The Saint Job Fair – a September event

The Saint Job Fair in Uccle: giants, a brass band, death and the baker, a boy in a bubble, a jousting knight and a sleeping cat… among others things

About the middle of September, all around Brussels (and for all I know around Belgium too) fairs are taking place. Some of them seem to blend into the weekly markets (such as the one at Place Flagey), but others are unique to themselves. There are sideshows and performances, parades and music, and some take the opportunity to promote a local district or municipality. My guess is that they have developed from harvest festivals in much the same way as Thanksgiving in the USA, but as local rather than national affairs. Last year, my first September in Brussels, I simply registered what was going on. This year I thought I should get out with the camera and take some photos.

The waterbearerThen came the question – where to go? Up the road towards the city centre, the Parish of Saint Giles (Parvais Saint-Gilles) was advertising a major effort with processions from four different starting points in the municipality all leading to a celebration of Les porteuses d’eau (the women waterbearers). I was tempted.

Then I saw that my own municipality was offering the “129th Annual Market of Saint Job”.

I’m not sure why the Old Testament prophet is dignified as “Saint” Job in this corner of Belgium. A trawl through the Internet doesn’t leave me much the wiser (though I really doubt it has anything to do with the Orthodox Saint Job of Moscow, Wikipedia). But I’ve always had a soft spot for Job, so Saint Job’s market won the toss.

Giants of the Saint Job FairThe Belgians have a fascination for géants – giants. This seems to be a tradition that has hung over from the Middle Ages. Every district of Brussels has its own giants who are wheeled out (literally) every year for these fairs. They also make occasional appearances at other spectacles and events to represent the spirit of their district. At the Saint Job fair the two principle giants were a fellow in a bicorn hat and a curly-haired blonde. The two had a couple of half-sized giant children who orbited around them.

A parade in a tubaSeveral of their helpers (the people necessary to manhandle them over cobbles and kerbs) were also dressed up – as you can see from the photo. They looked like toys the giant children might want to pick up and play with.

Of course, you can’t have a parade or a festival without music, so there was a brass band on hand. In this photo you can just make out the tuba-distorted reflection of the male giant at the head of the parade.

Saint Job Fair: A break from blowingThe band had a lot of blowing to do, so they were happy take a break now and again. Here on the steps outside the church. (I think they’d want me to remind you, by the way, that the saxophone was invented by a Belgian – Adolphe Sax. You can post your heartfelt thanks below in the comments. Or not. As you wish. 🙂 )

Saint Job Fair: Posing for the cameraApart from the parade and the giants there was an exposition d’animeaux de la ferme. (This was one goat, one donkey, some chickens and a small selection of child-magnet-rabbits).The donkey was very obliging and happy to pose for photos when other people pointed their cameras at her. Me, she turned her back on.

Saint Job Fair: Pony go roundThere were also some ponies that had been coralled into an area like a small roundabout, and were walking around in a circle. Each had a small child uncertainly perched on top. There was a recorded – very distorted – voice blasting out a message in French. A message punctuated with the sound of a cracking whip and a “Yeeha!” I just can’t feel convinced by a “Yeeha!” when it’s part of a sentence in French. I’m probably deeply prejudiced.

Saint Job Fair: With death by my sideThe inevitable stall for face painting meant there were quite a number of kids running around with startling faces. The one that startled me most of all was this young man’s face. He was watching with intense interest as this baker demonstrated his craft. You could buy samples of the bread once baked, but personally I found the presence of death at the baker’s side a bit off-putting.

Sleeping cat lyingThere were other things for kids to do at the fair. They could visit the exposition de chats d’exception. A lot of very indolent pedigree cats in travelling cages. The cat show took place in a rather a dark, enclosed hall, so I came away without any photos. On my way home, though, I met a street cat I know who was happy to let me photograph him in his favourite place, on warm tarmac under a parked car. By way of a fill-in photo for all the siamese and persians I missed.

Saint Job Fair: Boy in a bubbleThere was a piste d’agilité vélo, a bicycle obstacle course, overseen by two dour police officers. It didn’t look a lot of fun and certainly while I was there, didn’t seem to be attracting much interest. By contrast kids could also get their parents to pay to have them zipped into plastic balls in a paddling pool. This looked to be really popular. It gives a new sense to the Boy in the Bubble.

Saint Job Fair: At the tourneyIt didn’t surprise me that so few kids were interested in the bicycle obstacle course, though I was disappointed so few wanted to try out the medieval jousting. However, I was patient and eventually a happy tourney rider showed up to reward me.

I hung around the fair from about 11 a.m. until 14.30 hoping to get some photos of the concours du chien le plus sympathique. I like sympathetic dogs – and these were very sympathetic dogs remember.

