Tourist Information

Belgium is a schizophrenic nation, people say, at the Dutch end of the country everyone is Germanic and efficient, but at the French end everyone is Gallic and disorganised. As for Brussels – Pff! (And a gesture of hands thrown in the air.) The Dutch end of the country is Flanders and the French end is Wallonia while the 19 municipalities that make up the city of Brussels are a principally French speaking enclave just within the area of Flanders.

I heard this story about the difference between Dutch-speaking Belgians and French-speaking Belgians (or if you prefer, the Flemings and the Walloons) even before I moved to Brussels and it’s been repeated to me here by all sorts of different people – foreigners, Flemings and even French-speakers. The French-speakers are apologetic and self-deprecating when they tell it, but they tell it none the less.

Now I really don’t want to be the sort of person who goes around swallowing clichés whole and then regurgitating them, but I’m going to share with you my recent experience of seeking tourist information in Brussels, and I’m afraid it does rather confirm the above.

Last week was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. I know I’d left it rather late, but I thought it might be nice to go out to Waterloo for the anniversary celebrations. Waterloo is not far from here at all, it’s just to the south of Brussels and many people live there and commute into the city to work. Also, there is a big expatriate Swedish community in Waterloo clustered around the Swedish school (and attracted there originally following the major promotion of the town by a certain Swedish pop group).

Grand Place 3Anyway, here I am in Brussels, Waterloo is a 15 minute train ride away, it seemed a natural thing to do to go into the Brussels Tourist Information office on the Grand Place and ask for some help. La Grand Place (French) or Grote Markt (Dutch) is in the centre of the Brussels’ tourist district, a fabulous former market square surrounded by tall, 15th century Gothic to 17th century Baroque buildings commemorating civic institutions and city guilds. The TI centre is in the south-east corner of the Place, in the City Hall (Hôtel de Ville). You enter through a short corridor past the sign that tells you (I think) this used to be a police station. To the right is an office where you can buy souvenirs and tickets and to the left an office where you can get information. If you are lucky.

Need InfoI say that because, if you’re going to visit the Brussels TI office, you’d better come prepared with questions that relate just to Brussels. As the young man in the office politely explained, Waterloo is not in Brussels. It is in Wallonia and what happens in Wallonia – even if only just across the border in Waterloo – is a mystery in Brussels. The young man (who had very good English) managed without actually saying it to convey that he felt me profoundly misguided in wanting to visit Waterloo when I had all the delights of Brussels available to me.

But I was persistent. Where to find out about events in Waterloo? For that you’ll have to visit the Wallonia Tourist Information centre, he said, and started giving me directions – across the square, down that street, turn left… you can’t miss it. Having previously had experience of “you can’t miss it” directions in Brussels that somehow I did manage to miss, I asked for a map. He wrote the address down and drew a sketch map for me on a scrap of paper. The Brussels TI office doesn’t have maps of the city to give away to tourists who want to leave Brussels.

The Wallonia office, when I found it, was shut. Clearly the opening hours of the Wallonia TI centre are also something unknown in Brussels. They were displayed on the door however, so I made a note and went back the following day.

Espace WallonieThe Wallonia tourist information “Espace” is a large open room, partly given over to exhibitions (currently there is an exhibition for children about Ernest & Celestine who I must conclude are Walloons). The reception desk was staffed with two people who did not seem to have much to do. I went up to them and said: Do you speak English? Then immediately corrected myself (because this is a tourist information office). Of course you speak English!

They didn’t.

Or rather, the older man did not and the middle-aged woman with him said she could manage a little.

So I asked about Waterloo.

I’m not sure what Wallonia has to offer, but I would guess that the battlefield of Waterloo and the associated museums are quite a big attraction for foreign tourists, and judging by the coverage of the Waterloo celebrations in the British press, at least some of them are likely to be English-speaking. Well, if so, they are not expected to visit the Brussels space of the Wallonia TI centre.

The centre had one flyer which, to be fair, did include a few sentences in English and from which I was able to work out that there is a museum dedicated to Wellington in the town of Waterloo and a big hill overlooking the battlefield just outside the town. There are also buses from the town centre to the battlefield.

