Abbe Froidure Park in Autumn

I’m standing on Avenue Bruggmann, just outside the gates to a park which I discovered by sheer accident on Sunday…

Yes, well, clearly I’m not. This was an experiment to see whether I could dictate a text for Stops and Stories while out and about. Unfortunately, most of the time, I forgot that one key element of radio journalism is speaking into the microphone so that one’s potential audience can actually hear what one is saying. There are snatches of my recording I can use, but I think I’d better stick to writing this in the peace and quiet of my study.

However, imagine if you will that we are standing on a moderately busy suburban city street with houses of four or five stories, some with a narrow front, but still comfortable, others broader and quite impressive, almost mansions, but all pressed up against one another in an almost unbroken parade. A tram line runs down the middle of the street, there’s a church squeezed in among the houses over there to the right, and up the road on the left a little way, one of the mansions is doing service as the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba.

Abbe Froidure's Park SignAs you walk down this street towards the city, you pass on your right what appears to be the opening of a driveway leading to garages behind one of the more opulent of the buildings. The pillars of the gateway are a little intimidating, but you get a glimpse of a sanded drive and formally clipped green hedges and then you notice the plaque on the wall well above head height. “Parc Regional Abbe Froidure” it says. “Overture: 8h00.” Beneath are the long list of regulations (in French and Dutch) you have become familiar with seeing at the entrance to other Brussels parks.

And if you walk through the gateway and down the sanded path you come to railings, and past the railings…

you come into this tiny little charming park which is really tucked away and hidden.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Reading the Sunday paperI came across the park on Sunday while I was out taking photos of buildings in the area. It was a warm, sunny autumn day and the park was clearly being used by locals – walking dogs, sitting in the sun, reading a paper. There was a family playing with two small children in the little playground to one side. The colours, a mixture of autumn russet and summer green leaves, contrasted with the startling blue of the park furniture. I took a couple of photos, but then slipped out of the park to continue with my project for the day. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” I thought.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Autumn coloursThat was a mistake. The following day I didn’t get out until late afternoon and the clouds had rolled in and the first shower of the week had fallen. More were to come. Consequently most of my photos from the park are not sunny and cheerful but dull and rain spotted, and my recordings too are a little damp and a little melancholy, but perhaps that suits Abbe Froidure’s park.

Here in the middle of the park — it’s a sort of quadrangle of these cobble stones that are so prevalent all over Brussels. Personally I think they’re horrible to walk on but they are attractive to look at I suppose and, er— It’s an odd combination really. There’s this cobbled surface which looks old, and then there are these blue benches which are very modern. Blue, um, trellises I suppose, fences which are being used to train vines to grow up, and then in the middle there’s this concrete block. Er, I’m going to guess that it’s part of — a — water — feature…

Abbe Froidure's Park - Blue corridor 2Do you hear how my voice slows down there? I could see the phrase “water feature” coming and I really didn’t want to say it and sound like an advert from a House and Garden magazine, but I couldn’t find a synonym quickly enough. Oh dear. Although, if you look at the illustration I think you’ll see — despite the gutter being clogged with fallen leaves and chestnuts — what I was trying to describe probably is intended to have water flowing along it.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Complex of seed headsThe park is completely enclosed within this block by the backs of houses and their garden walls, but just as there is a way in from Avenue Brugmann so there is a second entrance directly opposite into a little triangle of streets around a green space called Square Léon Jacquet.

There were fewer people in the park on my second visit. No doubt the weather played its part, but also it was a weekday. Still there were a couple of dog walkers, a couple of young men on a cigarette break together who left the park soon after I arrived, and a young woman who walked through, using the park as a short cut from Brugmann to Jacquet.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Cobbles and fallen leavesI sat down on one of the blue benches and tried to guess how the Abbe Froidure Park had come to be here. Although there are two or three mature trees – chestnuts and sycamores I think — the park itself is clearly not very old. Ten years, perhaps twenty. At first sight it looks as though it has been created by shaving pieces off the back gardens of the surrounding houses, but the more I looked at it and thought about it, the more I thought it must have existed as an empty space long before it was a park. The cobbles seem old, so perhaps it was a courtyard, perhaps a mews yard serving several of the houses around with stables for horses and carriages.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Rain on roseWhat a temptation there must have been to use the land for building, but instead someone with sense decided to create this little oasis of peace. Beautiful. City planners British, American and Swedish, who advocate “densification” (förtätning), please note!

