Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A very special reunion weekend in Brussels

The 3 of us together last weekend in Brussels, reunited 30 years after we left University. From left to right, me, Sandie and Adele
This is how we looked in 1978 or 1979 when we were at Nottingham University together. I don't think we've changed that much. Thank God we didn't leave it another 30 years.

Hi again midweek, here I am multi-tasking and at my desk at home with a bit of a headache but I just have to write this post as otherwise it will soon be the end of the week and time to write the next.

No sooner had I come back from Barcelona than I was leaving again for Brussels as you may well have read in the post I published on Monday. So what was the reunion all about you may ask? It was something really special. We were going to Brussels to stay with Sandra who lives just outside the city in Fort Jaco in a lovely block of flats called Villa Hermes (very fitting for my elegant and jet setting friend). We were to be joined by Adele who lives in France near Orleans and her lovely psychiatrist husband Bernard who is also quite an artist as we were to find out later.
The designer block of friends Sandie lives in. Very impressive.
I went to Nottingham University with them both more years ago than I would like to admit. They studied French and I studied Spanish but they did Spanish subsid so we got to meet.
The Trent Building at the University of Nottingham where our friendship was forged over 30 years ago.
Adele lived in the same hall as I in the first year, Nightingale Hall. In the second year I lived with Sandra (also known as Sandie) in Church Avenue and in my final year I lived with Adele at Cromwell Road. I have kept in touch with both of them over the years and had seen Sandie twice and quite recently too but with Adele it had been over 25 years since we last met. That was at her home town in Boroughbridge near York when both of us had just been Mothers. Now our children are grown up and we are middle aged. However our friendship was very strong and this weekend we took off just where we had left off and it was as if we were young girls again, except that we weren’t quite so short of cash nor were we desperately looking for boyfriends, hahaha.
Nightingale Hall, the all women's hall of residence Adele and I lived at in our first year at Nottingham University.
A word about these wonderful women before I start recounting the weekend. Adele is a fun loving delightful person to have around. She has not changed one iota. She loves food like I do and has the most amazing hair I have ever seen. When we were at University Adele’s main ambition in life was to get married and be a Mother. She used to prepare superb dinners which always included home-made pizzas and cheese cake. Today Adele is the perfect Mother and wife and also an excellent professional and now a teacher of English at a French University. She comes from a family of 5 brothers and sisters and has 4 boys herself; Johnathan, Benjamin, Nicholas and Tom whom I would love to meet one day. Bernard is her second husband. He was her therapist when she split up with her first husband. There’s a big story there.

Sandra is not easy to describe. She is a bundle of fun to be with and has the most outgoing character I know. She speaks to anyone and everyone in any language you want. Her background could not be more exotic: born in India from an Italian Father and a Jewish Hungarian Mother, Magda who had to be hidden from the Nazis during the Second World War. There is a very big story there and I hope one day Sandie writes it. When we were at University, Sandie was a cut above the rest. She had her own car which was unthinkable in those days and used Christian Dior perfume years before we ever did. Today she lives in Brussels and works for Price Waterhouse. Her partner is Jeffer London, a lovely American from Connecticut who specialises in corporate training or I think that is what he does. Amazingly they met at the Toastmasters Association, one Sandra has recommended me to join and which intrigues me. I will be going along to my first meeting with the Madrid branch next week.

Our three men, a French psychiatrist, a Spanish philosopher and ex priest and the American were to have a great weekend too as their cultural level and general interests were on an absolute par. But of course if they were our partners how wouldn’t they get on?

And now on to the weekend and everything we did.

We were up early last Thursday and Suzy drove us to the airport for our midday flight. I took advantage of the lovely shops at the enormous Terminal 4 to buy my friends some Spanish Loewe perfume as well as Spanish delicacies such as ham and good Rioja wine to contribute to the meals.

Sandie met us off the plane and of course the hugs were huge. She drove us in her nice convertible Saab (would Sandra choose any other type of car?) to her lovely home in Fort Jaco outside Brussels. Her flat is perfect and homely and tidy and beautifully decorated with a mixture of modern and oriental and full of books and wonderful objets d’art But I didn’t expect less. We all felt completely at home there and frankly I could have moved in.
Sandra's lovely flat, lots of space and lots of light with great simple decor. Above all it's a comfortable home.
We left Eladio with the plumber whilst the 2 of us went to get bread and other provisions from a superb supermarket, the likes of which I have never seen in my life – wow was it luxurious. Very soon Adele and Bernard arrived off the tram and were waiting for us near Sandie’s house. That meeting was emotional and beautiful. I think we both had tears in our eyes. My eyes are smarting as I write that. It was lovely Adele darling to see you again after so long. You are just the same.