Saint Job Fair: The Green ManUnfortunately for me it seems everyone likes sympathetic dogs . (Well, of course. I should have guessed.) Probably the most well attended event of the fair, by the time the parade started the crowd pressed too densely around the stage. I tried, but there are no photos I want to share.

So I gave up. I was actually on my way home when I met another giant. Not quite in the same league as the official ones, perhaps, but he had a charming face and happily posed for me to take a photo. This Green Man was standing on stilts. He was about as tall as the bicorn hat giant’s shoulder.

That was my visit to the Saint Job Fair.


I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

United Music of Brussels

United Music of Brussels was a day of music to launch a new season of classical music, and I heard it announced over the public transport address system

At the tram stop - house gable cartoon central Brussels“What are we going to do this weekend,” she asked.

I’m usually stumped by this question but not this time.

“Listen,” I said. Over the tannoy a message was being delivered in English. This weekend… United Music… Belgian National Orchestra… BOZAR… La Monnaie… Bourse…

“That’s what we’re doing!”

“What?”

“Listening to United Music,” I improvised. “It’s a promotional day for the Belgian National Orchestra and the Royal Theatre. The beginning of the autumn season. Musicians, singers, dancers – short concerts – all afternoon in different locations. There’s more information on-line!”

“Are you sure about that?”

The Internet can answer all your questions

It’s never easy to find information about what’s on in Brussels if you don’t read French. Even if you do read French, I think it’s probably a challenge. Belgium seems about 15 years behind Sweden in terms of Internet usage and Internet literacy. I remember how it used to be. We were just as starry eyed and innocent. Just as clumsy.

Many Belgians – individuals as well as institutions – clearly want to believe that the Internet can answer all your questions. Everyone is always making promises about how you can find so much on-line. How you can book tickets or appointments on-line. How you can easily transfer money from one bank account to another on-line. How you can check deliveries or send messages on-line.

Mmmnnno. Not really. But I remain hopeful.

This offer is unrepeatable
This offer is unrepeatable

It seems the Belgian advocates of the Internet haven’t quite grasped – yet – that design is not all. For people to take advantage of services on line, someone needs to write the software to enable the service actually to work. That if someone is to be able to get correct information out, somebody else needs first to put that correct information in. And to put it in, in such a way that getting it out is both logical and easy.

I think the truth is, most Belgians really prefer the personal touch. Face-to-face contact, human interaction, these are the things that add value to Belgian society, not digital interconnectivity and virtual reality. Which is very endearing.

Information dearth

Everything would happen in the afternoon, we learned from various sources. At 2 pm. Or maybe 2.30. But where? That remained a mystery.

Hoarding on Rue Ravenstein, Brussels
Hoarding on Rue Ravenstein, Brussels, just opposite BOZAR ticket office

Because we knew that BOZAR were involved, we took ourselves there first. BOZAR is the jokey local name for the Palais des Beaux-Arts in the centre of Brussels. (Beaux-Arts sounds like BOZAR.) The three people staffing their ticket office were sure they knew they’d heard about the event. Absolutely. Didn’t they have some brochures about it? Over there in that rack? No? Oh well they had had some brochures.

Two of them went into the storeroom behind the scenes to check. The sound of cardboard boxes being torn open, but, sadly, no. They didn’t have any left. We are desolate. Sad emoticon. They couldn’t suggest a place we could go to get more information, but we might find some brochures left in the racks at the entrance to the art gallery across the road.

We looked, but no.

So we walked down into the Grand Place and went into the tourist information centre there. The young man we spoke with said, Yes! He’d also heard something about the music event. Though he too was desolate. Are there brochures? We have no brochures. Wouldn’t you prefer to listen to the dance-band/oom-pah performance going on in the square?

We said thanks, but no thanks. He couldn’t make any suggestions about where we could go to find more information either.

United Music at the Bourse

United Music brochure and mapWhen Mrs SC and I were wrestling with the information dearth on-line, she’d stumbled across something… (Her command of French is several orders of magnitude better than mine.) Something about a concert in the Saint-Géry Market Hall. Meanwhile I remembered that I’d heard something about the Bourse in the original announcement. For want of any more reliable information, we walked down to the Bourse and thought we could go on to Saint Jerry’s after.

It turned out that the Bourse was exactly the right place to go.

Here there was a little band playing under a tent and young people in T-shirts advertising the United Music of Brussels giving out the very brochures we had heard so much about. Brochures that included maps of the city showing the different venues. At first glance they were perfect. Just what we had been looking for.

There were sixteen different venues scattered across the town with small groups performing concerts of all sorts.

The Tanners’ Studio

United Music of Brussels Philip Defranque, tenor
At the Tanners’, tenor Philip Defranque,

Glancing through the brochure Mrs SC saw The Juliet Letters. That was for us! A place called Atelier des Tanneurs, so we took ourselves there.