Later, at home I went searching for Abbe — Father Froidure. Why did he get this lovely little urban park?

Abbe Froidure's Park - Fallen leavesI still don’t know the full story, but I can report that Edouard Froidure was born in or near Ypres in 1899 and died in Brussels in 1971. A refugee and then a soldier in the Belgian army during the First World War, he became a priest in 1925 and in 1931 the vicar of the parish of St. Alène in Forest. (The park is on the very edge of the Brussels municipality of Forest.)

In 1933 he was involved in setting up a movement to enable young children among the urban poor to come out of the slums and spend time in the fresh air (in camps in the city’s larger parks) — “Les Stations de Plein Air”.

Abbe Froidure - photo from the website of the Fédération Froidure
Abbe Froidure – photo from the website of the Fédération Froidure

During the Second World War when Belgium was under occupation, he continued his activities on behalf of the children of Brussels and under cover of this worked with the Belgian resistance including to protect and save the lives of Jewish children. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 he was interned in concentration camps and ended up in Dachau. Liberated in 1945, he returned to Belgium and seems to have picked up where he left off.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Rain on vine leavesHe also worked with (and perhaps helped start) an organisation called “Les Petit Reins” — The Little Nothings — an organisation staffed by the unemployed and running charity shops and collecting, sorting and selling second-hand clothes.

Obviously the Abbe was a much loved man and a little park dedicated to his memory seems entirely appropriate.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Chestnuts

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

All the photos (except the portrait of Abbe Froidure) were made by me on Sunday 4th or Tuesday 6th October. All the ambient sounds used in the background of the recording were made by me in situ on Tuesday 6th. And as for my French pronunciation in the recording – I’m sorry!

Home but away

I did think I would produce a blog entry or two while I was home, but it turned out that I was away. Visiting home but away on holiday. I found I had little inclination and less time for any of this bloggety-blogging.

It’s an odd sort of existence we’re living, Mrs SC and myself. Away in Brussels, physically, at work and play for weeks, even months at a time; but spiritually, emotionally (and legally – for the purpose of taxation) still anchored at home in Gothenburg.

Where we are mentally is an open question.

Flying over GothenburgWe flew into Gothenburg at the beginning of August, took ourselves home and spent several happy hours enjoying the familiarity and comfort of our own four walls. Our sofa, our books, the views from our windows, the taste of cold, fresh, soft water from our tap in our kitchen. And our glassed-in balcony, especially that, where I sit to drink my tea in the early morning light, where we sit to sip our nightcaps in the soft gloaming before going to bed.

Three weeks we were there, and not a dead day. There was always something to do, somewhere to go, friends to meet, old familiar haunts to visit, changes to note. All through the long, drawn-out Scandinavian summer days and the short, somewhat cooler, Scandinavian summer nights.

Everybody we met told us how lucky we were with the weather. July, they said, shaking their heads. June, they sighed, shivering. But August – in August the sun shone. It shone almost every day we were home. And every day we checked the weather apps for Brussels and saw: cloudy, overcast, chance of rain, thunder. With what Schadenfreud we looked up from our smartphones and congratulated one another on having come home for our holidays! This, we told each other, this is what it’s really like. (Forgetting the rain and the storm and the ice in the winter, forgetting the long, dark nights punctuated by short dull days.) No, no, this, this is home.

Places resonate, especially places one has visited many times before, where things have happened and the fabric of the place is dense with memory. Here’s one such. Trädgårdsföreningen – the Garden Society park.

This summer it was enriched with a temporary display – in association with the open-air sculpture park at Pilane on Tjörn – of apparently abstract sculptures by Tony Cragg.

