Thursday, September 10, 2009

Goodbye Zomergem, Goodbye Belgium

When we were first invited to consider a house exchange in Zomergem I went on-line, only to discover that the place didn’t really have much of a website. But we went anyway! after all, it was very close to Ghent and Bruges.

When we arrived, we found a very small village with a beautiful Town Hall, across from the cathedral, surrounded by a few eating and drinking establishments, a very upscale deli, and financial and service offices.

Looking up the main street, which was paved in large granite pavers, with pink ribbons of smooth pavers for the cyclists, we saw the spire of the cathedral. There was a mix of shops and houses with a variety of styles. Down the street were bakeries, the video store (we always had to check for language and sub-titles) and supermarkets.

Our house was right on the main street. It had approximately 22 rooms, plus a large basement that I never ventured into. We don’t know the age, although we were told the foundations were thought to be Spanish…yes, there was a Spanish presence in Belgium during the 16th and 17th centuries. At one time, the house belonged to the Mayor of Zomergem and for many years it was abandoned. Geert, the current owner has spent the past 6 years lovingly restoring it to its former glory.

The rooms were very large, especially the master bedroom which contained 5 banana plants and other foliage…perhaps to remind Geert's wife Lut of her roots in Africa! There were two different staircases leading to different parts of the house with three different water supply systems and three different heating systems. Fortunately, I didn’t have to touch a thing.

Notwithstanding its age, there was a very modern electrical and plumbing system, wireless internet and all mod cons. The electric cook top was so elaborate it took some time to figure out!

The former stables were used to keep the matching Renault Kangoos, a variety of bicycles, and goodness knows what else. After all, Geert was undertaking much of the renovation work himself.

Outside there was a magnificent garden, with lots of plants, as well as chickens, rabbits, tortoises, and a cat. (We ate one of the chickens for lunch the day we arrived.) The barbq was quite different from our stainless steel unit which is directly connected into the house natural gas service. Similarly, the old metal gates and locking system bore no resemblance to our garage with its remote automatic door.

Perhaps because this was such a very different property, in a very different place, we enjoyed the three weeks immensely. In fact, we were sorry to leave, since we were just starting to discover the best shops and restaurants.

Whenever I think about travelling, I often like to compare the joys of going to exotic places, only to seek the familiar, with going to familiar places to seek out the exotic. Belgium was both familiar, and exotic. In many respects it was just like Canada, and in others, it was nothing like Canada. But it is a place we highly recommend and all being well, one day we will go back.

As we return to Canada, I would like to conclude with a few more things that distinguish what we found in different parts of Belgium with what we have in Vancouver.....

Better Public Parkades: they are well signed, with an indication of how many spaces are left. In one garage we went into, all the available spaces had a flashing green light above them! There are also washrooms and vending machines.

Well marked pedestrian crosswalks, raised intersections, creative school signs: the yellow and black striped poles were hard to miss. The country is making a concerted effort to reduce the number of traffic fatalities to no more than 500 a year. Canada is currently at about twice that.

Skilled and Courteous Drivers: on the highways, everyone keeps to the right, except to pass. I think this contributes to traffic safety, and it is something that should be enforced here. (In Australia, you can be fined for not keeping to the left, except to pass!)

More Windmills: Of course, we all associate windmills with Holland, but there are many around Belgium, not just the old kind, but the new kind, which generate significant energy.

More Markets: the historic Grand Place in Brussels is still used to sell plants each morning. Public markets are a very integral part of the shopping experience.

Bike Sharing (Velos): In many cities in Belgium and Luxembourg, one can join a bike sharing network and use the electric support bikes parked around town.

Trains and Trams: Of course, Europe has a different history when it comes to trains and trams, however, there's no reason why we can't improve our rail system. I was particularly impressed with train lines that ran through the grass. (If we want to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world, maybe we should the new Broadway line along a grass boulevard out to UBC!)

More Art. a Magritte painting over a urinal is perhaps a good symbol for the national interest in art! So is the quality of artwork in the Brussels Metro.

Interesting hedges. Most homes have well trimmed hedges, but they are also used as ornamental landscaping and are sometimes found along the side of roads, separating motorists from pedestrians.

A greater sense of civic pride: Most of the towns around us were so very neat and tidy. While there was graffiti in the larger cities, (Brussels can definitely learn from Vancouver in this respect) there was none where we were. Indeed, our guests who joined us, John and Lynne Townsend, and Maxine Long both remarked on what they called tiny perfect towns....

The food. While more expensive than what we pay in Vancouver, the moules, the frittes, the salads, the seafood platters, and the wide variety of French restaurants was exceptional. Now we must try Chambar, the best known Belgian restaurant in Vancouver!


voony said...

let's put the grass on the downtown streetcar. for the UBC line, keep open the discussion on corridor/technology ;)

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