From Lille to Bruxelles: 106 km (total: 727 km)

From Lille to Bruxelles: 106 km (total: 727 km)

The World Photo Tour back on track: leaving Lille behind, entering Belgium and topping up everything with a marathon. See how all went in the following World Photo Tour update.

Last time I was writing here I was still enjoying the comfort of Matthieu’s place. The last night at his place got even better, with him playing his guitar for a couple of hours. A bit of Scorpion’s Wind of Change, a bit of French folk, a bit of Metallica and then we called it a night. For a short while, though, as he had to leave in the middle of the night – yup, it was him, not me! :). So there I was, in the strange situation of saying good-bye to my host with him leaving his place and me staying in until the morning. Thanks for the trust, Matthieu!

The following day, I wanted to walk as far away from Lille as possible and, in no more than three hours, I was crossing the border to Belgium. The land of beer! And chocolate! And farms! And of a strange form of division! Yup, the facts get interesting to the point where not more than a year ago, Belgium set the record for for the world’s longest wait for a government, all because ethnic–communitarian tensions between the Flanders, Wallonia and the Bruxelles – Capital Region. In the heart of Europe? Yes. And there’s more. But, until then…

There are a lot of beautiful places in the world, and one of them certainly is Belgium. A beauty towards which people contributed with their way of building their homes, taking care of both their still natural territories and their farm land as well. And even placing beauty anywhere it may lack. Like, for instance, the electricity boxes on the side of the roads. And one thing that caught my attention, although travelling at first through the supposedly poorer part of Belgium (the Wallon south), is the way most of the buildings seem to have been built just yesterday. Everything seems like new, especially in the little towns like Celles, Ronse or Brackel. A situation which somehow changes closer towards the capital Bruxelles.

I spent my first night in Belgium at the farm of Christine and Marc Vandenberghe-Hazard, somewhere near Nechin. And given the slightly high language barrier (my level of French speaking is not at all great), although they managed to understand what I’m doing and why, because they wanted to hear more about it, they called in for help – someone speaking English. I was surprised by this interest, as it was a bit late in the night, but still, at about 10 PM, Xavier De Cock showed up – a Congo-born Belgian who came in Europe at the age of five. And since that happened, 50 years ago, he still tries to locate the exact location of one of  the school-farms the Belgians built in order to teach the locals of Mushweshwe – Bukavu how improve their agriculture sector – one of the good things the Belgians did in Congo (then Zaire), though not necessarily enough to compensate for the ruthless rule of Leopold not even 50 years earlier, but still…

After another night of answering the same and the same question like always (at one point we were joking about me needing a flyer to hand out when a question fire starts and only reply verbally to the ones unanswered so far), I left the following day and it was with surprise at one point to find the people in charge of the paintings on the electricity boxes. So it is with great pleasure to introduce to you Helene De Rycke and Michel Poncelet, whom I met in Estaimbourg doing their usual volunteer painting job on a sunny Sunday morning.

My day continued then through Belgium’s Wallonia country-side, with a short mid-day break at Le Maisami Taverne near Celles, where Marie introduced me to yet another Belgian ale – Caulier – Bon Secours after the previous day’s Chimay. And it was Marie as well who hooked me up with my host for the night – Harby’s Farm. And I reached the friendly farm by sunset, just in time to give a hand feeding the horses, the sheep, the pigs, the cows. And then even milking the cows (I was actually merely an assistant) – many of them of a very special Belgian breed – Blue-White Belgian – notice the ones with loads of meat on them! :) – and a thing with this artificial breed is the fact that births are artificial as well. And talking about school farms earlier – Harby’s farm is a bit like that – more of an educational school actually, welcoming and introducing children, students and persons with disabilities to the farm life. And there’s even a Harby’s Farm Festival wit music and fun in early September, this year at its tenth edition!

The following day, it was about 12 o’clock then when I was ready to go. Good thing the sun started to set later and later, giving me enough walking time. And it was just a regular, normal day of walking, basically like any other, even while in Ronse, where I had my first break at about 4 in the afternoon, with the intention to continue for as much as I can, getting as close as possible to Ninove. Well, that was the plan, at least, until… Until an idea caught a seed: what if I was to walk all throughout the night to Bruxelles? So I did continue, but not before enjoying Ronse’s beautiful streets and town centre. And the beautifully decorated Harmonie pub, all just in search of some Wi-Fi connection. No luck there – at which point I can now say this after some really bad experiences – the telecom networks in England, France and Belgium as well are a bit underdeveloped. Poor mobile  network signal, poor internet connections, scarce Wi-Fi hotspots… Anyway, back on the road. So… a lot more to go to Bruxelles, but there was no turn back after having taken the decision. To Bruxelles then!

In Ophasselt I had another break. And once here, already in Flandre, my little French was rendered useless, but they all speak a bit of English around here and that was enough to understand some information: like, for instance, they don’t play normal pool here, but tap billiard – in which one must defend his gate while getting all his balls through the opposite gate – or something like that anyway :); another piece of information I got was that Bruxelles is a pretty dangerous place, unlike anywhere else in Belgium. I thought different, but it somehow comes natural to being like this – just another capital city with a numerous population from all over the world – things are bound to happen every now and then. But I kept walking.

Some relatives of mine in Bruxelles were expecting me and I did let them know that I will calculate my night-walk so as to reach Bruxelles in the morning – at that point I still had some 36 km to reach Belgium’s capital. But they thought otherwise. Without letting me know. And what they did involved coming to meet me some 9 km away from Ninove. Edi, my uncle, then joined me on the road to Bruxelles while Amalia, my aunt, took my backpack away in the car. It did felt a bit weird, as I did not want to have anyone forced-walk with me just so that they know I am safe. But that’s that so we walked. Five hours later, we reached Bruxelles after an excruciating march.

