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.


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

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

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 Paddy’s books, eight decades out of date, would be my only travel guide.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

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

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

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

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

People watching in the Louisiana cafeteria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louisiana Cafeteria panorama

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

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Life in Mini-Europe

Life in Mini-Europe: it’s a life in plastic, but I’m not sure Barbie would feel at home here – there’s more going on than you might imagine

Mini-EuropeSome towns and even villages exhibit models of themselves. Tourists can walk about like Gulliver in Lilliput, exploring and taking photos. Brussels has Mini-Europe.

According to Mini-Europe’s English language website, this is where you can “visit Europe’s nices [sic] places” and see “the Best of the Best”.

Mini-Europe from AtomiumMini-Europe exists in the shadow of the Atomium. I had the opportunity for an overview – so to speak – during my time-travel experience there earlier this year. (See here.) Still, I wasn’t prepared to be quite as charmed as I was when Mrs SC and I paid it a visit recently.

Mini-Europe - Stockholm city hall representing SwedenI’m not sure whether it really has Europe’s nicest places, or whether they are indeed the best of the best. (As a Gothenburger, Mrs SC was a little peeved. The fine model of Stockholm’s city hall is the only building representing Sweden. This despite the half a dozen or so buildings for each of Belgium and The Netherlands.) Still, somebody has clearly had a lot of fun creating Mini-Europe. I was surprised and impressed at the attention to detail, also because they keep the park so up-to-date. (You’ll see what I mean in a bit.)

Sunbathing in BudapestMini-Europe is inhabited by mini-Europeans: mostly young, healthy tourists with a fetish about sunbathing. (For example, here they are, stretched out on sunbeds in Budapest’s Széchenyi Gyógyfürdö thermal spa.)

Tourists in mud - or worseThey also have a slightly plastic look about them, and often stand with their feet in something that might be mud. (Or worse. I am speaking from personal experience of the leavings of Brussels’ dogs.)

Happy ever afterStill, there is an attempt to present the whole breadth of life here, from the couple who joyfully rush from a German church to begin their happy ever after…

In the cemetary… to the little family visiting the grave of a loved one somewhere in the fields of Flanders.

The entrance ticket comes with a 64 page brochure which does not just present the buildings and scenes modeled. It also has something educative to say about the European Union, as well as about each of the countries represented. The park sports at least one building from each of the 28 EU member states.

Montmartre news kioskIn front of Montmartre a queue has formed of citizens seeking News. (You may just be able to make that out from the headlines on the papers for sale.)

Facing the terrorist threatIn the streets of Copenhagen (for some reason) a Belgian army truck – fully equipped with an anti-aircraft gun – stands ready to confront the terrorist threat. (I’m not sure how practical that is, but it’s certainly in keeping with the political reality in Brussels at present.)

Anti-Brexiteers rally outside Parliament in LondonMeanwhile, outside the Houses of Parliament in London a crowd has gathered. They are protesting Britain’s impending exit from the EU. “We heart EU.” “Me and EU 4 ever.” And my favourite: “I am not for or against anything I just like to walk around with a sign.” Slogans reproduced from a real protest that actually took place only days after the Brexit vote.

Mini-Europe - notice of demolitionNearby, an official sign announces the demolition of the British buildings awaits the outcome of Brexit negotiations.

It will be a shame if Mini-Europe has to remove the British buildings. Apart from other considerations, think of all the work someone’s put into making them.

Mini-Europe - Sunbathing on a raft in IrelandAnd what will happen to Ireland? Isolated beyond the empty spaces where Stratford and Longleat, Dover Castle and the crescents of Bath once stood? Will the little people still feel free to sunbath on their raft in the Shannon?

Coast guardOf course you could complain that Mini-Europe doesn’t cover all the bases. Where is a Pride Parade, for example?

Sinking gondola in VeniceAnd what about the refugee crisis? There’s a fine model of a Coast Guard boat, but where are the overloaded rubber dinghys? Mmm, perhaps I’m asking for too much. There is a sinking gondola in Venice.

A fire at the refinaryThere are a few dramatic moments. A bicycle race in Paris (where visitors can try to help their favourites on to victory by peddling for them). Vesuvius, that erupts (or at least rumbles and shakes) when you press the right button. And in the harbour of Barcelona an oil refinery catches fire on a regular basis. Firefighters on land and sea rush to prevent disaster – by looking at the flames apparently.

Singed firefighterMeanwhile the poor firefighter closest to the action, up on a ladder, is looking increasingly singed.