After consulting her colleague in French, the woman managed to convey to me that there is a new museum. If I understood correctly, built underground. This is a fine museum, the finest in Wallonia! But sadly the Wallonia Tourist Information space in Brussels had no information about it. The lady I was talking to went online but couldn’t find anything about the new museum on the the Internet either. However she was able to find a telephone number, which she used to call the museum. There was a long wait before anyone answered and then a long conversation that confirmed the new museum is open from Monday to Sunday, seven days a week, between 9 o’clock in the morning and 6 o’clock in the evening. She wrote this down for me and was very pleased that she knew both “Monday” and “Sunday”. Her colleague congratulated her.

How to get to Waterloo? If you don’t have a car you must take a train from the southern station and a bus. Okay. I can see from the flyer how much it costs to enter the museum and the different sites – can you tell me how much it costs to travel there? Is there perhaps a packet price? Oh dear, we don’t know. The buses are run by private enterprise and the trains originate in Brussels so that is something we can’t know about. Ask at the railway station. (Later, at the railway station, they said, Pff! And threw their hands up.)

While I was there another tourist came into the centre. This man spoke French and had some questions about Brussels. He talked with the man behind the counter – the one who couldn’t speak English – and although I didn’t understand everything I got the gist. It seems the Wallonia TI centre has no information about Brussels – not even a map – because it’s not Wallonia, you see. But they are happy to recommend the Brussels TI office in the Grand Place, though they have difficulty explaining even in French where it is. Since that was something I knew and the Wallonian information provider seemed so helpless, I almost volunteered to take the chap there myself. Almost but not quuite.

Leaving the Wallonia centre, I walked up the street about 100 metres and found myself outside the Flanders Tourist Information centre. It was open. When I saw this I thought: I have to. And I went in.

Visit FlandersThe Visit Flanders tourist information centre is even larger and more open than the Wallonia Espace, and rather busier when I was there, with seven or eight tourists but only one member of staff, an older woman, working behind the desk. I joined the queue. Obviously it wouldn’t be fair to ask about Waterloo, but I thought I could ask about Flanders Fields – surely as big magnet for foreign tourists in the Flanders area as Waterloo in Wallonia.

Standing in the queue I noticed a computer screen handily placed with “FAQ – Select your language” on it in five different languages. Under the title were buttons for each of English, French, Dutch, Spanish and German. I pressed the screen for English. Nothing happened. The screen wasn’t touch sensitive, so it was actually impossible to follow the instructions, choose your language and read the FAQ. This didn’t bode well.

Still, I waited in line. And I waited… But it has to be said, after I got to the head of the queue, that the woman behind the counter spoke good English and was able to give me brochures – in English – about Flanders Fields, a brochure about Ypres, a brochure about accommodation in the area, a tourist map and a leaflet with information about how to get there.

On the counter in front of her was a map of Brussels. The two older women ahead of me in the queue were asking about things to do and see in Brussels (in French). The Flanders TI woman not only answered them in French and made recommendations, but also gave them free tourist maps.

And so I am forced to conclude – at least in respect of tourist information offices in Brussels – it may be a cliché but the Belgian cultural divide is also alive and well and still splitting the country in two (or three).

Also, if you’re in Brussels and you Need Info – I recommend VisitFlanders on Rue du Marché aux Herbes.

Grand Place 4


I’d love to report that I got out to Waterloo and saw the re-enactment of the battle, but no. Eventually I discovered that tickets for the re-enactments (there were several days of them) were all sold out long ago. I’ll content myself with going out there some other time. I apologise btw for linking the 200th Anniversary reference to the on-line pages of the Anglo-jingo Daily Mail, but the pictures are really good.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Photography – overcoming photo-block

In the park - leaves against the skyNo matter how accustomed I am to photography, I find there are days when I can’t see anything to take pictures of. In a way that’s understandable if I’m in a new place where new impressions are forcing themselves upon me from all sides and it’s difficult to filter out the things I want to focus on, but I don’t understand why it happens sometimes when I’m familiar with a place. Unless this is an example of familiarity breeding indifference.

In the park - the joggerI’m not sure which of these two perspectives was influencing me the other day, but I decided I didn’t have any intention of indulging my reluctance. I took the camera and I went on a walk and I forced myself to do one of those basic photography school exercises. You know the one: set yourself to take a photograph every 100 paces. Walk, count your steps, and when you get to 200 (because two steps make one pace) stop and take a picture. It doesn’t matter what – just take it and then walk on.

