And there’s another country…

Is there anything so spectacular, lovely, exciting and utterly unnecessary as a firework display? On a scale of 1 to 100, on which first love is 1 and filling out income-tax forms is 100, it would probably rank in most people’s top 10 if they were scrupulously honest. The Chinese, we are told, invented fireworks and bully for them! Although there isn’t much else that they’ve discovered since, fireworks, porcelain and pasta kick them straight into the firmament of truly inventive civilizations. Friends of mine who live there tell me that, just as democracy never climbed out of its cradle in Greece and pasta definitely needed the Italian touch, fireworks in China lean largely in the direction of decibels rather than the spectacular: the louder the better. Everything else is window dressing.

We’ll not carry coals

Curiously enough, the combination of pasta and fireworks plays a central role in my posting this week, as it is one of the curiosities of this little Ardennes village. Whereas we lack some basic amenities – for a town hall, post office, supermarket or railway station you’ll have to drive to Spa and emergency services must also be bussed in if you need anything more than a single gendarme or a lone voluntary fire officer with a water pistol and a cell phone – yet we have been blessed with two churches, two rather good Italian restaurants and two bakeries.

This has to do with geography. The old core of the village perches halfway up the western slope of a narrow valley. But due to the construction before the Great War of a trunk road along the crest of the opposing slope, a number of villas, such as mine, began to be built in the 1920s, forming the “new” village, which eventually resulted in a “new”, hideously stockbroker-gothic church, though served by the same priest and acolytes, a “new” bakery (dubbed in a supreme act of imagination “La Boulangerie Nouvelle”) and the only fuel station for miles around: an art deco gem that mournfully waits to be pimped in the gleaming plastic, international branding of its licensed provider. This last also supplies the heating oil for my horribly thirsty Edwardian furnace and features a modest shop selling the usual choice of crisps, beer and pre-cut logs for the fireplaces of Flemish visitors with no local connection and charcoal for their barbecues.

For then we should be colliers

But it is the Italian restaurant occupying the former rectory building next to the hideous church which interests us today. Not only is it excellent, but its terrace holds a commanding view across the valley to the “old” village. For most of the year this is a delightful perch offering a vista both bucolic (woods and meadows) and human (the village square, the old church, the library housed in what was the “old” rectory (these days our priest is pumped up, like our water, from Spa) and the terrace of l’oppositione. For the restaurant on my side of the valley, run by a family from Tuscany, lies in a direct sight line with the restaurant on the other side, founded by a widow from Naples, whose husband, an itinerant miner, helped build the local reservoir here and died in the attempt, killed by a flash flood in a tunnel together with some other of his unfortunate compatriots. The business is now in the hands of her son, himself married with a family of his own.

Two households, both alike in dignity

These two rival clans with their rival cuisines from different traditions, unlike the Capulets and the Montagues who preferred raw steel and insults, like to face off across the warm summer air on clear evenings in May by vamping stanzas from the opera at one another, in which they wickedly excoriate the others’ culinary skills; all in good fun and strictly in the language of Boccaccio. They also used to hold rival and ever grander firework displays on New Year’s Eve. Used to, that is, until the tradition began to escalate out of all reasonable proportion in the 1990s. A truce was called by the grandchildren, who probably feared their inheritance might go up in smoke, and it was agreed that both families and their clientele would in future contribute to a single display to be held each year in alternance (a word which my spell-checker refuses, but which Mr Webster has included in his Morocco-bound monster): one year Neapolitan, the next year Florentine.

This year it was the turn of Naples, which suited me very well, as my niece Beth, together with her husband Angus and their two kids: Erin (whom you met a short while ago) and three-year old Simon, were over to stay from Boxing Day to New Year. I have become Erin’s favourite great-uncle since doing “the right thing” at her school nativity play (pouring oil on troubled waters rather than fuel to the fire), so I was glad to play host to Beth, for whom I’ve always had a soft spot, even during her reckless years as a downhill racer, when Fiona despaired of ever holding her grandchildren in her arms, believing she would be more likely to bury her daughter than see her married to such a steady city man as Angus.