Do you know The Juliet Letters? It’s a song sequence for a string quartet and a strangulated voice. A co-production by Elvis Costello (punk hero) and The Brodsky Quartet (classical music heroes). The singer at the Tanners’ Studio was the Flemish tenor Philip Defrancq. I thought he was pitched a bit high till I got home and listened to Elvis Costello’s performance again and realised – Defrancq nailed it.

United Music of Brussels: In the Tanners' Studio
In the Tanners’ Studio – the string quartet and tenor perform The Juliet Letters

On the way to the Tanners’ Studio we discovered that the map in the United Music of Brussels brochure was not really as accurate as it might have been. However, with a certain amount of guesswork and asking the way, everything worked out. Not only did Defrancq sing a couple of The Juliet Letters, he also sang an aria by John Cage (brilliant and weird and involving at one point the singer gargling with water).

The Tanners’ was an interesting space – presumably a former tanning factory though there was no evidence of the industrial process left. Just a two story interior space with a wrought-iron or cast-iron colonnade and a bridge across the middle. Acoustically rather good.

The swimming pool at Jeu de Balle

Which was more than you could say about the next venue.

From the Tanners’ we took ourselves to Les Bains de Bruxelles. An interesting experience in itself, just trying to find it. I’ve heard about this public swimming pool. It is an architectural feature, not least because of the pool itself – on the second floor of the building with views from the window out over the town.

United Music: Panorama of Jeu de Ball swimming pool
Panorama of Jeu de Ball swimming pool (Les Bains de Bruxelles)

The performers had a stage at one end of the pool in front of the windows and a drummer and a violinist played while a woman danced a wild modern ballet.

United Music: Jeu de Ball swimming pool performanceThe acoustics were – interesting perhaps is the kindest word. There were a lot of echoes and a lot of foot stamping as well as drumming. But it was an experience to sit there on the tiled benches enveloped in a faint cloud of chlorine to watch and listen. There was quite a crowd at this venue – possibly because of the building rather than the performance.

The lap of victory

At the end, after the performers had taken their bow and the applause, they dived into the pool. Well, the dancer and the violinist dived; the drummer jumped. And they swam the length of the pool to even more applause. The dancer and the violinist racing one another (the dancer won.) The drummer kept his glasses on and did the breaststroke and came in last. Mrs SC and I reserved our special cheers for him.

Halles Saint-Géry

United Music: The pianist at Saint Jerry'sAfter that we took ourselves to the Saint Jerry Market Hall and were in time to hear the United Music’s concluding performance. A pianist played in the main hall and a choir sang in the market’s upper level. As it turned out, the choir were from the Belgian National Theatre, La Monnaie. The venue was crowded and the choir were a bit of a surprise as they were dressed like the rest of the audience. We only realised who they were when they started to sing. It was a good way to end the day.

In all we saw and heard three concerts (plus a little bit at the Bourse). And I’m not sure we’d have managed more than one more even if we’d had the brochure-map and got into town for when the whole event actually kicked off at 14.30.

United Music: Members of the choir of La Monnaie National TheatreBesides, we had all the pleasure of our initial face-to-face human interaction with the good people in the BOZAR ticket office and at the Grand Place TI centre.

More than the music, the exercise was interesting for the opportunity to see the different venues. To see parts of the city we might not otherwise visit. I’ve kept the map and will, later, try to see some of the other sites.

Afterwards Mrs SC and I took ourselves to the Cuban restaurant La Cantina on Rue du Jardin des Olive for our evening meal. (And she continued her dogged search for the perfect iced-coffee.)

United Music: Panorama in Halles Saint-Géry
Panorama in St Jerry’s (Halles Saint-Géry)

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Erasmus House – a Guided Tour

Erasmus House in Anderlecht: a guided tour of the house gives an introduction to Erasmus of Rotterdam – Renaissance scholar, Christian humanist, key figure in the pre-Reformation – and kicks up some questionable facts

Chère Madame le guide,

Erasmi domum - Erasmus House - plaqueI want to thank you for your recent guided tour of the Erasmus House and Gardens in Anderlecht. It’s an interesting building and a wittily and appropriately designed garden. I agree the municipality of Anderlecht seems to be over-reaching itself a tad, calling the place “Erasmus House”. After all the great man only stayed there as a guest of the actual owner for five months in 1521. But then, as you explained, Erasmus barely stayed anywhere for very long. He was the quintessential wandering scholar. It’s highly appropriate that he has given his name to the EU’s student exchange programme.

Your tour of the House, Madam, was by turns fascinating, confusing and entertaining. (Even if it wasn’t your intention to confuse. Nor, perhaps, always your intention to entertain.) At the beginning you repeatedly warned us that we only had an hour and a half for the tour. This was something you seemed resentful about, though you must see it wasn’t our fault. But then in your generosity, you ended up giving us nearly three hours of your time.