Caldera - detail
Caldera – detail
Only apparently abstract, because after you’ve stared at them for some time you suddenly see a face, a profile, a nose and lips, a chin and a forehead, and then you realise there are faces everywhere in the sculptures, smiling, frowning, gazing profoundly or blankly into the middle distance. Knock on one, hear its tone.

Points of view
Points of view
“Caldera”, “Points of View”, “Mixed Feelings”. Good titles.

I saw the sculptures my first Monday at home in Gothenburg, and again on my last Thursday. My last Thursday after sitting by the Bältespännar fountain just outside the park entrance, watching a piece of performance art being filmed.

Performance art in progressA woman dressed and made-up to look like a statue, a living statue, walking slowly, meditatively in a wide circle around the fountain past the children playing in the spray of the water, past the young families, past the schoolchildren in a group with their teacher. Followed and filmed, not just by her own two cameramen, not just by me, but also by the families, by the schoolchildren, by random passers-by with their mobile phones.

Performance art in progress - audienceAnd back in the park, that first Monday, beyond Tony Cragg’s sculptures, beyond the palm house, in the rose garden with more fountains and children playing. I sat on a bench in the sun next to a mother with her young son. As he ran about, she followed him with her eyes and sometimes her voice, calling out in a language not Swedish. An older man sitting along the bench from her asks, is that Portuguese?

She laughs and tells him, no, it’s Bulgarian.

Ah, says the man, Bulgaria. I drove through Bulgaria. I used to drive trucks from Teheran.

That’s a long way, she says.

Yes, he says, days. There was always a break at Istanbul though. This was a long time ago, back before they built the bridge. You had to wait for the ferry.

I’ve never been to Istanbul, the woman says.

It’s a great city, he says. You should go.

I miss this. Being able to eavesdrop on a conversation. I can’t do it in Brussels – unless people are speaking English or Swedish – I can only watch body language and make a guess at what’s going on. It’s quite fun, but it’s not the same.

That first Monday, when the sun got too hot, I took myself indoors, into the empty dusk of The Rose Cafe – everyone, all the sun-starved Swedes, all the foreign tourists, they were all outside. I bought a salad and sent a text message and waited to meet my friend Kristina. As I arrived in Gothenburg, so she was leaving. That first Monday in August was our one day of overlap.

Kristina Svensson's Facebook page
Kristina Svensson’s Facebook page
Kristina brought me a copy to buy of her latest book, #författarboken (#theauthorbook), and a copy to see of her travel guide to Nice, Mitt Nice.

Collage of fourTrädgårdsföreningen’s rose garden is where we first met, years ago. We were both taking part in an Internet-based competition to find someone to represent the Swedish Hostelling Association for a summer reality show/vlog. Competitors, but we had similar ideas about authorial self-promotion and we pooled resources for a promo pitch. It’s still up on my YouTube site. We neither of us won the competition, which was a bit of a disappointment at the time, but we did find one another. We were both wannabe authors. Now that just describes me. Kristina is an author, a published author with four titles to her name, two of which – the two on the table – came out this year. It’s obvious which one of us had the gumption and get-up-and-go.

But I’m getting there. (He added, optimistically.)

Mixed feelings
Mixed feelings

And that was just the Monday. There was more, much more to come. Maybe there’ll be more here in a future blog post, but for now I think I’ll close.

Here’s hoping your summer holiday (or your winter holiday, if you live in the opposite hemisphere) was just as enjoyable.

Performance art in progress - through the fountain
Performance art in progress – through the fountain

Sound recording acknowledgements: Most of the ambient sound I recorded myself in the places stated. The sound of the music box playing “Home Sweet Home” at the beginning and end of the Soundcloud recording was taken from the sound track of a YouTube video posted by “Music Box” here.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Belgium’s national holiday

The 21st July is Belgian’s national holiday – independence day Belgian style – and celebrated as such in Brussels, which is where I took the following photos. Yesterday Belgium was 184 years old! Well, not quite. They got a King, Leopold I (the German uncle of British Queen Victoria) on 21st July 1831, but their revolution against The Netherlands started on 25th August 1830. Even then they didn’t get around to declaring independence until 4th October 1830. And actually the Dutch didn’t finally admit they had lost control until 19th April 1839. So Belgium is something between 185 and 176 years old then.

