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.

People watching in the Louisiana cafeteria

Standing in line at the Louisiana cafeteria two children provide a distraction for the author waiting in the queue

I was standing in line, queuing up for lunch in the Louisiana cafeteria. It’s not self-service but you queue up to a counter with glass display cabinets. When you reach the head of the queue you get a tray and the cashier serves you with your choice from the cabinet. Your choice of sandwich, pie, biscuit, desert. You can also pay for the lunch buffet, in which case you get a plate for the food and a bowl for the soup. Anyway I was in line and the queue was moving very slowly.

Louisiana Cafeteria buffet
The Louisiana Cafeteria Buffet. The staff is clearing up. You can just see the queue in the background top left.

Ahead of me was an older woman – in her late fifties I suppose – and two kids. I took them to be her grandchildren. They were about 10 years old. Physically they looked about the same age to me, though it was obvious from his behaviour that the boy was the younger. He was sticking close to grandma and pressing up against her, and pointing and asking for things.

Meanwhile the little girl stood on the other side of him. She also pointed and asked, but her body language told me she was more independent. Still, she did try sometimes to get closer to her grandmother, but then her brother got in the way. This was clearly deliberate. The little girl didn’t seem to be upset though. A tolerant young woman.

The noise level in the cafeteria was quite high so I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I couldn’t even be sure what language they were using, though I suppose they were Danes. After a little while the grandmother received a tray with four plates of the Louisiana cafeteria’s delicious strawberry tart. She added spoons and cake-forks and paper napkins. Then she handed the loaded tray to the little girl, trusting her to carry it safely to the family’s table. The girl took the tray and carried it slowly and with great care, walking past me and heading for the doorway to the next room. There was a look of intense concentration on her face.

Louisiana Cafeteria
One of the dining rooms of the Louisiana Cafeteria. Very crowded today with all the rain outside.

I’ve said the cafeteria was noisy – it was also crowded and busy with people. Just before the girl got to the door a woman stepped in front of her. The woman stood, blocking the doorway, looking out into the other room. This wasn’t deliberate. I’m sure she just didn’t see the little girl. But she never looked around to see if she was in anyone’s way. She was looking for someone she’d lost, out there in the other room and she had no eyes for anyone else.

Even if she had looked around though, she was a good bit taller than the girl. I am not sure she’d have seen her. Her gaze would have slipped over the top of the little girl’s head.

The little girl didn’t really know what to do. There was a way around, but it was perilously close to the woman. What if she turned as abruptly as she had stepped in the way. If she caught the girl’s tray with her shoulder bag or banged the girl with her hip, the tray and all the desserts would go flying. The girl stepped back, stepped forward, stood still and looked up at the woman’s tall back in front of her. I saw the tray tilt alarmingly down towards one corner, but the little girl noticed in time and changed her hold to keep it level.

The tension was palpable (to me anyway) and I felt I ought to come to the little girl’s aid. Call out to the woman perhaps and ask her to move. But then I had a mental image of her turning in alarm and cannoning into the girl and her tray. Fortunately the woman suddenly caught sight of the person she was looking for, raised a hand and stepped through the doorway. The little girl looked very relieved and carried on her careful way through the door herself.

Louisiana shop
Part of the Louisiana museum shop – Danish design and handicrafts, and also pretty crowded.

Back at the head of the queue grandmother and grandson were still in debate. It seemed that the little boy also wanted to carry something, but grandma wasn’t keen to let him. He begged and eventually she gave him an opened bottle of pop and a glass to carry. He did this, but it looked as though he was struggling all the time with a temptation to do something with the bottle. I don’t know what – drink out of it perhaps, pour it into the glass, hold it up to the light and look through it. He actually did that last.

Then the little girl reappeared, sans tray, and the boy suddenly found it necessary to defend his position at grandma’s side. The little girl pretended to be a savage dinosaur – claws and snarling jaws – and the boy pushed back at her with his bottle and glass. One step forward against her, then one step back to grandma’s skirts.

This was awkward because the grandmother was now turning away from the counter carrying her own tray on which were four full cups of coffee. I think she told the little girl to take her brother’s bottle and glass, but he kicked up a fuss. Instead she told the children to go ahead of her, to lead her to their table. The girl pulled her brother along, pinching the arm of his shirt. He didn’t like that, and tried to twist out of her grasp, though he followed her anyway, still clutching his bottle and glass.

