This travel memory takes me to Oignies (amazing I remembered that) in the Ardennes, Belgium in the autumn of the mid-1970s.
My late father, as well as being eccentric. See Opera, An Eccentric Parent and London Tap Water. No surprise! Did a fair amount of business travel in Europe. He amazingly spoke German. But sadly didn’t pass on that skill. We occasionally were dragged along. For company I think. But never into meetings. Although he could be assured we would have sat, quietly and still.
I recall a trip to Dusseldorf from Southend Airport. A then tiny operation. Via a small four person passenger plane. Utterly bizarre and quite thrilling for a youngster. I went with one of my siblings. I remember little of Dusseldorf, apart from walking into a lamp post (which really hurt), whilst staring bemused into the window of a fur shop. The like of which I’d never seen before. Oh and soggy ham and tomato sandwiches.
But Dusseldforf isn’t Belgium or the Ardennes.
What a place the Ardennes is (well certainly was) in autumn. Crisp, frosty mornings, deeply furrowed ploughed fields, an abundance of woodland and nettle soup. We joined a very middle class type event, a game shooting weekend. We youngsters were there as beaters. Tasked with the pretty horrible job of driving the game birds out from woodland into the line of fire. Grim really. I hated it.
Language – No Barrier
There were other young people there for the weekend with their parents. Of the Belgian languages they might have spoken, thankfully they all spoke French. So we utilised our very basic comprehensive school French. And egged on by the young teenage boys, gaily wound up the cook by flicking buttered bread on to the ceiling of the huge kitchen. That’s where the children ate, in the kitchen. Which was warm and informal. The buttered bread stuck firm. And we were definitely not visiting favourites of the hard working cook. We also played a lot of bilingual hide and seek.
Where We Stayed
The house was a beautiful country affair. Outdoor pool, far too cold to even entertain using. I looked on wistfully. With a staircase that wound behind the huge fireplace. Which was boiling. Not sure what H&S went on for that construction. With a mezzanine bar area. All very 1970s genteel. All in all it was a unique experience. I guess myself and my siblings had a fair few of those growing up as we did in a life of contradictions.
Our Weekend Task
But the task set us as ground cover beaters, was a step too far for me. We had a stick to sweep and thrash the ground and thus disturb the game birds into taking fleeing flight into the path of the game shooters. The shooters encircled the wood and weren’t far away from our location. It was extremely loud and unnerving. Especially when the spent shot pellets started dropping through the tree canopy onto your head akin to the onset of a heavy rain shower.
I was pretty shy. But at the first opportunity, which was probably the break for lunch of European bread, cheese and ham. I located my mum visiting for the lunch break and duly told her that under no circumstances was I going back into the woods. Please take me back to the house. Which thankfully she did. And I sat with her and the lady of the house that afternoon eating cherry Tarte Tatin. Feeling extremely bored at adult small talk. But it was better than fearing for my life for next three hours!
So the weekend wore on. Game bird for lunch, bitter Nettle soup (left wondering if it would sting my mouth), adults chinking glasses and making more small talk, whilst we all kept out of the way. Being suitably politely cheeky young teenagers. Before making our farewells and winding our way home via the Brussels underpass. Once travelled never forgotten.
So that my friends. Is my memory of the Ardennes. Oh, I think we probably were treated to a tube of Droste – drɔstə – a Dutch chocolate confectionary similar to large smooth shiny buttons, on the way home.
Have a blessed day⚘