Sunday in Brussels Belgium. Once a year Brussels streets go motorbike, car, truck free. Todays the day and the place is absolutely ‘thronging’ with people walking about without being concerned with being run down by tattoo’d Wilhelm on his eScooter travelling at 50kph. But we are on a train heading towards the German Border. Sue is excited, eager to see what the day unfolds. We have two train changes and a bus to a three way intersection bus stop named ‘Nowhere’. Near to a place named ‘Herk de Stat’. To meet a man named Jan, pronounced ‘Yarn’. We have never met him and from all too brief email contact, a few SMS’s and two phone conversations, Sue considers he is elderly, will be presentable, wearing a suit and will not be Ivan Milat’s Belgium cousin.
Back in 1961/2, three Aussie girls were placed in a Convent Boarding House come School at ‘Herk de Stat’ Belgium as Dad, an engineer in the Oz army, was posted to Germany. The eldest of the three girls was Sue with her younger sisters Maggie and KK. Sue is going back to that very same school for the first time since 1962. Now closed but with elderly nuns still in residence. Yarn, the man who is not Ivan Milat’s cousin, arrives at ‘Intersection Nowhere’ on schedule in a small body panelled damaged Citroen Car that he uses to, ‘drive thru de fields’. He is not elderly, age late 40’s, wears a T shirt, rough trousers, shock of thick hair, with lots of grey streaks, speaks reasonable English and needs to have shower. We speak no Belgium, Flemish or French. Well, Sue has a smattering of French and gets by. His, Yarn’s day job, is as supervisor of an IT firm for which he has a swish car. This day he is on Historic Tour duty with two Aussies in his ‘field car’ and we all ‘hit it off’. Yarn is beyond enthusiastic about his town, its history and especially about Sue’s old convent/school which is sadly, falling into disrepair. For as Yarn says, Theres history everywhere in Belgium. How do you rationalise spending money on this building when there are a thousand others ahead of it in age and need. I translated that from the Belgium English.The town where the school/convent is on the main street, is ‘Herk de Stat’ meaning ‘Herk the Town’. This is due to there being nearby another town named ‘Herk’. So theres now Herk and Herk the Town. Monty Python could not do it better.
After spending three hours with us, Yarn has to get back to ‘his girlfriend’. His wife having gone ta ta. Between his girlfriend and him, they have six children coming for a BBQ lunch today. Every Thursday night, Yarn joins his mates at the ‘Herk de Stat’ Tavern and they each drink six 8.5% Duvel beers. He does not drive his ‘Field Car’ home as he is giggling, cannot see, is unsteady on his feet and may possibly die and pass onto the other side. Here in intergalactic space, the Devil, God and Chewbacca are having a deep and meaningful about who should claim his soul.
Sue’s memories of her Belgium boarding school revolve around eating fish and chips as a special treat one lunchtime a week. This was no beer battered snapper caught using environmentally registered hand lines in a renewable fish pond in Thailand. But a fish consisted of ‘Roll Mops’. They look like a Jurassic period science experiment rolled up in a jar. Made from pickled left over sun enriched herring fillets they came with hot potato Frites. The ‘Roll Mops’, are akin to eating pickled pigs trotters or marinated tongues from used Dunlop Volleys. After Roger and Nadal had finished a five setter. Sue detested ‘Roll Mops’ and usually managed to trade them away for chips or slices of salami. Sue’s a smooth talker. But youngest sister KK, a ‘Roll Mops’ hater also, never managed to trade them off to another schoolgirl.
This caused one of the nuns to stand over KK to ensure she ate all her ‘fish’ and chips and was thus full of pickled fish for the schoolwork ahead. Breakfast was a continental one featuring buns, bread, cold meats including Horse. Also manufactured meats possibly made from Belgium marsupials. Australians do not knowingly eat Horse meat albeit possibly mixed in with Polony, Salami and other Italian/Polish and Serbian manufactured, hung and dried look like doggy doos. Meal times were not a favourite of the three Morrison schoolgirls and they were glad when Dad and Mum took them back to Oz for real fish and chips.
