Belgium and France – Along the Frontline

memorial LilleOn my recent holiday in Europe I spent a handful of days in and around Lille in northern France. One of the days included a tour along the frontline in Flanders during World War I.

Starting point was the memorial to those who died in France during the two world wars in Lille. The dead of French wars in Indochina and North Africa have their honorary mention at the bottom of the monument. France doesn’t seem to be terribly good at dealing with that part of its history. But then, my guide was French and the driver was Algerian and they got along quite well.

We then ventured via Fromelles along the frontline. The road follows it for long stretches and you can see signposts to cemeteries and memorials every few hundred metres. In the past, the dead were kept separated by nationality (not religion though), but bodies are still found and these days all the fallen are being laid to rest together. Which I think is a good idea.

It was interesting to learn that there are also unexploded shells which farmers find when tilling the land. This ammunition is still live and so poses a real threat even after a hundred years. In Flanders, you don’t see remnants of the trenches though because of the geology of the area. The ground is very soft, hence the soldiers mentioning mud all the time, and after the war was over the farmers went back to their fields. If you want to get a feel for trenches, visit the area around Verdun.

After the fourth or fifth cemetery it all felt deeply gloomy despite it being a glorious day. I can’t even begin to imagine what the people back then must have gone through. But it was a relief to get to the Christmas football game memorial.

football memorial

Last stop on the tour was Ypres which had been in total ruins after the war. Today, it’s all really splendid. Main points of call are the cathedral, a church run by the Church of England, the museum of the fields of Flanders if you’ve got ample time, and Menin Gate. This last structure has the names of more than 54000 soldiers inscribed on its walls whose graves are unknown.

I had booked this tour in the tourist office in Lille. At 260 euros for one person it was quite expensive (gets cheaper if you’re more people), but I thought it was really worth it. My guide was very good  and I learned a lot. The thing is that being German WWII is never very far, but WWI has already kind of faded into deep history, unlike for British people for example. So it shouldn’t have come as a real surprise when my guide told me that although he’d been in this business for about 15 years, I was his very first German customer ever.

poppy

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Algeria – Misserghin, Home of the Clementine

Misserghin is a small town just south of Oran on the banks of the salt lake Sebkha. It’s most famous for the Clementine, named after abbot Father Clementine who bred it towards the end of the 19th century. My guide book said one could visit the remains of the abbey, so while my parents were over for a visit we took the opportunity to go exploring.

We hired a taxi for a day (6000 Dinar). The driver had never been to the place but was also curious, and after a bit of asking and some U-turns we eventually found the entrance to the property. I immediately fell in love with the gardens. No abbey to be seen anywhere though, at least nothing that I would have recognized as such.

Turns out, when the French Catholics were here, they made use of much older buildings of Ottoman origin. The people who run the place now have turned it into some kind of agricultural commune, and welcomed us warmly. Communicating was a wee bit tricky since none of us had more than a smattering of French or Arabic and our hosts next to no English or German, but our enthusiasm for gardening and history more than made up for this.

We got a tour of the old office buildings of the abbey plus the stables with very content looking cattle and then we ventured underground. Tunnels! Originally, those had been used to hide from whoever was the enemy of the day. Nowadays, they’re used for growing mushrooms.

Then we were taken for a tour around the fields and the flower garden. Along the way, our hosts explained about the different grains, vegetables and what most people would call weeds and how they’re used as spices or ingredients for a salad. And at every stage we were given some samples to taste or to take with us.

It was incredible. Of course, we also admired a field with young Clementine trees. Fruit growers from all over the world still come to Misserghin to learn about the plant and how to handle it.

clementines

church

 

Towards the end of our tour we visited the old abbey church too. These days, it’s used as a community centre. When we were there, about a dozen people were learning about apiary. It was fascinating to watch how they got the tiny larva out of the honey comb to put it into a nourishing solution – if I understood correctly this is done to produce queen larvae. Tell me in the comments if that makes sense as I know nothing about bee-keeping.

So, a day full of new discoveries and plenty of organically grown food. Many thanks again to our hosts at the now-farm former-abbey in Misserghin.

apiary

WorldBookProject – Cameroon, Liberia, Tunisia

This is an all-African post, and two out of the three books were very exciting. Being an economic migrant myself, these stories tend to provide lots of opportunities for reflection. And at the end of the day, I see that I’ve been very lucky in my life.

153 Cameroon: Imbolo Mbue – Behold the Dreamers

This was a great story about the clash of living in Cameroon vs the USA, poor vs rich, male vs female. Although a wee bit lengthy and borderline preachy at times, I really enjoyed reading the book, mostly because there were some unexpected turns of events.

154 Liberia: Helene Cooper – The House at Sugar Beach

An amazing autobiography! I learned a lot about Liberian history, from its founding by freed slaves to fairly recent events just before the turn of the century. I thought the author has a wonderful sense of humour and shows a lot of self-awareness, so the story is about her, but equally about her surroundings and family members. Even though some of the events she describes are right out of the human abyss, I always wanted to continue reading.

