Art Nouveau Walk : Hidden Gems in Brussels

‘If you happen to live in Belgium, you can’t escape the Art Nouveau architecture all around the cities, most of it in Brussels though.’

That opening is a repetition from my first article on Art Nouveau architecture in Belgium. We are blessed to be living in the EU quarter of Brussels, surrounded by wonderful Art Nouveau buildings from 1890-1910. We participated in an Art Nouveau walk on the occasion of World Art Nouveau Day, organised by Dorka Demeter and We Love Brussels. The purpose was to know each other in a group of AN enthusiasts on social media and find some hidden gems in the EU quarter. Presenting a few from the ones we spotted.

Palmerston Avenue 4 – Victor Horta (1895)

Victor Horta designed this famous house for Edmond Van Eetvelde in 1895. The house has four levels, designed symmetrically in riveted metal beams. The designs are subtly exquisite and the garden grill has interesting details. We haven’t been inside the house yet, but it has a stunning winter garden.

Palmerston Avenue 3 x Rue Boduognat 14 – Victor Horta (1896)

Dorka, our guide, shared an amazing story about this enormous house. Georges Deprez was the director of the crystal factories at Val Saint-Lambert. His wife Mrs Van De Velde liked the Hotel Van Eetvelde right across the street and they commissioned Victor Horta to design this house. Horta used his distinct style of waves and created this beauty. The façade has intricate blue stone carvings.

Rue Philippe le Bon 51, 53 – Edouard Elle (1902)

This set of twin houses, mirror images of each other were designed by Edouard Elle in 1902. In the last image, note the identical doors, stained glass windows, sgraffito and geometrical windows. I particularly liked the blue stone low arches over the doors. These are a delight to look at, number 53 has been recently renovated.

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Never Too Late to Learn a Stitch

I have been stitching for years, if I may be allowed to proclaim. And yet, my skills were limited to the basic run and cross stitches. Over the years, I have discovered that there are hundreds of other stitches, of which, a few might be grasped by the limited aptitude that I possess. Despite of having realised so, I did not consciously make an effort to learn those. A fishbone or herringbone stitch looks very beautiful but involves a bit of learning and patience. I found this Embroidery Bingo on social media by Jessica Long and decided to give it a chance. At the end of the year, this was one of the highlights of my otherwise trashy year (2021).

Bingo board 2021

I hadn’t played a Bingo ever, let alone an embroidery one! The task seemed daunting but the tutorial videos were so descriptive and assistive, that now I can assert of having mastered a few of these. Grasped, rather, not mastered. I can safely say that from the above board, French Knots have become my absolute favourite! Since then, I have been using them in my Embroidery Journal for 2022. More on that later. But let me show you the Bingo board for this year with more gorgeous stitches.

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Book Review : The Queen’s Spy

Blurb view:

1584: Elizabeth I rules England. But a dangerous plot is brewing in court, and Mary Queen of Scots will stop at nothing to take her cousin’s throne.

There’s only one thing standing in her way: Tom, the queen’s trusted apothecary, who makes the perfect silent spy…

2021: Travelling the globe in her campervan, Mathilde has never belonged anywhere. So when she receives news of an inheritance, she is shocked to discover she has a family in England.

Just like Mathilde, the medieval hall she inherits conceals secrets, and she quickly makes a haunting discovery. Can she unravel the truth about what happened there all those years ago? And will she finally find a place to call home?

Review:

Let me start with the cover – it is stunning! Kudos to the cover designer for this one.
I’m a fan of historical fiction, especially those across various era and kingdoms all around the world. The Queen’s Spy dallies between the Tudor period and present era. This one specifically fascinates me – the cold war between cousins – Queen Elizabeth I and Mary of Scots.
Clare Marchant begins her story in 1584, about a displaced man, Tom Sutton, scurrying from place to place for work and shelter. He had the talents of a herbalist/pharmacist and the disability of being deaf and mute. How and what he does for the Queen makes for an inimitable plot. The other track is in Norfolk in 2021 and talks about Mathilde, another displaced soul, similar to Tom. She finds her long lost family and a special heritage in her inheritance that changes her life.

