04.11.2011 - 06.11.2011 17 °C
To our English friends, I haven’t forgotten you! But I have to say that a whole month in France has left me feeling very… French! But for a quick weekend, we left the motherland to head to tiny neighboring Belgium, for yet another “Poitiers Alumni Reunion”. After reuniting with Thomas in Ulm, we were heading to Liedekerke (between Gent and Brussels) to visit with Jan and his family.
It was supposed to be a simple voyage: leave Paris at 2pm on a Friday, switch trains in Lille and then in Gent, and off to Brussels by 5pm (we couldn’t take the TGV direct because Belgium railways wanted to charge us an extra 25 euros per person each way!)… However, as Arianne pointed out in her blog, we ran into a few tiny roadblocks : the train out of Lille was cancelled because it had no driver, so we hopped onto the next Belgium-bound train without really knowing where it was going… it’s a small country, right? And there are tons of train going in every direction all the time! Worse case, we figured, we'll just jump on another train back to Lille. That got us to Mouscron in about 20 min, at the French-Belgium border… We then hoped a train to Courtrai, and from there, were going to take another one to Gent. In Courtrai, there were two trains bound for Gent: the first, an express, was 35 min late leaving the station… because it had no driver! The second, the “milk run”, was supposed to leave in 5 min, so we boarded that one. Thankfully, it did leave and we finally made it to Gent... By this time, Jan had offered to pick us up in Gent rather in Brussels (thankfully, we had a cell phone), which turned out to be a good idea: when we arrived in Gent, the train station was packed! The line between Gent and Brussels was down, and all trains were late or cancelled… While they were a bit panicked at first, the girls finally started to see the humour in this whole adventure – and we all agreed it was a good practice run for our time in South America!
But it was well worth it… I fell in love with Belgium and its people during my first trip there 17 years ago and they – the country and the people – are still as lovely as they were then. Jan, Els and the children (Anke, Maarten and Kaat) welcomed us into their home and offered us a weekend packed with beautiful memories and wonderful discoveries – and Jan even managed to collect another Poitiers alumni for our daytrip on Saturday: Igor, his wife Karolien, and their two girls Elise and Estelle.
Together, we headed for the forest to the savour the smells and colours of the fall in a magical place: the ruins of the abbey of Villers-la-ville. For those of you who have read The Pillars of the Earth, this might have been the place where the monks of the forest built their abbey, brewed their beer and made their cheese… Deep in the forest lies a whole complex of roofless stone buildings, and the walls of the old abbey rise high and proud, covered in ivy thick and lush. The sun streams through its glassless windows to draw shapes of gold on the earthen floor. Carvings on the walls, an old sarcophagi, traces of smoke on the kitchen wall bear witness to the passage of men who came here to work and worship. It was truly breathtaking… The children were delighted to have the time and space to run and play, and they were like bright butterflies against the pale gray stone.
From here, we headed to Waterloo – Napoleon’s Waterloo – to see where the old man met his match… 1815, the battle for Europe, the end of an Empire… After having seen paintings of him in Versailles, the girls were quite interested to learn more about the little man with the funny hat, and how the politics of the time shaped the birth of tiny but lovely Belgium.
Igor – who was always the first to organize “social” activities back in the day – topped off the day by inviting us to Beersel, where he grew up, for a quick peek at the Beersel Castle and a visit to the 3 Fontaines brewery where he used to work… It was like Norm walking into Cheers! when we arrived… Igor!! They all knew him and welcomed his warmly – and allowed him to give us a private tour of the brewery. So of course, we had to taste the master’s Gueuze and delicious local fare which, consumed in great company, made for a memorable evening.
The next morning, Alain and Chloée joined Jan for an excursion in Brussels, while I stayed home to nurse my bronchitis and Arianne played “here’s-my-favourite-tune-on-YouTube” with Anke… After the others returned, we had lunch together and Jan drove us to Gent for our return train to Lille – but not before we took a few hours to visit Gent, and its Gravenstein (medieval castle of the Flemish counts). What a surprise this was!! Imagine walking down one of the city’s main streets, turn left, and boom!: a full-size, perfectly restored medieval castle, with moat and all! Right there, in the center of town… The girls said that this castle was the most “castle-like castle” we had seen – all it needed was Versailles-style decoration, and it would be perfect!
But the most magical part of Belgium was, again, the time we spent with our friends… After 17 years, it still felt like yesterday. And most amazing were the children: despite the fact that they could not understand each other at all (Jan’s kids speak Flemish), they still managed to play countless games of Uno and Carcassone, go for a bike ride, play soccer, roll around in the leaves and play like they had known each other for ever… While we adults caught up over a quiet glass of wine, we could hear them giggling hysterically and endlessly – a testament to the fact that it is possible to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers if you open your heart to doing so.