A Christmas in Ghent

This Christmas (2018), I was invited to David and Marta's home in Everghem, a suburb of Ghent, Belgium.

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "map ghent"

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!

"French fries" actually originated in Belgium, and the Belgians adore them (typically eaten with mayonnaise) and all other forms of deep fried foods, but especially potatoes.  Helena (Marta's oldest of three daughters plus one son) is making her selection; her 9-year old son Damien and I counted 36 different varieties!
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.
Back at the house, final preparations got underway for the big meal...

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.

Four siblings, four partners, seven grandchildren, all  of whom are here working on a gingerbread house. I became particularly close to Helena's 9 and 7-year old boys, Damien and Lucas, pictured in the red sweat shirts (pajama tops?).
They started out calling me "Madame Wrinkly", which finally became annoying...so Damien suggested "Granny",
which I loved!
I took  lot of photos that I sent to family members, but didn't feel necessary to include in this blog entry.  Not surprisingly, as certainly happened on holidays in Gary's and my home, there was as much family drama to go around as there were food and presents. Christmas day, though, everyone was back on track, eating again, and then Helena, David and the kids and I went to a late afternoon movie in Ghent:  we three adults saw "Mary Poppins Returns" which was very enjoyable.  I got a few photos in on the way to the movie theater...

...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!

The building on the far left is the oldest original building in Ghent -- the former grain exchange.  From the side it looks tilted, because it is:  buildings were designed that way to facilitate moving product in and out of the windows (i.e., closer to the ground).  The little adjacent building with the tiny blue door was historically, as the guide pointed out, "the most hated building in Ghent". It was the tax office.

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":

But even in the daytime most of the city centre ("centrum") is enchanting, even if much of it
 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:

Other storefronts, though, offer displays more artistic than political, such as this art gallery featuring quite innovative sculpture:

These cranes ("grues" in French) are made of silverware!
Thank you, David, for such a lovely visit to your exquisite town!

A la prochaine --


  1. Paulette - your photos are wonderful, especially the nights and lights! You learned much more while you were there than I did during my visit. It is such a wonderful, old city - really old, huh.
    Thank you for posting and narrating. Kj

    1. Thanks, Kathie -- I'd love to go back one day to explore in more depth.

  2. Thanks again, Paulette, for such a good shared-experience! You are making the most of your time! Happy New Year!

  3. I loved this, Paulette....I felt I was right there with you, strolling around...such wonderful buildings. I look forward to reading your future entries. Happy New Year to you!

    1. Thank you, Miriam, for reading, commenting, and especially for enjoying. Happy New Year to you, too.


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