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5 Quirky Sculptures in Belgium

In this part of the world, one would have to be on a constant lookout for statues/sculptures in public places. Some of them might have a piece of history to fall back upon, while others are installations/artworks that might be labelled as quirky. Part of the world where I grew up rarely indulges a concept of artworks on public display. I think we have more murals or graffiti in India than sculptures or installations. A lot depends on the state or central governments for permissions, bureaucracy and the intention to let art permeate into the lives of citizens. In the past few years, I have felt strongly that public artworks play a monumental role in defining a city and shaping its people. The mere mention of Brussels will make you recall the statue of Mannekin Piss, since it has reached the status of a national treasure here. I would not be writing about that overhyped piece though, there is a lot more on the internet if you’d like to search. Travelling through Belgium, I’ve come across quite a few quirky statues/sculptures. Jotting down a few of them, more will follow later.

Fonske (Leuven)

Leuven is a perfect example of the archetypal European university town. With ancient buildings, cobbled streets, enough greenery and a university founded in 1425, Leuven is often perceived as the perfect city for education in Western Europe. To commemorate the university’s 550 years, they had commissioned for a quirky bookish statue and it had been installed in 1976.

Named ‘Fons Sapientiae’ and fondly called ‘Fonske,’ the statue represents the eternal student. He refills his source of wisdom with water (or beer?) and reads along. The statue is periodically dressed in different costumes around the year. We found him without a costume since its summer, probably. The artist who created Fonske is the famous Jef Claerhout.

Horse Head Fountain (Bruges)

Bruges is one of the most beautiful cities, not only in Belgium, but entire Europe. Bruges in autumn is one of the prettiest sights that you would enjoy. Apart from canals, alleyways and ancient houses though, there are quite a few quirky installations that have a bit of history behind them. We have been to Bruges twice and discovered this horse head fountain the second time.

The troughs below the horse heads are actually filled with water for tired horses. Bruges is famous for horse carriages that impart an old world feel to the tourists. This fountain is placed in midway of the carriage route and the city rules insist that carriage horses should be fed, watered and taken care of. I could not find the artist’s details or date of this installation though.

Zinneke Pis (Brussels)

The last of the ‘piss’ series in Brussels, I like this one much better, it seems more fun. This quirky bronze statue of the third in pissing trio is a cute little dog peeing on a pole. I hadn’t known the history or etymology behind the Zinneke. Research showed that the word can be divided into Zenne-ke – zenne is the Dutch word for the river Senne and the prefix -ke is ‘little’. This dog seems to be peeing in the spot where the Senne river flowed and Brussels was established on its banks.

Zinneke is not fortunate enough like Manneken to be dressed up on occasions though. I think most people in Brussels aren’t even aware of this little one on a street corner. The statue was set up in 1998 and created by Tom Frantzen.

The Bandundu Water Jazz Band (Tervuren)

I must admit that this is my favourite in the list. The Bandundu water jazz band is one of the unique ones that I’ve ever seen. Situated in Park Tervuren, just on the outskirts of Brussels, this large installation was created by Tom Frantzen in 2005. The animals in the band represent the ones that are displayed in the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. The frogs play the accordion and trumpet, crocodiles play the double bass and drum, and a hippo plays the tuba. All the animals are placed on round leaves of water lily that are arranged like a rotating gramophone record.

Totem (Leuven)

We have just been to Leuven a week ago and this giant Thai jewel beetle installation on a pole was surprising to say the least. Situated right before the huge bibliotheque of KU Leuven, this was created by world-famous Belgian multidisciplinary artist Jan Fabre in 2000. The university wanted to commemorate its 575th anniversary and commissioned Fabre to create an installation as a gift to the city of Leuven.

Fabre conceptualised the beetle as the memory of nature, an ancient computer that has been here long before human existence. He named it ‘Totem.’ The beetle represents the collective memory of humans and is placed before the library, which is the repository of knowledge and books. Sounds intriguing, right?

I will keep writing about more such sculptures/statues across Belgium whenever I come across them. There are a lot of historical ones, not necessarily quirky.

