And it would be another excuse to be in Belgium!

As a Scot, it takes a great deal to make me admit that anything can equal a Scottish morning roll….but Belgian pistolei come as near as damn it. Crisp crust and a melting interior…what a way to start a sunday morning!

Then off for the day to Namen…or, as it is in the French speaking sector of Belgium, Namur…
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its citadel high on the bluff over the junction of the rivers Sambre and Meuse, its subterranean tunnels and casemates open to all now that war has ebbed away from it.

We dutifully puffed our way around it, enjoying the views, but spent most of the day in the town below…. restored after the damage suffered in the Second World War to today’s amalgam of architectural styles from the remains of the medieval town walls to nineteenth century public puildings. A pity the modern town hall is such a cheap and nasty blot on the landscape.

We walked, we took coffee; we walked, took lunch in an authentic Chinese resturant (San Jose China Town eat your heart out) and we walked again.
DSC_0105In a quiet street off the main drag we came across a church whose interior was like nothing I had seen before.
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St.Laud…a Jesuit church of the mid seventeenth century, particular features being the columns with rings – a feature of Spanish Netherlands church architecture according to the helpful volunteer on the spot – and the high relief carving of the sandstone ceiling.

We walked again…
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And on
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And everywhere we walked we came across superb backwaters….
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And shopfronts….
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Of which this took the cake in summing up my feelings…
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It will be fine tomorrow…..

Home…a barbeque with the family and friends topped by my favourite Belgian cheeses…Passchendaele, Brusselae Kaas and the wonderful ‘walks by itself’ Herve…and then it was up sticks and off to Brussels to catch the Euroline late night coach for London on my way to celebrate mother’s 97th birthday.

In a long and sometimes lonely trip to Europe that Belgian oasis of home from home abroad was more welcome than those kind friends will ever know.

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