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Friday, 12 September 2014

In England They Eat Cat Food

Tasker Dunham continues his account of a trip to Belgium

“What do you eat in England?” asked Hugo’s dad in English.

I was in Belgium staying with Hugo’s family on a foreign exchange visit. Hugo's dad appeared to be concerned that I was having trouble not only in understanding their French, but also with their unfamiliar food. These were not the only problems. We were drinking wine which at the age of fifteen was entirely new to me. If I had tried to stand up I would have fallen over. It was one of our first meal times and no doubt I looked very uncomfortable. I was asked again what we ate at home.

“Food,” I said, trying to be funny.

Hugo’s dad laughed and his mother asked “Qu’a-t-il dit?” (what had I said). He translated it for her.

“En Angleterre il a dit qu’ils mangent de la nourriture” (he said that in England they eat food). Horrified, I realised I might have implied that what we were eating now was not what I considered to be food. Was I red through embarrassment or because of the wine?

Belgian food certainly seemed different. For a start, there were no familiar bowls of breakfast cereal. Instead they dipped thick chunks of bread and jam into huge bowls of black coffee which quickly acquired a disagreeable film of jam, butter and breadcrumbs floating on the surface. They drank weak fizzy beer with every cooked meal. They enjoyed an unpleasant vegetable called “le chicon”, a kind of blanched endive with a bitter taste. This was in the days before ubiquitous international cuisine and mass foreign travel, when you could expect food to differ in different countries and regions. I was just going to have to cope with it. I was there for two and a half weeks.

Hugo lived with his parents and sister in a square, but pleasant, averagely-sized detached house, with a large garden-cum-allotment behind. It was one of three or four on a hill, a few miles to the West of Charleroi, with a busy road at the front, and an open valley at the back. The region was, however, brown-field rather than green, as the main activity was coal mining. Industrial buildings and black metal stuctures mingled with terraced housing in grimy cobbled streets. Across the valley from Hugo’s house was an open-cast mine from which a line of pylons marked the route of a constantly moving overhead bucket conveyor, which carried coal past Hugo’s house to a railway somewhere beyond the other side of the road.

This kind of semi-industrial landscape did not dishearten me. It was not unlike parts of Yorkshire near to where I lived, around Knottingley and Wakefield, and my own town continually echoed to the clatter of shunting railway wagons and the roar of ships being loaded with coal. Nor was I bothered that the toilet was in an outhouse, because I had both seen and used outside toilets too. What did surprise me was that the house had no mains water. In the kitchen, instead of a tap, there was a hand pump to draw water out of the ground, and although at first glance the toilet looked normal, it had no water in the bottom, just a dark hole through to a cess pit. A swarm of black flies buzzed joyfully in and out of the hole. It was not somewhere you would want to sit any longer than strictly necessary, but it made things interesting when standing for a pee; you could try to beat your personal record in the number of flies hit and swilled down.

There was no bathroom, so you washed in a bowl of warmed water at a wash stand in the bedroom. Once a week we walked the half mile to Hugo’s grandfather’s for a bath. He had a normal bathroom, except there was no hot running water, so the bath was filled with water heated on a stove. To save on fuel you took turns. Being the guest, I was always allowed to go first, so at least the water was clean, but it could be scaldingly hot. 

Belgium, in the early 1960s, or at least the part I visited, had not yet recovered from the economic privations of the war. It was how I imagined Yorkshire must have been in the frugal 1930s. Even in the early 1950s, my early memories are of houses without bathrooms, with chilly outside lavatories and rudimentary plumbing. The Victorian terraces typically had a galvanised zinc bath hanging on the wall in the back yard, waiting for its once-a-week call inside, to be placed in front of the warm open fire and filled with hot water. This was how I had bathed until I was six. It was the same at my grandma’s house, where the only running water was a cold tap at the kitchen sink, with a foldable, wooden wash-screen to give a modicum of privacy, and she had raised a family of four there. She also had an outside earth closet, with openings through the wall to an adjacent, roofless ‘ash-midden’ to allow the contents to be shovelled through and burnt with the household rubbish.

Although we had a proper bathroom at home, I had little idea then that some people’s houses were better equipped or cost more than others. It never occurred to me to be judgemental about the primaeval facilities of Hugo’s house. I simply accepted it as it was. It is easy with twenty-first century hindsight to declare such arrangements barely fit for habitation, but this was how large numbers of people had lived for decades.

In any case, Hugo had two things we didn’t, a futuristic looking television set with an enormous screen, and the first Rolling Stones long playing record with the song ‘Route 66’. We played it repeatedly. I liked it for the music. Hugo liked it because he wanted to be Mick Jagger. He practised for hours with his microphone in front of a mirror in the loft.

Hugo’s dad took us on the obligatory sight-seeing trips. We climbed the Lion’s Mound, a statue of a lion on top of an artificial conical mound at the site of the Battle of Waterloo. We saw ‘le mannekin pis’, a hideous, two feet high, bronze fountain in Brussels, in the form of a naked boy urinating in a basin. We visited the Atomium, a bizarre, futuristic, three hundred foot, nine-sphered construction in the form of an iron atom, a gleaming statement of post-war confidence erected for the 1958 World’s Fair.  