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon

Beguines – One of the Oldest Women’s Movement

I learned about Beguinages for the first time last year while visiting Delft, Netherlands. It wasn’t called a Beguinage, rather Klaeushofje in Dutch (a courtyard of 12 houses for Catholic single women), established in 1605. I had no idea that it was part of an order, or something important in world history. The courtyard was not a large one but it had small apartments surrounded by gardens that are open to public. I was just thrilled to visit a courtyard that was originally built in 1605 and still retained the ancient essence of that era.

Klaeushofje in Delft

Cut to 2021 – we made a day trip from Brussels to another ancient city in Belgium – Leuven, just 26 kms away. As I always research a bit before a trip, Leuven seemed to be insistent on a visit of the Grand Beguinage (Groot Begijnhof). Intrigued at having learned a new term, I looked up Beguinages on the internet. The extent of history that came up is stunning and awe-inspiring.

The Beguine movement started in the 12th century when single women (unmarried/widowed) decided to form a community and live in a semi-religious environment. Women were supposed to live and be cared for by their father/brother, husband or son. The only other choice they had was to become a nun. Doesn’t the first part sound pretty familiar even in the 21st century in most parts of the world? However, at the beginning of the 12th century, single women in the ‘low countries’ (Netherlands, Flanders, Belgium) had few options to survive in the patriarchal society. The convents were mostly full and could not accommodate most of them. They started to devote their life to serve the poor and work for the society without taking religious vows. A new lay religious order was created under Christianity, termed Beguines. They were pious and religious but weren’t bound by the rules of the convent. The Beguines could leave the order at any point of time and get married to start a family. It was more of a spiritual order than a religious one. Some Beguinages were built by the local town officials while others were built by the Christian authorities to house these women. The Beguinages are a beautiful example of communal living by, for and of women. They were architectural marvels as well. The structure included huge open spaces, gardens and cobbled pathways around each house/apartment. The houses were very similarly constructed to each other to impart that community vibe. Bit of utopian socialism in the 13th century, eh? But like every other movement, the Beguines declined since the Council of Vienne by the Catholic church in 1312. Their ambiguous religious status created confusion in the society and in some regions, Beguines were termed obnoxiously religious as well. Marguerite Porete, a mystic Beguine was burned in Paris in 1310 on charges of heresy. Most Beguine orders were absorbed into Christianity hence but some of them survived, especially in Belgium and Netherlands. The last traditional Beguine passed away in 2013 in Kortrijk, Belgium.

We made it a point not to miss the Grand Beguinage in Leuven. It was established in 1232 and is one of the oldest Beguinages in Western Europe. The gate mentions the date it was built and leads to the St. John’s the Baptist Church post the entrance.

Gateway to the Grand Beguinage

None of the oldest houses exist in the Beguinage now. They were demolished and rebuilt in the 16th century during the religious upheaval. There are around 100 houses nestled within 12 alleyways that surround them, including bridges on a narrow portion of river Dijle. It is almost a little town in its own right. I particularly love the local and traditional Flemish Baroque architecture from the 16th-17th century, that is evident in these houses. There are hand pumps and wells from bygone eras that remind of the life Beguines had.

Baroque houses from 16th century
Hand pump

This Beguinage was in dire state in the 196os as the inhabitants couldn’t maintain the ancient houses in their deplorable financial state. The Catholic University of Leuven purchased the property and restored the houses. They turned quite a few apartments into housing for students and visiting professors. The premise is accessible for public viewing but most of the houses are private now. The site was announced as a U|NESCO World Heritage site in 1998.

One of the old houses

Did you know? One of the most famous personalities of the Beguine order was Dorothy Day, the American journalist, anarchist and activist?

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon

Le Mur des Je T’aime

Loosely translated to ‘The Wall of Love,’ this installation is pure love at Montmartre, Paris. I have been to the city thrice now and visited this wall on our second outing. A search for ‘unusual places to see in Paris’ led to this and we didn’t budge once to skip it. The weather in April is usually pleasant but 2019 saw a mini heatwave and we were exhausted after a hike in the morning to the Sacre Cœur Basilica. A long walk down through the winding lanes of Montmartre led to this refreshing Wall of Love. This was conceptualised by Frederic Baron and executed by calligrapher and mural artiste Claire Kito. There is ‘I Love You’ written in 250 languages for 311 times on 612 tiles of enamelled lava. It was installed in 2000. The beautiful quote on the top says ‘aimer c’est du dèsordre…alors aimons!’ – “Love is a disorder, so let’s love!”

