Han Ting in The Hague

We only went to The Hague to eat dinner, but almost as soon as we arrived we wished we’d booked a longer stay. Our hotel was located right on the main shopping street, a wide, pedestrianised area full of interesting architecture and wacky sculpture. This is our hotel:
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This is the department store just opposite. Note the large bird head at right. The next building along had a line of them all around the first floor.

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This gauzy wrapping reminded me a little of the famous Dancing House I saw in Prague.

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Bikes, because Netherlands.

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The aforementioned sculptures on the main street. This is one of the more normal-looking ones (it’s the one on the right).

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We only had a couple of hours spare before dinner, which would have been a bit tight to try and squeeze in one of the admittedly tempting arts and culture highlights such as the Escher museum (by the way it was only on this trip that I realised that Escher was Dutch, and so his name should be pronounced closer to ‘Esker’ than ‘Esher’, as I had always done). So we just spent the early evening wandering the back streets, mentally noting other promising lunch options for future visits.

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Han Ting is a Chinese-French fusion restaurant which this year received its first Michelin star.

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The decor leans heavily on the Chinese aspect, although the food was actually more Frenchified than I expected.

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We went for the “Tea menu”. I chose wine pairings and my wife went for tea pairings, for the sake of novelty (and sobriety).

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We were given chopsticks, but ended up using western cutlery for most dishes, as a lot of them involved creams and foams and other types of slippery liquid.

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Amuse-bouches, from the top: celery foam, “duck stomach”, tofu roll, cold mackerel soup.

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Veal with cauliflower cream and shaved macadamia nut.

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Bread. Steamed, with pieces of shallot (the dark brown spot in the middle).

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Our drinks. Can you tell which is the wine and which is the tea? The sommelier introduced each tea with some spiel about how each one interacted with the hot or cold “energy” of the dish, according to Chinese dietary theory. Whatever. They were nice, if all a bit samey.

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This one was definitely the highlight of the evening. The purple swirl is eel marinated in beetroot, and there’s salmon underneath the white layer, which is rice paper. The orange lumps are pumpkin. Bursting with flavour.

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We were then given a small bowl of sticky rice and crème fraîche as a palate cleanser. It works in terms of refreshing your mouth after the bold flavours of the previous dish, but for me was a little too filling, compared to a sorbet.

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Sea bream, razor clam. Beautiful and with a welcome spicy kick.

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Sole marinated in ketchup (the red piece at the top).  And another sole fillet with goji berries and celery. Slightly overpowered by the mango sauce.

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On the side was a small dish of bone marrow and panko. Not a big fan of bone marrow, and the abiding impression was of a mouthful of crunchy panko and not much else.

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Back on track with the main meat course: beautifully cooked beef with shiitake mushrooms and Jack Daniels.

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Dessert. A bit of everything: fruit, ice cream, panna cotta, macaroon, popcorn.

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All very nice and pretty reasonably priced at €65 for the full menu (without drinks).

The following morning we just had time for a walk along the sea front before heading home. Note the handy signs, a different one every twenty metres or so, for lost children to help them find their parents again.

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More wacky sculpture.

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And some persistent bathers. What do they think this is, summer?

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Fortunately The Hague is only a little over two hours by car from Brussels, so it’ll be easy to come back again some day soon.

#gastronaut, #travel

Treasures of Aachen

The German town of Aachen sits on the border with Belgium and the Netherlands. It’s a medium-sized town which is pleasant to wander and we’d visited a couple of times before, notably for the Christmas market. This time we were there to meet a friend who was passing through on her way to Switzerland on business. We felt the need to do something cultural and worthwhile, and so we headed straight for the cathedral, which dominates the town centre.

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It was originally built in 796 AD on the orders of local boy made good Charlemagne, although it was added to and amended several times over the intervening centuries. Charlemagne is everywhere in Aachen, which is understandable considering his historical significance.

“He united a large part of Europe during the early Middle Ages and laid the foundations for modern France, Germany and the Low Countries. He took the Frankish throne in 768 and became King of Italy in 774. From 800, he became the first Holy Roman Emperor — the first recognized emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier. Charlemagne has been called the “Father of Europe” (Pater Europae),[3] as he united most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire. His rule spurred the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of energetic cultural and intellectual activity within the Western Church. All Holy Roman Emperors up to the last Emperor Francis II, as well as both the French and German monarchies, considered their kingdoms to be descendants of Charlemagne’s empire.” (wikipedia)

This is his statue outside the cathedral which also houses his tomb. This photo is from a previous visit; we couldn’t find it on this trip and suspect that it’s hidden under scaffolding as part of the church is undergoing renovations.

