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Greetings good visitor!

Thank you for dropping in on Stops and Stories. Please feel free to look around and read some of my blog articles. I hope you find something to interest you. Well, actually I hope you find lots to interest you!

If you are looking for new articles and/or new photos, though, please visit my main website at TheSupercargo. In the past month I have published 13 new entries there and I hope to be publishing more as 2017 moves forward.

Behind the scenes I’m also copying across all the extant entries from Stops and Stories. This is in preparation for switching to the more secure HTTPS. I hope to have made the move by the end of March. When that happens I will ensure that visitors to Stops and Stories are automatically redirected to TheSupercargo and visitors to specific entries on Stops and Stories are redirected to the same entry on TheSupercargo.

Thank you for your continued interest. I look forward to welcoming you when you visit Stops and Stories at TheSupercargo.

John Nixon
TheSupercargo

All that Jazz – after-hours in Saint Joos

Jazz in Saint Joos – A walk through a gallery of jazz musicians only to be seen after-hours along the Chausée de Louvain in Saint-Joos-ten-Noode

Jazz heroes: Manu Dibango on saxBelgium has a reputation for jazz. At least in Belgium’s own mind. Belgians will be quick to remind you that “they” invented the quintessential jazz instrument. Well, to be sure, Adolphe Sax was Belgian. But in 1846 when he patented the saxophone he was living in Paris. Also he intended his instrument to be used by marching military bands. The jazz saxophone didn’t really become a thing until the 1920s.

Okay, the saxophone isn’t the only claim Belgians have on jazz. Even somebody as ignorant as I am of this music form has heard of a couple of Belgium’s big-name contributions to the jazz pantheon. Toots Thielemans (who I know of as a harmonica player) was Belgian before he became American. And Django Reinhardt, the demon gypsy jazz guitarist, turns out to have been born here.

Jazz heroes: Cesaria Evora singsHistory apart, there is a flourishing modern jazz scene in Brussels. If this is your preference you’re pretty well served. Even if you’re not particularly keen, you still find yourself stumbling across jazz references wandering about town. Never more so than along the first stretch of the Chausée de Louvain/Leuvensteenweg between the Madou metro station at Place Madou and St Josse Place.

Jazz heroes: MenThis is a well-trafficked though rundown shopping street on the edge of the European quarter. It’s just inside Belgium’s smallest and most densely populated municipality, Saint-Joos-ten-Noode. During the working day, you probably won’t see anything so much out of the ordinary, but walk down here in the evening after the shops are shut, or on a Sunday, and you’re confronted by a gallery of jazz musicians.

Jazz heroes: Chris Cody and the Sydney Opera HouseThe pictures are painted on the roll-down metal blinds that cover the doors or the whole display windows of some of the shops. The portraits show an international array of stars, each playing their instruments. Behind each is something “typical” of their home country – the Eiffel Tower, the Congress building in Washington DC, the Sydney Opera House. I’m not sure how many there are, but when I went to take photographs for this article at the beginning of November I found eleven. (Though the pictures are numbered up to eighteen.)

Jazz heroes: Josephine Baker in white-faceAs I’ve implied, I’m not a great jazz aficionado. I don’t actually recognise the names of any of these musicians (with the exception of Josephine Baker). But several of them are quite obviously jazz musicians. Here is Terumasa Hino blowing his horn in front of Mount Fuji. Here is Manu Dibango playing his sax in front of what appears to be a spiral playground slide. And here is Nils-Henning Örsted Pedersen plucking his double bass in front of a seal. No, sorry, it’s the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen harbour.

Jazz heroes: Terumasa Hino blowing his hornA couple of the pictures include an Internet website address: sarendip.org. Follow the link and you find the website of a street art collective, Sarendip. They look as if they were quite active a few years ago. The most recent entry on their website, though, dates from 2012. There are two entries from September 2011 titled “St-Jazz Ten Nood” (sic). It isn’t entirely clear to me what the website is trying to say. However, I think the pictures were created to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of a jazz festival – Saint Jazz – that takes place annually in Saint Joos every September.

Well, these are the remnants of that commemoration. I’m guessing that some of the pictures have since been removed – the blinds replaced – but it’s impressive that the ones that remain have escaped being graffitied over. Honour among graffiti artists perhaps. How long will the pictures that remain last, I wonder.
Jazz heroes: Nils-Henning Orsted Pedersen and seal

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

A couple of days in Maastricht

Maastricht in the Netherlands – a photo essay and a wander through this charming, picturesque little city in company with Mrs SC and TheSupercargo.

Maastricht's Basiliek van Onze Lieve Vrouwe from WyckI wrote last time that I went through a bit of a dark patch in October and November, but even in the dark there can be flashes of light. At the end of October we celebrate Mrs SC’s birthday. It can be hard to wrestle the time from her schedule, but last year we managed four days in Florence. This year we pulled an overnighter in Maastricht.

The John F Kennedy Bridge and the MaasThis little Dutch city on the Maas river (downstream from Belgian Liège where the river is the Meuse) claims to be the Netherlands’ oldest. Apparently there’s a dispute with Nijmegen. It’s probably best known today – for those of us outside Benelux – as the city that gave it’s name to the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. That was the treaty that established the European Union and the euro as a currency. Which probably puts Maastricht near the top of the EU-haters’ hit-list.

Disused docks on the Maas, Beisenwal, MaastrichtA shame if true. It’s an appealing little city – or at any rate the centre is. But even the docks and factories by the side of the river, run-down or disused now, have a picturesque charm in the autumn sunlight.

Maastricht: Through the Helpoort 1229Walking around the centre, you can see how the city grew. Maastricht was awarded its city charter in 1204, and immediately started building protective walls. This gate proudly displays a date – 1229 – making it, I suppose, one of the earliest city gates. It’s called the Helpoort – the Gate of Hell, though it looks fairly innocuous now.

A part of the Maastricht city walls along Lang GrachtjeClearly a wealthy city, like Brussels and other places in the area Maastricht outgrew one ringwall after another. There are well-preserved remnants of city walls from various periods inside the city, incorporated now into the structure of the town.

Maastricht: Lit interior through arrow slitLook through a slit window in one massive bastion and peer into a room already decorated for Christmas. Is it someone’s living room or the interior of a shop? (It’s a shop – even in forward-looking Maastricht, private homes are not decorated for Christmas at the end of October.)

We reached Maastricht in the afternoon on Saturday 29th after an adventurous train journey. Not so adventurous really, just that we missed our stop to change for the Maastricht train. It meant we took a detour through the surprisingly hilly country towards Eupen before the ticket inspector put us right. The history teacher in me was interested to see Eupen. The victors after the First World War granted this largely German-speaking area to Belgium in reparations. Nazi Germany took it back in 1940, but Belgium regained it in 1945.

Eye contact in Maastricht 2That first day was overcast and dull. Not great photography weather – especially not from a moving train. It was better in Maastricht. In the Vrijthof, a big, light, open square, lots of people were standing around or sitting in pairs looking one another in the face. Hand-draw signs asked “Where has the human connection gone?”

Eye contact in Maastricht 1It was a manifestation – or an installation – or perhaps just a happening. On Facebook when I checked later it was billed as The World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment.

The bar and barmaid at Café de Pieter, PieterstraatWe stayed not far from the Vrijthof at a little hotel on a street called Achter de Molens (Behind the Mills). There’s a restaurant, Le Petit Bonheur, in the same building which seems popular. At least, there was a late-night party going on there the night we stayed. Hallowe’en, of course. But it really didn’t disturb us because we were out exploring the town by night and drinking in a local bar – Peter’s Café.

Through an arch on Achter de MolensThe following day, though, the autumn sun came out and we took a long photo-walk through the old town. The sun and the turning leaves made Maastricht even more attractive.

Part of Maastricht city wall and moat at Haet ende NjitAt the newest gates to the old city (I think they date from the 16th century), the Jecker, a tributary of Maas, was once canalised into a moat. The Jecker is still here, and the moat, to the delight of quite a variety of water birds. And one or two photographers.