Do you spot আমি তোমাকে ভালবাসি (I love you) in my mother language Bangla, right in the middle? It was so heartwarming and emotionally overwhelming to find your own among 250 other languages from the whole wide world. It’s a one-of-a-kind moment when a part of your social identity is recognised in other continents. I think we stood there for a few minutes, soaking it all in, letting ourselves flow in that moment. It was surreal.

This post is a part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

Trams – Joining Calcutta and Europe

Image From Instagram page @onlyinbengal

When I was a suburban, stodgy kid, I used to wait for our trips to Calcutta for the occasional tram rides. The joyrides used to be sparse though, since we’d be pressed for time to return to our suburban abode, or we might have been visiting some part of the city not connected by trams. The scenario improved when we moved to Calcutta in 1998. It was by sheer luck that we rented a house around 300 metres from the Ballygunge Tram Depot. I would have loved to take the tram every day enroute to my school in Kidderpore, but time was a constraint to romanticism. I had to give in to the mundane daily drill of the school bus and its irritating co-passengers. As a countermeasure, I began to commute to the private tuitions via tram, whenever possible. Sometimes, the route would be from Ballygunge to Tollygunge, where I would alight at Rashbehari to walk the rest of the part. Since this is one of the busiest junctions in the city, the journey would consume quite some time and I loved sitting idly at one of the windows, watching the rest of the world rushing by the street. The gong of the tram would alert few crossing pedestrians, would scare a few and be a fair bit of warning for private buses and vehicles. That window seat meant a different world to me, sitting in a comfort zone, separated from the chaos outside. Recollecting about the other routes – I have hopped trams too, taking one from College Street in the North, dropping off in Park Circus and taking another till Ballygunge. That one used to be a long ride but quite enjoyable through the busy criss-crossing roads in the North, widening up as we approach the Central towards South Calcutta. It would be unfair if I miss mentioning the Maidan tram depot, one of the picturesque ones in the city, within the greens. It’s a delight to watch the trams slowly emerging at a snail’s pace from their depot at Maidan, much like a caterpillar. I spotted one recently, on one of my trips to the Government offices in Esplanade. Didn’t have the time to hop onto one though. Sadly, I still haven’t clicked a single decent photo of trams in Calcutta.

Did you know? The Tram system in Calcutta is the only existing one in India and the oldest operating network in Asia. It goes back to 1873 starting with horse-drawn trams and moved on to electric trams in 1902.

I was obviously delighted when we moved to Brussels as it has an extensive tram network. Although we use the metro rail more than the tram within the city for convenience, I like the trams in Belgium. They’re a bit too modernised in the interior, thus missing the old world charm emanated by the trams in Calcutta. We have been fortunate enough to visit other cities in Europe that have an operating tramway. From the glamorous red trams in Den Haag to the dazzling yellow in Budapest, from pristine serious trams in Amsterdam to cute ones in Prague and red-white beauties in Vienna – we have seen, ridden and loved them all. I’d like to explore more of them, in other cities that we haven’t visited and collect a lifetime of memories in trams.

Do you like trams? Have you been on a ride ever? Share your experiences in comments. I’d love to know.

This post is a part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

Spring, Summer, Monsoon

Do seasons have an unsettling impact on you, year after year? It’s not always the disturbing kind of effect, rather some inexplicable transition in the overall mood and essence of living. It might not happen to everyone, but I’d like to believe that seasons and climates stir and muddle a lot of emotions in me. Growing up in India, I’ve learned that there are six seasons – spring, summer, monsoon, autumn, pre-winter and winter. I can vouch having witnessed all six of them at least till two decades ago. Spring and pre-winter (called Hemanta in Bangla) were the two most enigmatic seasons in my childhood. Hemanta was a very dainty season, fragile in its appearance, ever so transient for a few days post autumn. From mid-October till the beginning of December, the air at dawn would be laden with fine dew droplets, drenching flowers in the garden, rendering everything fresh. Those few days would perceive a subtle change with a nip in the morning air. The pre-winter sun would mellow down and turn a little yolky late morning. Just as Kali pujo/Diwali passed every year, people in West Bengal would gear up for the diaphanous pre-winter season, prepping to collect date palm sap to be turned into jaggery. No wonder M’s father was named Hemanta as he was born on 2nd November.