Erasmus House: Ubi bene ibi patria - where life is good, there is home
Ubi bene ibi patria – where life is good, there is home

You love your subject, that’s clear. Erasmus is your hero, and there was so much you wanted to say about him. Still, I think you could have tried to prioritise a little better. It would have been easier to follow what you were telling us if you had spoken a little more slowly. Perhaps with more pauses between the sentences. And with, dare I say it, just a single thread to your narrative?

The way your story did leap about! Much like Erasmus himself, you travelled from the Netherlands, to Germany, to Italy, to Switzerland, to England and back. From printing and editing you skipped to the attributes of saints, then on to Ancient Greek. You touched on the effects of rye ergot, the eating habits in the Hapsburg Empire, the Salem witch trials and St Elmo’s fire…

Erasmus House: Title page of Moriea Encomium (In Praise of Folly)
Erasmus House: Title page of Moriea Encomium (In Praise of Folly). The title can also be read as a pun “In praise of More” – the English Christian humanist Thomas More in whose home the book was written.

Standing in the stream of your outpouring, I for one felt at times I was losing my footing. As if I might slip and drown in the current. I wanted to say: Take a breath! But I fear you would have not appreciated my interruption.

Well, of course we both know you don’t appreciate interruptions.

Chère Madame, if you don’t want to be interrupted, perhaps you shouldn’t invite people to ask you questions? To invite questions is to invite dialogue. It is possible to talk about your subject while answering questions, but only if you’re confident of your material. And you always have to be open to the idea that you may be wrong. If you get caught out in an untruth, learn how to graciously back away from the mistake. Don’t insist on being right.

Erasmus House: Printers engravings
Printers engravings used to illustrate Erasmus’s works.

It might also be a good idea, when you start future tours, if you don’t inform your audience of your unrivalled expertise in the subject. By all means tell us of the years you have spent studying Erasmus and his times, but don’t pooh-pooh all the sources of information you have not seen. And don’t imply that the little your audience may know about Erasmus must be gleaned from Wikipedia and so is bound to be wrong. To do so is just a bit rude. And also like a red rag in the face of any historians (even if amateur historians) in the company.

Erasmus House: Title page of the Erasmus translation of the New Testament in Latin and Greek
Title page of the Erasmus translation of the New Testament in Latin and Greek. A parallel text, Erasmus collated the Greek version from various texts – some of which he consulted while staying in Anderlecht.

To be fair, I think you were generally very accurate about Erasmus himself. Though I don’t think you ought to be repeating the story that Erasmus was really baptised as Geert. That seems to be a myth. Erasmus’s Dutch Wikipedia page says it’s a legend from the 17th century. Now I know how little you think Wikipedia is worth, but the electronic debunking references a (printed) essay by Hans Trapman. He’s a professor at the Erasmus Centre for Early Modern Studies in Rotterdam. Maybe a reliable source?

Nevertheless, as I say Madame, I think you were pretty accurate about Erasmus the man. My problem was more with the information in your tour that came by-the-by. For example – and I am sorry to labour the point – but the English word pen does not come from the name for a female swan. I don’t care what you think you’ve read somewhere in a printed book.

The word pen comes from the Latin penna, meaning a feather and as an English word it dates from the 1200s. The names for male and female mute swans – cob and pen – refer to the physical features or the behaviour of the swan. The male’s large cob or knob on the top of its beak, the female’s practice of penning or holding in her closed wings together over her back. Pen as a name for a female swan (then written penne) dates from the 1500s.

It’s not even a remote possibility that female swans were called pennes because people used their feathers as pens. People simply didn’t use swan feathers as pens – or not commonly. The standard pen at the time of Erasmus and for hundreds of years before and after was a goose’s quill. Those are goose quill pens on display on the writing desk at Erasmus House.

Birdbath (or font?) in the grounds of Erasmus House
Birdbath (or font?) in the grounds of Erasmus House

You were kind enough, at the end, to thank us for not interrupting you “very much”. For my part – after that first time – I chose to bite my tongue. I did not want the tour to take even longer. (Mrs SC standing on my toe whenever she saw me flinch at one of your “facts” may have helped.)

But, here we are, and as I doubt we’ll meet again – or even that you will ever read this – let me just get one more thing off my chest.

The Emperor Charles V, Lord of the Netherlands and Duke of Burgundy – and a student of Erasmus – did indeed inherit the Hapsburg jaw. The famous under bite is prominent even in the portrait of him as a young man in Erasmus House. But it really wasn’t so pronounced that it made it “too difficult for him to eat”. He lived to 58, which doesn’t happen if you can’t eat. And his deformed jaw wasn’t what eventually killed him. He died of malaria.

