Last week, my sister and I went for a holiday in Northern France (and Belgium). I hadn’t been to France for about twenty years, and the last time I was in Belgium I was eleven, when I went to Blankenberge with the school.
Our gite was on the French side of the border, but not by much, and all the villages had Flemish names. We stayed in Rexpoede, but I still don’t how it’s pronounced. My guess is ‘rex po ed’, but I could be completely wrong. It’s a village on the evacuation route to Dunkirk (or Dunkerque), and in the graveyard there are about thirty war graves, all dating from the end of May and the beginning of June 1940.
The Dunkirk evacuation actually took place from the beach at Bray Dunes, where we went for lunch. My guess is that it’s changed a bit since 1940, though a few of the buildings are pre war. My sister ate moules (she doesn’t eat meat) and I ate merguez, a spicy sausage of North African origin. I don’t like to enquire too closely as to what merguez is made of (weasel, for all I know), but it’s delicious, if you like that sort of thing, so I don’t particularly care. After lunch, I walked to Belgium and back. It isn’t quite as impressive as it sounds. Bray Dunes is only a mile or so from the border. My sister has an even more impressive boast. She took her shoes off and paddled all the way to Belgium (and back).
We did also drive to Belgium, several times. Being that close, if you head off at random, you’re likely to end up in Belgium about 50% of the time. We went to Ypres (or Ieper – that’s a capital I, not a lower case L, the town and its inhabitants are perfectly healthy), where I drank beer and my sister (who was driving) drank diabolo, a drink made of lemonade and grenadine. We went to Veurne (or Furnes), where there was an exhibition in the museum to do with the First World War. The exhibition was interesting enough, but what impressed me most was the Delvaux painting, which wasn’t part of any obvious exhibition. It was just on a wall to the side, with no label. I could probably have stepped over the rope for a closer look, but given the level of the terrorist alert, I thought better of it.
Driving back from Belgium is a complicated business, because of the level of the terrorist alert. On the motorway, all the traffic is diverted off at the first exit in France, around a roundabout, where armed soldiers pull vehicles over at random. In the evening, the armed soldiers have all gone home, but drivers still have to leave at the exit, and go round the roundabout, before they rejoin the motorway. However, for the more adventurous terrorist, there are lots of back roads where the border isn’t even marked, let alone guarded.
When we went to Belgium as children, we took the boat to Ostende, and then went on to Blankenberge by tram. The tram (called the Kusttram) still runs, though it isn’t quite the rattly cream thing it was in the 1960s. My sister and I caught it from De Panne, near the amusement park called Plopsaland. The Belgians are good at giving things names. The tram takes two hours to get to Blankenberge from De Panne, all along the coast, but it’s quite interesting.
In Blankenberge, we walked around, looking for the hotel we stayed in as children, the Hotel Leopold II. We didn’t find it, even though I remembered the address, Onderwijsstraat 23, so we asked in the restaurant where we had lunch (my sister had moules, and I had ‘kip’, which turned out to be chicken). The waitress gave us a map and we found the street, though number 23 no longer exists. Number 21 is a big new hotel, and number 25 is a modern block of flats, but there’s no number 23.
On the way back, we stopped off at Nieuwpoort, to look at the Albert Memorial (not the one in London), and to buy drinks from the supermarket. I had a can of beer, but I don’t remember what my sister had, because I was distracted by the other things you can buy at supermarkets in Belgium. Maybe ‘Cock’s fresh’ is the Flemish for ‘merguez’. I did say the Belgians were good at giving things names.