glorious weather, a weekend in Lille

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After weeks and weeks of gloom, we’ve been enjoying glorious weather for the past week: cold in the morning, warmer throughout the day, and dry with brilliant sunshine. Friday after work I took the train up to Lille. The kids are on school vacation for two weeks.

The French word, “luge“, means sledding or toboganning. Despite the absence of snow, the city of Lille constructed this sled run for kids. My 6 year-old companion (soon to be 7) and I spent Saturday and Sunday at the Gare Saint Sauveur, a former train station (freight) converted into an exhibition center and recreational space. I’ve been taking the kids there for over a decade.

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Inside there’s lots more to do: a giant chess game …

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Le trampoline …

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Le karting …

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I have no idea what this is called, in French or in English …

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Le curling and le mini-golf …

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All entirely free and paid for from the coffers (and taxpayers) of the city of Lille. Traditionally socialist, this northern city has had the same mayor since 2001. Martine Aubry is her name and the people of Lille are fond of her. Her father, Jacques Delors, was Minister of Finance under President François Mitterrand and also President of the European Commission.

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Socialist mayor of Lille, Martine Aubry

She’s a no-nonsense woman and extremely efficient. Lille is a well-organized city and ideal for families. There are lots of activities for children and adults alike. The north of France, particularly Lille and Roubaix, also has a large Muslim population principally from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria (former French colonies.) But there appears to be a lot less tension there than in Paris and other southern cities. In comparison, Lille is a relatively laidback and harmonious place.

After all his sporting activities, Soso announced that he was hungry and wanting lunch. So off we went to the on-site bistro, one of my favorite lunch spots, for a tasty, inexpensive meal. This is butternut squash risotto (delicious!). Soso had fish and chips.

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Sunday was an equally beautiful day. Too nice to stay indoors. So off we went again, first to the park which was packed with kids, babies, parents and some grandparents.

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boy on a bike (Soso)

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After Ireland, France has the highest birth-rates in Europe. France’s family allowances for all (exempt from income tax) – what we used to call “baby bonuses” in Canada – are a contributing factor to this baby boom. Women are awarded a “birth bonus” for giving birth. The 2019 amount, for each baby born, is 941,67 euros. There are also September back-to-school allowances (example: 401,46 euros for a child from 15 to 18 years old), a moving allowance and other subsidies (chart below.)

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Spring comes early here; the miniature daisies (marguerites) and crocuses (crocus) are out.

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Next weekend I’m off to Amsterdam.

Here’s the French Social Security Family Benefits chart, in French, English and other languages.

https://www.cleiss.fr/docs/regimes/regime_france6_prestations-familiales.html

https://www.cleiss.fr/docs/regimes/regime_france/an_a1.html

my niece, Chiara: melody maker

She’s beautiful, she’s talented, and she’s performing as special guest this Friday night at Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts.

Best wishes to you from Paris.

Rising from Toronto’s bustling music scene is 26 year old upcoming pop sensation, Chiara Young. Comprised of a masterful lyricist, talented pianist and soulful vocalist, Chiara brings an electrifying new approach to pop music. Debuting her new single ‘Fallout’ from her upcoming EP, Chiara continues to build on the success of previous single ‘Look At You Now’, bringing her flourishing supporters a colourful combination of heart, soul and inspiration while delivering a memorable journey for all.

(extract taken from the Toronto Guardian’s “Five Minutes With Toronto Alt-Pop musician Chiara Young”, written by Joel Levy, October 9, 2018.)

new books, new authors, and the marvel of the internet

Sunday morning and I’m stretched out in my usual Sunday-morning position: reclining on my chaise longue and reading The Guardian, my favorite on-line newspaper. At the same time I’m wondering how we got things done before the Internet age. I mean, think about it. Without leaving my chaise longue, I’ve managed to do a lot of surprisingly diverse things in the space of two days. I booked my end-of-February Amsterdam trip and my mid-May Italy trip. Oh, and my mid-April London and Lille trip. I found five potential book editors for my book project; I read the opening pages of Michelle Obama’s memoir on Amazon; I purchased a ticket in advance for the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum; I completed a 2019 Population Census for the French Government (obligatory); I googled recipes for parsnip-carrot soup and mushroom lasagne; I googled the movements of the gilets jaunes yesterday which resulted in my not crossing Paris because the metro would be disturbed; I listened to BBC radio then turned it off because all talk of BREXIT makes me ill; I watched The Kominsky Method on Netflix and liked it a lot (who doesn’t like Michael Douglas?), and I watched a tutorial on YouTube entitled ‘How to create pivot charts in Excel 2010’ because I need to know how to do this for work. Later, I watched HEAL on Netflix. Have you seen it? It’s about holistic healing and it’s fascinating.