Spring

Spring has been more conspicuous to me as I lived out of India, in the US, UK and now Belgium. The passage from winter to spring is almost like a shock in the upper parts of Northern Hemisphere. Since winter is often harsh and beating, spring appears as a big relief with a platter of colours and flowers. There’s a bit of sunshine thrown in too for good measures. Leaves spring out of nowhere on seemingly dead trees, tulips galore in most places; surprisingly the city councils and communes gear up to plant new saplings in all cul-de-sacs and public gardens. It is indeed surprising to me, as I’d love to see municipalities in Indian cities invest just that fragment on public environment.

I like spring. I like the freshness in the air, still crisp and cold though if you are in Europe. It might even snow and yet it is spring. I have missed the chance to click snow on tulips this year. Spring has been instrumental in instilling some hope post humid and horribly cold winters for the past few years. I’d even go so far as to proclaim that spring is my go-to season these days. I stayed in Calcutta this spring and it was almost non-existent to a saddening point, barring a few Laburnum and Palash/Butea blooms.

Summer

Summer – the least of my favourites in the Indian sub-continents. Every chore I do in Indian summer has the propensity to leave me drenched in sweat and panting for breath. Summers are harsh here, in this part of the world and global warming is making it worse every year. The season wasn’t this bad though three decades ago. The unbearable heat of the day would be cooled off by breezes and Norwesters that we fondly term Kalboishakhi in Bengal. Dark clouds and thunders rumbling would take off the heat from the earth and bring some relief. They have become rare though. We hardly had two or three Kalboishakhi this year with just temporary respite. I know people who detest winter and love summer. My sympathies are with them, I cannot stand the scorch.

Monsoon

Monsoon is one of my favourite seasons in India. I have grown up being enamoured by the monsoon in Bengal, revelling in the thunderstorms, the cooled down climate, the impromptu khichuri-machh bhaja lunches and watching the incessant rains by the window. Monsoon used to last for more than two months in Bengal with intermittent sunny, balmy days. The seasons have all been jumbled up now with environmental disruptions. This year, monsoon has arrived at the predicted time but it is sporadic. In monsoon, Calcutta appears like a newly washed kid after playing in the mud with schoolmates. It gets dirty, too, and that part is not adorable at all. I loved the monsoon in Bombay as well, although that turns out to be disastrous most of the years, tending to flood. The season was far more enjoyable in Pune. Monsoon came with a flourish in that city, with the nearby Western Ghat hills sprucing up in their green finery. The weather cooled down to the level of bringing out quilts and devouring cups of caffeine throughout the day with various fried food. We had made some amazing trips to the hills of Malshej and Khandala in monsoon.

This year is half gone already and I have experienced these three seasons here in Calcutta. I’d love to spend another favourite season, autumn, in Brussels though as there are endless opportunities to admire nature’s beauty and click photographs. Which is your favourite season? Let me know in the comments.

This post is a part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

What do you do, to live?

Death makes a person cold. Not the one who died, but some of those left behind. There’s a stone coldness in few people that is brought out to striking daylights with the death of a loved one. They struggle to cope, to accept the absence of the person closest to them. In this constant endeavour to ‘return’ to normal life, they lose any warmth left in their character. It depends a lot on the definition of ‘normal life.’ It’s quite normal that we would grieve a loss and the life we carry on after a loved one’s death, is normal in its own way. A ‘new normal’ that lets you accept facts gradually and tweak living accordingly. 

I have been in the realisation of something for quite a while now and it deepened slowly in the last four months of my stay in Calcutta. Most people around me are living in their own way, within the cocoon of a comfort zone. It is often the eat-work-sleep-repeat routine that burns them out near the end of their work life. The ennui that a routine creates is very stifling to me. If I were to just eat-work-sleep-repeat, I’d burn out much sooner than my retirement age. I believe that every person should be able to do something in their daily routine to feed their creative self. Now, you might disagree and debate, that in this already distressing scenario, what is the role of art? 

