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

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.

WorldBookProject – Yet more island cruising

WorldBookProject is still visiting some overseas territories, dependencies and territories which are claimed or contested. A lot of these places are not permanently inhabited, but provide space for a research station or a military outpost. In other territories the number of inhabitants is so small that nobody has as yet put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and written a book. That’s the reason why many of the books I’ve read to represent these places were written by authors from somewhere else.

133 Bouvet Island:  Geoffrey Jenkins –  A Grue of Ice

This felt a bit like James Bond goes Antarctica. The characters were clear-cut into good guys and baddies and thus utterly boring. However, the scenery provided by icebergs and glaciers was stunning, I had a chance to brush up on inorganic chemistry in a fun way, and there were some pretty good action scenes.

134 Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands: Alice Joseph and Veronica F. Murray – Chamorros and Carolinians of Saipan: Personality Studies

At the beginning of the 1950s, the two authors wrote up their psychological explorations of the people of Saipan. If you’re interested in Rorschach, Bender gestalt or IQ tests, this book is for you. I have to admit that I find all this a bit dodgy, but then I’m not a psychologist. For me, it was most interesting to learn that the islands were under German occupation at the beginning of the 20th century. Compared to the Spanish rule before and the Japanese and American after, people told the authors that they were pining for the good old days under the Kaiser.

135 Jan Mayen: Johannes Lid and Dagny Tande Lid – The flora of Jan Mayen

20 years ago, when I had just failed abysmally badly in a botany exam at uni who would have thought that one day I would read a book about botany? Certainly not me. However, going down memory lane with this piece of writing was quite fun. Most impressive however, was the author’s determination not to translate any of the quotes he used in the text. Hence, this book came in English, German, French, Latin, and Norwegian. I dealt more or less successfully with four of the languages, but had to give up on the Latin parts.

136 Overseas Collectivity of Saint Pierre and Miquelon: William F. Rannie  – Saint Pierre and Miquelon

This was a very good overview of what is a group of islands near Canada, but actually part of France proper. Most interesting fact: During Prohibition, the islands were THE hub for liquor trade or smuggling, depending on your perspective.

137 Territory of Christmas Island: Margaret Neale – We were the Christmas Islanders

The author collected people’s memories of living on the island, which was usually only a few years. People from China or Malaysia would work in phosphate mining, white people (usually British) ruled. After the island became Australian, things changed extremely slowly, while racism and discrimination were rife. The silver lining: the annual crab migration.

 

 

WorldBookProject – It’s Half Time!

Yep, reason to celebrate: I’ve read half of the books I set out to read in this project. So many wonderful discoveries in all those countries and territories – there are plenty of places I want to explore further, as well as many more authors whose books are all waiting to be read. In this post, we’re doing a bit more island hopping throughout the Atlantic and the Pacific. Many thanks to the Star-Wars-fan in the Balfour Library who used his Librarian Superpowers to find a misplaced book and to Ian Alexander for providing me with choices for Malta.

123 Jamaica: Erna Brodber – Jane and Louisa will soon come home

Hm. Who are Jane and Louisa? Why did they leave? Where to? Why do they want to / have to come home? I have no idea.

124 Malta: Stephen C. Spiteri – The Great Siege: Knights vs Turks MDLXV Anatomy of a Hospitaller Victory

That book could easily have been used as a brick in one of the forts under siege. The chapters about weapons and armor were not so exciting for me. However, I found it fascinating and was horrified by the human interest side of things. Seems to me that people haven’t changed that much – religion is still used as a smokescreen for ambition and power.

125 Niue: John Pule and Nicolas Thomas –  Hiapo: Past and present in Niuean barkcloth

A poet and an anthropologist write about an almost forgotten form of art. What a little treasure this book was! I shall walk through museums or exhibitions about the Pacific with new eyes.

126 Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha: D.M. Booy – Rock of Exile: A Narrative of Tristan da Cunha

Books or actually any reading materials from this British overseas territory are few and far between. I was glad I found this account of a soldier in a far-flung outpost during WWII. It was very much of its time – dominance of men, and specifically men from the British Empire. However, I liked to learn a bit about the local dialect of Tristan da Cunha: ‘Don’t cruelize the cat.’ is something you don’t hear everyday (luckily, for the cat!).

127 Svalbard: Ajahn Amaro – The hush at the end of the world: a pilgrimage to the Arctic wilderness

This book is a tale of what happens when three Buddhist monks go on a ritual journey North – not much, and that very peacefully. I loved how their calm and the silence of the places they visited came to life through the pages.

128 Tokelau: by different people or by groups of people for whom one person acted as a scribe – Matagi Tokelau: history and traditions of Tokelau

Finding written literature from cultures with an oral tradition is always a bit tricky. So I was glad that I stumbled across this collection by unknown authors while looking for something else. Most interesting and also terrifying was what is in all likelihood one of the earliest accounts of the effects of rising levels due to climate change: a flood, in 1987.

WorldBookProject – Visiting some Islands

Over the last few days, I’ve visited a lot of islands in the Caribbean and the South Atlantic via WorldBookProject. In the mornings, I would walk into the city centre, then sit there for a few hours in the library, and then walk back home in the afternoon. The walk is about 5 miles return (or ca 8km in civilised units), so it’s perfect to clear your head before and after such an intense reading session.

109 British Virgin Islands: Verna Penn Moll – Johnny-cake Country

At first, I was a bit flummoxed by the title, but during reading this delightful little book its meaning became clear. Originally, there was a thing called a Journey cake which was very rich to keep one going while travelling. The name became corrupted, but the cake is still made in many varieties, and the recipes in the book sound yummy. Now, the cake in the book seems to me a wonderful allegory for how the culture of the islands has changed, and how people are trying to adapt to new things, like a huge influx of tourism, and the effects that has on their traditional lifestyle.

110 Cayman Islands: Michael Craton and the New History Committee – Founded upon the Seas: A History of the Cayman Islands and their People

When I started looking for a book for the Cayman Islands, my main fear had been that I’d have to read about tax evasion or something equally boring and unpleasant. Luckily, that was not to be. This history gave a comprehensive and readable overview of the last 500 years on the three islands with a focus on social issues like slavery and the economy. I was surprised to learn that things really only took off after the 1960s. Another thing which I found surprising and actually quite appalling was the tiny part that environmental issues seem to play: 2 paragraphs in 500 pages. If this reflects what it’s like on those islands, I’d rather spend my holidays somewhere else – where people care about their wetlands, sharks and forests.

111 Falkland Islands: David Gledhill – Fighters over the Falklands: Defending the Islanders’ Way of Life

Having been to the Falklands before (https://spockisworld.wordpress.com/category/countries-places-ive-been-to/falkland-islands/), I was looking for a book that was not just about the war. And this one delivered. I learned about different kind of fighter planes, the complications of refuelling mid-air, the way personnel have to assure safety when it comes to wildlife,  the issues around supply chains in remote outposts, and that I’m hundreds of hours away from earning a ‘1000 hour Life of Brian badge’.  I’m still scared of flying, but if one is interested in aviation and British aviation history, this book is a goldmine.

And something that stood out for me was that if you buy a copy of this book, part of the money goes to the charity http://houndsforheroes.com/. From their website: Hounds for Heroes provide specially trained assistance dogs to injured and disabled men and women of both the UK Armed Forces and Emergency Services.