Atomium and Mannekin Pis 1965

But elsewhere in Belgium, post-war confidence seemed in short supply. Hugo took me several times by ancient tram to the equally ancient cinema in Charleroi. Neither the trams nor the cinema looked as if they had been painted since the 1930s. I sat through endless French films listlessly monitoring the slow rotation of the only thing I completely understood, an illuminated clock at the side of the screen labelled ‘Tic-Tac Pontiac’. On Easter Sunday we went to watch a noisy carnival at the nearby town of Fontaine l’Évêque, where a procession of children, uniformed musicians and costumed characters, some wearing enormous papier maché heads, walked through the centre throwing gifts to the spectators shivering in the rain and sleet.

Fontaine-l'Eveque Carnival 1965

In Charleroi there was an old-fashioned street fair of a kind perhaps not seen in England since before the war. There was an ornately decorated fighting booth, where all-comers could challenge boxers and wrestlers to bouts to earn a portion of the takings if they survived three rounds undefeated. The Master of Ceremonies banged a drum and goaded passing men with accusations of feebleness and cowardice, which, together with the provocative posturing of the fighters, quickly collected a crowd which goaded and postured back. Perhaps the crowd contained accomplices to help raise the temperature, because things rapidly began to get heated. A scarred but muscled boxer looked far too intimidating for anyone to take on, but one of the wrestlers, a bald thin chap hardly bigger than me, with a ridiculous handlebar moustache and an effeminately patterned leotard, soon attracted a challenger who impudently threatened to pull off his whiskers. This pre-show was probably far more entertaining than the fight itself - I don’t know, we didn’t pay to go in. 

Another stall had a platform with huge slabs of meat on metal hooks at the front, and a barred window at the back. A snarling black-faced wild man with a bone through his nose peered menacingly through the bars. The showman roused the crowd by cutting off chunks of raw meat and throwing them into the cage for the savage to devour. He then heated a thick iron rod in a brazier to a brilliant red-hot glow, and seared it into the hanging meat, which spat and sizzled as it burned, giving off clouds of rancid smoke. He reached into the cage with a meat hook, caught the wild man around the neck, violently pulled his arm through the bars, and rubbed the red hot iron hard across the palm of his hand to demonstrate his immunity to pain. Again, we did not pay to go in, but I wonder for how many years afterwards the stall was allowed to continue. In England by then, we were beginning to find the comparatively innocuous Black and White Minstrel Show extremely objectionable.

I went out late one night after dark with Hugo and his friends equipped with buckets of paste and wallpaper brushes to put up “Marche Anti-Atomique” posters on noticeboards and any other suitable surfaces around the village, to the consternation of Hugo’s father who declared I would be deported if caught by the police. It goes without saying that we simply ignored any ‘défense d’afficher’ (no bill posting allowed) notices we came across.

Hugo and his friends also ignored the widespread ‘défense d'uriner’ notices (which translates just as you imagine), going about their business brazenly in full view of the road, even if caught in the glare of car headlights. I suppose a country that has a peeing cherub as one of its main tourist attractions is hardly likely to have any inhibitions at all about urinating in public. 

Hugo’s friends also had no inhibitions about smoking and drinking. Neither had minimum age limits in Belgium, and teenagers openly did both without disapproval. A couple of Hugo’s friends regularly and flamboyantly smoked the local ‘Belga’, ‘Visa’ and ‘Zemir’ cigarettes, which came in paper packets of twenty-five, rather than the cardboard tens and twenties in England, at a fraction of the price. Like most European cigarettes, they had the distinctive, musty smell of Turkish tobacco, very different from the milder American varieties smoked in England. I took a couple of packets home for my dad. I don’t know what happened to them, but I never detected their pungent aroma in our house. I suspect my mother put them in the dustbin. 

It was perhaps unsurprising that Hugo’s family habitually drank weak beer with meals, bearing in mind their water came untreated from the ground, but I was surprised that teenagers of my age could buy and drink alcohol without restriction in the equivalent of English coffee bars. In England, as I was later to find, it took a certain courage to go into a pub for the first time, even on reaching the age of eighteen, but we spent hours in Belgian cafés drinking the local Extra Pils and Stella Artois (years before it was available in England) and playing ‘kicker’ (pronounced ‘keekay’, the table football game with wooden footballers fixed to spinning metal rods), which the Belgians played with incredible skill. I could never replicate their unstoppable bullet-like shots, executed with a near-imperceptible flick of the wrist. The only way I could get any kind of power was by vigorously spinning the rods right round, but that was not allowed. 

As the days past, I realised I was having a great time. In fact, I returned the following year, and then for a third year after that. I even improved my French a little. 

I supplemented the Belgian cuisine by carefully rationing out precious chocolate biscuits brought from home. It gave Hugo’s sister the perfect come-back to my earlier gaffe of implying that English food was better than theirs. They had Kit-e-Kat cat food in Belgium, but had never heard of Kit Kat chocolate wafers. Watching me undo a red and silver wrapper, she choked in triumphant laughter as she struggled to get out her words. 

“En Angleterre ils mangent des aliments pour chats” (In England they eat cat food), she said.

You might also be interested in:
Votre Billet Monsieur?
Belgian Youth Abroad

Monday, 1 September 2014