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.
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…
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.
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…
And on
And everywhere we walked we came across superb backwaters….
And shopfronts….


Of which this took the cake in summing up my feelings…
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.


48 thoughts on “Home from Home Abroad”

  1. As usual, loved your travelog and pics, Helen! You write so evocatively that it feels like we’re sitting over coffee and you’re telling me all about it. Lovely, just lovely.

    1. They are super people….I never forget that when Leo was so ill in France they arranged for one of the sons to come down and help.
      And help he did!
      When Leo was better he helped to ‘spring’ him from the hospital!

  2. I see Belgium is made up entirely of Hercule Poirot’s. I have Texas cousins who behave in the same way. I’ve wondered if living with them would be the same a heaven.

    Yes, I love the new header.

  3. One day, when rich, I will traverse that land. The rebuilt areas are excellent and it looks a worthy place to visit.
    I note you never mentioned the beer, which was the real reason for the visit eh??

  4. What a wonderful visit. I don’t know many Belgians, but those I do know are warm lovely people. Their towns look beautiful, and I love the idea of Spanish Netherlands architecture!

    I bet the Eurolines trip was a bit of a come-down though!

    1. The history aspect has always interested me – and now I’ve got some reading to do to find out more about church architecture in that period. That church was stunning.
      Yes, Eurolines was a real drag….not enough staff, coaches running you down as you tried to board yours…but I’m beginning to see that I just can’t travel with suitcases any more unless it is with refular airlines or coach. Not an encouraging thought!

  5. You create a wonderful picture of Belgium. I suddenly feel guilty that I have never considered going. The photos are great….and as usual, your commentary on your adventures is fascinating. It sounds as if this bit of your Euro adventure this year was a real pleasure.

    1. Yes, on this leg business and pleasure really did mix well, with pleasure decidedly predominating.
      Do go to Belgium….you would have a wonderful time there, especially if you get a bit off the Brussels Bruges tourist run.

  6. Did the Belgium Tourist Board commission you Helen? If not, they should be. What a wonderful travelogue. So completely enticing. Regret my one and only visit there was only for a weekend. Hopefully one day I’ll return again.

  7. I come from the part of the continent where three or four – if you include Luxembourg – countries meet and have visited all of them without much trouble or great travelling. It’s wonderful how we can now cross borders and feel at home in every one of them (yes, that’s the EU for you detractors). We have visited many parts of Belgium from the UK too, Belgian beer, chocolates and huge pancakes being favourites to sample each time.

    I do so envy you your world travels and visits to family, all of ours in Europe and the UK are long gone and the remnants mere Christmas card acquaintances now.

    Lucky you.

    1. I travelled to France Luxembourg, Germany and Belgium before the days of the EU…..and only found two paranoid customs officers in all that time, one of them in the U.K.
      Mark you, that was before the time when governments seem intent on training their own citizens – let alone those of other countries – to stand in line for absurb ‘security’ checks; training them to obery orders from zombies.

      We’re lucky to have such a family…you’re right.

  8. I can´t believe I missed the header photo! I´ll blame it on being in a cafe and scanning too quickly.

    I went off Belgium when the nasty people at the airport stole our camping stove. We were told we could reclaim it in the UK but it never arrived.

    I was at a lecture one day and someone mentioned Sabena. Such a bloody experience, never again, piped up one wag.

    I did like Belgium before the camping stove theft though.

    1. I’ll believe you….

      Things like the camping stove do rankle, don’t they? What about going by train another time?

      Though perhaps not. I took a train from Brussels airport to Tienen…it was not the most modern example which was commented on by a group of American tourist heading for Leuven.
      This, said one of them, is a government train. And that seemed to sum it up for the lot of them.

  9. It sounds like it was a wonderful time in Belgium! Leuven is near where my husband’s uncle’s Halifax bomber was shot down during WW2. It was excavated, along with the remains of the crew, in the 1990s. There is a small memorial in Leuven dedicated to the incident. The metal from the bomber was used in the roof of the Bomber Command Memorial in London that was opened by the Queen last year.

    1. I’ll ask the cousins where it is…and next time we’ll go there.
      It’s the sad side of Belgium…aptly named the cockpit of Europe for its strategic importance in wars since time immemorial.
      You travel along a road and see a direction sign to what is now a town, a village, but what was once a bloody battlefield.

  10. Love the new header though you owe me a cup of coffee! 😉 I lost most of mine spluttering in laughter.

    All the Belgians I’ve met realy do “gezellig” superbly well. It was great to re-visit Namen/Namur through your photos!

    1. Coffee on me next time in Saumur!

      There have to be non convivial Belgians, but I haven’t yet met any…..

      We went upstream at the end of the afternoon to visit some of the riverside villages…absolutely gorgeous but I forgot to take pics!

  11. I was in Belgium last weekend! Brussels to be exact, our eldest daughter is working there until Christmas, and as it was her birthday we seized the excuse for a visit. (It’s really nice to have children who work all over the place!) It was a fabulous visit, we loved it, the only downside was the behaviour of the Ryanair staff at Charleroi. Funnily enough their crew in Bordeaux were super.

  12. You really have made me want to visit Belgium, Helen, something that no one else has ever done. It looks and sounds really wonderful – obviously it IS really wonderful. I shall put it on the list of places to go…or maybe another possible rendezvous spot? Axxx

  13. People are first, second and third when travelling, I always think. I have always found Belgians to be far jollier than their reputation suggests, in fact VERY sociable and friendly. I’ve always enjoyed my trips there too. Jenny WOolf.

    1. It’s the people who make the trip, isn’t it?
      And it wasn’t just family…people on the trains were friendly and talkative…the man who released my luggage from durance vile at the airport made a joke of it…lovely chat in the second hand bookshop…all very enjoyable.

  14. woooow, what a surprise !
    what an eulogy !
    i will be back to read your readers comments, very curious about them too
    I could not have done this any better ..
    would you agree to my reposting this entry on my blog, you sort of being the guest blogger of the day ?
    i would be honored and delighted !

  15. I’m sorry to be Johnny-come-lately to this, Helen, but it was worth waiting for. 🙂 Every time you write about the Belgian cousins it’s with such affection and now I can see why. What truly lovely people and I’m so glad you had this hospitable and enjoyable interlude in all the travelling and legal paperwork.

    I’ve only been to Belgium once – on a weekend trip to Bruges nearly 30 years ago – but I really loved it (there’s a Beguinage there too, though much smaller) and would love to revisit both the town and the country.

    PS The new header is priceless!

    1. You’ve had other distractions lately….and I’m glad that things are now on the up.
      The Belgian family are just lovely people…and so much fun to be with.

      When things settle down have a think about a trip to Belgium….and if you have time go off the tourist treadmill – there’s so much to see.

      I couldn’t resist the header! We’d just parked the car, walked round the corner and there it was!
      There was a Cafe des Arsouilles further along…..why oh why did we not go in for a coffee?

  16. Have just realised what your header photo says – made me laugh. (Yes, call me slow on the uptake if you like, I have been noticing it for weeks but not connecting…) Jenny Woolf

  17. We, too, have fond memories of travelling in Belgium so your post was a real treat. Never quite got the hang of that french fries with mayo thing; otherwise, such a wonderful place for holidays!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s