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Inside you enter almost directly under the main dome and the first thing you notice is the rich and sparkly mosaic work covering most of the ceiling.

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Alcoves on the first floor (inaccessible to the public when we were there).

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Looking directly up into the dome.

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As you head towards the altar the stained glass windows draw the eye. I’m a big fan of these more abstract designs as opposed to the classically illustrative ones. These ones were installed in the 1950s after the originals were destroyed during WW2.

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First time I’ve seen a mention of corporate sponsors on a church’s windows.

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The gift shop outside had the usual array of postcards and books, and also a selection of religious DVDs. This German dub of the Irish film Calvary stood out, as it’s actually a fairly depressing film about murder and the decline of priests’ social standing. The German title translates as “On Sunday You’re Dead”.

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The other main draw here is the Aachen Treasury, which holds a bewildering array of religious knick-knacks and arts and crafts. Many of these are elaborate and shiny reliquaries, containing fragments of bone, hair and wood of dubious provenance and authenticity. But the containers are very pretty. Especially this enormous hand.

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Nice veins on the back.

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That’s Charlemagne, slightly larger than life-sized.

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The top of his head handily flips open to reveal…

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Well you can’t really see without the aid of a mirror. There you go: Charlemagne’s real, actual skull bone inside.

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A bit of femur.

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There are also some amazingly well-preserved books. This one’s over one thousand years old.

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I forget the technical name for this thing, but it’s basically a little bucket for containing holy water, which you then sprinkle on whatever it is you want to bless.

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This box supposedly contains Jesus’ belt. There was another one for Mary’s belt, and one for the very whip which was used to scourge Jesus’ flesh. Hmm. Still, it would make a good curse, I feel: “Christ’s belt!”.

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Jesus With The Disproportionately Small Head.

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More old books. I was more interested in the form that the content.

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A fantastic triptych (artist unknown) full of fascinatingly weird detail.

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Like this dog bothered by a wasp in its ear.

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There were more paintings upstairs, and I was amazed at how easy it was to go right up to them to photograph details. These things are centuries old and presumably priceless, but I could have just reached out and touched them if I’d wanted to.

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Angel with peacock wings.

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Literally everyone in this picture has the same face. Including the baby.

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Finally out in the fresh air we noticed basketball hoops in the courtyard. Reminds me of the scene in Nanni Moretti’s film Habemus Papam when he gets a bunch of priests to play volleyball in the Vatican grounds.

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In a square nearby we saw a classic “Where did that chicken come from?” statue.

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All this culture and history had made us thirsty, so we stopped at a wine bar whose menu gave handy visual hints as to the flavours of their various offerings.

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#art, #travel

Les Crayères

A hard morning looking at trees and stained glass certainly builds up an appetite, so for lunch on our last day in Champagne we’d foreseen a trip to a little place on the outskirts of Reims called Les Crayères. In fact we’d only found it after we’d booked our hotel in Épernay; otherwise we’d have been tempted to lodge there too.

We arrived for lunch at 1pm and settled in at the bar with a glass of fizz and some nibbles while we perused the menu options.

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We chose the ‘Découverte’. There was another, more expensive option, but it only seemed to be more expensive because of the use of ingredients like lobster and caviar, which don’t particularly excite me.

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Our first amuse-bouche once we were seated in the dining room was a mousse of strawberry, tomato and lemon balm.

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The proper dishes all arrived covered with silver domes (“cloches”). I’m still surprised whenever I see one of these things being used. They seem so old-fashioned.

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Foi gras poached in rosé champagne.

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One of the best cod dishes I’ve ever eaten (even in spite of the lack of batter and chips).

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Courgette flower stuffed with quail meat and foie gras.

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An interesting twist on the cheese course, using a local cheese called Chaource. Basically a cheese mouse with lumps of harder cheese inside.

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I wasn’t drinking because I had the three-hour drive home straight after the meal, but the table next to ours was taking up the slack. The table of four consisted of a man probably in his seventies and four young men in their twenties, speaking a language I didn’t recognise. I wasn’t sure of the relationship between them (professor and students? Boss and employees?), but he certainly liked his wine and had long discussions with the sommelier before each bottle was brought out.

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A creamy pre-dessert.