The Hoge Brug from Wyck 1A little beyond, we crossed the Maas by the modern pedestrian and bicycle bridge, the high bridge – Hoge Brug. On the the far bank, Wyck seems to be an early suburb of Maastricht.

Preparing for a street party on Rechtstraat in WyckThere was some sort of a local food day in preparation in Wyck. This whole street, Rechtstraat, was blocked off and filled with a laid table. But not, at the time we passed, with any food. The sign advertises “La Saison Culinaire de l’Euregio”. The Euregio turns out to be a local cross-border region covering this part of the Netherlands and adjacent districts in Germany. It’s been building cultural links (and other links) here since 1958.

Nee on RechtstraatI must share this picture that suggests there’s a sold front against direct advertising in Maastricht. I saw many letter boxes – or letter slots perhaps – where the home owners made it clear they didn’t want advertising or free publications. Nee! Nee!  and Nee! Nee! But this house had the best contrast between the Nees and the surrounding material. I should add – in the interest of balance – that I did see the very occasional Ja! but never in a context that made it easy to photograph.

De Wiekeneer by Frans Carlier - Wycker Brugstraat outside Hotel BeaumontOne final picture. This is a representation of the typical Wyck resident. That’s how I interpret sculptor Frans Carlier’s title “De Wiekeneer”. A stoic citizen who strides on his way though the sharp wind off the Maas cuts like a knife. Though I may be reading more into it than I should.

All in all it was a very nice short break, though we didn’t see everything that Maastricht has to offer. There is said to be a fine collection of early Dutch paintings in the Bonnefantenmuseum, but it was closed when we came by. Perhaps another time. It’s only a couple of hours away.

(I find myself saying this rather a lot nowadays, but there’s always somewhere new to visit instead.)

Painted bench on the De Griend waterfront in Maastricht
Painted bench on the De Griend waterfront in Maastricht

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Wounds and scar tissue

This week, wounds and scar tissue. Not one of my usual efforts, though it is a kind of a Stop and a kind of a Story. I want to give some explanation of why I’ve not been enthusiastically blogging the last few weeks. It all starts with my birth…

I was a forceps baby. I was a big baby and my mother is a small woman. To be sure, back in 1958, I was not nearly as big as I have become and my mother was larger then than she is now. Nevertheless I was a difficult child to birth. Back then Caesarean section was not as common as it is today. It was a more risky procedure used only for very serious complications. Instead, forceps were frequently used to help tardy babies come out.

A pair of forceps is like a pair of tongs. It has cupped ends that the doctor or midwife inserts into the mother’s vagina, then opens inside her to cup the head of the child, get a grip and tug. The mother pushes, the forceps wielder pulls and with any luck the baby comes out. Partly as a result of the procedure, forceps babies often have noticeably conical heads.* I did. I also had a cut on the crown of my head – or at least there was dried blood there when my mother saw me after I’d been cleaned up.

Her theory is that the doctor in the heat of the moment cut my head with the forceps. We never found out the truth of it – and I don’t know whether mum ever asked. This was in the long ago, and in England too; there was no question of enquiries over such a small thing. Besides mum was just happy to have me out.
Scar: Little conehead

I grew up with a scar on the crown of my head, a little bald irregularity like an uneven button. Unlike all the other scars I picked up over time – on the ridge of an eyebrow when I fell on stone steps, on the wrist of my left hand when as a student I put it through a window, on my right knee when I came off a bike on a gravel road in Sweden – the scar on my head did not sink into the skin and fade over time. It stood a little proud of my scalp, but I never thought much about it unless I caught it with the teeth of a comb.

I’ve recently learned that head scars like this have a medical name. They are keloid scars, and they are caused by an excess of collagen. According to the website of the British National Health Service (long may it exist!) keloid scars are not really understood. “Experts don’t fully understand why keloid scarring happens.” The site goes onto say keloid scars “are not contagious or cancerous.” Not contagious, obviously, but not cancerous? I’m not so sure.

