Sunday, 7 July 2019

The joys of Belgium and home

Belguim is one of those countries which tends to be the butt of jokes. Before sensitivities concerning stereotyping made it unacceptable to cast entire nations as universally stupid, lazy, or un-washed, then Belgians performed the same role in French humour as 'Paddy jokes' did in English. In these more enlightened times Belgium has become a rule of thumb for hack journalists when they wish to communicate the size of something. So much so that there is even a website dedicated to the phenomena.

So we learn that the amount of land worldwide dedicated to golf courses is roughly the size of Belgium, as is the area of of rain forest destroyed on an annual basis by logging and wildfires, Catalonia, the acreage of the 5 biggest farms in Russia, the size of the Great Bear Lake in Northern Canada....the list goes on.
Another spurious fact, Belgium's road system is almost thee times the circumference of the Earth.
Consequently it is difficult to write the phrase -'The joy of Belgium' without it being regarded ironically, like celebrating the delights of Walsall or extolling Doncaster chic or Middlesborough panache. Having just crossed from one end of the country to the other, mainly avoiding motorways, driving through Flemish villages and Wallonian, does Belgium truly live up to its tawdry image?

It is true that many places lack visual appeal, the liver coloured brick buildings, old industrial relics and unfortunate concrete look grim. However, how important are appearances? There are whole swathes of Britain's former industrial heartlands that look equally terrible - the Rhondda and most other former mining areas, parts of the Black Country, the outskirts of Dundee are all places we have driven through that are far more ugly than anywhere we saw today.

Furthermore, in one aspect, Belgium has improved and Britain deteriorated, the last time we were here in May 2015 Belgium seemed to be aiming for world heritage status for potholes. Today we drove along many recently resurfaced roads, clearly the issue is being tackled. Back home a decade of austerity measures has resulted in our road system becoming shabby, potholes, erased road marking and indecipherable signs abound. I am sure you could track down an outburst in some tabloid or other fulminating that our roads had become 'worse than Belgium's'.

It is a sunny evening. We are sitting in a cafe in Chimay's central square drinking Chimay. It is lovely. Maybe it is a tad hyperbolic to write of the 'joys of Belgium', but it can be charming. The municipal campsite is basic but serviceable, a short walk into the old centre. It's a pretty town, though in early evening there are only two cafes open. 

We speculate - maybe the country's more tawdry aspects are part of the charm - a kind of shabby chic. That feels familiar, comforting almost, for Britain can have that quality too in the way we actually like the faded grandeur of our old seaside resorts and decrepit country towns. There is even a sub-genre of travel writing that seeks out and celebrates Britain's more desolate spots - Jonathon Meade's TV programmes, books like Tim Moore's 'You are awful but I like you', or Bill Bryson's 'Notes from a Small Island'. I can imagine something similar being written about Belgium, perhaps it has already.

A small example. The cafe where we are sitting is very pleasant, the beer also, the weather delightful. The lone chap who sat down (very carefully) at the table next to us was spectacularly drunk. He looked quite well to do, the only person in the place wearing a suit - a lightweight pale linen one. He ordered a bottle of wine a few minutes ago, half of it has now gone. He bellows into his mobile phone; even with my limited French I can tell its all complete bollocks, extolling the delights of the Pinot Noir he is drinking, but the wine in the bottle is white. Now places the mobile phone on the table continuing his conversation anyway, addressing thin air earnestly. The waiter approaches and has a quiet word, the chap looks a little put-out, but pipes down. 

There was something slightly uncanny about the entire scene, a strange moment edged with melancholy. I think that is quite Belgian, but it is familiar because Englishness shares that quality. Somehow the shabby chic ambiance suits a journey's end, in terms of mood homeward bound always feels like a downward trajectory.

Two days later, sitting in the Ferry queue in Calais, the downward arc continues - gloom and drizzle - we invent a portmanteau term for the occasion - feeling drizzlable.

The immediate effect is to provoke vain attempts to cheer ourselves up, reasons to be cheerful.... yes it was good to catch-up with Jackie, Edmond and Anna...

Even last night parked at City Europe had its moments. The food at the micro-brewery was OK and I do like the shopping centre - not the actual shops, I hate shopping, but the design of the place now over 20 years old  looks like some kind of a set for a live action re-make of the Jetsons, doubly so as when we left the the restaurant all the shops were closed and the Mall was empty exuding quiet the melancholia.of an abandoned back lot.

Now another queue, Dover to Dartford  has been one big traffic jam, 70 miles taking over two hours, plenty of time time to admire the well engineered lane closures on the M20 - all connected with 'operation Brock' designed to stack the lorries in a 'no deal' scenario. Welcome home.