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And then the Piña Colada soufflé. We’d already seen this being served at another table so I knew to get ready to film the process:

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As desserts go it was pretty big, but light as a feather. All that was left was a few petits fours, although our waiter actually forgot about them until we gently reminded him after we’d finished our coffee.

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#gastronaut

Bubbly

Call it poor planning, but it wasn’t until we arrived for our weekend in the Champagne region that it occurred to me that I wasn’t really all that interested in champagne. I can happily drink a glass or two on special occasions, but I can think of things I’d rather do than spend a day tasting glass after glass of acidic fizz and listening to someone explain the difference between ‘disgorgement’ and ‘dosage’. In the town where we were staying, Épernay, there’s a street called Avenue de Champagne, and many tourists go on a sort of posh pub crawl, working their way down the avenue, stopping at every champagne producer located there for a sample or two.

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Having said that, it was interesting to visit one of the largest producers (we ended up choosing Moët & Chandon). After watching a brief video we were taken downstairs to have a look at a very small section of the largest cellars in the whole champagne region. These chilly, chalk-lined caves extend for 28 kilometres under the town and surrounding region. They contain, in total, millions of bottles; the tour guide was unable to tell me exactly how many, as bottles are constantly being added and removed, but one of these alcoves (of which you can only see the front row in these photos) contains 30-40,000 bottles. Which is pretty mind-bottling.

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The bottles in the picture above are being stored in A-frames as part of a process whereby sediment gradually collects in the neck of the bottle. The neck (only) is then frozen to -28°C so that the small amount of wine containing the sediment freezes solid and can be easily removed. But during the time the bottles are in these frames they need to be regularly turned a little and slightly shaken, to encourage the sediment to fall towards the neck. These days this is done by machine, but in order to preserve the traditional methods some of them are still shaken and turned by hand, and this process is called ‘riddling‘. This means that the job title of the person performing this function is…The Riddler. We never saw one so I don’t know if they get to wear the costume.
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We exited through the gift shop, politely declining the opportunity to spend €50 on a Dom Perignon-branded USB key (and disappointed that they had no Riddler accessories).

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It’s definitely worth going to have a look around one of these places if you’re in the area, even if you’re not that partial to the bubbly, and there are some great restaurants nearby too (that’ll be my next post).

#gastronaut, #science, #travel

The Twisted Beech

Below is a favourite tree of mine from Hyde Park in London. The wide, knobbly, twisted trunk reaches a certain height and then the branches all droop down towards the ground, forming a canopy. It’s great for hiding underneath.

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Last weekend we were driving through the Champagne region of France and I noticed in a tourism brochure that there was a forest of “dwarf beech” trees called “Les Faux de Verzy” just outside the town of Reims. We made a short detour on our way to Reims and spent half an hour wandering there, glad of the leafy shade on this hot, sunny day. It was possibly not the best time of year to really appreciate the structure of these trees, as illustrated by this sign:

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Barriers prevent you from getting too close, as the forest management understandably don’t want people climbing on them. But as they’re covered with foliage it’s often difficult to see much more than a leafy mound in the clearings between other, taller species.

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Fortunately some of them are close enough to the barriers and have some gaps in their branches where you can slide a small camera through to take a closer look under the canopy at the elaborate twistednesses.

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I’ve been unable to find any explanations online as to why the branches form in this way.

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Afterwards we stopped briefly in Reims cathedral. The famous rose window was covered for renovations, and the Marc Chagall window at the other end didn’t do much for me, but I was rather taken by these two pieces located over the baptismal fonts by local artist Brigitte Simon. According to the official cathedral website “Entitled L’Eau Vive, The Water of Life, the window’s blue-grey tones evoke light reflecting on a river”.

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#art, #science, #travel

Villa in the Sky

Whenever we told people we were going to eat at Villa in the Sky they would invariably reply “Oh, that one where you dangle from a crane?”. No, this one is in a proper building, although it matches Dinner in the Sky for sheer vertiginousness.

Much like The Cube, this is basically a large glass shed attached to the top of a pre-existing structure (in this case the IT Tower, one of the tallest skyscrapers in Brussels), which contains a pretty small kitchen looking directly onto a dining area which can seat about 30 people. We had been given the table at the far end of the room, looking right over the edge of the building to the streets below.

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The view from our table, across the centre of Brussels:

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I hadn’t expected the room to be this small, or for us to be this close to the edge, and at first I found it a little dizzying and uncomfortable. As you can see the structure is firmly bolted to a set of girders attached to the main building, so we weren’t in danger of wobbling off, but logic doesn’t mitigate irrational fears.