Once we reached home-base, not taking into consideration that I just walked 68 miles in 14 hours, I thought it’s a good idea to have a beer. You know, one of those 330 ml they have around here, a Jupiler. Wrong, wrong decision. I didn’t get as drunk as fast in my entire life. Sudden-drunk. Sudden-sick. No throwing-up or anything, but it was really, really bad. Just another lesson learned. I know I won’t do the same when I’ll try my next big challenge – walking 100 km in 24 hours.

The following day, I was offered a tour of Bruxelles by my uncle – The Atom, Grand Place, Waterloo (I was a bit disappointed at the way they decided to mock Napoleon with a little [read intentionally undersized] statue behind the Waterloo Lion’s Mould), The Royal Museum for Central Africa (where more of Leopold’s  ruthless rule over Zaire was reminded through statues of dismembered Africans) and then the European Parliament, thanks to Barbu Alexandru who contacted Gabriela Crețu who in turn contacted Romania’s European MP’s. And what whaddya know? I did get to be greeted by two of them – more because of chance, after meeting with Mihaela Militaru and Laurentiu Gavra, but they did want to have some pictures with me – Petru Luhan and Elena Băsescu – both members of the European People’s Party – I know, neutrality in this case wasn’t up to me – but hopefully it did compensate at a later dinner meeting with Gabriela Crețu and Ana, Cristina, Roxana and Miron – all more left-wing oriented. Uf! Hard to keep it politically correct! :) So instead of doing that, let’s just skip the political and jump to the real gastronomics.

Like, for instance, the meal I later had with my uncle at the modest Hellas Greek restaurant. With real food. In industrial quantities. Not saying I did not enjoy the variety in cheese and meats before, but that had no chance at filling an empty stomach. But cheers, Miron, for the beer guide! One night later, we had a comeback at the same place, this time with a high-school friend – Remus Dănilă.

At which stage, before ending this 12th chapter of my walk around the world, I need to point some quick considerations on Bruxelles and Belgium in general:

  • a lot of Romanians living and working here. Both in European institutions or in the private corporate world, in teaching or on the many construction-sites. And a lot of Spanish. And Italians. And Indians. And anythig else. Just another boiling pot of cultures;
  • a bit dirty, unlike the other towns and cities in Belgium, where I noticed they do like to keep it clean, either by not throwing anything on the streets, either by effectively cleaning (in Ronse they have mobile vacuums – being a city-cleaner has never been a cleaner job), while in Bruxelles, there are places where everything goes. On the floor, that is. And there are bars where they don’t even have ashtrays – ask for one and you’ll be laughed at and pointed to the floor, a clear invitation to have it their way; and, as well, still in Bruxelles – a lot, really a lot of fly-tipping, given the amount of construction-sites…
  • poor services from companies, poor customer relations – although taking pride in offering the best available help in any situations, a lot of telecom companies, including Belgacom, fail big-time at sticking to their name; just dare to have a problem and you’ll be carried around on the endless carousel of speaking to robots and then, hopefully, to people that are there to tell you they cannot help you; oh well, better avoid interacting with that part of the ‘corporation’ at all costs;
  • the whole division situation – from what I’m being told, there really is a social stratification, even in the so-called neutral Bruxelles, stretching not only in the public sector, where they still try to keep the jobs fairly equilibrate between the Flemish and the French-speaking Wallons, but to as far as actually showing its teeth in the private, corporate world, where chances of climbing a career ladder are pretty dim if you are not Flemish. Have that for equality in chances in the heart of Europe! :) Well, they do like to keep it on the money side on this subject, given the fact that most of Belgium’s GDP is built on by the northern Flemish-speaking area; and it’s all about money, in the end;
  • which is why many around don’t know who Django Reinhardt was. With him being all gypsy and all Wallon at the same time!? Probably a reason;
  • a lot of homeless people downtown; a lot of beggers on the streets;
  • on what was today’s Belgium built? On the Industrial Revolution, at first. And later on diamonds, it seems. Of course, Belgium paid some of this historic moral debt to now-days Congo through infrastructure, education, medical care and agricultural development. Most of which was actually lost since 1961; and no, I’m not taking sides nor trying to canalise your view to a specific one – take this merely as an invitation to have a read through the history books;
  • the Belgians are crazy about bikes – and not necessarily considering them as a means of transportation, but rather as a leisure thing. And Marc, the farmer I spent my first night in Belgium, was really excited about the fact that at that point there were down to 100 days until Le Tour de France would come around Tournai;
  • on discriminatory and short-cut to thinking views – Christine, Marc’s wife, warned me on the way Romanians are viewed around here, mainly because of the way Romanians traditionally portrayed in the media – white and gypsies as well. I really don’t care. I know what I stand for. Meeting someone with such wrong views on Romanians, the best I could do would be letting him/her know more about Romania and what Romania is about. And that’s about all.

Leaving some of those strong subjects aside… I will soon continue my route to Antwerpen and then I’ll be off to The Netherlands. I’m happy now, for being in love. Again. And I can hardly wait to hold hands. And see her. And someday, after a long day of walking, it will happen. And on that day my world will smile at me. There’s a reason for the photo with two hands at the end – my aunt and uncle’s, actually :). And here, on this side of the keyboard, it’s just longing for just that kind of feeling. Safe. Close. Confident. Together. Tune for the story? No surprise there. Tuturora, salut! :)

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