Very soon we were joined by Jeffer and preparations began for the lovely dinner Sandie had ready planned for us which included an Indian chicken dish. We drank champagne to celebrate and took endless photos. Here is one of the 3 men who look just as happy as we were.
Our 3 men, from left to right: Bernard (Adele's husband), Jeffer (Sandie's partner) and Eladio.
On Thursday we were up nice and early as we didn’t want to waste a precious moment of our long weekend. Jeffer had to work so the rest of us made our way to Brussels to see some of the sights and we did so by tram.
On the tram going into Brussels from Fort Jaco on Friday morning.
We got off at the lovely square called Le Petit Sablon and walked to Le Grand Sablon nearby and the first thing we did was stop at the world famous Wittamer pâtisserie for a coffee and one of their very tantalising cakes. They brought us a tray of them and the choice was hard. Both Adele and I have a sweet tooth and enjoyed many cakes during our reunion. It was like being back at Nightingale when we used to have chocolate Easter egg eating competitions (I was a bit bulimic, I must admit).
Adele faced with a difficult decision: which cake to choose at the world famous Wittamer Pâtesserie in the Grand Sablon square.
We were all eager to go the Royal Museum of Fine Arts to see the Flemish masters such as Breugel and also the Magritte Museum and here we spent a happy few hours enjoying the wonderful art. My love of René Magritte, the famous surreal Belgian artist comes from our University days and the wonderful lectures we had from the lecherous Doctor Cardwell whom both Adele and Sandie well remembered.
Admiring the Flemish Masters in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels.
The Rape, in this painting a woman’s face is made up of the essential features of her body as René Magritte described it himself. I find it fascinating as I do most of his art.
From the Museum we made our way to a great bakery cum restaurant called Le Pain Quotidien where everybody eats round a big wooden table. Here we ate lovely food including rhubarb crumble, uummmm. I was delighted to find out that there is an establishment in Madrid which I know I will visit soon.
A shot of the inside of Le Pain Quotidien bakery, great place, an establishment which was a recurring theme in our reunion weekend.
Later we went into the china shop called Gien (from the name of the town in France) and bought some lovely plates with an Indian motif. I have found them on internet and know I will soon be ordering some more.
The beautiful plates we bought with Indian motifs from the Gien china shop in Le Gran Sablon.
From the Gran Sablon square we walked to La Grand-Place which some King once said was “le plus belle lieu du monde” which I hope is spelt write as my French is a bit rusty. We spoke a mixture of French, Spanish and English all weekend which was great fun. I agree with the King but think it is not the most beautiful place in the world but one of them. All Belgian towns have a Grand-Place like most Spanish towns have a Plaza Mayor.
In the Grand-Place in Brussels. You cannot visit Brussels without going there. It is really magnificent.
Then Sandie took us to the Galeries St. Hubert which houses the Galerie de la Reine and Galerie du Prince and is a glazed shopping arcade supposed to be one of the first shopping malls in Belgium or maybe even Europe. Here we visited the chocolate shop Neuhaus and bought some superb chocolate. Well, of course, Belgium is famous for its chocolate and deservedly so too.
The Neuhaus chocolate shop in les Galeries St. Hubert.
Later we walked round other monuments such as the Royal Palace and the Cathedral which is magnificent, very Gothic and similar to ones I have seen in France.

After a day full of sight-seeing and culture we headed home by tram again for a rest and to recharge our batteries before going out to dinner at Sandie and Jeffer’s favourite restaurant nearby. As you can see we enjoyed it immensely but mostly our own company.
A fun dinner on Friday night at a cozy little place round the corner from Sandie's flat in Fort Jaco.
The next day, Saturday, the men went off on a cultural expedition to visit Leuven the home to one of the world’s oldest Universities. We girls had our own programme. The first thing we did was call Sandie’s Mother Magda who lives in London on Skype. Neither Adele nor I had seen her since University and were very impressed to see how well she is doing and how innovative she is at 84, using skype and Facebook for example. She still drives and has a very active social life. Well done Magda. Right now I am waiting for you to accept me as your friend on Facebook.

