Belgium is my arcadia, my beloved country of memories and dreams. A different Belgium than my mother knew – a country suffering under German occupation, so poor that her widowed mother had no choice but to place her little brothers in an orphanage. My father was among the British soldiers who liberated the medieval city of Ghent in 1944. Later he inscribed a book: “To Lydia, the flower I found in an ancient Belgian town.”
I grew up in England and felt English through and through, but Flanders is in my soul. The summers I spent in Ghent with my grandmother, my Meme, left indelible memories and deep love for a place that seemed so much more interesting than the humdrum London suburbs of my daily life. I remember my Meme’s black iron wood stove and the cramped alcove where she drew water from a pump. The way she held the coffee grinder between her knees as she vigorously ground the beans. How my “Uncle with the stuck out chin” as I called him drank his morning coffee from a bowl and let me take a sip. That smell of coffee is forever associated with Belgium. In England we only drank tea. Years later my teenage son would gasp with delight as he took his first sip of Belgian coffee. All the food seemed to taste better. Long before the fashion for organic it probably was, coming from the farms outside the town. Of course in those days my Meme and my aunts put in long hours in the kitchen without modern conveniences. My Meme still had the habits of the old-fashioned Flemish housewife, sweeping the street outside her house daily and polishing the front step. At night she would settle me to sleep by making the sign of the cross on my forehead with her thumb. In the darkness by my bed the Virgin Mary watched over me from under a glass dome.
Beyond the house in the cobbled streets every window seemed to have lace curtains and a mother-in-law’s tongue plant on the sill. The neighborhood shops were always welcoming to the little English girls. We sometimes got a free cookie at the bakery or, strangely, a little ball of raw ground beef at the butcher. At the corner of the street on a grassy square stood a large pump, once the only source of water for these workmen’s cottages. A tram ride away was the historic city center with its beautiful medieval guild houses overlooking the river and canals, the massive bulk of St. Nicholas’ Church, the slender bell tower, and St. Baaf’s Cathedral where we gazed up in wonder at the painting known simply as “de lam,” Jan Van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. But most thrilling of all was Gravensteen, the grim Castle of the Counts of Flanders. I took a rather worrying interest in the torture chamber. My parents kept a letter I wrote home when I was seven describing the guillotine and various torture implements over several pages with great relish. Sometimes we visited my great-grandmother, known as “Meme-in-the-convent” because she lived in a home for old people run by nuns. She wore long black dresses and took snuff, using a large red paisley handkerchief to wipe her nose. She outlived her daughter by two weeks. My Meme died when I was nine. My mother found me in bed holding her photo, which I had taken off the wall in my sleep.
The Ghent of my memories is all warm grey; grey cobbles, grey canal waters, grey stone, and grey skies. A dream-like stillness and a sense of history close at hand. Delicate white lace, sturdy blue and grey earthenware pots, gleaming copper, the smell of coffee, and the spicy taste of speculoos cookies. All bathed in the guttural sound of the Flemish language, warm and earthy and full of a character so far from English reticence. A voluble, emotional people given to gesticulating and kissing on both cheeks, qualities that made my mother seem so “foreign” in England. And a lifestyle so relaxed and easy-going compared to the America of my adulthood. All the family members and friends I’ve ever taken to Belgium fall in love with it and on returning home some one will invariably say: “those Belgians really know how to live.”
One of my aunts likes to say to visitors: “Belgium is a very small country, but a very nice country.” In fact so nice that even Belgium’s flaws seemed charming and humorous up to now: the notorious inability to maintain a functioning government, the language division, the parochial rivalries, the overly convoluted bureaucracy. The new image of Belgium as a hotbed of Islamic extremism and violence is so far from the Belgium I know. My Belgium, of course, is partly a nostalgic construct of my own memories and imagination. In the real Belgium things have gone terribly wrong. Cry, my beloved country.