In the park - conversation over a bicycleAfter a while – after three or five or seven photographs – you begin to see things that may be worth photographing and after 10 or 20 or 40, you find you’ve had a walk and you’ve got a collection of images, some of which may not be so bad. Of course, you don’t know until you get home and look at them but, even if when you do, you don’t choose to share even half, perhaps there are few with something interesting about them. Perhaps there’s one or two that are really not bad.

In the park - up to the roadSo it was, again, for me. I walked through the two parks that are nearest to where I now live in Brussels: Duden Park – which used to be an enclosed Royal Park but was given over to the people of Uccle sometime in the late 1800s – and then on through Vorst Park which I think is all that remains of a forest since that’s what “vorst” means. (And yes, the French name is Parc de Forest so my linguistic achievement here is even more underwhelming than it may seem at first.)

In the park - not a bench you can sit onThere were people out jogging in the morning air, walking their dogs, companionably talking with one another or consulting their mobile telephones. There was one homeless man just waking up from the bed he’d made for himself on one of the benches, and another bench without any planks to sit on.

In the park - off to workThere were park workers setting out for work.

In the park - LeopoldThere was the bust of bad King Leopold II gazing arrogantly at the dome of the Palace of Justice he ordered built, and the working class district of the city he had depopulated in order to make space for it.

In the park - what Leopold seesThere was the sun on the trees, on leaves green against the blue sky, on the facades of the houses over beyond the edge of the park.

And at the end of it all there was a certain peace and a feeling of accomplishment. And a few photos to illustrate this post.
In the park - sun on facades


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Piano

There’s something very special, I think, about hearing piano music in the street. Perhaps because it’s not something I hear so often, each time it happens it adds an extra little bookmark in my memory.

Brussels streetA morning walk along a Brussels street. The sun slants, just clearing the rooftops, illuminating the facades but leaving the paving still in shadow. The promised heat of the afternoon is yet to come and yesterday’s has dissipated in the night. It’s a little chill. There are no front yards, the front doors, up steps, a couple or three, open off the street, and the tall front room windows, above the head height of passers-by, are open to let in the fresh air. From one of these comes the sound of a piano.

The pianist is not proficient. This is practice. Four, eight, sixteen bars tried again and again. There’s something a little hesitant about the last couple of bars. The speed drops, a key is missed, fumbled, there is a pause and the passage begins again. I walk on up the street and the piano sounds fade away behind me, but I am remembering another street, another piano.

Cracow streetAfternoon in the centre of Cracow. The yellow trams are rattling past one another up and down the road, taxis weaving between them and people, locals on their way from work to the shops mixed with ambling tourists in T-shirts and shorts. And once again from open windows above head height the sound of a piano. Here, a sign by the door tells me this is a music school. Someone is practising – Chopin (of course), the Minute Waltz. And I stop and join two or three others who stand below the window listening, smiling at one another, and as the piece finishes without a hitch there is a small round of applause before we all go our separate ways.

At the Eurostar stations in Paris and London the management have put out pianos. Older, upright pianos, painted in bright primary colours. Passengers waiting to board their trains or people waiting to meet friends arriving from far off sometimes sit down and plink away. When I was in London in March – my first visit – a young man was picking out Chopsticks. Diddle-um-pum-pum, diddle-um-pum-pum, diddle-um-pum-um-pum-um-pum-pum. In Paris, another young man sat and delivered a proficient jazz melody while his friends stood around.

A hundred years ago there was a piano in every home. Well, perhaps not every home, but in most British middle-class homes and in many an aspiring working class home. Before radio and long before TV and before cheap records and gramophones, people made music themselves and the piano was a symbol of modernity and a product of modern industrialisation (likewise the accordion, but the squeezebox never achieved the same cultural cachet). Sheet music was cheap and the ability to play the piano was a social accomplishment. Before the guitar, the piano ruled.

No longer.

Now pianos may still be built and bought by the wealthy, but the pianos of the past are out on the street. My brother-in-law’s piano – an upright that he sometimes plays (tries to play, but don’t tell him I said that) – was just such a piano. Left out on the street by a family clearing the house of a deceased relative. They were going to take it to the tip – the second-hand charity shop they approached didn’t want to know. It cost my brother-in-law the price of two men and a van to get it home.