Grandma followed on behind, also carefully carrying her tray. She had an expression on her face not so very different from the little girl’s with the strawberry tarts.

I was watching them leave through the doorway when the man in the queue behind me asked something sharply in Danish. I realised everyone was now waiting for me.

Louisiana Cafeteria panorama


With this article I introduce a new Stops and Stories Category that I call People Watching.

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Pop art illuminations in Louisiana

Pop art illuminations in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, that is – the 85th most visited art museum in the world (says Wikipedia at the time I write this)

I’ve been trying to remember how many times I’ve been to Louisiana before the present visit. Definitely twice, possibly three times. Perhaps more? Once was in high summer because the sun was shining and there were crowds of people sitting on the grass banks outside the restaurant. They were sunning themselves among the mobiles and sculptures and enjoying the view over the Öresund to Sweden. Another time I was there in the late autumn or early spring. The weather was grey and misty and there were few visitors. It felt like Mrs SC and I had the museum almost to ourselves.

Henry Moore sculpture and a white sailThis time around, on Saturday 30th July, the weather was changeable. Rain, sun, clouds, mist, clear, and all fading in and out of one another. But that doesn’t matter so much when what you’re interested in, by and large, is indoors.

Previously at Louisiana

Previous visits have all been day-trips north from Copenhagen as far as I remember. This time we came travelling south from Helsingør, from Elsinore. (Hence my last week’s photos.) In fact, we stayed overnight in Helsingborg on the Swedish side and took the ferry across. It takes just 20 minutes. Then the train to Humlebæk, and a short walk. We arrived at the museum just as they were opening at 11 o’clock. As we’d bought a combined entrance and round trip ticket in Helsingborg, we were able to jump the Louisiana queue. We were among the first visitors into the museum so I recommend that solution.

Louisiana- Alberto Giacometti - Bust of Elie LotarThe reason I’m confused about how often I’ve visited Louisiana, probably, is because I’ve quite detailed memories of several different exhibitions. Definitely more than two. Louisiana was where I saw Jana Sterbek’s meat dress (way before Lady Gaga riffed – or ripped off – the same idea). Was that sometime in the 1990s? Louisiana was certainly where I first saw Cindy Sherman’s photography. And I think it was also where I first saw Ai Weiwei’s art. I’ve got a memory also of seeing late work by Picasso there. And then there’s the permanent collection of Giacometti statues which I go back to every time. Then there are the sculptures in the gardens. And the mezzo-American collection in one of the glass corridors.

One reason for my confusion may be that, with so much space at its disposal, Louisiana always seems to be staging two or three really big exhibitions at the same time. And these are usually radically different from one another – though there may be points of contact. This summer they’re exhibiting a retrospective of the work of a Danish pop artist, a small collection of early Picasso drawings and a selection of the gallery’s new purchases made over the last three years. All alongside the regularly rotated permanent collection.

Poul Gernes

Pop art at Louisiana - Poul Gernes retrospective Gallery 2The pop artist is Poul Gernes, who I confess I’d never heard of before. I had never consciously seen his work either, though I did recognise some of it. “Recognise” in the sense that it was generic pop art. Pop art must have figured large in the training of some of the art teachers I had in my schooldays.

Blocks of colour, geometric shapes, linocut prints, found objects, sculptures and surfaces created from scrap, found prints (tire tracks and shoes for example). All these feature in the exhibition (though most of them rather better executed than my primary school self ever managed). It was quite nostalgic really.

Pop art - Poul Gernes retrospective Gallery 1 panoramaPoul Gernes clearly subscribed to the philosophy that anyone can make art (which I certainly don’t dispute). The exhibition is subtitled with the following quote.

Jeg kan ikke alene, vill du vaermed?
I cannot do it alone – want to join in?

Pop art - Poul Gernes retrospective Black and white patternsUnfortunately – and it may be another side of pop art period ideology – he also seems to have believed that art needs to be dumbed down to a lowest common denominator of ambition.

He had some ideas about the importance of colour and health too, which he got the chance to explore when he decorated an entire hospital. One of his hospital rooms was recreated for this exhibition. Three walls of the room were decorated in “healthy” colours, and the windows hung with colourful curtains. One wall – the one behind the patient’s bed – was left white. Apparently this was in order for the medical staff to better judge the colour of the patient’s face and see how healthy they were.

