Proof of identity

Identity and its documentation – the story of my search for Swedish citizenship and my passport’s peregrinations

In the weeks after the British referendum on 23rd June, verbal and physical attacks on European Union citizens living and working in Britain were coupled to the question of what would happen to British citizens living in the EU. There was a nasty feeling that my fate was suddenly being played around with by people over whom I have no control and for whom I have no respect.

It was time, finally, to get my finger out and apply for Swedish citizenship.

Submitting the application

Identity: Norrköping
Norrköping

One of the requirements for seeking Swedish citizenship is to submit the identity documents that you have from your home country in the original. To be sure they stay safe and reach their destination, this means using registered post. Not a problem, though the authority – Migrationsverket, the Swedish Migration Agency, based in Norrköping – took their time acknowledging receipt. Eventually, however, I got a letter from them to say they’d received my application and my British passport.

The Migration Agency also pointed me to their website. After I’d set up an account and identified myself electronically, I got access to “my Migration Agency web page”. There they promised I would be able to follow the course of my application. The first time I logged in it was a small thrill to see that my application was being processed.

Just a formality?

It wasn’t until after I had sent off my passport that I actually realised how long the processing time would be. In my naivety I had assumed that – for me – applying for Swedish citizenship would be pretty much a formality. After all, I’ve lived in Sweden for close on 30 years. I’ve had permanent residence for the last 20. Why would it take them much time to decide favourably?

The mills of bureaucracy grind exceeding fine, exceeding slow. Also, to be fair, the Migration Agency is under considerable pressure coping with staff shortages, the influx of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, and threats against their buildings and personnel. Not to mention Brexit, which has seen the numbers of British people applying for Swedish citizenship rise steeply.

No one jumps the queue

When I was on the Migration Agency’s website to download the application forms, I saw that the expected time for processing a citizenship application was four months. That seemed a lot and I rather thought that it would only take them about a month to deal with me. So, after a month I phoned them. They were very clear – no one jumps the queue and everyone is processed in due order.
So there we were – my passport in Norrköping for the next few months and me in Gothenburg or Brussels.

Identity: Gothenburg to Norrköping (from a train window)
Identity: Gothenburg to Norrköping (from a train window)

That didn’t seem to be a problem. I’ve noticed how easy it is to travel between Belgium and Sweden without showing your passport. This is because both countries are members of the Schengen area within the European Union. In fact I have more than once travelled back and forth between the two without showing any sort of identity document.

Not a valid travel document

At the end of July, Mrs SC and I travelled to Denmark. Crossing from Helsingborg in Sweden to Helsingør in Denmark was easy. The reverse journey was less so.

Because of the influx of refugees and migrants finding their way to Sweden (which – to be fair – had initially opened its borders to people fleeing the civil war in Syria), special immigration procedures had been imposed at Helsingborg.

The border police didn’t like my Swedish identity card. My card was issued by the tax authorities, not by the police. It doesn’t include my nationality, so it’s not a valid Schengen travel document.

My Schengen identity

The chap who stopped me was very reasonable, and after checking me in his database, he accepted that I was probably not an illegal migrant or a potential terrorist (the beard not withstanding). But he warned me that I would need to carry a valid Schengen identity card in the future.

Of course, as soon as we got home there was a mad scramble to find our Belgian identity cards (which we’d brought with us but tucked away somewhere safe) just to check. And a collective sigh of relief when we confirmed what we really knew all along: that our Belgian ID cards are indeed fully fledged national identity cards.

Murphy’s Law

Identity: Norrköping waterfall
Norrköping waterfall

About a month later I flew back from Gothenburg to Brussels. I won’t say that I was completely relaxed, but I wasn’t very nervous. After all, I had my Belgian identity card; I was flying within Schengen. Everything ought to go smoothly. Still, I was also conscious Murphy’s Law is always hanging like the sword of Damocles over one’s head.

And of course it dropped.

It may have been because somebody on board the aeroplane was taken ill and needed medical attention, but in Brussels the plane taxied to a different arrivals gate than usual. Leaving the plane and coming to passport control I flashed my Belgian identity card. The inspector looked at me like I was trying to pull a fast one.

Where is your passport?

An international arrival

I explained that I didn’t need it because I was flying within Schengen.

But this is the international arrivals gate, came the reply. You must have come from outside the EU.

No! Gothenburg– My plane flew– I came directly from– I’ve not been outside the EU!

The inspector listened stoically to my protests. He’d heard it all before.

Please! Just check!

With a look of great suspicion he made a couple of telephone calls. Finally he confirmed that indeed my plane had flown directly from Gothenburg even though it had disembarked all its passengers at the international exit.

Very reluctantly, he let me through with the caution that I should always carry my passport with me. This seems to undermine the point of Schengen, but deep down I’m actually in full agreement.