From ancient grudge

At a few minutes to midnight (for these particular Italians are scrupulous about timing) we were all out in what I call the loggia, a sort of kiosk-like covered terrace, backed on to the house and glassed in on its two ends. Leaning on the balustrade along the open side we looked out across the quiet valley and smoked cigars. Since the “Passing Cloud” incident, when my life was saved by a cigarette (see Drood, “And a cold back”, too, 21 December 2010), I have decided to offer hostages to fate now and then by smoking a cigar on significant occasions. By “we” I mean neither Beth nor the children (Simon was in bed anyway and Erin was keenly aware that her three years of seniority were just enough to see her through to the end of the fireworks and not a minute later), I mean Angus, Jean-Michel and myself. Beth and Erin, despite the mildest New Year’s Eve in 130 years, were cuddling in blankets on an old raffia couch.

Jean-Michel had provided the smokes and insisted, suitably sotto voce, that they had been rolled on the silky inner thighs of dusky Cuban beauties. I was just wondering to myself whether this practise would not give rise to specific occupational illnesses, such as eczema or even melanoma, when the first rocket went up, accompanied by a wall of Roman candles and a sigh from several hundred throats. At once all serious thoughts fled my mind to be replaced by the beatific ecstasy of pyrotechnics at their very best, enjoyed from a position of privileged topography. If only all our swords could be turned into such ploughshares as these.

Break to new mutiny

Speaking of swords, ploughshares and biblical imagery brings me to my next point, which came up on the same evening after Beth and Erin had gone in and Jean-Michel was waxing eloquent under the influence of port. We had all been shocked at the supper table earlier when Erin told us how sad she was at seeing “those horrible black men who spat at that girl”. We all wondered what strange new reverse-racist perversion had come to trouble a child of six. Beth explained that they weren’t black men but men in black. “What on earth have Tommy Lee & Will done to Erin?” I asked. No, Beth didn’t mean those Men in Black but a crowd of ultra orthodox Jews who have taken to the streets in recent weeks to demand even stricter measures of propriety from their less extreme, though also orthodox, brothers and sisters.

Ah, now I understood. So I explained to Erin that these people think God has told them how everyone else should dress and behave, on which side of the street to walk and where to sit on the bus, but that really they are a very tiny minority (the Sicarii) within another tiny minority (the Haredi) within another small minority (the Hasedim) within another minority (followers of the Jewish Faith) and that God has probably not got much to do with it. “They’re just really scared of girls is all, Erin”, I said, “When you’re a bit older you’ll realise why.”

Civil hands unclean

Out on the terrace with our stogies, J-M came up with his universal anti-extremist plan: “Offer them a country”, he said, “like we jointly created Israel after the war. Those ultra guys don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist anyway. They have that in common with their arch enemies. They could just as easily live somewhere else until their Messiah comes. So give them Nebraska or Chile or Somalia or some other bit of land no one really wants. And then invite all the Taliban and the Mullahs to join them, and the White Brethren and all the Christian fundamentalists too … let them all in: universal tolerance for the intolerant will be the motto. Anyone can go and live there, but no one can leave unless they renounce it all in writing.”

“Better still”, I added, “Women and children can leave any time they like and go to live anywhere else with full right of asylum, no procedure! In the end there would be no women left, except those who are seriously into weird beliefs and odd wardrobes. In fact we should extend that policy to all states practicing extreme sexual inequality. In a few years there’d be no more Saudi, no more Iran, no more Afghanistan, no more West Bank Ultras” … I have a dream.

A plague on both your houses

I’m not really sure whether such a policy would make much of a dent on the Christian Right. They have their very own female dragons. I’m also not so sure that “universal tolerance of the intolerant” would be the sort of slogan to get people up off their feet and moving to new horizons. After all, our prison population in Belgium is predominantly young, male and Muslim and they all demand to eat Halal food at the tax payer’s expense. Fair enough, they’re welcome to it. But shouldn’t they, in all fairness and by the same argument, also be loudly demanding to have their hands cut off at the wrist in accordance with the dictates of the Shari’a?

Too bad, for a moment back there I thought we might have the beginnings of a movement, sort of the opposite of “Occupy Neasden” or whatever. But even the strictest orthodoxy will only get you so far, it seems, and that’s about as far as the canteen and no further. Still, just a few fine cigars later and already we have another major problem more or less sorted. I’m starting to believe that 2012 may turn out to be a good year after all.

Edwin Drood

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *