Sunday, 21 August 2016

Belgique vert

For the past two days we've slept at the aire in Bavay to visit with Gill's sister, Jackie, and her partner, Edmond. In some ways it would have been easier  to stay at their house, but their drive is too steep for the moho, and we're a bit nervous about leaving it unattended for 48 hours.

Bavay aire du camping car - free and next to the town park.

Most of the time we spent catching up and talking through family stuff, not least discussing how best to support Gill and Jackie's dad, now 92 years of age, and living on his own independently. How independently is made more clear when you think that right now he's not at home, but on a cruise to Spain, Portugal and Madeira with a friend! We took a trip to neaby Valenciennes to take a peek at a property Jackie has recently bought as a 'buy to let' investment. It is in the outskirts of town, formerly a mining community, but now on the edge of an up-and-coming area with a swanky new conference centre and re-vamped canal side developments. The nearby streets are still very much a working class district with residents using the pavement as an extension to their living room. It was interesting as it's not a place a visitor would ordinarilly experience. The house looks really solid and will make a great student rental. 

By English standards Jackie's own house has a huge garden and on a lovely summers day is very verdant and bucolic.

Jackie and Edmond's house in the country

Jackie had recently returned from a week's 'retreat' which aimed to encourage a more healthy lifestyle. Its food regime was quite radical. An initial period of fasting was followed by a diet restricted to low fat, low protein foods with an emphasis on raw fruit and veg. I think Jackie was still in the process of deciding which aspects of the regime were practical long term, and which simply too faddy to adopt regularly. Anyway, with this in mind we took a trip to the nearby city of Mons which has a couple of health food stores. 

Mons itself is a pleasant place with an ancient centre which avoided the wartime damage which flattened many other towns in Flanders. From the hilltop Belfry park you get a good view across the ancient rooftops. Last year Mons was Europe City of Culture. One legacy is a gigantic wooden sculpture which covers the whole of the small square in front of the Palais de Justice. The wooden canopy consists of thousands of wooden planks, some plain, others painted yellow and red. The effect is spectacular, but I have no idea why the sculptor called the work 'Passengers'. 

Mons - The Belfry

Cobbles, brick and fancy gables - that's Belgium for you...

Pete and Jackie in the main square
Water feature
Giant modern sculpture
Up close it looked liked a cuboid palm grove

It created exciting reflections in neaby buildingd
It was Saturday. There seemed to be a constant cavalcade of wedding parties. In Belgium, like France, tradition requires that after the ceremony the entire party takes to their cars and drives slowly around town beeping horns. By the time we had arrived in Mons' splendid main square one of the parties had decanted into a restaurant and were standing outside having aperitifs. This happened to be right next door to the cafe where we had decided to pause for coffee and cakes. This gave us front row seats to watch the nuptial celebrations unfolding a few feet away. Gill observed, that like all weddings she had ever attended, the people, including the bride, seemed somewhat ill at ease. It was true, the small gaggle appeared enmeshed in a ritual which fluctuated between moments of forced jollity and periods of awkward shuffling. Perhaps everyone's newly purchased shoes were slightly uncomfortable. I wondered if the advent of same sex marriage might modernise these events. Perhaps gay culture, unencumbered by the weight of social tradition, will place greater emphasis on celebration and less on ritual, which would make weddings somewhat less dreadful events for everyone.

I liked the beer ads and the salmon coloured house - but the bridal party is in the background too.
 On the way back to the car we called in to one of the health food stores we had planned on visiting. It was an extensive place and seemed to stock everything you might need for a healthy lifestyle - pulses and grains galore, oils to drizzle and oils to rub on, over designed scented candle holders and Jetson-styled juicers so you might get a daily fix of liquidised courgette. One thing intrigued me. Why do all wholefood places smell the same? Here exuded exactly the same lentilish odour that first assailed my nostrils back in 1973 on my first visit to the mother ship of Northern English vegetarianism, Manchester's 'On the Eighth Day'. Was the smell the inevitable outcome of a molecular reaction involving pulses and patchouli, or do the wholesalers provide the shops with an aerosol spray of canned essence of dried bean to create the appropriate healthful ambiance? It's a trade secret, the consumer will never get to know.

Gill, laden with organic goodies
The second green grocer was an even bigger concern called Bio-Planet. Situated on the edge of town a little down the road from Lidl, the eco-emporium was of a similar size to its more workaday German neighbour, but differentiated from it by having a jungle of shrubs in the car park (electric car hook-up provided), an array of solar panels on the roof, and a customer base of waif-thin earnest couples who seemed unlikely ever to grace the aisles of a lo-cost supermarket. 

Bio-Planet - healthfoos superstore

Solar panels galore!
Green Belgium came as a bit of a shock. Previously my impression of Belgian gastronomy was that it was famous for beer, chocolate, waffles and large portions of frites- mayonnaise. Perhaps there is a cultural equivalent to Newton's third law, that for every reaction there is an equal and opposite. Consequently, if you happen to have the most calorific and cholesterol creating national cuisine on the planet, it is inevitable that you will also end up with health food stores the size of supermarkets. Green Belgium, who would have though it, I am all astonishment!


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