Conclusion? The internet is a marvel. (The word ‘marvel’, by the way, comes from the French merveille, which means to admire, to be surprised and to wonder at.)

For those of you looking for new books and new authors to read, today’s Guardian introduces eight new women writers, as well as an interesting-sounding anthology of essays written by seventeen Muslim women (pissed off over stereotyping and Islamophobia) speaking frankly about a lot of different subjects. Here are the links below.

très bon dimanche (have a good Sunday).

https://www.panmacmillan.com/blogs/literary/new-authors-picador-new-voices

https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/mariam-khan/it-s-not-about-the-burqa/9781509886401

beautiful music

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What better place to listen to 17th century music than in a 17th century church. 

The other night a friend and I went to the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Blancs-Manteaux in the Marais to listen to a concert organized by the Venetian Centre for Baroque Music.

I love baroque music. And I love old churches. To combine the two was sheer delight. And the old church (built between 1685-1690) – full of atmosphere and lit only by candles – was an acoustic marvel.

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I tried to videotape a segment of the concert, but there was not enough light. Fortunately I found the same group of soloists on Youtube so that you too can listen to this sumptuous soothing music. Marc-Antoine Charpentier is the name of the 17th-century composer whose concerto they are singing. Enjoy.

Ensemble Correspondances, choir and orchestra – Sébastien Daucé, harpsichord, organ & direction

so I returned to Brussels in the Spring…

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In the end I didn’t get the job in Brussels. But a few weeks later I secured myself a pretty good job in Paris (located, literally, at the end of my street), so all’s well that ends well.

But I felt that I could easily live in Brussels. As I walked the streets, the words that popped into my head to describe the city’s vibe were “relaxed and loose” as opposed to “tense and high strung” that is Paris. There’s an appealing quirkiness to the place and it’s cheaper than France. Oh, and did I mention that Belgian beer is awesome?

So in the Spring I returned and stayed at the same B&B, The Sweet Brussels. Here’s my room, the bathroom and the building’s exterior:

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I wandered over to the nearby Marolles district to check out the flea market and the vintage furniture shops on the rue Blaes:

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The weather forecast predicted rain all weekend. It was the exact opposite.

The best fries!

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Belgian fries are awesome. Crisp, non-greasy and piping hot for 2 euros. I bought these from a food truck, called a fritkot, located on the Place de la Chapelle at the foot of a white cathedral. Belgians eat their fries with mayonnaise. I asked for malt vinegar but they didn’t have any, so I ate them plain, sprinkled with salt. Sit on a park bench, wash ’em down with a bottle of beer and life is good! It doesn’t take much to please this girl.

 

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From the Place de la Chapelle I walked straight down the boulevard de l’Empereur to the Place Albertine where I went in January. I wanted to see the park again. Look at the contrast between winter and spring:

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What a difference sunshine and warm weather makes. As the day drew to a close, I headed back to the B&B. A few doors up is a Moroccan pastry shop that makes pastilla: phyllo-pastry pie filled with shredded chicken, ground almonds, cinnamon and sugar. They also make Moroccan breads and pastries. I purchased some small fragrant cakes (flavored with anise and orange flower water) then retired to my room to sip herbal tea and watch a DVD.

It should be known that this neighborhood near the train station is kind of gritty (but relatively safe.) The advantage is that it’s within walking distance to everywhere.

Part Two, wintry Brussels

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The next day was warmer: minus five instead of minus eight. But the sun had disappeared behind thick cloud and the resulting gloom did not compel me to rush outdoors. So I lingered over a second cappuccino in the breakfast room while listening to classical music and and poring over the stash of design books, maps, and travel brochures made available to guests. Sofie and another woman came in and we chatted about the flea market and antique stalls in the nearby Marolles district. And this is why I prefer B&B’s to hotels; it’s like being in someone’s home….well, you are in someone’s home. The service is more personalized, you can pick up interesting tidbits of local information and when the place has more guests in it than yourself, cross paths with like-minded travellers.

The above photograph, for those who don’t recognize Tintin, was taken in the window of a comic book shop. Comic books are big in Belgium. The Adventures of Tintin sells more than a million copies a year worldwide and is translated into more than 50 languages. Tintin is a Belgian reporter aided in his adventures by faithful dog Snowy (called Milou in the French edition.) Every year Brussels hosts a Comic Book Festival where enormous balloon characters parade down the main streets.

