Monday, July 26, 2010

How do you say Happy Birthday in Flemish?

Today is my mother’s 80th birthday. And where is she? Is she celebrating this significant milestone with any or all of her five devoted offspring? No. Or with any of her countless grand-offspring? No she is not. She is in Belgium with her second cousin thrice removed who is, admittedly, a far better cook than any of us. Last night they dined on Maigret de Canard and an apricot tart we will be hearing about well into 2011.

Eighty years ago today my grandmother gave birth to her first child in her parents’ house in Schooten, near Antwerp, in a bedchamber newly painted white for the occasion. By the time the birth was accomplished, the walls were splattered with blood, but that was just because of the uncoiling flailing umbilical cord, and everything was actually fine.

Their time in Schooten was brief. My grandmother had spent her pregnancy in Switzerland, where she and my grandfather lived at the time, and if the photographic evidence is to be believed, she spent much of that time sledding in the Alps. She returned to Belgium in order to give birth and having accomplished that, the three of them moved to Egypt, where my mother would spend her delightful childhood and where my grandmother would become the belle of the Costume Balls.
They never moved back to Belgium.
They never again lived in Schooten or even pretended to speak Flemish or attended mass at Schooten’s massive Gothic church of St Cordula. In case you don’t know, Cordula was one of Saint Ursula’s 11,000 virgins. However, when the Huns were ruthlessly beheading the young ladies, Cordula became fearful and hid herself. The next day she repented her cowardice – though some might define it otherwise – and presented herself to the nearest Hun for immediate slaughter. He complied. In the 13th century, her body was discovered in Cologne, smelling sweetly and with writing on the forehead to facilitate identification: Cordula, Queen and Virgin. But this remarkable head is not to be found at Schooten.
Instead of St Codula’s, my parents went to church last Sunday at an Art Deco basilica in Brussels, where attendance has dropped to such low levels that it is now used as a training space for speleologists and climbers.
Schooten’s other claim for notice in the global marketplace is as the site of the first-opened Quick, the Euro fast food chain uncannily similar to McDonald’s.
Eighty years later, will my mother return to Schooten today? Not very likely, and perhaps Quick is partly to blame. Or perhaps it is because she would not understand a word spoken or any written sign, because now Schooten is solidly in the Flemish camp, and my mother is an unrepentent Francophone.
Instead she may visit another bee museum. As earlier noted, Belgium has more bee museums per capita, per square mile and per honeybee than any other country on earth. My parents visited one last weekend and because it was in Belgium, they drank honey beer, and my mother became fast friends with the 2 gentlemen who run the museum and upon whose mutual sexuality my mother enjoyed speculating.
As for her birthday meal, we await the menu.

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