Erasmus House: from inside the gazeboIn the Erasmus House garden, I liked several of the sculptures especially perhaps the open gazebo made from hundreds of pairs of eye-glasses. It was a witty reference to Erasmus who artists often drew checking printer’s proofs with a pair of eye-glasses. It also played with the Christian humanist concept that each one of us perceives the world through the distorting lens of personal prejudice. All the while we are open to the all-seeing eye of God above, who we can also see from the gazebo – if we choose – simply by looking up.

In the technical and scientific revolution of the 15th and 16th centuries – the period we call the Renaissance and Reformation, Erasmus was a key figure. Think of philosophy, of enquiry, and of the dissemination of knowledge, and sooner or later you must come around to him. Yet we tend to view Erasmus through the distortions of our limited knowledge – and prejudices. Through the lens-walls of our personal gazebos.

Ersamus House: the gazebo in the gardenWhat would Erasmus have made of Wikipedia? I’m sure he would have tried to verify its assertions and correct its errors, but I don’t think he would have rejected it out of hand. On the contrary, I think Erasmus would have been delighted by it. I think he’d have embraced the Internet.

Chère Madame, it is very easy, enthused by history, to forget that the people of the past thought of themselves just as we do. As living in the present. As looking to the future. This was a perspective on Erasmus I missed in your otherwise exhaustive, exhausting presentation.

Etching of a sly looking ErasmusAs I’ve mentioned, despite your warnings about limited time, the tour took nearly three hours. With what relief we applauded you at the end! With what relief we were able finally, without appearing rude, to go our separate ways. Mrs SC and I collapsed at the first bar we came to.

Erasmus was no ascetic. I think he would have approved – perhaps even joined us.


I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Comic Strip Festival

The Comic Strip Festival in Brussels has become an annual event that attracts comic fans from across at least the Francophone world.

Mysteries revealed

If you hang around long enough, mysteries will be revealed. Apparently.

TheSupercargo with presumed Atomium mascot - perhaps Spirou?Back in the spring I visited the Atomium here in Brussels (and wrote in May about the time-slip I experienced there). Entering the Atomium building I was accosted by a mascot and a photographer and paid my €7 to be able to share this photo. I wrote after: The mascot doesn’t appear anywhere on the Atomium web site, so I’m guessing it was all in aid of advertising something else – but I have no idea what.

Spirou

Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters 4 - Spirou sittingWell, now I think the mascot was supposed to be Spirou. Spirou is a Belgian comic strip character and protagonist in the comic strip series Spirou et Fantasio… He also serves as the mascot of the Belgian comic strip magazine Spirou.

OK, I know this because I’ve just looked Spirou up on Wikipedia. But I was prompted to look him up by meeting him in various guises all over the place at the weekend.

Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters - SpirouSpirou was big at the Brussels Comic Strip Festival. I’m not just talking about the Spirou-shaped balloon whose crotch the young man is groping in the photo. There was a whole section in one of the festival tents dedicated to this intrepid bellhop-come-boy-reporter. Every other person seemed to be wearing Spirou pill-box hats.

Tintin surprised(And I’ve just gone through all my photos and found not one to back up that last statement. Not one!)

Mind you, I’m still no wiser about what Spirou was advertising at the Atomium in May.

Fête de la BD/Stripfeest

Comic Strip Festival: Things to leave outside
Comic Strip Festival: To leave outside…

The Fête de la BD/Stripfeest as the Comic Strip Festival is called locally is pretty big. I don’t mean it can hold a candle to Comic-Con in the USA (judging by all I’ve seen on YouTube), but in Brussels, it’s an event. It spreads over the whole weekend, it occupies the big park opposite the royal palace, it attracts comic fans from across at least the Francophone world. And on the Sunday a parade of inflatable characters winds through the city to the sound of  walking  bands.

For all these reasons it seemed appropriate to take myself and my camera off to the park on Sunday.

Inflation problems

According to the programme I found on-line, the parade was supposed to leave the palace courtyard at 2pm. When I arrived at 1:45, though, it was obvious some of the characters were suffering inflation problems.

Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters - Garfield
Garfield lay on his back and Le Chat was face down, levitating a metre over the cobbles. A gusty wind wasn’t helping.
Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters - Le Chat
I’d seen ads for volunteers to help manhandle the balloons through the streets and I suppose most of the inflation teams were also volunteers. I could have waded in to help, but, nah. They would probably manage better without my interference.

I think these soldiers below would have liked to help out too. (Sadly, we’ve become all too familiar with scenes like this over the last few months.)

Strip Cartoon Festival: Security presence

In the festival ground

So I went for a walk through the festival. Four long tents occupying avenues through the park, each filled with stalls dedicated to cartoons. You could buy vintage cartoons and new; vintage “merchandise” and new.

Comic Strip Festival: Collectors cornerOr you could meet cartoonists and stand in line for an autograph. Or join a master class.