Pop art - Poul Gernes retrospective Gallery 3 - Herlev HospitalThe exhibition did not go any further into Poul Gernes’ philosophy of colour and health, which I thought a pity. I would like to have known whether he thought a red face indicative of choler or a yellow face of bile. I also wonder how far the Danish medical establishment went along with him.

Illuminations

Apart from the Gernes retrospective Louisiana was also exhibiting Illuminations, a large selection of their new purchases made over the last three years.

This was an eclectic exhibition, but there were points of contact with Poul Gernes’ pop art. For example, Gerhard Richter’s Strip from 2013 (below). The strips are made of “colours that originally formed part of an abstract painting, but are systematized here according to an empty principle.” (I’m assuming “empty principle” has a technical sense for colour theory – as it does in linguistics – and isn’t just a mistranslation from psycho-babble in the original language.)

Illuminations . Gerhard Richter - StripNext to this, on an adjacent wall, was a monumental golden photograph – Katar from 2012 – by Andreas Gursky. This turned out to be the interior of the cargo hold of a ship that transports liquid gas.

Louisiana - Illuminations gallery 2The Illuminations exhibition included sculpture. (That’s a sculpture to the right in the above photo.) But also…

Installations

Installations such as the all-but-pitch-black room in which the sounds of arctic icebergs grinding, melting, freezing and calving, are played from surround-sound speakers. This work is Isfald (2013), by Jacob Kirkegaard. It is an almost overpowering experience to stand in the installation and listen to the soundscape created. You can experience a small fraction of this work on Louisiana’s video website. Here is an interview with Kirkegaard (along with another artist, Daren Almond).

Louisiana 10 Illuminations gallery 3

Louisiana 2 Illuminations gallery 1It’s impossible to mention all the works of art that Illuminations displayed. Some I liked, some I thought were interesting – even funny. And as always with modern art, there were some pieces that left me cold. Still, I think it’s good to know that all these works are now in the Museum’s collection and join the rotating permanent exhibition. Louisiana also has an active policy of loaning out pieces to other museums for special occasions – in exchange for other pieces brought to Humlebæk for future exhibitions – so they are not hidden away by any means.

Yayoi Kusama

Louisiana - Yayoi Kusama - Gleaming Lights of the Souls 1Just before we left we got to experience another of Louisiana’s installations. This is one from the permanent collection – Yayoi Kusama‘s Gleaming Lights of the Souls from 2008. The installation is a single space. A closed room. The walls and ceilings are mirrors and the floor is a reflecting pool of water. Hanging from the ceiling are hundreds of lamps that slowly change colour. You stand in the middle on a narrow platform and it’s like you are flying among the lights. It’s a surreal but serene experience. Each group – of only four people – get to stand for one minute in the room with the door shut. It’s funny, but waiting outside to get in the minute passes so slowly, inside absorbed by the experience the minute is far too short. As soon as you come out you want to get back in line and experience it all over again. And again.
Louisiana - Yayoi Kusama - Gleaming Lights of the Souls 2 Panorama

Tired

Unless of course your feet are so tired after seven hours of wandering the halls and galleries that all you really want to do is sit down.

It’s a 10 minute walk back to the station, but you can sit on the train to Helsingør. Then you can sit on the ferry to Helsingborg. And then you are in better shape to argue your way back into Sweden through the new immigration control… but that’s another story.

Alexander Calder's mobile at Louisiana in the rain
Above: Alexander Calder’s mobile at Louisiana in the rain


I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Alas, poor Yorick

Alas, poor YorickAlas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest whose response to life I fain would emulate…

I am not posting a blog entry this week as I am on holiday. In Denmark, in the tourist information centre at Helsingør, as far as the photo above reveals.

Below, in unnatural pose, I am supposed to be looking at Helsingør’s Kronborg – Shakespeare’s Elsinore – there in silhouette on the horizon. There’s a Shakespeare festival taking place there all of August.

John and ElsinoreNot that I actually visited Elsinore on this trip. But more of that when normal service is resumed – next week if all goes according to plan. And the weather gods permit.

Louisiana view through a rainy windowHave a great summer!


I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.