Thursday, 20 April 2017

In Bruges

We've just returned from a trip to Belgium and the Netherlands, repeating the route we took two years ago when husband first did the Amstel Gold cycle challenge. Last time the weather was glorious; unfortunately this time it was cool most cloudy and he cycled his 125km in the rain on Saturday morning. This time we didn't stay in the luxury apartment we booked last time but all three of us squeezed into a rather grotty and overpriced hotel room where Kate and I spent the damp Saturday morning, her revising for AS exams and me marking mock papers.

But, despite the weather, it was a good trip.  En route we caught up with relations, calling with youngest sister and catching up with my aunt and uncle who now, by chance, live in the same area.  We also had Easter Sunday lunch with my cousin and her family who live outside Brussels in a beautiful spot with a fabulous garden, conveniently situated just off the motorway.

On the way to Valkenburg, where the cycle event took place, we had a day in Bruges.  Or Brugge its official name, as the town, in the Flemish part of Belgium, now seems to have left its French identity behind and all signs are in Dutch. I've been here five times in total and love this city - the Venice of the North they call it - with all the canals and beautiful buildings.  It's nearly as busy as Venice now too. This time there were many parties of Japanese tourists.

We visited Bruges 13 years ago and at the time I had joined a creative writing group.  For the class I wrote a description of Burg Square in Bruges.  I'm trying again with creative writing: next weekend I'm going to Co. Clare in Ireland for a weekend writing course with Niall Williams who wrote 'History of the Rain'.  I'm excited and terrified in equal measure.

This time we eat in the same cafĂ© on Burg Square, admiring the building which looks like Sleeping Beauty's castle, which is apparently the Old Town Hall, while sitting on the enclosed heated terrace to avoid the cold wind.  Kate was 4 when we sat here last; she's now 17, dressed in denim and Converse, black eyeliner flicks like quotation marks at the corner of each eye and a square paper bag from Mango at her feet containing her latest purchase. In our family of three, alliances often shift.  Her father dares to ask what she has bought - we'd left him behind to visit the shops. She cuts him dead; I answer for her, 'A black cold-shoulder top'.  The irony only strikes me later. Then outside a dog they admire walks past and allegiances shift again. We revisit the new puppy conversation.  It had been selected in secret one day when I was at work.  A female German Shepherd. She's even given it a name: Luna.  They are trying to wear down my objections.  I stand firm, turn my back and return to watching the people in the square.

Blinkered Black Beauties trot across the cobbles, their drivers carrying knotted whips we hope they won't use. Cyclists weave around the tourists on foot who glance briefly at the buildings and then turn their back to take selfies. Some carry their phones on sticks like weapons. The sun is shining and the shadow which divided the square into equal rectangles when we arrived is advancing towards the other side as evening approaches.  A family group of orthodox Jews in traditional dress, black and white with hats adorned with fur cross the square.  They look striking among the other tourists in their dull uniform of brown and black quilted jackets.  Back inside Kate is checking her phone to see how many likes she has on Instagram for her picture of the Sleeping Beauty building.  She eats goats' cheese salad and drinks iced tea, her tastes now more sophisticated than the four year old we brought here in 2004 who just wanted chips.

I'm reminded of a poem by W. B. Yeats 'The Wild Swans at Coole'. He revisited the swans nineteen years after the first time and reflects on how his life has changed.  'All's changed' for us too since we first sat in Burg Square 13 years ago. Though I'm not quite so gloomy about change as Yeats is...

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Watching the News

So this is a post I mentally composed a few weeks ago and never got round to writing. Two reasons for this: firstly the ever present list of things to do at school and home which get in the way and secondly and, more importantly, my reluctance/fear about touching on topics which might offend people I know or other readers or unleash unwanted attention and comments from unfriendly strangers.  But here goes anyway and apologies in advance if you are offended.

My daughter Kate, now 17 and studying History and Politics for A level, now watches the news regularly (in addition to her usual diet of Vampire Diaries and Made in Chelsea).  Recent news events have provoked a lot of discussion and now, instead of just accepting my explanations and opinions as she used to, she challenges me and I find myself rethinking things.  This happened a couple of weeks ago after the death of Martin McGuinness and this BBC news report about how he made the journey from IRA commander to Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland. I'd talked to her before about events in Northern Ireland and my experiences of growing up there in the 1970s, but even so she was shocked by the news report and surprised about McGuinness's IRA background.  She remembered how a good friend of our family, a second cousin, saw her husband, a member of the security forces, shot dead in front of her as they returned from a night out. This happened up the road from her Granda's house in Ballyronan.  Martin McGuinness was the MP for Mid Ulster for many years - you'd see his smiling face on election posters around the village.  My own feelings about him remain mixed.  Kate's initial reaction was clear - it is wrong to kill innocent people what ever the cause.  I agree, but kind of admire McGuinness for moving away from violence. My feelings are echoed here by Colin Parry, father of Tim, the 12 year old who died in the Warrington bomb.

A day later Kate and I watched the news together again - this time the terrorist attack on Westminster.  She was upset by this, explaining that it was because she had been on that bridge by Westminster several times herself so it seemed more real.  Some of those injured were students on a school trip to the Houses of Parliament: she'd been on a similar trip, meeting a local MP and touring the building last year in when she was in year 11.  Again her question was why. What can the man who carried out this attack hope to gain? Apart from notoriety. I had no answers this time. I heard an intelligence expert on the Today programme say that there is an urgent need to work with the communities where the attackers come from and tackle the root causes of radicalisation.  Otherwise these things will keep on happening. No amount of security measures is going to stop someone who is prepared to use a car as a weapon.  As I write this, a similar incident has just occurred in Stockholm. It is hard to see an end to it. That's what we used to say in NI. 

More horror on the news this week with images of the chemical bomb attack in Syria. I covered my eyes; I couldn't bear to see the images of children injured and dying. Kate told me off, saying I should watch; that we shouldn't turn away from the horror. We need to know what is going on in the world.  We also had a discussion yesterday morning about where the American response to the chemical weapons attack was justified. No simple answers to this one either.

I'm going to finish this post on a more positive note. The photo above were taken by Kate on our Mother's Day visit to Ness Gardens. The magnolia trees were in bloom. Terrible things happen in the world and we can't avert our eyes. All the more reason to value precious time with family, count our blessings and enjoy glorious spring days like this one.