Ghent – A Harmony of Old and New

The three towers of Ghent seen from the castle, St. Baaf’s Cathedral, the Belfry, and St. Nicholas Church.

One summer afternoon in 2005 my husband and I strolled along the Graslei, the east bank of the river Leie in the historic heart of Ghent. To our right were the old medieval warehouse buildings with their distinctive stepped gables. Behind them the three famous towers of Ghent stood sentry over the city – St. Baaf’s Cathedral, the Belfry, and St. Nicholas Church. Directly ahead loomed the grim Gravensteen, the Castle of the Counts of Flanders. But across the river on the Korenlei was an incongruous sight, an enormous construction crane towering over the historic buildings of the old grain port. We learned from my cousins who live in Ghent that a Marriott hotel was under construction there. Not Continue reading “Ghent – A Harmony of Old and New”

The Darkest Hour, The Suspect V

I finally got to watch the much lauded film The Darkest Hour last weekend. Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill certainly deserved the Oscar Award for Best Actor. Equally deserving were the creative group who won the Oscar for Makeup. In real life Oldman looks nothing at all like Churchill, but with an inspired combination of acting skill and makeup bravura he pulls off the seemingly impossible. Director Joe Wright brings a suspenseful “you are there” quality to the story of Churchill’s first days in office in 1940, battling with political rivals who favored a pact with Hitler and strategizing to save the British army trapped in Dunkirk. It is a “warts and all” portrait including Churchill’s excessive drinking and his controversial decision to sacrifice the garrison at Calais to buy time to evacuate the troops from Dunkirk. So far, so historical. But then came a scene I knew was an anachronism. Churchill giving his famous V sign for Victory. But that couldn’t have happened in 1940 for the V campaign didn’t start until Continue reading “The Darkest Hour, The Suspect V”

The Message in the Laundry


One day in 1944 my future existence hung by a tenuous thread. If a message secreted in a batch of laundry had not reached its intended recipient I would never have been born. On such tiny twists of fate and happenstance do our lives depend, though we rarely hear about them. But my mother often told this story in her dramatic continental style, and in my father’s papers I found his solemn account of the affair. Continue reading “The Message in the Laundry”

How St. Nicholas Became Santa

Russian Orthodox Icon

When I was a small child growing up in England we didn’t have Santa Claus and we didn’t hang up stockings or set out cookies on Christmas Eve. Instead, following the tradition of my mother’s Flemish homeland, my sister and I put a pair of wooden clogs by the fireside with carrots in them for St. Nicholas’s donkey. In later years as my mother absorbed English culture we abandoned St. Nicholas in favor of the very English Father Christmas. Our celebrations were complete with Continue reading “How St. Nicholas Became Santa”

Please, Not in the Cathedral!

by Galia Amsel











It looked like an enormous vacuum cleaner part – a black plastic tube emerging from the stone archway of an upper gallery, coiled into a knot in midair, and dangling just above our heads. A cluster of clear claw-like objects protruded from the open end of the tube. I stood in the transept of Salisbury Cathedral puzzling over the purpose of this contraption. They must be involved in some kind of cleaning or restoration project, I thought. Perhaps the tube was a chute for removing debris from the upper gallery. Or perhaps when it was uncoiled the tube reached to the ground and the claws became a tool for cleaning the stone floors. Neither idea was very convincing. At this point I turned to see my husband chatting to a cathedral docent,  Continue reading “Please, Not in the Cathedral!”

On My Bookshelf – Turning Tides

Turning Tides

At a dinner party in Berkeley some years ago I met a visiting history professor from the University of Leuven in Flanders. Naturally I told him I am half Flemish. When I tell people that they usually just assume that the other half is English. But the professor didn’t assume. “What’s the other half?” he asked. When I responded “Irish” he reared back in mock horror and said “Goodness, what a volatile combination!” My family has had a few laughs over that ever since, blaming our volatile combination for any number of sins.

In consequence of this heredity Continue reading “On My Bookshelf – Turning Tides”

Belgium. Cry, My Beloved Country

Version 2

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: Continue reading “Belgium. Cry, My Beloved Country”