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I sat very still and looked at the horizon. It was perfect weather for enjoying the view, and it was interesting to see many recognisable Brussels landmarks from different angles, and also to notice some things from above which aren’t visible from street level. This is probably the best restaurant view in the city.

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An aperitif helped calm my nerves.

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One other thing we hadn’t realised beforehand was that there was no choice when it came to the food. That probably makes sense given the tiny kitchen, so we were happy to accept the proposed tasting menu, and chose a selection of wines to accompany it. I can no longer be bothered to take detailed notes on what exactly I eat, so the descriptions will be basic and you’ll just have to drool over the photos instead. First amuse-bouche: crab.

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Foie gras cubes, about the size of a thumbnail.

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Blurred photo of raw langoustine marinating in a broth, with a lemon smear on the side.

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Quail egg covered in crunchy stuff and topped with a slice of truffle.

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Bream.

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As the horizon rose to meet the sun they lifted the blinds on the side of the room to let more light in.

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This had the effect of increasing my anxiety a little as the view was now clear on all three sides of me, even in my peripheral vision. But I kept my focus on the plates in front of me and continued drinking to dull the sensation of tumbling forward into the abyss.

A couple of dishes were served by a very young man wearing a large badge which identified him as “Arnaud, the intern”. He was keen to practice his English and described the next dish for us (artichoke, rocket and potato). I would have called the white stuff a “foam”, but he referred to it as a “cloud”. I’m still not sure if he made a mistake, or if it was deliberate, to fit in with the whole ‘in the sky’ theme. Anyway, it was nice, and lacked the bitter edge which often puts me off artichoke.

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Fish, fennel and fregola, which is a type of small, Sardinian pasta. Nice, but the piece of fish was tiny: about the size of my thumb.

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Chicken. Quite salty, although I like that.

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At this point we had a small pause before the meat course so we went outside onto the terrace for a better look at the view. Well, I say ‘outside’. I stood by the doorway and took a couple of quick photos before staggering back to our table.

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Other diners did what people these days do when there’s a view.

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Once we’d sat back down a police helicopter flew past exactly level with us, and scarily close. Seriously, only about 10-15 metres from the window. I bet they did it on purpose to freak us out. Bastards.

Next came the beef. First time I’ve had cheese and gravy together on the same plate. Again, quite salty. Again, I didn’t mind, although some might.

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Cucumber, cream and rum palate cleanser.

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Strawberry dessert. The edible checkered tablecloth was a nice touch.

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And then a selection of smaller sweets with the coffee. Chocolatey caramel stuff.

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Watermelon, meringue and yuzu.

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Red fruit coulis and a spot of wasabi.

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A very nice meal, deserving of its two Michelin stars, and even though most of the courses were petite we didn’t leave feeling hungry. And if you can fight off the vertigo the view is amazing. I’d definitely go back.

#belgium, #gastronaut

Stunted family tree

Last night we went to dinner at a chef friend‘s house. There were ten of us in total; five of whom I’d never met before. During pre-meal cocktails (which reminds me, I need to go shopping) we exchanged some basic personal information, including, as is normal in gatherings in Brussels, a potted history of where we came from, where we’d lived before, and what we were doing in Brussels (six of the ten present, myself included, were immigrants to Belgium).

Then one of the native Belgians, a lady probably in her late 50s or early 60s, mentioned that her maternal grandmother was Russian (at first I thought she’d said “mother” but that doesn’t fit with the timeline so maybe I misheard and she actually said “grandmother”). Apparently she had been smuggled out of the country aged three during the upheavals of the Russian revolution and sent to live in the safety of a Belgian convent. She spent the rest of her life here, never spoke Russian, and was never able to re-establish contact with any of her family back in Russia, even assuming they’d survived. There was no paper trail and any contact with the authorities hit a brick wall.

What struck me about this was how much I take for granted that my ancestors, as far back as records exist (which in my case is several hundred years) are known. I have names, in some cases photographs, and in a handful of cases living memories through my mother. But for this lady there was nothing prior to the two previous generations. Her grandmother had started from scratch; a refugee orphan cut off from her culture, history and family.

How many of the child refugees from places like Syria will have similar experiences now? Parents dead or lost during civil war or during their flight across Europe in search of safety, their memories hazy and fading, they’ll have to hope that they’ll be given the opportunity to make a new life for themselves elsewhere, to create a new history and a sense of cultural identity.

#children, #human-zoo