Sandie then drove us to Waterloo outside Brussels – yes the place where the battle took place. We didn’t go to see Wellington’s monument I’m afraid but to shop at the British store there called Stonemanor. Brussels is full of Eurocrats and people from all over the world and is a real melting pot so it was no surprise to find an English supermarket. I stocked up on all sorts of chocolate, bacon, sausage rolls, pork pies and kippers, very English produce which I knew would be much appreciated at home especially by my Father. And I was not wrong. The pork pie was his lunch the day after we came home.

From there we made our way to another Le Pain Quotidian near Sandie’s house for yet another coffee and mouth watering cake. As we were having a girly morning, the obvious thing was to continue shopping so we had a good look into the shops in Fort Jaco. I bought some lovely heart shaped coloured bowls I had seen at Sandie’s flat and they are now gracing my kitchen and will forever be called “the Brussels bowls”. There was a stop at Pierre Marcolini which Sandie called “the Armani of chocolate” and where I bought some lovely coloured macaroons and pure white chocolate (all for the up days of course!).

We had a picnic lunch at home with the boys and in the afternoon everyone did their own thing. Jeffer and Eladio stayed to have a siesta, Adele and Bernard went shopping and I went with Sandie to enjoy the spa at the David Lloyd Leisure centre nearby and of which she is a member. The place is superb and housed in a chateau type building.
Sandra outside the luxurious David Lloyd leisure centre in Fort Jaco where we enjoyed the spa on Saturday afternoon.
Here we swam outside in the warm pool and then did a few lengths inside before going for the treat: the enormous jacuzzi, the sauna and the Turkish bath. We chatted throughout, catching up on so many years and I told her about how my brother died and she sympathised with me as only a very close friend can. Darling Sandie I am so glad to have you back in my life.

Our last dinner together was in town and we headed there in 2 cars past the Avenue St. Louis and streets with names like Franklin Roosevelt and Montgomery. Sandra reminded me that the Allies had liberated Belgium in the war and there are memories of that throughout the city and I imagine the whole country. Today Brussels is a thriving city and considers itself the capital of Europe. Without the European Union it would not be so. The city itself has good parts and bad and the beautiful old buildings are often overshadowed by ugly looking modern ones and the contrast is strange. Apparently there was not much town planning in the past.

Dinner had to be in the centre so we made our way to La Grand-Place making a small detour to touch the Everard’t Serclaes statue and of course see the Manneken Pis. The story goes that a King (don’t know which one again) lost his little boy and promised to build a statue where he was found if he was ever found. He was found and at the time was doing a “pee” so a statue of him doing that was built and has now become the symbol of Brussels.
Eladio and I by the Manneken Pis, an obligatory photo to take in Brussels.
On our way to meet the others in a bar in Le Grand-Place fittingly called “Le Roi d’Espagne” Sandra, Eladio and I bumped into a group of very lost looking Spanish tuna singers. We immediately asked them to sing which they did as you can see in the video I have uploaded to my You Tube videos. They were too embarrassed to walk into a bar and sing for money as they would in Spain so of course Sandie and I lent a motherly hand and in they walked and sang to the delight of everyone inside, including a very loud group of students from the Lebanon.
Sandie and I with the Spanish Tuna singers from Seville whom we encountered by the Manneken Pis. What fun!
We had dinner at Scheltema, a nice traditional place just off La Grand-Place and once again we had the time of lives laughing and eating as you can in this picture.
The 6 of us at the Scheltema restaurant on the last night. More fun again.
And suddenly it was Sunday and our last morning together. Our flight and Adele and Bernard’s train was at about 3 pm so there was still time for some more fun together. Jeffer and Sandie took us to the Marolles area which houses the antique market on a Sunday. Here we visited yet another café, L’eau chaude, a delightful little place. In the same street we came upon a small jewelry shop where I bought some great necklaces for the girls and I and which have proved to be successful.

And very soon it was time to go and say goodbye with promises of seeing each other again soon. Adele and Bernard will be coming in April to visit Madrid. I am so happy that these lovely friends have reentered my life and have brought their partners with them. The plan is to have a similar meeting every year. I will keep to that promise as I know they will too.

Thanks girls and boys for the amazing and emotionally pleasing weekend. See you again soon. Love

PS you can see the full selection of photos of the reunion weekende in Brussels here on Facebook.

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