Strip Cartoon Festival: Workshop 2You might meet characters in costume for a photo op.

Cosplay - Alex the boy legionaire and friends

(I think that’s Alix in the middle with Julius Caesar and Alix’s sidekick Enak from The Adventures of Alix.)

And you could read – read – read – read…

Strip Cartoon Festival: Reader 1
Strip Cartoon Festival: Reader 2
Comic Strip Festival: Reader 3
Comic Strip Festival: Reader 4
I don’t really know what was going on below here – although at a wild guess it had something to do with Marvel Comics.

Comic Strip Festival: The Marvel Mobile

Absent friends

There were noticeable absences. Apart from the van above (if it really was from Marvel), almost nothing from the world of English comics. (Nothing till the parade anyway.) Nothing obviously from Japan or South Korea either. I came away with the feeling of having seen a world that was at once familiar but alien. Which is kind of what you want from a festival that predominantly celebrates fantasy and science fiction. But it’s kind of disturbing too.

I wonder if French speakers get the same frisson visiting English language conventions.

The Comic Strip Band

The photographer in me was also a bit disappointed that there were so few people in costume. Cosplay is such an eye-catching feature of Anglophone events nowadays. Fortunately there was this band of pirates. They played first to keep people’s spirits up at inflation square, and then walked in the parade.

Comic Strip Festival: Band of pirates 1
Comic Strip Festival: Band of pirates 3
Comic Strip Festival: Band of pirates 5At last the parade got under way, and finally here were a few familiar faces. From Star Wars: BB-8,

Comic Strip Festival: BB-8 BalloonRey,

Comic Strip Festival: Cosplay - Rey… and Darth Vader.

Comic Strip Festival: Cosplay - Darth VaderI think Darth Vader is a little like Father Christmas. It’s amazing how he can get around and be at so many events in so many places all over the world. (And the galaxy.) Not a lot like Father Christmas, of course. Just a little.

And look below here, from Tintin – Thomson and Thompson.

Comic Strip Festival: Cosplay -Thomson and Thompson

There was a real problem getting the balloon characters out of the park and across the road into town. The electrified tram lines were a serious barrier.

Comic Strip Festival: Getting the balloons under the tram linesBut once their wranglers had wrestled them down and under, the parade could proceed.

Comic Strip Festival: Le Chat balloon in processionAnd I think the wranglers felt a real sense of achievement.

Comic Strip Festival: Handling the balloons is funAh! Look! That guy to the left is wearing a Spirou pill-box hat! You see, not fibbing.

Comic Strip Festival: Le Chat leads the flags


I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Sleeping Homeless

The sleeping homeless - behind Square Jaques Brel
The sleeping homeless – behind Square Jaques Brel, Brussels, a sunny afternoon (Saturday 3rd September 2016)

Book Boxes of Brussels – Les boites à livres

The book boxes – les boites à livres – are scattered across the city – they’re not always easy to find, but that makes looking for them a sport (and you don’t need an app to do it)

The first book box I saw was the one outside the Longchamps swimming baths. I suppose I noticed it because I saw it – see it still – every time I passed by on my way in or out of the building. On its pole by the entrance steps. It’s blue and oblong with glass windows and an odd collection of books visible inside. The first time I opened it to look I found a book of poetry by the Swedish writer Gunnar Ekelöf. It was in a Dutch translation.

Clearly this was a book exchange site. Take out a book you fancy, put in one you don’t want any more so someone else can find it. I’ve come across book exchanges before. The one that always comes to mind is the “repurposed” telephone box in my sister’s village in Northamptonshire. But I hadn’t realised how big it is as a movement. It certainly seems big in Belgium.

Book boxes: At Parc Edith Cavell, Uccle
Uccle: Book box at Parc Edith Cavell, watched over by Edith herself

After I recognised the first one I started to spot other book boxes around Brussels. It was easiest in Uccle, the commune – municipality – where I live. Here the boxes all look like the one at the swimming baths. However, several of the Brussels communes also sponsor book box groups.

This being Brussels, each municipality has a different colour and design for its book boxes. This makes them at first less easy to spot. There are also some private groups – perhaps even individuals – who have set up their own boxes. Each of these has a unique design. But soon enough your eyes become aware, and then it’s a sport to see where you can find them.

Book boxes: At Place Brugmann, Ixelles
Ixelles: Book box at Place Brugmann

Several of the groups who put up the boxes have their own websites or Facebook pages. There are often links to these printed on the boxes somewhere – quite usually along with the addresses of nearby libraries. There is even a website (in French and Dutch) where one noble soul is trying to keep an updated list of all the book boxes in Brussels and Wallonia.