The sad piano - warped keysA couple of years ago I came across another piano abandoned by the wayside. I’m not sure how long it had stood there, some of the boards had come away exposing the cast iron harp. It was still strung, but the felt of the hammers was swollen with damp and on the keys the white veneer – not ivory I hope – was coming away from the wood. Of course I tried it to hear if I could make it sing, but it was dead. I took some photographs.

There’s another piano memory – this reaches way back, more than 40 years – 45 perhaps. A cold, dim November evening in my childhood home in Brighton. The piano teacher is coming. My sister and I, reminded, rush to our upright piano. For a week, since the last time the teacher was here, we have not looked at it, but now with just an hour to go we are squabbling over who gets to practice. Will it be my funereal slow version of “Jig” or my sister’s stuttering rendition of “Frairer Shacker”. (That’s “Frère Jacques” to you.)

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, visiting, slips in ahead of us. She claims the keyboard and plays with bravura the chorus of “Toreador” from Carmen. Most impressively, she does so without reading notes. We squeal in shock, How is this possible? How?! She never learned, she says airily, just picked it up. Plays by ear.

Here we have been struggling to read the black insect squiggles and stretch our fingers to press the right keys in the right order at the right time. Now we learn you don’t have to do that. Just play by ear! We go on strike. No more piano lessons for us. We will play by ear. So, of course, we never do.

“Thank you, Mum,” my mother said to her mother. I think that was when I began to recognise irony.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Chagall

On Saturday Mrs SC and I went to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts here in Brussels to see their Chagall Retrospective. We had some idea that this weekend would be the final opportunity but it turns out the exhibition is running for another month yet.

The Promenade
Click on any picture to see it larger.
It was very impressive to see in one place so many of Chagall’s paintings – 200 says the exhibition brochure. So much intense colour. I just found a quote from Picasso who said in the 1950s that after his close friend and rival Matisse, Chagall was the only living artist who “understands what colour really is”.

A little bit of a backhanded compliment that – I wonder if Chagall appreciated it.

I wonder if Chagall would have appreciated this exhibition.

The Lovers in BlueWell, of course he would. The reverence for his art now, contrasts strongly with the indifference and contempt he faced for many years. Indifference first from a broad public in his early years (though not among fellow artists and not at home in Vitebsk).

 Flying violinistBut indifference was less of a problem than the contempt, as his art was rejected in Revolutionary Russia and as Nazism grew in the 20s and 30s. Chagall’s art was “green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air … [an] assault on Western civilization”.

On the other hand, the exhibition hall is buried in the cellar of the Museum (and what would Chagall have thought about all the artificial light), and to get there visitors have to pass a foul smelling vestibule that reminds you Brussels also boasts a Sewer Museum. Perhaps the smell was a advert for that?

But then you get to the art and the all rest is of no account.

The ringAs there were signs at the museum entrance showing crossed over cameras I assumed photography was forbidden until I saw somebody filming. I went and asked and was told I could take photos for my own use as long as I didn’t use a flash.

I may have gone a little overboard.

Adam and EveThere were pictures from every phase of Chagall’s artistic career, from about 1909 until the 1980s. Personally I found most interesting the ones from about 1912 through to the 1940s – the later pictures from his time in the south of France seem over decorative to me. But the range of his art from a sort of post-impressionist style reminiscent of Gauguin and van Gogh, through Cubism, Expressionism and on into a naïve Surrealism is compelling, and its easier to appreciate it when you see so many works all together.

David - Chagall's brotherThe only thing missing from the exhibition really was any example – or even any photograph – of Chagall’s stained-glass. But I forgive this because I know it was Chagall’s opinion that his glass should be seen with the moving light of day behind it, so that it changes over time and depending on the weather.

The Monster of Notre DameOnce upon a time when I was in my 20s, I stayed at my father’s home in Kent, a village called Five Oak Green. I was to take care of the place while he and my stepmother Doris were on holiday. Before they left Doris said she thought I might be interested in the church in the next village.

“It’s got some windows,” she said. “They’re by some French fellow, some Jew.”

 Green face blue face - detailFor reasons of domestic tranquillity, and because she simply wouldn’t understand what I was getting at, I let the Jew reference pass by.