No passport, no Britain

Identity: Norrköping to Gothenburg from a train window
Norrköping to Gothenburg (from a train window)

Once I was in Belgium all went well and I didn’t need to use my identity card again until October.

Being without my British passport, though, upset one plan. I’d intended to visit my mother in September, but I had to cancel. You see, although I can (ought to be able to) travel between Sweden and Belgium with my Schengen identity card – or visit France or German, Portugal or Poland – I can’t visit the United Kingdom.

The UK is outside Schengen, so to travel to the UK from the continent I would have to have my British passport. Or a Swedish passport would do. Without either I had to postpone my trip.

Well, I thought, four months. I’ll get the passport back by the end of November.

Check your application…

That was when I went online to “my Migration Agency web page” and discovered that absolutely nothing new had happened. In fact, the page as far as I can see has exactly two settings. In one it says: “Your application has arrived and is being processed.” In the other (and I’ve not seen this one, so I’m guessing) it says either: “Your application has been accepted, Välkommen!” Or it says: “Your application has been rejected, !”

There is no indication of how long the processing is going to take. Nor is there any indication, if there are stages in the process, which stage your application is at. There is only: “Your application is being processed” (so sit on your hands and wait). I sat on my hands and waited, but I did look and check and it seemed as though they no longer needed my passport. It was possible to ask them to send it back.

But… where would they send it?

PostNord lies

The problem is the Migration Agency can only send the passport back to my address in Sweden. Since we’re temporarily in Brussels, we have a forwarding agreement with PostNord, the Swedish postal service. But would they be prepared to forward a registered letter?

So I phoned PostNord and asked them.

Yes, they assured me. No problem. Of course we will send registered mail on to you in Belgium.

Using a form on the Migration Agency’s website I wrote and asked for my passport back. And I heard nothing more.

Other things on my mind

Now, I spent much of October and November enjoying my hernia and carcinoma (see my earlier post) so I had a couple of other things on my mind. Eventually, though, I decided I had to find out what had happened to my passport. On “my Migration Agency web page” there was still no new information, so I phoned them.

Identity: Head in Norrköping
A head in Norrköping

Oh yes, they said, clearly consulting a database of information that they didn’t want to share with me. We have a record that we sent your passport off as soon as we received your request.

You did! But I haven’t received it! It’s lost! It’s stolen!

No, they said, it was returned to us. Undeliverable.

So much for PostNord’s promises.

We don’t do that

But why, I wailed, why not let me know? You have my e-mail address. Or if you didn’t want to write, you could have posted something on “my Migration Agency web page”.

Oh, we don’t do that, they said.

Once we’d established that my passport was safe at the Migration Agency, though, I felt relieved. That was when I asked if I could expect to hear from them about my application soon – it being nearly four months since I’d sent in my application.

Dear me no! Four months? Where did you get that idea? It could take up to a year to process your citizenship application. Although (looking through that secret database) there’s no obvious reason why you shouldn’t get it.

(I count to ten.)

Back to the question: how to get back my passport?

In person or by proxy

The Migration Agency could send me the passport as registered post but only to my Swedish address. But as we’ve established, PostNord won’t forward it to Belgium.

My only other options are either to collect it in person or identify a proxy in Sweden to receive it. But identifying a proxy sounded far too complicated. As I knew I’d be coming back to Sweden for Christmas early in December, Mrs SC and I decided to travel to Norrköping and fetch the passport ourselves.

I get my passport back!

This is what we did, and we did it yesterday, on Tuesday 20th December. To cut a long (12 hour long) story short, we got to the Migration Agency just after midday and after about three-quarters-of-an-hour in the queue I received the passport, signed for it and took it away. It was a great relief. We celebrated with a photograph outside.

The next problem down the line will be when (if) they give me my Swedish citizenship. They will send that document also to me as a registered letter to my address in Sweden… but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Meanwhile, “my Migration Agency web page” still says my application is being processed. Not quite so much of a thrill, looking at that now.

Identity: With my passport at Migrationsverket
With my passport at Migrationsverket

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.

The Saint Job Fair – a September event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was my visit to the Saint Job Fair.


I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

United Music of Brussels

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

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

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

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

“That’s what we’re doing!”

“What?”

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

“Are you sure about that?”

The Internet can answer all your questions

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

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

Mmmnnno. Not really. But I remain hopeful.

This offer is unrepeatable
This offer is unrepeatable

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

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

Information dearth

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

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

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

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

We looked, but no.

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

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

United Music at the Bourse

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

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

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

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

The Tanners’ Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

The swimming pool at Jeu de Balle

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

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

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

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

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

The lap of victory

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

Halles Saint-Géry

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Erasmus House – a Guided Tour

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

Chère Madame le guide,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

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.