I’d been in Brussels for about six months when a translator friend (she works in France) sent me a link to a French article on-line. It was quite a short article, but it presented the book boxes of Brussels as a new curiosity. It made me feel almost a local and an old hand to be able to write back to Miranda with a “Thank you” and a “Yes, I know about this”. (Although, as I discovered preparing this article I didn’t know the half of it… and probably still don’t.)

Book boxes: In Forest Park, Forest
Forest: Book box In Forest Park.

Last spring I noticed the book box in Forest Park. Nothing like the elegant boxes of Uccle or of Ixelles our neighbouring commune. This was dark cupboard. No glass here – but three shelves of books. I was admiring it when a young man came along and asked me something. I made my usual apology: Pardon monsieur, je ne comprends pas français. Parlez-vous anglais? He did Parlez anglais, at least a little. He came from West Africa, from Guinea, and so his first European language was Spanish. Here in Brussels he was learning French and came along to this book box every week to look for a new book to help him.

Sadly I didn’t have my camera with me or I’d have asked to take his portrait as he was browsing.

Book boxes: At Longchamps swimming baths, Uccle
Uccle: Book box at Longchamps swimming baths.

Preparing to illustrate this article, last week I took my camera with me to the swimming baths. As I arrived I saw another young man holding the box’s glass front open with his head and rummaging inside. This chap had even less English, so we didn’t have much of a conversation. I asked (in English) if I could take a photo and he shrugged. I took that to be yes. Afterwards he asked me: “Journaliste?

“Blogger,” I said.

Ah, oui,” he nodded.

Book boxes: The Donnerie at Le Fraysse, Chaussee de Louvain 896, Evere
Evere: The Donnerie at Le Fraysse, Chaussee de Louvain 896.

Judging by the one at the swimming baths, the book boxes are well used. The number of books in the box changes dramatically from one week to the next and the variety of the books also. Although I’ve not seen anything more by any Swedish writer, I’ve seen French and Dutch crime novels, American thrillers and science fiction (usually in French translation). I’ve seen John Le Carré and Les principes de droit belge, school text books and children’s picture books, very new looking books and very old and tatty ones, dictionaries, magazines and comic books. All sorts.

Once I’ve completed this article, I think I’ll go through my own shelves and sort out a few books to drop off at the different boxes I’ve found around town.

Book boxes: At Place Flagey, Ixelles
Ixelles: Book box at Place Flagey.

This was the article Miranda sent me: L’essor des boîtes à livres

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge. I also produced a shorter version in Swedish for Bladet – The newspaper of Svenska klubben in Bryssel (the Swedish Club in Brussels).

Paddy’s journey: Gifts, woods and broken roads

Paddy’s journey: Gifts, woods and broken roads – a review of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy about walking across Europe in 1933, and of the allure his story still holds

Gifts: Patrick Leigh Fermor passport photo
Patrick Leigh Fermor aged 18 – his passport photo

In December 1933 a young Englishman, just 18 years old, stepped off the ferry from London in Rotterdam. He shouldered a rucksack and set out on a walk across the continent that would take him, eventually, to Istanbul. His name was Patrick Leigh Fermor – Paddy. Forty-four years later he published an account of his journey. Or, rather, the first part of his journey – the book was conceived as a trilogy.

Although Paddy was known as a travel writer in 1977, it was this book – A Time of Gifts – that introduced him to a wider audience. Between the Woods and the Water, the second part of the trilogy came out in 1986 and suddenly he was famous. One reviewer described him as “perhaps the most captivating travel writer of the century”. But it was not until 2013 that the story was concluded in The Broken Road. And now you understand the title of this article.

Paddy’s spell

Paddy was not a prolific writer. In the end he wrote little more than a handful of books. But his style, observation, fascination with the most obscure and esoteric subjects, charm, daring and above all his command of English make each one of his books a fascinating read. His readers fall under a spell. There are societies dedicated to his memory, websites where his books are debated and many travellers have set out to follow in his footsteps.
I’m going to guess many, many more have thought about doing so. I’m one!

Gifts and Woods

A Time of Gifts coverA Time of Gifts tells the story of his journey through Germany, Austria and into Czechoslovakia during the earliest period of Nazi control. Paddy was aiming to live off £1 a week. (His family sent him his money by post a week or a month at a time, so he wouldn’t overspend. In the book he describes how sometimes, when his plans didn’t work out, he would be in fairly desperate economic straits. How he struggles to get to the next post office where his cash is waiting for him post restant.) He travelled on foot, sleeping out under the stars, or he stayed in the cheapest of hostels, or with people he met on the way.

The journey had a hard beginning. After a time, though, good fortune (and Paddy’s charm) led him into more aristocratic circles. A few introductions he’d brought with him from friends in London helped too. By the time he reached southern Germany and Austria he was being passed from one Schloss to another.