Doris went on to say that the windows had been put in to commemorate the daughter of the Lady of the Manor who drowned in a sailing accident off Rye, and that her husband – “Harry Goldsmid, you know” (I didn’t) – was the one who had brought in “the Jew”.

Cat - detailI didn’t have an awful lot to do once I was on my own. Every morning I had to feed the cat antibiotics because it was recovering from a battle with a rat – it had a rat bite across the root of its tail. That meant about an hour and a half of stalking the cat, holding it down (with gloves on) and forcing a pill into its mouth repeatedly (it kept coughing it up).

That cat hated me. With reason, it must be said.

 The Poet RecliningAnyway, once the morning’s struggle was over there wasn’t much to keep me in the house and so I walked a lot, exploring the byways around the village. One day I walked across to Tudeley to have a look at the church.

I wasn’t expecting very much and the outside of the church, when I found it, was not encouraging. It looked like it might have been quite pretty once, but I was absolutely convinced the tower must have been hit by a bomb in the war and rebuilt by some local builder with minimal experience of architecture. While the body of the church is constructed from an attractive local stone, the tower is a square, squat block in red brick that looks more like an electricity distribution substation than anything else. (I am surprised to discover now, thanks to the church’s own website, that the tower actually dates from 1765.)

Tudeley east window
Tudeley east window – photo by Philip French
Inside, though, all other considerations just fall away as you stand in the wonder of the blue light streaming in from twelve fantastic stained-glass windows, all clearly the work of Marc Chagall.

A little nosing around shows that while Sir Henry d’Avigdor-Goldsmid may have paid for the windows it was his Christian wife and daughter who chose Chagall. They had seen and fallen in love with the artist’s stained glass when his windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem were exhibited in Paris in 1961. When the daughter, Sarah, was drowned in 1963, the mother, Rosemary, tracked Chagall down and persuaded him to create a commemorative window for the church. Chagall was reluctant at first, but finally agreed and when he came to see the window installed in 1967 he is supposed to have said “C’est magnifique! Je les ferai tous!” (“It’s beautiful! I will do them all!”) All the windows that is.

The last window was put into the church in 1985 – which may have been after I was there – soon before Chagall’s death.

Wandering JewIt’s strange to think about the windows at Tudeley now and how I came to see them for the first time. Here I am in Brussels, viewing an exhibition that focuses on Chagall and his extraordinary life: Vitebsk, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Paris again, New York, the Côte d’Azur – in his art he portrayed himself, among other things, as the Wandering Jew of folklore. And my mind slips back 30 years or more to that summer, and then suddenly forward again ten, twelve years. Now I am looking down on Kent from the window of an aircraft flying into Heathrow. It’s a crystal clear October morning and my eye follows the route of a railway line and suddenly I realise I’m looking at Five Oak Green and Tudeley, and a little beyond, Tonbridge where my father is dead in a funeral home waiting for cremation.

BirthdayIs it me or is it Chagall? Neither I suppose – it’s just human nature. But Chagall was able to capture in his art the way the mind can hop and skip across time and space and mix fact and fancy. Even fly through the air.

 Green monster - detailIn the museum, the voice on the audio guide is reading an English text that has clearly been translated from French and originally written by an art historian with a definite idea of what Chagall’s art means – but I’m not so sure. I hear her saying “anger… terror… horror”, but I find it difficult to see these emotions in Chagall’s work. I see joy and happiness, humour, innocence and bemusement. At worst I see faces without expression. Chagall’s colour symbolism is beyond me – so green means illness? OK, if you say so, voice from the machine. The falling angel, burning in red with one black eye gazing back at the viewer, now that I find more comprehensible, but I don’t see fear.

Falling AngelAt the end of the exhibition, passed the turnstiles at the exit but before you reach the exhibition shop… (Chagall prints on micro-clothes to dust your computer screens – artistic and practical!) Before the shop is an area set aside for visiting school kids, paper and crayons and an exhibition of children’s work inspired by Chagall. Acrobats and lovers and figures flying over rooftops, angels and musicians and people with Janus faces. The kids seem to have distilled Chagall’s essence – even if they can’t quite do the colours. But then, with both Matisse and Chagall gone, who now understands colour?
Chagall exhibition - Viewers


All illustrations are from my own photography except the picture of the east window at All Saints’ church Tudeley, which links to the original source.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.