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Friday, 1 April 2022

No England They Eat Cat Food

New Month Old Post (originally posted 12th September, 2014)

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

“Food,” I said, trying to be funny.

He translated for Hugo’s mother and sister. Horrified, I realised I might have implied that what we were eating now was not what I thought of as proper food. 

It was my first meal with Hugo and his family in Belgium. I was there on a foreign language exchange trip. Hugo’s dad seemed concerned that, not only was I having difficulty in understanding their French, but that I might also be unfamiliar with their food. They had asked whether I would like beer, wine or water to drink, and not being sure how to reply I had said wine. That was a new experience for me at fifteen. Had I tried to stand up I would have fallen over. Was I red because of the wine or embarrassment?

The food certainly was different. I can’t remember the details now, but there were a lot of meaty stews with lots of bread and weak fizzy beer or bottled water with every cooked meal. There were no familiar bowls of breakfast cereal, but thick chunks of bread and jam dipped into huge bowls of black coffee which rapidly acquired a disagreeable film of jam, butter and breadcrumbs on the surface. They enjoyed an unpleasant vegetable called “le chicon”, a kind of blanched endive with a bitter taste. In the days before ubiquitous international cuisine and mass foreign travel, food did differ across countries and regions. I was just going to have to cope with it. I was there for two and a half weeks.

Hugo and his parents lived in a square, average-sized detached house on a hill a few miles west of Charleroi. It was one of three or four on a busy road with an open valley at the back. The region was brown-field rather than green, the main economic activity being coal mining. Across the valley at the back was an open-cast mine from which a constantly moving, overhead bucket conveyor, carried coal past Hugo’s house to a railway somewhere across the road. Nearby, industrial buildings and black metal structures mingled with terraced housing in grimy cobbled streets.

View Behind Hugo's House
the spoil heap remains today, wooded over
It did not dishearten me. It resembled parts of Yorkshire around Knottingley and Pontefract not far from where I lived. My own town constantly echoed to the clatter of railway wagons and the roar of ships loading coal. Nor was I bothered that the toilet was in an outhouse. I had used outside toilets too. What did surprise me was that the house had no mains water. In the kitchen, instead of a tap, was a hand pump to draw water out of the ground. The toilet looked normal, but there was no water in the bottom, just a dark hole through to a cesspit. A swarm of black flies buzzed gleefully in and out of the hole, not somewhere you would want to sit any longer than necessary, but it made things interesting when standing for a pee; you could try to beat your personal best for the number of flies swilled down.

There was no bathroom; you washed in a bowl of warmed water at a washstand 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 fuel you took turns. Being the guest, I was allowed to go first, so at least the water was clean, but it could be scaldingly hot.

Bearing in mind their water came untreated from the ground, it was unsurprising that Hugo’s family habitually drank weak beer with meals, 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 Maes Pils, 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 passed, 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 biscuits brought from home. It gave Hugo’s sister the perfect come-back to my earlier faux pas insulting their food. They had Kit-E-Kat cat food in Belgium, but not Kit Kat chocolate wafers. Watching me undo a red and silver wrapper, she choked in triumphant delight as she struggled to get out her words.

“En Angleterre ils mangent des aliments pour chats”, she said.

36 comments:

  1. Drinking weak beer with food is agreeable: one doesn't always feel like wine or dry cider.
    From the moment I stepped foot in Belgium, Holland and France I only had eyes for continental Europe: its dockyards and food markets and tramcars and church bells and cafes with bowls of coffee and Viennese rolls and brioches.
    China was real to me only through the writing of Andre Malraux who wrote about Ming vases and Mao as only a French mandarin knows how.
    Algeria was real through Camus whose Notebooks have all been reprinted.

    Coal chutes and industrial railways in Yorkshire prepared you for francaise de Belgique and maybe the sound of Flemish too.
    Penguin reprinted the best Maigrets such as The Flemish House:
    Chez les Flamards.

    When I googled Belgian novelists I had only read Marguerite Yourcenar, Simenon and Mary Sarton.
    I hope you write on this again: I hope I see Brussels and Antwerp and Delft and Utrecht before leaving the world.
    There is a book *Belgian Cafe Culture* (2016) by Regula Ysewijn which I now must order.

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    1. Les Flamands were not to be mentioned. Charleroi trams were amazing. They still have a fantastic tram system, now modernised. It was a very different place, despite the similarities with the Yorkshire coalfields. I went to Lille around 20 years ago (ok not Belgium but near) and it was entirely transformed and modernised. We're the primitives now.

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    2. Wonderful photographs from that book on https://www.missfoodwise.com/2016/10/belgian-cafe-culture-book.html/ Sadly no kicker machines.

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  2. My school went to Namur not far from where you were staying and several of my friends went (I didn't go, not sure why, possibly related to the fact that I was in the bottom half of class for French and we weren't invited to take part I think) and they came back with stories of eating horse meat, dipping bread in coffee and horror stories about used sanitary pads and not knowing what to do with them and general confusion. My friend still talks about it and shudders about the whole experience. I recall only one success story being the girl who was always top in French and she had her girl back on an exchange visit.

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    1. It might well have been horse in the stew. I don't know. And of course, I was never a party to conversations about sanitary products so I don't know about that either. It seemed to me that Belgium had not recovered from being smashed to pieces in the war, even after 20 years.