Between the Woods and the Water coverBetween the Woods and the Water sees him across Hungary and Yugoslavia to the Iron Gates, a gorge of the River Danube on the border with Romania. Continuing on from A Time of Gifts, Paddy keeps moving in aristocratic circles. At the same time he insists on walking and spends long periods alone on the road or travelling with gypsies.

The two books taken together, although written so long after, are still a fantastic record. They paint a picture of a post-First World War world that still remembers the pre-war empires of central Europe. A world soon almost completely erased by the horrors of the Second World War and the long period of Communist dictatorship that followed.

Broken roads

The Broken Road coverPaddy’s fans looked forward to the final volume. The book that would take him across the Balkans and bring him finally to Istanbul. It never came and Paddy died in 2011.

However, in 2013, his biographer Artemis Cooper and fellow travel writer Colin Thubron published The Broken Road. This is the conclusion to the story, edited from Paddy’s notes and diaries. It goes some way to satisfy those of us who were captivated by the first two volumes and looked for closure.

Paddy’s journey, which started in December 1933, came to an end in January 1935 just a month before his 20th birthday. He had a life of action and adventure ahead of him. He became a war hero and, after the Second World War, dedicated himself to Greece and all things Panhellenic. Travelling in the footsteps of the poet Byron, he was himself a Byronic character. One of his obituaries described him as “one of the few genuine Renaissance figures produced by Britain in the 20th century”. Another said he was a cross between “Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene”.

Ill met by Moonlight

Ill Met by Moonlight film posterAll his obituaries seem to mention the trilogy Gifts, Woods and Broken Roads as the second thing of importance about Paddy. They all start by describing his most daring exploit of the war. In 1944 on the island of Crete under German occupation, he led a group of Greek partisans to kidnap the German commander of the island. The partisans took the commander across the island, hiding him from search parties, and then smuggled him away to British-held Cairo. Later – in 1957 – this dramatic story was filmed as Ill Met by Moonlight. (Night Ambush in the USA, Generalen kidnappad in Swedish.)

There is an incident in the film that is very revealing of Paddy’s character. (It is described in the memoir Ill Met by Moonlight. If memory serves, I think it also made it into the film.)

The partisan Kreipe Abduction Team - Paddy is in the middle
The partisan Kreipe Abduction Team – Paddy is in the middle

As they were moving their German prisoner, General Karl Kreipe, across the island they came to Mount Ida. This, the highest point of Crete, was capped with snow. Looking up at the peak of the mountain, Kreipe recited the beginning of a Latin poem about another snow-capped mountain. Paddy recognised the poem and immediately recited the rest of it. Captor and captive realised they had something in common – a love of classical literature.

Common ground

Time and again in the trilogy Paddy demonstrates a similar ability to find common ground with people he meets – whether through literature, experience or empathy. It seems to me this is one of the secrets of his success, both as a traveller and a travel writer. His ability to open himself and build bridges with everyone he meets, whomever they may be. Early in the first book he stays overnight with a young man, a labourer he meets on the road. The young man turns out to be a Sturmabteilung member – one of the Brownshirts. Paddy gets him to confess that up until quite recently he was a Communist. They explore the reasons the young man switched sides.

Inspiration

Gifts: Paddy photographed by Dimitri Papadimos
Paddy photographed by Dimitri Papadimos

Paddy’s account of his adventure continues to inspire people. The idea that you  can just pick up your pack and step out onto the open road to meet adventure one day after another – it’s very alluring. One man who succumbed, journalist and travel writer Nick Hunt, set out in December 2011 to follow in Paddy’s footsteps.

Beyond buying roadmaps and putting out calls for accommodation, I deliberately did no research into where I was going. Paddy’s books, eight decades out of date, would be my only travel guide. With his experience underlying my own, I would see what remained of hospitality, kindness to strangers, freedom, wildness, adventure, the mysterious, the unknown, the deeper currents of mists and story I believed – or longed to believe – still flowed beneath Europe’s surface.

Nick Hunt completed the journey in 221 days – less time than it took Paddy. He also produced a book of his whole journey in far less time than it took Paddy! The book – Walking the Woods and the Water – is a very worthwhile read as a pendant to Paddy’s trilogy. I recommend it.

And my own walking adventure ambition? It is to cross Sweden in the footsteps of a gentleman with the mouth-filling name Bulstrode Whitelock. Whitelock was the ambassador of the Republic of England to the court of Queen Christina between 1653 and 1654. But more of that another time.


Picture acknowledgements: The passport photograph of the 18 year-old Paddy comes from the website of the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society. The book covers all came from websites selling second hand copies of the books, except for The Broken Road, which is on my shelves here. The film poster of Ill Met by Moonlight I found on Pinterest and unfortunately can’t be more precise than that. The picture of the Kreipe Abduction Team and portrait of Paddy in middle-age are both from Wikipedia.

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.