On a ferris wheelBut generally speaking life in Mini-Europe is pretty calm. The plastic people enjoy the mixed melodies – and blessings – of 28 national anthems (plus the “Ode to Joy”) whenever visitors press the right buttons. They sit around casually outside cafés and in ferris wheel gondolas, watching the world – and the giants – go by. And in Finland blonde women emerge from a little sauna to go skinny-dipping in the lake before nipping back inside (for some birch-twig flagelation no doubt).

It’s all so very EU.

Finnish sauna and naked bather
At the Finnish sauna…

I wrote this article for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Lisbon photo essay

A Lisbon photo essay to round off my series of entries from Lisbon.

The last week in June, Mrs SC and I visited Lisbon – my first visit, her second. In my two most recent blog entries here I focused on a couple of of Lisbon’s “sights” and their history. First off was the Alfama, the oldest part of the city dominated by the Castelo de Sao Jorge. That article retold the story of the 1147 Siege of Lisbon. Here’s a photo of the castle that I didn’t fit into that article.

Lisbon photo essay: Baixa - Looking up to the CastleIn my second article I wrote about our visit to the Museu de Marinha in Belém and how the museum presents the story of the Portuguese Age of Discovery… and what it leaves out. We didn’t spend the whole day in the Maritime Museum, though, and here’s a picture of an ancient fig tree in the Jardim Botânico Tropical, which turned out to be another good place to rest in the shade.

Lisbon photo essay: Belem - fig tree in the tropical botanical gardens
My final article was going to be about the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, but I’ve had second thoughts. I love history, but I know I can run on a bit. The last couple of entries have been rather wordy, so today’s will be mostly photos. I’ll hold the earthquake over to a later date – or perhaps till after I revisit Lisbon, which I’m tempted to do. We did have a very good time.

But first, allow me just a little more history. I took the next photo on the morning of our first day. We were out scouting for breakfast, walking down the tree-shaded Avenida da Liberdade  when I saw this. As you probably remember from school, Christopher Columbus “discovered America” in 1492.
The Discovery of America 1472 - Avenida da Liberdade

  • The aboriginal peoples of America actually discovered it tens of thousands of years earlier,
  • Leif Eriksson was the first certain European visitor and he was there around the year 1000,
  • Columbus probably went to his grave believing he’d actually found India,
  • The Waldseemüller map – the first to actually name the continent America – didn’t appear till 1507.

Still… 1472?

I really thought it was a mistake. The sort of thing that happens sometimes when street painters doze on the job and paint SLOM on a road where they ought to have painted SLOW. But, no. It seems there’s this theory in Portugal that a Portuguese explorer called João Vaz Corte-Real discovered the New Land of the Codfish (Terra Nova do Bacalhau) in 1472. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, you Spanish and American Columbus lovers!

And while you’re doing that, enjoy these photos from a tram ride we took through Lisbon’s Bairro Alto district.

Lisbon photo essay: Tram 28 at Martin Montiz
Above is tram number 28 at the Martin Moniz stop.

Below is from the interior of a number 25 tram heading up to Bairro Alto.

Lisbon photo essay: Inside tram 25

Lisbon photo essay: Bairro Alto - street scene - reading the news
Above: Two gentlemen in the shade by a news kiosk – taken from the tram window.

Below: On the phone with the washing – also taken from the tram window.

Lisbon photo essay: Bairro Alto - street scene - on the phone

Lisbon photo essay: Bairro Alto - trams 28 and 25 passing
Above: A number 25 and number 28 tram passing on a corner in Barrio Alto. In places the tram lines are so steep I wonder how the trams manage to climb and not slide back.

Below: A Lisbon street seen through a tram window.

Lisbon photo essay: Bairro Alto - Through the tram windowThat was how we spent the morning of our final day in Lisbon. For a complete change, we took the metro to the ultra-modern district Parque das Nações and spent the afternoon at Lisbon’s Aquarium. The Oceanário de Lisboa is probably the most child-friendly place we visited on our trip. It was pretty entertaining for two older people without kids too. Here’s one of the sharks.

Lisbon photo essay: In the aquarium - shark
And here is a panorama of silhouettes transfixed by the main ocean tank.

Lisbon photo esay: In the aquarium - silhouettes 2
A final couple of pictures to round this off.

Lisbon photo essay: Fado performance 2
Above: The first evening we went to a Fado bar…

Below: …and I had a sangria. Cheers!

John, sangria and Fado
So that was our visit to Lisbon. A very packed schedule, but we had a great time and certainly hope to return one of these days. On the way to the airport the taxi driver asked where we’d been and what we’d seen and then said: “Oh, but you haven’t see Sintra. Sintra is the best.” (It turned out Sintra was where he lived.) So we promised to put Sintra on our list for the next time.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.