Monthly Archives: December 2019

Lest we forget

My first visit to the Dunkirk Memorial was at first light, late September, over a decade ago. It was atmospheric beyond sombre as both sun and a full moon were in attendance through the dawn mist. My sister and I paid our respects to our Grandfather – Sgt Frederick Beer – who fell on 7th June 1940.

He was thirty four.

Within twenty four hours, our dear father – Howard Beer – was dead.

Sixty Eight and with a lifespan compromised by complications from a heart irreparably damaged in childhood by rheumatic fever. Even with that knowledge, we were utterly unprepared for his sudden passing. A night to remember for hideous reasons. Am I over it? No. The question is not relevant. I will never get over it.

Fast forward to Boxing Day 2019 and I am taking my family to meet Granddad. We are en route to Calais from Ghent so a five minute detour is all it takes. One could easily speed through the area on the featureless Autoroutes and be none the wiser… The teens are none the wiser, while I have been quietly consumed with grief having arranged this secret side-trip. Memories of Dad have been popping, unannounced, into my consciousness. Strange ghosts. I could have sworn I caught sight of him at the Christmas Markets, heard his laugh in a bar, smelled his Dad funk. (Although I suspect I am starting to develop my own version of that old fella odour.)

We empty out of the Mini, zip our coats and walk a few short metres to the Memorial. A sizeable cemetery, with the British section segmented. If you have travelled the back roads of northern France, you’re only too aware of the too-numerous-mention memorials to the fallen. This one is only more poignant for personal reasons.

I set the simple task of finding column 52.

Column 52 British Memorial Dunkirk

A minute or two later, the 2019 Beers (Wiltshire Division, so to speak) are facing a familiar surname. In case it’s not obvious I attempt to introduce the kids to their Great-Granddad only for my voice to falter. Now my chest is tight and my head is swirling with memories of Father and the imagination of a Grandfather. Tears come and a deeply welcome group hug follows.

Totes emosh.

I say a “familiar surname”, but it’s not exactly common, right? To get a glimpse of scale let me tell you that the (superb) Commonwealth War Graves Commission search engine reveals a dozen, twelve, casualties of war named Frederick Beer.

From our small island, so very many young men perished in foreign field.

Lest we forget.

Seafront memorial, Dunkirk 26th December 2019

British Memorial Columns

 

 

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That thime whe whent to Gent

Belgium is surprisingly close to Calais. While this geographical revelation is probably not worthy of the term “discovery” it does make it a convenient getaway destination.

Google Ghent, however, and it points you to various backwaters in Kentucky, West Virginia, New York. So for clarity, Gent, Belgium is where whe whent. The spelling is a little vexing, but at least we’re in the correct continent.

Bundled incongruously into a 2010 Mini Clubman the (nowadays fully grown) 4 Beers road-tripped it from Wiltshire via le tunnel sous la Manche. [Aside: a fully grown man approached me in the car-carriage: does the tunnel go under the sea and how long does it take? I slow blinked involuntarily. He asked in such a thick Irish brogue I a) boggled and b) started to look for the hidden camera. “In 35 minutes when we see daylight again mate, we’re in France” satisfied his enquiry. Our conversation was mercifully over, although I do wonder where he is now…] A scant ninety minutes after emerging Frogside we are sat outside our Airbnb in Gent. More accurately the dowdy industrial end of town: Gentbrugge. (Average age 42.9) A loft which was part of a refrigerator factory sometime in the twentieth century.

Oh-Ma-Flippin-Gee: we have become hipsters.

Resplendent in our savagely trimmed beards, chunky knitwear and beanies, sipping toe- or was it hand? –  roasted single origin Arabica from cups without handles we assess our new digs. Firstly, the ladies are not happy about the beards for some reason. Once this minor stubbling block is quashed we can’t help noticing that this is one of the those Airbnbs that is actually someone’s gaff. Kudos Missus B: back o’the net.

If you’ve not Airbnb’d, where the flip-flop have you been? Dude it’s all but the third decade of the century with the interweb and everything… Airbnb is a marketplace/means of letting out your pad/renting a place to stay. When it was BBC2-sepia-back-in-the-day-twenty-ten this meant funky fun, but has become a global rash of buy-to-let landlord profiteering which has royally peed off the hoteliers of – amongst others – Barcelona and Paris: controversies abound. Here in sleepy,  post-industrial Gentbrugge? We have struck art-house and nobody cares.

If you are worried that we are sleeping in someone else’s bed with no hygiene tested bed linen certification process, do not apply. It does not pass the Holiday Inn white cotton glove audit. Because there isn’t one. There is lots of nice feedback online and honest communication from hostess Hilde. It looks like a charming old loft owned by someone who is into design because that’s exactly what it is. Think of it like renting a characterful vintage car rather than an anonymous Avis jelly mold. You might well rent a slice of local reality…

Or stick to your same-everywhere hermetically sealed package travel.

Your call.

We are packed super-light because of the vehicle restrictions. A trip to Carrefour sees us stagger “home” laden with sugary treats, booze and more festive sugary treats. With cheese. Did I mention the cheese? Much cheese. Even some pâté. Later on, at the pub – the pub! First evah’ Beer family holiday all at the bar – we are served beer – duh, Belgium – with… cheese. Cubes of unctuous yellow with a pot of celery salt and a sharp mustard for a dippin’. Life will n’er be the same again.

The chentre of Gent? (Sorry, last one there.) The medieval town is a thing of splendid beauty. Less touristed than Brussels, less obvious than Brugge and betwixt the two. We get gently pickled in the Christmas market: lady folk ice-skate whilst menfolk menfully watch armed with industrial strength local beer. [But wait, isn’t Junior Beer sixteen? Yes. Google “drinking age in Belgium”. (I’ll wait.)] We tourist around Gravensteen (Gent castle) with it’s splendidly Horrible Histories audio guide all dramatically lit up in the dark. Thirsty work: we end up in the heaving dungeon bar – actual in the castle vaulted stone chamber – for spectacularly atmospheric yet pungent beer/gluhwein. This gives one an appetite, so it’s a round of fries plastered in mayonnaise for dinner before a swaying tram home.

(NB: This is not the super-foods and Bikram yoga tour of the low 
countries in case you were wondering.)

We spend a day in Brussels: Grand Place, Mannekin Pis, train back-and-forth from our local station. (Here’s an idea that’d never work in the UK: end of year cheap train tickets. €18 down to €10 return as it’s Crimble. It’d never work because they don’t dig up the tracks here around the holidays. It got us on the rails here and hurrah for that.) We feel all connected, cultural, European. Not an un-elected bureaucrat in sight…

Christmas day is all cheese, sugary treats, wine, board games in a Belgian loft

And before you know it Christmas in Gent is done.

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