On my last day in this lovely city I decided to wander further afield and visit the new Magritte museum and the adjoining Musée des Beaux Arts. There was also a lamp I wanted to buy. I spotted it, late yesterday afternoon, in the window of an interior design shop. It spoke to me. I’m a bit of a lamp fetishist, I’m afraid. I don’t really need another lamp, but this one is quite unique. Last year I completely redecorated my flat in Paris. Everything is white. White lacquer furniture, white curtains, white laminate flooring, white and pale gray walls. And this lamp, in the form of a shell, will be perfect on my credenza.

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Heading outside, I walked the 15 minutes in a straight line to the Grand Place and veered right towards the Place Albertine. Trudging through snow and over the still ice-encrusted sidewalks (it appears that the city’s snow removal services don’t do sidewalks), I eventually reached this park: a pristine, public park designed in a neoclassicist, geometric style.  As if frozen in time, its petrified sculptures lay under a mantle of snow:

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She looks cold.

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It was a pleasant experience walking through that silent, unpeopled park, the distant sounds of the city muffled by the snow. I finally reached the Magritte museum and spent the next hour wandering contentedly through its galleries, looking at and learning about the work of this Belgian surrealist artist (1898-1967):

The Great War
Castle in the Pyrenees
The Son of Man 

“Rene Magritte’s work has both philosophical and poetic content which corresponds to certain social and intellectual trends, particularly of the second half of the twentieth century. His work was not easy to approach at the outset, however, and makes a constant call on us to relinquish, at least temporarily, our usual expectations of art.  Magritte never responds to our demands and expectations. He offers us something else instead.”

 

And then, sadly, it was time to return to Paris. I reluctantly made my way back to the B&B. I didn’t have time to visit the Musée des Beaux Arts, nor a dozen other places of interest on my list. Collecting my belongings from the B&B, I walked the short distance to the train station only to learn that the train was delayed again due to weather conditions. I bought a hot chocolate and a waffle in the food court. I think I gained a few kilos which isn’t surprising considering I subsisted primarily on chocolate, fries, waffles and beer for two days. Once we got underway, the trip back to Paris was comfortable and speedy, just over an hour. Service on that route is operated by Thalys, the high-speed train operator jointly owned by French, German and Belgian national railways. I’ll definitely return to Brussels.

So what took me so long to discover the place? I guess I was busy discovering other places. What I particularly like about this city is its eclecticism – the blend of different styles and vibes ranging from Baroque to Art Nouveau, old-world to avant-garde, rebellious to conformist, flamboyant to austere, all with an underlying quirkiness.

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have you been to Brussels in the dead of winter?

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the Thalys train from Paris to Brussels

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Paris Gare du Nord train station in January

 

I’m actually considering moving to Brussels in the not too distant future. I discovered it six years ago – in January 2013 – and liked it very much. Six years ago I was applying for jobs at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. I had had enough of Paris and was seeking a smaller, friendlier, greener city in which to live and work. I fired off my résumé for one particular job posting within an EU institution, and in return received train tickets to go there for an interview. Here’s my account of that lovely but freezing cold weekend.

The high-speed train sped across the flat, snow-shrouded fields of northern France. Travel time from Paris to Brussels normally takes an hour and a quarter, but due to abundant snow and ice on the tracks the trip was lengthened by 50 minutes. By the time we pulled into Bruxelles-Midi station it was pitch black and freezing cold. I walked the short distance to The Sweet Brussels B&B.

Pushing open a massive wooden door, I stepped into a dimly-lit entrance hall where several flights of stairs loomed before me. I climbed the first flight and was met on the landing by a friendly Dutchwoman named Sofie. Thankfully, she lugged my suitcase up two more flights of narrow, wooden stairs. Room number 3 was a massive, high-ceilinged room with marble fireplace, floor to ceiling windows and a gorgeous art deco lamp hanging over the queen-sized bed. Light-hued wooden floorboards stretched into the equally spacious ensuite bathroom. The Sweet Brussels is design-based. Design features, fixtures, and books on Art Nouveau and other artistic styles are everywhere.

We chatted until I realized it was 7 pm and I was starving. I wanted two things: a Belgian beer and a good meal. My hostess recommended just such a place up the road. I changed my shoes and within 5 minutes was outside again.