If you just give it a passing thought – art is not exclusive to galleries or theatres or concerts. A bit of art is present in all our daily lives to push us through in anticipation of tomorrow. And it need just be something tangible, to show off the creative angle of your persona. It could even be a thought, a few kind words to a stranger or something that you might find insignificant. I know someone who places a bowl of water in their balcony everyday in summer for birds. It gives them immense satisfaction to wake up listening to a dulcet conference of birds in their balcony, around the water. When I’m in Brussels, I go for long walks in the evenings, often not regimentally in a park but aimlessly in the quiet streets. If the weather is pleasant, I sit somewhere and soak in the sun, mostly in winters. On days that I feel dejected, I stop somewhere in the track and stare at the Art Nouveau/Art Deco houses. I believe I have even spoken to the stone gargoyles and motifs on them, just asking how they have been through the past century. This isn’t ‘art’, no, I wouldn’t call it that. But it is a way to do something different than my daily drill. Sometimes, I’d click a photo on my mobile and it has thus remained as a warm piece of memory, to be thawed and savoured on absolutely downcast days. 

I’m grateful to my parents for having inculcated the idea of a hobby in my early years. I think it was part of the Bengali culture, at least till half a century ago, to introduce children into some form of hobby that would sustain them forever. It was looked upon as something that would save your life from the clutches of a regimen. I was encouraged to read, listen to music and watch movies. I began writing much later and was interested in embroidery watching Ma and my paternal aunts. I’ve been living on and off it for years, neglecting embroidery while being immersed in ‘life.’ It took a pandemic to instil the habit of stitching for at least half an hour every day as a mode of creating something by forming colours and patterns on fabric. I looked forward to that time in the evening or late afternoon post work when I’d be able to pick up on an unfinished part of the pattern and progress bit by bit. Once a pattern was complete, it would bring unprecedented joy and fulfilment. I’d suggest you pick up a hobby, it might be anything, as long as you look forward to it post work and household chores. 

I did this satin stitch leaf yesterday on a used, washed fabric mask using Ma’s leftover shaded floss. It’s not perfect and I’m not very happy with the precision, but it is something. I did this bit that made me feel a little more alive and handy. What do you do, to live? I’d love to know, share in the comments. 

This post is a part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

Book Review : The Last Letter From Your Lover

Blurb view:

When journalist Ellie looks through her newspaper’s archives for a story, she doesn’t think she’ll find anything of interest. Instead she discovers a letter from 1960, written by a man asking his lover to leave her husband – and Ellie is caught up in the intrigue of a past love affair. Despite, or perhaps because of her own romantic entanglements with a married man.

In 1960, Jennifer wakes up in hospital after a car accident. She can’t remember anything – her husband, her friends, who she used to be. And then, when she returns home, she uncovers a hidden letter, and begins to remember the lover she was willing to risk everything for.

Ellie and Jennifer’s stories of passion, adultery and loss are wound together in this richly emotive novel – interspersed with real ‘last letters’.

Review:

Shouldn’t there be a way to read an author’s works chronologically? I discovered Jojo Moyes and her writing via ‘Me Before You,’ (2012) and going backwards, have just read ‘The Last Letter From Your Lover,’ (2008). When you have already read the bestseller by an author, made into a motion picture and liked the book too – expectation levels are set high for all of their previous books too. I was disappointed with ‘The Peacock Emporium,’ (2005) when I read it this year. So, it is best to accept that a writer you like has written in various styles throughout their career.

‘The Last Letter From Your Lover’ is probably a little mis-titled. It sets a certain conjecture even before the story begins. There must be a pair of lovers then and parting, since the title mentions ‘the last letter’. Understandably, the novel starts with Jennifer having lost her memory post an accident. The year is 1960 and she discovers that she has a husband but with zero recollections of his existence. She begins a new life of discoveries from the hospital and regains just flashes of a lost love, a lover, a longing that cannot be explained when she looks at her husband Laurence. She finds a letter that might take her back to her lover, a certain ‘B’ who signs the letter without his name. Cut to 2003 – Ellie, a struggling journalist finds this letter in her office archives and is set on an impossible journey to find what happened to Jennifer and B.

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