Jack Serle

A train is missed, the land of Vemeer, flatlands are crossed

In BeNeLux on August 17, 2011 at 2:07 PM

The 1820 to Harwich International, from where the ferry departs, leaves from platform six at Liverpool Street station. T. arrives in a rush brandishing umbrella and mac. It is 1822. There is a train shaped cavity next to the platform which some might describe as a gaping absence.

“Hello” he says. “Sorry.”

“Hello,” I reply. “I am sure there will be another train,” I continue, picking up my bags.

And lo, there was. And it was good.

Clothed in our best travelling garb T. and I board our vessel for the transit to Hoek van Holland. Sea travel is not what it was. There is no steam or coal, there are no caged peasants in ‘steerage’ or numbingly dull deck games called quoits or quilts or something.

Ferries in my lifetime have always resembled floating hotels at the bog standard end of the spectrum. In the days of my youth they were much like their landlocked relations. They were staffed by sour faced, pinched natives of France or Belgium who resented you and your custom. The sheets were grimey and the food terrifying. Fast forward fifteen years and the staff, sorry crew, are cheerful and efficient immigrants to Western Europe. The beds are clean, food unintrusive and cabins and public spaces are furnished in a style ubiquitous to the world. In short they are Hotel Ibis at sea.

***

Holland, the land of Vermeer says T. as we sail into harbour past rank upon rank of crains, containers, wharfs, ships and oil stained buoys. From Hoek van Holland the train takes us to Rotterdam and from there rapidly to Antwerp. This Belgian city is worth mentioning on two counts. First its train station has an indecent grandeur. The main ticket hall is all gilt and filligree. The roof is domed and the stairs are marble. The trains arrive and depart on a triple decker stack of tracks and plaforms. the bottom run being in the bowels of the Earth and the top deck soaring above rooves. Images will follow when possible.

This grandiosity is far from acceptable. It as if the Belgian authorities see their trains as a source of pride not a national joke. Antwerp station can’t hold a candle to the stollid pragmatism and honest, grim integrity of Swindon or Peterborough.

The second reason for mentioning Antwerp is that we sight a rather unhealthy looking man. He is, T. justly asserts, the first unhealthy person we have seen in the Low Countries. Wan, bags under the eyes and a lined face; he looks peaky to be sure. My inner doctor immediately racks my encyclopoedic mind for a suitable cure and decides a sedative, purgative and sticking plaster are called for. The plaster is for the gashed forhead he will recieve when he falls forward senseless and strikes his head on the toilet door.

“Even his whiskers do not stand proud” I said, noting his drooping moustache.

“Yes,” replied T. “Although that is really just a question of wax.”

“Ear wax?”

“Well…it is to hand,” T. replies.

The sickly Belgian is noteworthy because he contrasted most stark with the ruddy features and healthy physiques of the peoples of this corner of Europe. They bear the comely countenances of a good diet and lots of fresh air (they are evidently outdoorsy people); no doubt a consequence of consuming plenty of the native crop of small brassica.

No sign yet of a hill. It really ought to be more widely known at home, our ignorance of this land’s geography is shocking. This really is a very flat country.

“Yorkshire,” says T. “It’s full of Dutch and Belgians on holliday. They go to Yorkshire because it has hills.”

“You’d think they’d go to the Alps,” I respond. “Really feast on the closely packed contour lines.”

“No,” says T. “Mountains are too much for them.”

Bruges is next then Ghent; the medieval Flanders cities with their canals and beer.

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  1. You my comrade are a genius

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