It all started last summer when Mrs SC and I were visiting Lisbon. I was crouched in the wardrobe of our hotel room trying to get at the little wall safe hidden in there. I stood up rather too quickly and whacked my head on the clothes rail in the wardrobe. Bull’s-eye on the scar. My first reaction was to stumble around the room holding my head and cursing, but that passed quickly enough.

We were in a hurry so I carried on getting ready to go out, but was puzzled suddenly to see my fingers were leaving red smears on everything I touched. Also there was a tickling sensation above my eyebrows. Mrs SC looked at me in horror. “There’s blood all over your forehead!”

Head wounds are notoriously bloody but often not serious. I wasn’t particularly worried. But the blood kept flowing through all our efforts to staunch it with handfuls of tissue paper and cold water. Everything had to stop while we waited for the blood to coagulate. Eventually it did. I cleaned up and all was well. The day was not ruined.

But the scar didn’t really get better. Mrs SC started giving me morning colour reports – how red it was looking when it always used to be off-white. And some mornings I woke to find bloodstains on my pillowcase.

It’s unusual – was unusual – that I ever looked at my scar myself. (How often do you look at the crown of your own head?) It involves too many mirrors and awkward poses in the bathroom. My increasingly poor eyesight doesn’t make it easier. But while I was bent over and trying to get a look at the scar after the latest bleeding incident, it struck me that with modern technology I ought to be able to take a photograph.

Easier said than done. And once I finally managed, I wished I hadn’t. The photo was crisp and clear. Horribly so. The scar looked like a huge crater in the top of my head. There were flecks of dried blood and irregular lumps and pits of sore skin and what looked like a couple of pus-filled spots. It was stomach turning and I have no wish to share it with you. (See the artist’s impression instead.)
The scar on my head

Fast forward to October and back home in Sweden. I was admitted to hospital for an operation to repair a hernia that was making walking increasingly difficult for me. It was a keyhole op that left me with three holes in my abdomen and feeling like I’d been kicked in the stomach by a horse. As the surgeon pointed out, he’d actually stabbed me three times in the stomach. There was no simile required. The pain after the operation was greater than the pain I’d had before and it dragged on for weeks. And dragged me down. For a longer time it didn’t seem worth the exchange. But there I was, holed below the waistline and stitched up. I had to visit my local doctor here in Brussels after a couple of weeks to get the stitches taken out.

Just that morning, after I showered, the scar on my head started bleeding again. So after the doctor had removed the stitches in my belly, I asked him to look at my scalp. There was a sharp intake of breath. Then he wrote me a referral to “the best dermatologist. I could send you somewhere else, but they would just send you on to him.”

Mid-November I had a consultation with the dermatologist, and he booked me in for a biopsy. Now, in my ignorance I assumed the biopsy would involve someone taking a little bit of my scar and checking it before deciding what to do next. Wrong. Under local anaesthetic the diminutive lady surgeon enthusiastically cut off the entire scar and some clear skin around it. Then she stitched up my scalp. I felt the needle scraping on the bone of my skull as she dragged the skin up left and right, front and back, to close the hole she’d made.
Scar: Post-op-stiches

It wasn’t until the anaesthetic wore off that I really hurt. And then for a couple of days I was walking around with the constant sensation that I had just banged my head hard on a sharp corner. Painkillers didn’t really help. Nor did the fact that the wound was protected by a pad of sterile gauze held in place by an elastic bandage wrapped around my head under my jaw.

Beatrix Potter's sick guinea pigAdding insult to injury this made me look like a particularly disgruntled guinea pig. In fact am sure there is a Beatrix Potter illustration somewhere…

So that’s the story of my wounds and scar tissue. In two weeks time I’ll go in to see the consultant again and learn what the biopsy tells him about the scar. Was it really a tumour or was all the bleeding simply an ongoing protest at the blow I gave it in Lisbon? And if it was a tumour, was it benign or malignant? And if malignant, will it need another operation?

Heigh ho. At least I seem to have stepped back from the depression that for weeks I’ve been teetering on the edge of. And today, today the headache is less intense than yesterday, which was less intense than the day before.

