As regular readers will have read, my first trip to Belgium was in the summer of 1990. I have been going out ever since, sometimes as many as four times in one year. Last year, for a variety of reasons, I didn’t make it (Only the second or third year since 1990 I have not been I think) so I am very pleased to have just booked a trip for later this year.
However, it will always be those early trips with the youth club that are foremost in my memories. They were the trips of discovery when my memories of Flanders were first laid down. Today’s blog just looks at a number of memories from those early trips, in no particular chronological order.
You can’t think of Flanders without thinking of food. An agricultural land, its flatness very evocative of Norfolk. Indeed, when Doggerland was in situ, you probably could have walked from Aylsham to Poperinge inside a week. This is reflected on the market which is stuffed to the gills with fresh fruit and veggies. So why is when you eat in a restaurant you rarely see a vegetable. Sure, there is a pile of tomato, cress, and other rabbit food at one end of the plate. They may even put a handful of sweetcorn in there to fool you into thinking you have vegetables but other than in the one or two classier establishments, vegetables are not on the menu.
And whilst Flemish food is quite delicious, it seems strange that the frituur is such a popular venue. Now I know we Brits have a bad reputation for our chip shop fare (Especially the more northern parts where Deep Fried Crème Eggs and Mars Bars are much maligned) but the Flemish have us beat. Yes these frituurs do the wonderful fries that Belgium is so famous for but they also have a startling array of unidentifiable breaded shapes on sticks which are deep-fried for your delight. According to the picture menus they are chicken balls, turkey strips etc. but instant indigestion would probably describe them better.
Of course, for those with a sweeter tooth, the Belgians have you covered. Waffles and pancakes galore (though order before 6pm or the batter will be tossed) and of course, chocolates and cakes. When we started going to Talbot House we were delighted to be introduced to Sansens. Just across the road not 5 meters from Talbot House’s front door was a little shop whose window was fair-busting with cakes and chocolates. They proudly displayed the Belgian equivalent of a Royal Warrant so to us they were always the King’s Chocolatiers. The shop was run by Frida whose English is limited, and the goodies were made my Marc, whose English is near perfect. Over the years they have become good friends and Hazel and I are always treated to feast at their flat when we are over. Sadly, due to Marc’s ill-health, they have had to retire but they still live above the shop. What I haven’t yet mentioned though is the thing central to their relationship with Talbot House. Since time immemorial, the Sansens – being closed on a Monday – have, each Sunday, brought all their perishable left-overs across to the house. Some weeks, if sales were poor, the kitchen table would groan under the weight of creamy, chocolatey, sweet and delightful cakes. Heavens, you might even find some of that elusive fruit in a tart or two.
A final word on Flemish food. I never persuaded my parents to accompany me out though if I had I know my mum would have joined me in some Hennepot. It’s the local equivalent of brawn though traditionally should be made with the three Ks (Kippen or chicken [Sometimes Kalkoen or Turkey], Konijn or rabbit, and Kalf or calf). Not to everyone’s taste but my mum would have loved it.
You will notice there some words in a strange language which I have almost certainly got wrong (Martine will be emailing me shortly). Language is quite a strange thing in Flanders. Once a French speaking region, a fit of nationalistic pride in the mid-20th century caused them to move officially to Dutch. Road signs thus appeared in both languages but when I first started going out I was warned to be careful using French as some Flemish people could be offended. Thankfully this is no longer a problem (although since my French is every bit as feeble as my Dutch, it hardly matters).
Anyway, I said Dutch became the official language. The local language is actually Flemish which always was the peasants’ language (Which is why the official language changed from French; long story, Google Ijzertoren for a fascinating history). It is a coincidence but an interesting one that the words Flem and phlegm are homonyms. Someone speaking Flemish at speed does often sound like they are trying to clear their throat. What makes it all the more complex is that there are Flemish dialects and someone speaking the Flemish of the Westhoek may not understand the Flemish from the east of the region.
Of course, the language difficulties might have proved problematic when organising projects with our Belgian friends (Of course it doesn’t, they all speak faultless English) but that matters not. There is always Google translate. As Martine will testify, that never causes us any problems. Well, OK, we were once doing a party for children from a local children’s’ home. According to the Dutch document I was sent, it would culminate with the children taking a present from Snow White’s treasure chest. I knew this because I ran the document through Google translate. I also made some changes and additions to it before running it back through Google and returning it to the Belgies (As they are known to us). They were somewhat disappointed that I found it appropriate for a children’s party to finish with Snow White’s tits!
The language difficulties (For us illiterate Brits) extended to place names. Early on we were recommended a seaside resort about 40 minutes from Poperinge right on the French/Belgian border. It was called Du Panne (Apparently this translates The Breakdown!?!) but this was too hard for us limp-hearted linguistic losers, so it became known, as it still is, as Japan. When talking of visiting the beaches of Japan one either receives a withering stare or knowing wink. The winkers are doubtless former members of Cuffley Youth centre.
I shall stop in Japan. I want to tell you about the theme park dedicated to a gnome but once dedicated to honey. That though will have to wait a little.