A Christmas in Ghent
This Christmas (2018), I was invited to David and Marta's home in Everghem, a suburb of Ghent, Belgium.
David is the brother of a friend (Nina) in Maryland, and I met him when he drove her and our mutual friend Kathie to see me here in France in August. David is an American born in Germany with Australian citizenship, a lifelong street performer, and married to Marta who is Polish, and the mother of four adult children, three of whom live around Ghent, while the fourth -- Helena - lives with her husband and children in Denmark. Yes, it was confusing!
The food was mostly Polish, with some Belgian thrown in (that would be primarily the deep-fried potatoes, plus beer and chocolates); the languages were English, Dutch (the lingua franca of this area of Belgium) Polish, Danish (among Helena and her family), and probably some Flemish, German and French thrown in occasionally.
Ghent ("Gan" in French, which is closer to the original Flemish for "confluence" of rivers) is a stunning, cultural jewel that dates back to 630 (correct, 7th century) and in the Middle Ages was one of the most important cities in Western Europe due to its vibrant port and wool trade, making it second in population only to Paris. However, as the tradespeople and guilds became more and more entangled in the politics between England and France, it lost its importance -- but never its spirit. In fact, to this day, Ghent's symbol is a rope noose that the people -- known as "noose bearers", or stroppendragers -- wear as a badge of honor as a symbol of their historical and rebellious fight against oppression. Ghent was the first industrialized city in Europe and has always had a reputation for its "troublemaking"labor movement; in fact, the first modern trade unions and socialist movements were founded in Ghent.
Belgium has a very complex government (in fact, last I heard, there WAS no government because it had been booted out!), as well as a monarchy. Belgians also pay huge taxes: 60% of their income, which, they say, is NOT an incentive to work more, though they concede they do have excellent benefits, including health care for all, anywhere, any time.
I arrived December 23, traveling by train from Argenton in central France to Paris, then to Brussels, then to Ghent, where David picked me up. The family's tradition is to gather Christmas Eve for a big family feast and opening presents -- but first, we had to do some last minute food and gift-shopping:
|I love going to supermarkets in new towns, and this high-quality, but low-cost bulk food one was fascinating to me!
|I loved the expanse and selection of prepared foods!
|And yes, Brussels sprouts (top shelf, center) actually DO come from Brussels. I really didn't know that!
|I don't know where lychees come from, only that I don't like them! Helena does.
|David and Marta in the kitchen of the cottage they built this past year adjacent to the main house.
|David hangs the ornament given by Nina, my friend and his sister.
...but Ghent is at its most magical at night, because of its spectacular lighting plan:
|The building on the right and below is the City Hall -- it is INCREDIBLE!
|I know I live in the land of châteaux, but Gravensteen Castle (also known as the Castle of the Counts of Flanders) right in the center of town in Ghent is really astonishing.
|This view of all three churches is stunning!
Ghent is known for its mustard (of which I bought a small jar -- while protesting that since I live in France I already have access to fabulous mustards!)...and Belgians love their beer and fried foods...
...their bicycles (which is why they can eat all those carbs and not get fat!)...
...and, of course, their chocolate -- which probably IS the best in the world!
Not all of Ghent's architecture is breath-taking in a good way, though. This is the City Pavilion, an open-air building constructed in 2012 that truly sticks out like a sore thumb and apparently is mockingly nicknamed by the locals, "the sheep pen":
was rebuilt or restored in the 20th century for the 1913 World's Fair:
Businesses in the centrum that are housed in historical buildings are required to maintain the original façades, as was the case with the Marriott Hotel that has a very modern -- albeit in my opinion ugly -- interior:
If you look closely below, you'll see two emblems of swans facing away from each other. Swans facing towards each other form the shape of a heart, and thus are the symbol for "love", but swans facing AWAY from each other form the symbol of...well...not quite "love". This was the original site of the port bordello.
And, of course, there is the commonplace, ubiquitous chocolate franchise:
...the more up-scale:
...and the top of the line:
True to its city's "trouble-making" reputation, this beauty salon's window always has a socially-conscious, progressive "message" to impart:
|These cranes ("grues" in French) are made of silverware!
A la prochaine --