155 Tunisia: Sabiha al Khemir – The Blue Manuscript

Right. Well, not really. I can’t say I hated the book because it was so boring. But it had been so promising! Archaeological excavations in Egypt, a group of mixed characters in a confined space, a mysterious manuscript … what more could you want? Now, I want characters that are defined by more than the same adjective throughout the book. I want archaeologists that don’t stare dreamily into the hot air when their excavation site has been tinkered with. And I most certainly don’t want the author to tell me what to think, thank you very much.

Algeria – A visit to Tlemcen

Recently, we had friends over from Germany and we decided to spend a day in Tlemcen, a city close to the Moroccan border. It’s steeped in history and there’s plenty to do and see. One day is not enough to explore everything, but we got a really good impression – also thanks to a colleague who acted as our local guide.

One thing that immediately caught the eye is the countless minarets, all square brick towers. I still need to find out about the architectural background because I used to think of a minaret as a round and much higher structure.

An amazing surprise was the number of minarets with stork-nests on top, a lot of them occupied or under territorial disputes. It was amazing to see so many White Storks so unexpectedly.

One of the many places of interest in Tlemcen is the Mosque Sidi Boumediene and the adjacent ruin of the palace of the Zayyanid sultan. There are some beautiful remnants of calligraphy in the palace and one can enjoy a view of the city.

We also ventured into the surrounding areas, but that’s for another post.

Oran – National Museum Ahmed Zabana

It’s quite a title for a museum that has a vast area available to display its exhibits. Ahmed Zabana is of local and national importance (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmed_Zabana). I think it’s his photo hanging in the entrance hall. entranceInside the museum, photography is not allowed. Hence there won’t be any pics of all the bones, stuffed animals (including a goat embryo with a double head), swords, painted landscapes, clothes or pottery. You see, the collection is holistic rather than specialised.

On the whole, I think the way the exhibits are presented leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a name, sometimes a year and place of origin. For animals, the Latin name of the species is given. Other than that, next to no context. So not as informative as it could be, and also a bit dull. Having said that, I realise that keeping such a vast and diverse collection must put an enormous strain on the curators even just in terms of day-to-day house keeping. And I also appreciate that all labels are in Arabic as well as French.

My favourite object was a 20th-century bamboo stick from New Caledonia. I guess that’s a reminder of French colonialism – how else would the stick have ended up in Oran? Anyway, it was beautifully and intricately carved with animals like cats and humans.

On the outside, the museum looks very different again. The murals seem to commemorate Algeria’s distant past during Numidian or Roman times. Judge for yourself:

WorldBookProject – Dipping into Corvids, History, and Art

The eagle-eyed among you might already have noticed that there’s a new feature on the blog: reading through the ages. Of course, WorldBookProject is still going on, but I’ve only just over 100 books / places left to read. Hence my idea of doing something really long-term once I’ve read all the territories on my list. For now, here are the books I’ve read for WBP in the second half of August.

144 First Nations: Joanne Arnott – the family of crow

Long-standing readers of this blog will be aware that I love birds, and corvids are a particular favourite of mine. So it’ll come as no surprise that I was happy to come across this neat collection of crow-related poems and art. It describes the life cycle of the birds in an artistic way and builds bridges that reach as far as Ancient China (http://www.chinese-poems.com/lb13.html). A gem.

145 Jordan: Suleiman Mousa – T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View

If you have a larger-than-life figure like Lawrence, it is really tricky to get through all the layers of legend (or lies) down to what might be called reality. The book did so when it came to all the battles and skirmishes (where Lawrence apparently managed to shoot his camel and knock himself unconscious). However, I still feel no connection to the person behind the sagas. But I do have the feeling that this book makes a better attempt to unravel the mystery than any try from Hollywood.

146 Qatar:  Sophia Al-Maria – Fresh Hell

Hm. Well. I don’t really know … This book was odd. Double pages where women spread their legs, followed by an artist explaining why this wasn’t pornography, were then followed by a poignant account of the horrors of the First Gulf War. Several of the essays and visual expressions connected the topic of oil, and the environmental and social disasters it brought with it. I’m not a very ‘arty’ person, but I agree that ‘survival is not sufficient‘ – and this book fits the bill.

 

Bath – Between the Romans, Art and Astronomy

Thanks to two lovely Scottish ladies I spent a wonderful day in Bath.  There’s so much to see and do that this was really just a taster. Foodwise, by the way, I can highly recommend Comptoir Libanais.

Bath is a town full of art and a wide range of architecture. The most famous architectural style is Georgian, like the Circus. The city centre is a world heritage site.

Bath is also the only place in the UK with natural hot springs. It’s possible to go into one of the spas (which I didn’t), or to see how the old Romans did it (which I did). What I admired most at the baths in Bath, however, was a relic of Sulis Minerva, goddess of the hot springs.

My personal highlight was somewhat off the beaten track. Welcome to the Herschel house! Caroline and William Herschel were two astronomers who were famous for their telescopes with home-polished mirrors, and comet hunting. If you feel like walking in their footsteps, you can be a citizen scientist and help with one of the astronomy projects on the Zooniverse platform.