Yes, I’ve been reading Wikipedia.

Anyway, we’ve been celebrating and this being Belgium the celebrations have included frites (=chips) and beer, sausage and stoemp (= stomped – mashed – potatoes) and beer, chocolate and beer, and some more beer to wash it down. So you’ll forgive me, I trust, if this contribution is a bit late and principally involves photos.

National day - Rue de la Régence
National day on Rue de la Régence.
A national day tandem - I didn't ask if it was to be ridden by a Fleming and a Walloon, and if so who would sit in front.
A national day tandem – I didn’t ask if it was to be ridden by a Fleming and a Walloon, and if so who would sit in front. Edit: u/autofasurer on Reddit points out that the saddle at the back is facing the wrong way: “I suspect it’s meant as a tongue in cheek critique on the fact that opposing forces won’t get you anywhere.”
The military were out in force and offering face painting...
The military were out in force and offering face painting…
...and also intriguing punishments for misbehaviour.
…and also intriguing punishments for misbehaviour.
Various groups were celebrating in their own special way. Here the skull cap brigade lines up before parading through the town.
Various groups were celebrating in their own special way. Here the skull cap brigade lines up before parading through the town.
A good excuse for a picnic in the park
A good excuse for a picnic in the park.
Peddle car racing
Peddle car racing.
Waiting for mussels and frites. And beer.
Waiting for mussels and frites. And beer.
Here come the drummers.
Here come the drummers.
In case you don't want to get your face painted, you could instead wear a mask - though I didn't see anyone actually wearing one.
In case you don’t want to get your face painted, you could instead wear a mask – though I didn’t see anyone actually wearing one. Edit: On Reddit u/altnabla told me: “You probably didn’t see people wearing the masks because, according to Belgian legislation, it is illegal to wear those in public” – and backed this up with a link to relevant documentation.

The day ended with fireworks, but I don’t have any photos, so you’ll just have to imagine them. Probably just as good – if not better – than the real thing.

No Soundcloud recording for this entry. Maybe next time…

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Photography – overcoming photo-block

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Royal Greenhouses

“We went to the Royal Greenhouses,” I tell my mother on the phone.

“In Belgium? I thought Belgium was a democracy,” she says.

“It is a democracy, mother. In the same way the United Kingdom is a democracy.” I stress the word kingdom.

“Well,” she says in great doubt. “I never knew that.”

The Royal Greenhouses are a big thing here in Belgium and are only open to visitors for couple of weeks each spring. They occupy a large corner of the gardens of the Royal Palace at Laeken to the north of the old city and you get to them on the number 53 bus alighting at the stop called “Serres Royales”. (That translates as “Royal Greenhouses”. Makes sense.)

Royal tourists in lineNow, the Belgians are generally pro-royal – I’ve been told that the Belgian royal family are the only truly Belgian national icon and without them Belgium would quickly dissolve into its constituent parts, Flanders and Wallonia. Consequently visiting the Royal Greenhouses seems to be a way for Belgians to affirm a commitment to their head of state and national unity. It’s also not overstating the case to say that there is a considerable social pressure on foreigners living in Brussels to pay a visit too.

Mrs SC and I bowed to that pressure and took the opportunity of a sunny May Day to make our pilgrimage.

Royal tourists reflected in royal greenhouse glassIt was crowded with local tourists and foreign. I heard Italian and Spanish, English and Swedish (not just from us), Polish, Japanese and Chinese. Also Dutch, French and German. It felt like there were thousands of people, though I think that was partly an impression caused by a restricted route and a large number of narrow doors which meant we moved in line and very slowly. There was also a great deal of standing around and not moving. Perhaps because the greenhouses are only open for this very short window every year, the people responsible – and I’m going to blame the Belgian royals for this – haven’t wanted to waste their money on benches. I’m sure there were a few more, but I can only remember seeing (and actually sitting on) two.