The thing about arriving at an unfamiliar address in the dark is you don’t know where the heck you are. Although the B&B was decidedly hip, it looked like the neighbourhood was not. Even in the dark I could see that it wasn’t exactly swank. Like all districts around train stations, the streets and buildings were kind of gritty. To be fair, I learned the next day that it borders the edgy, revitalized district of Marolles and is also within walking distance of both the Brussels Midi train station and the heart of the historic city center. (Brussels has three train stations.) Slipping and sliding on the ice-encrusted sidewalk, I made my way up the road in the direction Sofie had indicated.

Shining like a beacon in the dark, I saw the lighted sign of the Houtsiplou diner located on the Place Rouppe. It was just the kind of place I was looking for: casual-cozy, funky music playing in the background, and a friendly waitstaff who greeted me upon entering. Unravelling my multilayers of outer clothing, I chose a table next to a radiator and told the menu-bearing young man that I’d like a beer. He let me sample a few brews and, in the end, we mutually decided on Leffe.  Incidentally, the three official languages of Belgium are French, Dutch (also called Flemish) and German. The two official languages in Brussels are French and English.

Fries are another Belgian specialty. Generously-cut from a potato called bintje, deep-fried in fat (not oil), cooled and fried again, they’re served hot, salted, and with ketchup or mayonnaise. I ordered a portion along with a gorgonzola cheeseburger.  Happy and warm, I sipped my delicious malty ale and flipped through a magazine while waiting for my meal. The place was cozy…kinda like home….with a friendly, laid-back vibe. Paris is a lot of things, I mused, but cozy isn’t one of them. “Laid-back” isn’t how I’d describe the Parisians either. My meal came, I ate every delicious morsel and ordered a slice of lemon meringue pie for dessert.

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After a round of hearty goodbyes, I stepped back out into the cold night and skidded along the slippery sidewalk to the B&B. It was time for sweet dreams at the Sweet Brussels. It turned out that, being mid-January, I was the only guest there. Thank goodness Sofie and her family live in a flat on the ground floor because I would’ve felt awfully nervous being the sole occupant of the very tall, 19th-century building. My room was silent as a tomb.

The next day was sunny and minus 8 degrees centigrade. In the breakfast room, notes from a jazz soundtrack floated through the air and to my delight I spied a sophisticated-looking coffee machine that shared the counter with baskets of bread, croissants, cereal, cheese, fruit, juices and yogurts (all for me!). Sofie came in and showed me how the machine worked. It’s Swiss-made and the brand name is Jura. It made a divinely creamy cappuccino at the press of a button.

Passage obligé for the tourist visiting Brussels is the Grand Place, just up the street from my hotel. Ringed with gabled and gilded 17th and 18th century buildings, this has got to be the most stunning square in Europe. I later learned that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, so I guess it is the most stunning square in Europe.

My photos don’t give it justice because it’s the panoramic sweep, the gold and grandeur – with you standing in the middle – that makes it so resplendent:

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Chocolates galore!

My next destination was the nearby 19th-century shopping mall called the Royal Galeries. Here are some random street shots that I took as I walked along, periodically popping into the ubiquitous chocolate shop to warm up and sample chocolates. Notice the absence of crowds. In the summer Brussels is packed. I love the name of this street below: Herring Street.

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Royal Galeries of Saint-Hubert

This jewel of Brussels architecture was constructed in 1847. Wandering through the arcades, you can easily imagine men and women from a past era strolling under the glass-paned roof. I literally spent hours in this hushed historical space taking refuge from the cold, browsing in every lovely shop, buying and sampling chocolates (again) and stopping for lunch in a tea room:

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Inside the gallery is a fabulous chocolate shop called Mary, preferred chocolate supplier to Belgium’s Royal Family.

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Back outside, I passed a second-hand clothing shop and bought some shearling-lined mittens for 20 euros. It was freezing cold. In another shop I purchased a hand-knitted lambswool Tibetan hat. I accosted a stranger in the Grand Place and asked him to take my photo. Here’s me and my woolly Himalayan hat. Looking at this photo right now, I’m wondering where that big brown scarf went, I haven’t seen it in ages. It was a great scarf…

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As dusk fell over the city, I made my way back to the B&B to warm up and rest before going out again for an early dinner. I returned to the Houtsiplou at 6:30 pm and had practically the same meal as the night before, substituting the burger for a hearty, homemade beef stew. And then, tired but happy, I walked the ten minutes back to the Sweet Brussels, trudged up the three flights of stairs and settled into my vast, warm, quiet room for the night, tucking myself into bed and watching The Sopranos on DVD.  It had been a great day.

Day Two in Brussels to follow …