Sue wanted to see inside the school. Reignite long slumbering memories in classrooms, dormitories, and wash rooms where they had a once a week bath. No such luxury as a shower. Yarn said it may not be possible but we went up to the grand front doors set under an Art deco glass roofed Portico, and pushed the electronic button. Twice. Finally a small gentle faced elderly nun came and after Yarn explained in Flemish, she knew Yarn and checking us out whilst he spoke. I presenting her with a tiny furry koala, she gave us a smile as only one who has dealt with human suffering can. The nun had spent 34 years amongst the poor of Chile and this was her ‘aged persons home’. We got a guided tour into the glorious richly decorated chapel, the sadly neglected classrooms and dormitories where the girls slept in beds lined up one after the other like sardines
School and Herk de Stat tour over, Yarn drove us to the town of Diest where the train station was, thus bypassing the bus stop at ‘Intersection Nowhere’. Diest is another of those lovely antique towns that time has passed by. Narrow cobblestone streets, oldish world buildings, grand cathedral, lots of shops, plenty of bars and friendly people. Just before he dropped us off, there out the car window I spot Hitlers Dad. Same moustache, angry countenance, Dad is stooped, large bodied, bald as though over the years he was weighed down by war medals and by having the worlds worst child. Go to Brugge, Brussels and then Diest. Go shoulder season and spend most time at Diest. Look out for and avoid Hitlers Dad. There, you have seen Belgium. On a Thursday night, catch up with Yarn and his mates but do not drink six 8.5% Duvel beers. Two should put you to sleep.
Monday we leave Brussels Belgium by train for Amiens France. With two train changes one allowing us 9 minutes to find another train and its platform, all whilst lugging our life belongings of the moment. Its hard work compounded by no Dutch, Belgium nor French train station having a platform that finishes level with the train. Three steps or 45 to 60 cm drop is the usual. In many cases theres no escalator not lift to get us down or up. In one place we dragged our belongings down a long long platform to the end where the platform sloped down to a rubber matting laid between two sets of railway lines. This is the crossing between platforms for weary elderly travellers with suitcases.
Four minutes walk from Amiens train Station we are through the door of the Grand Hotel L’Universe on the corner of Rue de Goblet and anther Rue with a long name. Superior room up on the third floor, corner position, three windows, we overlook a grand park, Place Goblet’, with fountain and a 150 year old tree. A long wide treed shopping mall disappears into the distance, the hum of busy people, foot scooters, skateboards, bikes and vehicles in the side Rue’s is all pleasant.
When they use the name ‘Grand’ it usually is not. In this case – not. It is described in a tourism brochure that, ‘The lobby in this large elegant bourgeois building is lit by a splendid glass roof and has forty one spacious soundproofed rooms’. That was surely written by the scribe who does that drivel on the back of wine bottles as the ceiling in the lobby is plaster panels. One has to go up to the first floor to gaze up at the ‘glass ceiling’. Mind you, I’m a succour for a Red Wine on which a ‘Label Scribe’ has the word ‘chocolate’ on the label. And spacious soundproofed rooms – bull****. ‘Sorry Mum’
Up in our U Bewt non spacious room, its OK, 6/10, but on checking the en-suite, theres no toilet. Where does one sit down and chat to Australia’s eight living prime ministers. Ahh, there it is, back around the bed and alongside the entry door. Looks like an afterthought and/or bad planning. And theres the tiny three person lift on whose roof Gaspard the diminutive Hobbit lives. On pressing the go button on lift to take us and our bags from level 0 to level 3, there’s a load thump as Gaspard wakes up, realises what is going on, sends instructions to his brother Quasimodo in Notre Dame who activates the lift mechanism and its then all smooth travel. After the first time, I used the 59 timber winding stairs.
Oh, and theres a ‘step surprise’ at entry ‘porch’ to our room. I trip over it every time and on exiting our ‘superior room’, nearly go head first through a flimsy wrought iron balustrade a metre away, and plunge down 3 floors. It would be quicker than the stairs. Or lift for that matter.
Amiens has a population of 136,105, thats in 2006. There’s an Amiens in Queensland, population 293 and its tucked down in the south east corner near the NSWales border where they grow marijuana and use Bananas in Spiritual Revivalist Meetings. Our Amiens was named in 1920 after its namesake in France.
The Somme River is just over there with the Battle of the Somme which pitted Germany against the British Empire, and that included 8 of its Colonies, Oz and Nz included. Also France and Russia. And don’t forget Italy. We all know the Italians goose step 3 forward and four backwards. Some three million men took part with over one million killed or wounded. It was the first war where planes and tanks were used. At Pozieres, there’s a place named, ‘The Windmill Site’, where lies a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice and blood than any other place on earth. Then theres Aussie sacrifice and blood at Fromelles, Bullecourt, Le Hamel, and Villers-Bretonneux as well as other places. They all featured, if it is a feature, appalling carnage, inept field commanders, inadequate supply lines, lack of sustenance level food, disease, horror and dragged on and on.
