By the Belgian Border: On a Saturday

The weather app forecast for our corner of France is about as reliable as the forecast for our corner of Belgium. That is to say, not very. It does leave a bit of a mystery to each day, however, and when the forecast changes from rain to partial sun I am what the French might call “ravi” (meaning “delighted”; pronounced “rah-vee”; and what the US Americans might refer to as being “over the moon”).

While my husband moves between two very different but parallel worlds on a daily basis, beginning in the dark quiet morning of Bailleul and commuting to the busy city of Lille, I spend my days wondering if the weather app will present me and the big white husky with a window without rain. Every day, I hope for sunshine and a reason to be ravi.

While my husband sits through meetings in French, I greet the cows and do my best to keep my dog from crawling beneath the barbed wire to greet them in a more quintessentially husky fashion (more details on escapades with cows a bit later).

The weekend has become a cherished time for me, as it means my husband (the alpha) is home. With the head of the pack safely home and in the lead, the husky is more calm, which means the husky’s mama (aka, me) is also more at ease. My place is the pack is barely beta at best, so the aforementioned encounters of the bovine kind are generally unpleasant, albeit also hilarious in hindsight.

This morning dawned crisp and cool and blissfully sunny. I awoke long before the sun thanks to drenching night sweats from the anti-depressants I take. Studies show they can actually decrease night sweats for women going through menopause, but this has not been the case for me. If you can function without medication, my hat’s off to you. SSRIs, in my own experience, are no cup of bonny bergamot.

I heard the upstairs landing creak, and my husband appeared soon thereafter to join me in the dark. I had already showered (because, night sweats) and was already sipping piping hot coffee from my “focus on happy” acquisition from a recent journey to Ypres. My husband has suggested that I think of an image or phrase to remind me of this intention and then I tattoo it on my forearm as a regular reminder to help counter my contrarian nature. I have taken to holding the cup to my forehead in an attempt to transfer the intention through object telepathy. I will report back on the results from this experiment, which will surely be ongoing through the fall and winter months to come.

I sang for my breakfast songs by request while my husband prepared our morning feast in our metric (aka, tiny) kitchen. Soon there was French toast (ahem, pain perdu or “lost toast” [pain, pronounced “pan” for bread; perdu, pronounced “pair-dew” for lost) on a plate set out before me. We ate in the quiet morning, doing first a cheers (and making eye contact) with the first bite, followed by a toast (ditto) with my coffee and his espresso.

I suggested we journey to the town of Cassel, voted “”village préféré des Français” in 2018. Cassel has been around since Roman times. It is an ancient town, though like many towns and villages around here it had to be rebuilt after the First and Second World Wars.

We took the quieter route, passing between vistas of farm fields, a brasserie called “Le Relax,” and a town (and/or restaurant?) called “Le Petit Bruxelles.” I missed getting a photo of the town sign on the drive there and back but managed an adequate shot of the restaurant.

Cassel itself is set atop a hill, and we could see it from a distance as we approached in our ancient Saab. We wound our way up a winding cobblestone road, which I gushed over on the way up. I have a special place in my heart for cobblestone roads and old factory buildings, having spent several years working as a park ranger at Lowell National Historical Park just north of Boston, where lies the well-preserved remains of the first organized industrial town in Massachusetts.

We parked in what we first thought was the free “parking du chapitre” (chapter parking?) and then realized was actually the “Grand Place.” Not quite as grand as the place by the same name in the center of Brussels but mignonne (cute) and picturesque nonetheless. We wandered around, taking photographs and taking turns holding the husky so each of us (minus the husky) could take a peek inside the very cold church.

Side note: On the drive to Cassel, I pondered how people managed to build a church in every tiny town. You can literally see a church from almost every vista in this area. They are each incredible, beautifully intricate, works of architectural art. They must have taken ages to complete.

My husband’s response?

They needed something to do to keep busy. There was no social media.

We walked up a side street to the soundtrack of some pretty horrible US American rap music telling us to F ourselves on repeat ad infinitum. We were then discovered by the local group of boys, who were drawn like little moths to a flame to the big white husky. The self-appointed spokesperson, after asking if Atticus was a husky and thereby impressing us with his knowledge of dog breeds (referred to as “races” in French), informed us that he knew nearly every breed of dog and that he knew everything about Cassel as he had been living there for five years.

I will say that I am actually impressed when people ask if Atticus is a husky because most people assume he is a white shepherd (berger blanc ou berger Suisse; berger meaning shepherd; blanc meaning white; Suisse meaning Swiss), which I have never seen in the states but that are quite common over here. One person walking a white shepherd in the forest by our home in Brussels explained to me that the breed actually came from Canada and was the experiment gone awry and apparently originally banned from being registered in Germany (irony?).

But I digress…

The boys were quite enamored of Atticus, who was far more interested in first the black Scottie who came by and insisted on his dominance and then on a dog whose owner tied him to a large planter across the square. We were informed that if they were lucky, all of the boys would be enjoying a slumber party together that night, which I commented would probably be more fun for them than their parents (when did I get so old?).