Scar: Bandaged guinea pig

Added January 2017

For anyone who wants to know – the diagnosis was basal cell carcenoma. If you are going to get a cancer, this is one of the better ones. Very unlikely to metastasise and easy to treat – cutting it out is usually enough. An Australian colleague of my wife, who has presumably had several removed over the years, wondered why I was kicking up such a fuss. He has a point, I suppose.


^* Most babies who have spent a longer time being born come out with conical heads because of the pressure in the birth canal, forceps can make this more pronounced.

The Beatrix Potter drawing comes from her late (1929) book The Fairy Caravan. Download a copy from The Faded Page website. All the other illustrations are my own.

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Remembrance Day 2016, Brussels

Remembrance Day 2016 as commemorated in Brussels and a meditation (or a rant) on the meaning of the day, plus an apology for the recent break in service.

It’s five weeks since I last posted here, and this post is itself a good week late. I apologise for this, but I’ve been taking an unplanned break from blogging. I’m recovering from an operation (and visiting with Mr Despond and Anxty his dog). I’m hoping to return Stops and Stories to regular service now. We’ll see.

Remembrance Day: Rue Royal just before 11am on 11 Nov 2016This week, some photos from November 11th.  Remembrance Day is observed here in Belgium for good historical reasons, though perhaps with less hysteria than in the UK. Although the day is a national holiday, the crowds turning out to observe the ceremony were conspicuous by their absence.

Remembrance Day: Scouts and CadetsThe whole of the road from the Royal Palace to the Congress Column (where the ceremony took place) was blocked off and empty. Beyond, way off down the road, you could see the dome of the Royal Church of St Mary. It was as if the authorities expected huge crowds, but there was only a small gathering. If you discount the soldiers, the troops of scouts and cadets and what appeared to be an invited audience of schoolchildren, there were perhaps 200 or so of us.

Remembrance Day: Ceremony of silenceIt doesn’t matter. It was a raw, cold day and, honestly, I think it’s understandable that most people chose to stay away and get on with their lives. I wouldn’t want the commemoration of the end of the First World War to be forgotten. At the same time the ostentatious militarism and emotionalism that the British indulge in annually on November 11th I find more than a bit distasteful.

Remembrance Day: LancersThe war was a terrible event, it claimed millions of lives. If we can remember it in the spirit of “never again” then that seems good to me. But what goes on in Britain nowadays doesn’t fall into that category. The bullying that ensures every public figure wears an artificial poppy for weeks before and after the event. The pomp and ritual of the Remembrance itself, the massed bands and uniforms, speeches and cannonades. As the last of the veteran survivors pass away, the event is extended and extended. “Our glorious dead” from World War Two, from Korea, the Falklands, the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan…

Remembrance Day: The trumpeters and their horsesIt all gives the lie to that line about “the war to end all wars”. We – and by “we” I mean the Brits – we don’t seem any longer really to be commemorating the conned and the killed from the world’s deadliest cock-up. (And of course it’s since been surpassed by other, similar events.) Nor do we seem any longer to be empathising with the lost generation or sympathising with the survivors. Instead we seem to be celebrating the on-rolling juggernaut of war. Worshipping the god to whom we’ve sacrificed a quota of every generation – not only of our people but also of theirs. Them, the many enemies of our imperial splendour.

Remembrance Day: TrumpetersWell. Pardon my rant. This Remembrance Day in Brussels had its pomp and uniforms – and a King as a figurehead – but it didn’t seem nearly so triumphalist or popular as Anglophone Remembrance Days I’m used to.

The lancers and trumpeters included women soldiers talking to their bored horses. There was a posse of street cleaners with shovels and wheelbarrows cleaning up after the horses while the ceremony was underway. The King was followed about comically by a fussy group of TV journalists with cameras on their shoulders and boom microphones in socks.

There was a three minutes silence.

Then king got in his limo to cheers of “Vive le Roi!” (I’m not kidding.) And the rest of us broke up made our several ways home.

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.