Descending the stairsAlso if there was any place of refreshment anywhere inside the gardens, it was well-concealed. There were a couple of vans parked in the road outside the Royal Palace doing a brisk trade in hot-dogs, waffles, ice cream and bottled water, but in the grounds nada. The Royal Shop sold watering-cans, but no water. There was however a Red Cross post, so I suppose people who collapsed would be attended to – perhaps helped off the palace lands to one of the vending vans.

TiredThere were also very large numbers of children, and despite all the standing around they were amazingly well behaved and cheerful. Or if not cheerful then resigned, but not whiny. I was impressed.

So what was so special about the Royal Greenhouses?

Royal photographerWell, it wasn’t the plants. The excuse for only opening for two weeks in the spring is that “this is when most of the flowers are in bloom”. That doesn’t wash. As anyone will know who’s visited open-year-round greenhouses in botanical gardens, there’s usually something blooming most months of the year and there’s always something of interest to see even if it hasn’t got flowers.

What's in thereI guess these greenhouses were originally set up as botanical greenhouses. In fact the little leaflet in English that we bought suggested that at least one of them was built specifically to hold plants brought from the Belgian Congo. It was unsuccessful. The plants died. Nowadays the collection seems to consist very largely of azaleas and geraniums with a number of palm trees, ferns and a few pitcher plants.

Royal gardener with azaleas and geraniumsOkay, I’m exaggerating, but really there were a hell of a lot of azaleas and geraniums. And they were pretty, and impressive by virtue of being so many, but you can see something similar in well-stocked garden centres. And do azaleas really need to be raised in greenhouses? There’s a whole little rocky azalea valley – absolutely not under glass – that is part of Slottskogen Park back home in Gothenburg. It’s a riot of colour when the azalea bushes bloom, and Gothenburg is several hundred kilometres closer to the Arctic Circle than Brussels.

Royal Winter Garden greenhouseHowever the greenhouses themselves are quite something. They cover an area of 2.5 ha or 270,000 ft² (thank you Wikipedia) and are constructed with a decorative cast-iron girder frame and glass panels. They were built between 1874 and 1895 on the orders of King Leopold II. Leopold was the notorious King of the Belgians who commissioned expeditions to and then exploited the wealth of the Congo Basin, treating the inhabitants as his slaves. The Royal Greenhouses are presumably where some of his Congo money went.*

Royal Pagoda and blossomI’m going to make a wild guess here. Leopold was about twenty years old in 1851 when the great cast-iron and plate-glass Crystal Palace was opened for the Great Exhibition. My guess is that Leopold saw it, was impressed by it, thought “I wanna get me one of those” (or the Francophone equivalent), and when he had the money and the opportunity decided he would do better, would surpass it. If so, I think he achieved his goal.

Royal Seville Oranges outside Royal OrangeryOf course it’s not all greenhouses. There are orangeries too, and ornamental ponds and cherry trees and a pagoda, and distant, attractive views of Brussels actoss the river (which is actually the great Brussels commercial canal).

A distant view of BrusselsAccording to Wikipedia – which appears to be citing an article in the Daily Telegraph – the former King of the Belgians, Albert II, who abdicated in 2013, lives with his wife in a building in the grounds, while current King Philippe and his Queen live in the main Laeken Palace. I wonder what they do during these two weeks when the hoi polloi get to traipse around their greenhouses. Probably they take a vacation in a far off place, but I’d like to imagine that they are really still in the palace, peeking out at the crowds and longing for a time when the great gates to the palace grounds shut and they can once again walk in peace through their greenhouse empire.

Royal Palace not open for visitors

*Before we condemn Leopold for his exploitation of the Congo, we should bear in mind that we’re doing pretty much exactly the same thing today. See here and here.

Royal wateringcans on sale in the royal shop