We wound our way up to the top of Mont Cassel, where signs informed us that this was a historic city and we were to bag our dog’s poop. Thankfully, Atticus obliged right across from a poubelle (pronounced to our US English-speaking delight as “poo-bell”) in a tidy pile. We ooh’d and ah’d over the large moulin (wind mill) and the statue of General Foch (pronounced as you might imagine, but imagine it being spoken with a Boston accent). Then wound our way back down to the central square to find a bite to eat. Since moving back to France, I have discovered there is a new law which prohibits dogs from entering into any establishment where food is sold. This means all boulangeries, markets, etc. are off-limits for the husky (poor misunderstood husky). But when I asked if we could sit outside at a little restaurant called “La table du Menier,” the waitress asked if we would be cold and said it was no problem to bring the dog inside. With the sun shining, we opted to sit outside, where we passed a very pleasant and relaxing (the brasserie “Le Relax” has got nothing on this place) hour or so, which is a long lunch for me with my inner squirrel raring to go after sitting still for 10 minutes (ok, five).

As we sat outside, the entourage of Cassel boys passed by in ones and twos and we wondered if their parents sent them to run laps over the course of the day. The spokesperson wished us “bon appétit” on his first of two laps.

By 1:18pm I was chomping at the bit to change the little blue parking clock on the dashboard of our car, certain that we would get a ticket despite my husband reminding me (as if I could forget) that we were not in the United States. The parking du chapitre was free, but Grand Place had been mentioned as being free for two hours on the parking section of Cassel.fr (follow this link for a description of the town in French) .

At least wait until the waitress has cleared the table, my husband implored.

We try to fit in as much as possible, though we know we are hopelessly American. We were mildly horrified to discover another American couple who came to sit at another outdoor table (every self-respecting French person had gone inside to avoid the wind). I also realized that I had thought at first glance that the couple was European, something I imagine rarely happens when people look at us with our water bottles, backpack, sneakers (to be fair, I wore what my husband calls my “witch” boots but it was only because my sneakers were still drying out from the most recent cow episode with the dog [stay tuned for a post on that story]).

On a recent evening walk with the dog before bed the other day, I had asked my husband, What is it was like to be you? This question evolved into a reflection of what it is like to be a man. We talked about the #metoo movement and how men are trained to notice women but are simultaneously not supposed to notice them. In France, where people dress so stylishly, one cannot help but notice. I notice the women, they are so beautiful. I am thrilled if someone asks me for directions in French. As we were sitting at the table, I noticed every (perceived) European walk by. Even the children were dressed to match one another and their parents. It is not that Europeans always wear fancy clothing. There is just something about the way they put their ensembles together that seems somehow less “frumpy” than us. I commented that maybe I was not dressed so terribly American since I had on my sweater that my student neighbor in my Dutch class had given the thumbs up accompanied by skinny jeans (all the rage in the region, it would seem) and a black down vest. Many people were also wearing down jackets, though their hair was done nicely as opposed to my wild, unkempt, hopelessly and forever frizzy curls.

Back to “la table.” Because we were in France, there was only one waitress for the entire restaurant so 1:30pm and the end of the two-hour, free parking limit was going to arrive sooner than the table would be cleared. Of this, I was certain. Plus, my husband wanted a coffee.

In France, he shared wistfully, when you order a coffee you get an espresso.

This is as opposed to a large mug of drip coffee, which, depending on the region of United States, will likely not be as strong as a true coffee drinker would like. Even in Belgium, the coffee is most often not real coffee but from an automatic coffee maker as opposed to real grinds and a “real” espresso machine. The kind that are ever-present in the hipster coffee shops that comprise the towns running up and down the Pacific Northwest corridor of the United States.

Finally, I explained to him that I would be far more relaxed if I were allowed to turn the clock forward, and I happily bounded off toward the car. After my own short lap of the town center, I returned to the table. I will say that it took me quite some time to adjust to sitting for long periods of time around a table. Coming from the United States and also having grown up in the Puritan corner in Massachusetts, I have been trained to always be doing rather than being. This does not necessarily mean that I accomplish all that much over the course of any given day, just that I am almost constantly in motion.

The trip to Cassel and back was just over three hours and an excellent exercise in relaxing and enjoying the moment in both mind, body, and spirit.As we headed back down the cobblestone road, which we decided was delightful only because we were tourists and delighting in just about every new sight, sound, and smell. It would be far less enjoyable to pass over this road on a daily basis by car and even less so by bicycle. Today seemed to be the day of motorcycles, for which I cannot speak since I have zero experience on a motor bike. The leather clad folks we had seen all seemed in high spirits, so perhaps motor cycles present the happy medium?

We pointed at houses we would happily reside in should someone else front the money. I once again missed getting a photo of the “Le Petit Bruxelles” sign, but I didn’t mind so much. When you live in a foreign country, you are both tourist and resident. There is less stress stress over experiencing everything all at once. I know I can drive back if I want to take a photo of the sign, so I can practice at least a modicum of non-attachment.

I began playing the narrated audio version of the book, “All the light we cannot see,” by Anthony Doerr. The book follows the stories of a young blind girl in France and a young orphan in Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War. It seemed a fitting tome to create the soundtrack to our drive through farm fields dotted with bunkers, an ever-present reminder of a not-too-distant, violent past.

Here in northern France, the memories of the world wars are close to the forefront of the cultural mind. It is a poignant, haunting place to live, and I feel the preciousness of life as I begin to put down roots, however shallow, in this humble corner of the globe.

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