Friday, 16 March 2012
At 10:00 this morning the people of Belgium held a minute's silence for the 28 of their countrymen, 22 of whom were children who died in an horrendous coach crash in the Swiss Alps earlier this week.
I spent some time in Belgium last year and put up a post about one aspect of the trip called Ypres. However I would like to share with you something else that happened to myself and my friends while we were there.
We had gone to Belgium for the Graspop Heavy Metal Festival and to visit some of the war graves and the Menin Gate Ceremony in Ypres. The festival was in the middle of the Belgian countryside and our hotel was six miles from the site so we hired some pedal cycles to get to and from the site.
One lunchtime we were cycling to the festival and saw a nice riverside tavern in a tiny village so stopped for a couple of beers. Before we left we noticed they had charged us for two beers that we hadn't ordered so after an amicable discussion they corrected their mistake.
So we carried on to the festival and spent the day in a frenzy of metal and Belgian beer. That night as we were cycling back to the hotel we saw the tavern was still open and as we hadn't eaten since breakfast decided to stop for some food.
We clumped in and asked if they were still serving food but were told that the kitchens were closing as it was 23:00 but we could have a drink. then the girl behind the bar recognised us and pointed out that we were the English men who had argued over the price of a couple of beers.
Great, we thought , now they won't even serve us a beer.
However the next thing we knew they were sitting us at a table and telling us they could probably rustle up a bit of stew. That would be great, we were hungry enough to eat a scabby donkey.
A bit of stew turned out to be bowls full of steaming, rich stew, plates of buttered bread and bowls full of frites and salad with mayonnaise dressing. Brilliant!
We thanked them profusely and fell to, clearing every bowl and plate they put in front of us.
Afterwards we sat back at the bar and I found myself next to a big Belgian bloke eating meat out of a metal bucket. I asked him where he had got it, his English was pretty good and he told me he was a lorry driver who lived locally and when he finished his late shift he dropped in for a drink and to eat any leftovers from the riverside barbecue they had held earlier in the evening.
We got talking and swapping stories, my friends talked to the landlord and chatted up the barmaids. Soon an old lady joined us and my new friend introduced her as the landlord's mother, she couldn't speak English so he did the interpreting.
She asked which bands I was looking forward to seeing tomorrow and I told her that we were driving over to Ypres the next day instead to visit the war graves and see the Menin Gate ceremony.
Why was it so important for me and my friends that we would miss the last day of a festival? I thought about it for a bit and explained that, in my case, my grandfather had fought in the British Army during World War 2 and had been killed by a German artillery shell in North Africa..
Even though he was buried in a small Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemetery in Tunisia I could still try to honour him in this way.
When the lorry driver translated this to her she grabbed me and kissed me on cheeks then went behind the bar and spoke with her son. Suddenly there were brandy glasses in front of us all and the landlord pulled a bottle of cognac from under the bar and filed them all.
'These are on the house', he said, 'you are fine men'.
And so we all toasted each other with cognac and bought each other beers, talking an laughing into the night until we had to leave. We still had several miles to cycle through pitch black forest infested with wild boar and we were utterly pissed.
Everybody was hugging and kissing and they made us swear to come back next year as we said our goodbyes and rode of into the night, full of food, beer and happiness.
Today Belgium is once more mourning it's dead. What has happened would be a tragedy for any nation but I have a soft spot for Belgium, it's respect for the dead whether they are soldiers dying to liberate the country or innocent kids on a skiing trip is admirable.
It only took a few days but I fell in love with this country and it's people and I feel so sorry for their loss.