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    2. With your experience of the latrine it does not take much to join up the dots and see the problems with sanitary products disposal if you think about it. I don't think many conversations took place, at least with parents, as from memories of my friends, of which we have spoken quite often and laughed now, the children in the family were the only ones who spoke English. My friend who was always top in French managed better with the French language than most and the families varied of course in terms of help given to their guests. My friend ended up a French teacher herself at Haberdasher Askes and organised many student exchanges herself. I will pass on your experience next time I see her.

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    3. I didn't join dots at the age of 15, but the difficulties are obvious now. Both Hugo and his Dad spoke quite good English which wasn't all that good for my French. Regarding your original comment, I meant to say that some of our group did go to Namur, we went all over. Although I was pretty isolated the first time I went, the second time there were a couple of others nearby. Actually that was good for our French because we went to places on our own and helped each other out.

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  3. Seeing the Kitekat reminded me of our old cat when I lived at home in the 50's/60's. He lived his whole life on this food and lived to 15 years old. Not like the pampered cats today with a whole range of different foods.
    Briony
    x

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    1. Our can wouldn't touch it. She has those expensive wet pouches. Not quite as stomach-churning as forking kit-e-kat or Whiskas out of a tin.

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    2. It did used to stink didn't it? lol

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  4. Mmm.. Kit-e-Kat. Purrfect.

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  5. I loved your picture of life in Belgium Tasker. I remember when we had a pump which pumped water up out of the ground - and also the dayswhen we had an outside loo which my dad emptied every saturday morning.

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    1. Thank you. My grandma only had mains water connected from around the time I was born. Until then they had to collect it from the village pump. I remember my uncle and grandpa digging a hole to the new sewer and building an outside wc when I was 3.

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  6. That was an excellent joke she made about Kit-Kats! It's hard to joke in another language!

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    1. Hugo's sister had a good eye for the ridiculous. I've tried to reconstruct what she said, unsure of the exact words, but that was the meaning. It was also a joke we made ourselves. I doubt that Nestles have ever been happy about the similarity in names.

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  7. I remember chatting with someone in Isle of Wight what food they're famous for and he said fish and chips. :D

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    1. Fish and chips are great so long as you don't have them more than two or three times a month.

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  8. That was quite an experience for you. I will admit the food does not sound very appetizing to me either. I love his sister's comment about you eating cat food!

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    1. I spent most of the time simply resigned to letting the world do what it wanted.

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  9. I'm pleased you did repost. With much less world knowledge than I should think children have now (maybe) it must have been.....a little challenging for you.

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    1. As said to Bonnie above, I just let it all wash over me. It would have been terrifying otherwise.

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  10. You should have given Hugo's sister one!

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    1. I selfishly kept all the Kit Kits for myself.

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  11. Enjoyable reminiscing, tied up with a good laugh at the end! Perfect.

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    1. Thank you. I like to go for the good punch line.

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  12. My daughter went to Spain as an exchange student. Her best souvenir was an Organia bottle.

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  13. As a kid at home, we fed our cats kitekat, too. And whenever we were given kitkat bars, it was the standard joke about us eating cat food.
    I have never been to Belgium, and never taken part at a student exchange at school; don‘t know why, since my school was twinned with schools in Moutiers (France) and Caerphilly. But from when I was about 5, we spent many a holiday in the Franche Comté where we had friends. They introduces us to very fine home cooking and took pride in serving the best they had in their kitchen and wine cellar.

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    1. I think the finer things in life came to Belgium after the 1960s when it was still recovering from the economic effects of the war. And I suppose like all coal mining regions, wealth wasn't widespread anyway.
      Caerphilly in Wales. A few weeks there would have given you a strange English accent.

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  14. I like hearing stories about other people's youthful adventures in other countries. I remember taking weekly baths in a large zinc tub standing in front of the kitchen fire, with water poured in from saucepans heated on the stove top, for about two years, then Dad built a proper bathroom in a section of the back porch which he first closed in and weather-proofed.

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    1. We had a metal bath and an outside toilet until I was 6 when we moved to a house with a bathroom. I have photographs taken in the garden of that first house, and you can see the bath hanging on the wall outside the back door. My grandma had an earth toilet. So it didn't strike me as particularly unusual in Belgium except that I hadn't come across houses without mains water.

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  15. I was brought up near the first town in which an Indian restaurant was prosecuted for serving cat food. Years later, Prince Andrew (the one who does not sweat) took his children to Pizza Express there when he was supposed to be somewhere else. I think the Indian restaurant was falsely accused by local racists, but I am not sure about the prince.

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    1. I bet it's difficult to tell once it's in a curry (or even on a pizza).

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  16. My Nanna had one cold tap in the kitchen, an outside loo and yet she still managed. Now when I hear of people with several bathrooms, my only thought is it must take ages to clean them all!

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    1. Ha! Perhaps their bathrooms are not as clean as they would like you to believe.
      Yes, my grandma had just one cold tap like yours. They had a high screen to unfold across for privacy. It's there in a photograph in my 2019 post "Kitchens Old And New". Until about 1953 they had an earth closet outside. It wasn't so long before I was born that they had to fetch all their water from the village pump. And they brought up a family of four.

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