Every country that took part, suffered horribly in loss of its mainly young men. Heroic battles were fought, lost and won then lost again. It was all a sickening, frightening, repugnant, heinous waste precipitated by ego driven megalomaniacs in near every major country involved as they felt ‘slighted’ by the assassination of a nobody. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot in Sarajevo June 1914, by a deranged Serbian student. People in the Balkans are still deranged today. Sorry Montenegro friends. Enough Des it makes my tummy churn to think about the waste of my countrymen and other countries young men. Megalomaniacs are still around. Putin, Trump, Kim Jong-Un, al- Assad plus many in Oz in Parliaments or aspiring to be.
In World War One, Amiens was devastated. Its many lovely buildings destroyed but its Cathedral Notre Dame survived. The Amiens people re-built to see it all knocked down again in World War Two. They re-built again this time in concrete but kept the scale . height and architectural styling of previous generations of buildings. Again, the Notre Dame Cathedral of Amiens survived mans stupidity. A monster of a church, a marvel of mans ability to create the worlds largest church, by volume, back in the 13th century. Its interior can gobble up two of Paris’s Notre Dames, but the tourists go to Paris’s Notre Dame because of tourist jingoism. Amiens Notre Dame is far far better and I’m a member of the clergy so I know. Trust me. ‘Notre Dame’ means ‘Our Lady’ therefore we have Cathedrals in Paris and Amiens being simply ‘Our Lady of Paris’ and ‘Our Lady of Amiens’. Good on you sonny boy, all that church going you did as a child stood you in good stead. Now, could you please cut your old Mums toenails. ‘Cripes Mum, I did it last time. Cant Snake Boots do it?’.
We had time for a good look about Amiens and it is a delightful City with many strings to its tourist bow besides scenes and places in the surrounding countryside where battles were fought. Jules Verne lived here as he married an Amiens woman Honorine and made this lovely place his home from 1871 until he died in 1905. He wrote ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ and ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’. There’s its Grand Cathedral, ‘The Hortillonnages’ known as the ‘floating gardens’ a quirky marshy area where the soil is rich and where vegetables were grown and peat removed in by-gone days on a large scale. The lakes, ponds and marshes go on and on, strange floating and land sculptures, curving tiny bridges over narrow rivulets or still creeks, small punts to ferry tourists like in Venice, tiny houses on islands with no car access, bike or park your car away. Then there’s ‘Saint-Leu’ where the many thousands of university students sit, talk over one another in that excited French way, and the bars and cafes go on and on. This is ancient Amiens criss crossed by numerous canals and known in the tourist industry as ‘The Venice of the North’. Oh yeh, pull the other one mate.
Barb Legrand, another using the word ‘grand’, of ‘True Blue Diggers Tours’ took us on a half day tour of Villers- Bretonneux. To its Victoria school funded after WWI by Aussies, into its school museum, to the nearby Oz War memorial with behind, the magnificent new John Monash U Bewt Swish Museum come Interpretative Centre to Adelaide cemetery where the body of the ‘unknown soldier’ was exhumed and taken to Canberra where he now lies comfy in his home country forever. Also in this graveyard, are the bodies of six mates who died together and honouring that, their gravestones are places touching each other, Six together in life and death. How caring the thought behind placing the gravestones. Then sadly, well its all sad in a cemetery particularly a war cemetery, but there’s the grave of a 17 year old, many 18 year olds and so on. The Sir John Monash centre opened this year 2018 by one of Oz’s living prime ministers, Malcolm, is a very well designed building set partially underground with a turf come weed roof. Its all wizz bang stuff inside, with superlative use of technology, brass, stainless steel, marble, Jarrah, Blue Gum, Silky Oak, Redwood, Huon Pine blah blah. Cox Architects get 10/10.
Dropped back outside Amiens Irish Tavern, there’s Irish Taverns everywhere, we have a train to catch to Paris for a two nighter. At the price we paid for the Paris hotel room, I hope the website was not ‘photo shopped’ in Nairobi by Mgumbu and the Dazzling write ups on the hotels site were not scribbled by his uncle Botswana, a Wine Label artiste, we should be in the lap of luxury. Sue deserves luxury. I’m not used to luxury. I may get to sleep in the hotels linen cupboard. Way to go – yay.
Ooroo from her, the lovely Sue. And Moi.