Overijise is a small town about ten miles from Brussels, just over the provincial border into Flanders, and it is a Flemish-speaking town. These facts were unknown to me and despite the two weeks when the whole school piled into buses and went to Overijise every morning and came back every afternoon, they still made no impression. If someone had told me that apart from Brussels Belgium was actually divided into two provinces, Flanders and Wallonia, that Flemish was spoken in one and French in the other, and that rivalry and mutual contempt marked relations between the two communities, it would have come as a complete surprise. I only discovered this years later. No one mentioned it at the time.
You might think that the name itself would be a clue. I saw it written, every day, on the big blue road-sign as the bus turned off the N4 that took us from Woluwe-Saint-Lambert, through Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, then Auderghem, and on to Overijise. Over – ridge – eyes is how it seemed to be spelled. Not very French sounding. But I was not one to ask questions. We were going to Overijise, and that was that. No problem.
The bus would thread its way through the town and finally arrive in an institutional zone on the outskirts, a place that looked something like a training camp or a young offenders institution. There were gymnasia, and running tracks, surrounded by vineyards where the ripe grapes were hanging in red bunches, as well as a large assembly hall which doubled as a refectory for lunch. But before lunch there would be exercises and races, divided up as the school was divided between boys and girls.
One or two of the same teachers who provided academic instruction at the Woluwe school were pressed into service as athletics instructors at Overijise. This instruction was idiosyncratic.
Our form teacher – there were no subject specialists in the primary school and form teachers took all lessons, from geography to history to chemistry – had a special challenge for us all. This involved running a race around a small oval track, but with the unusual variation that the race had to be run while using a hula-hoop. It is not possible to run with a hula-hoop around your waist, but you can run and simultaneously revolve the hula hoop on your forearm. At least, Monsieur Blanchard could do this.
Monsieur Blanchard was a wiry man with slicked-back hair who always wore lightly tinted sunglasses. In normal lessons he would move slowly, like a sort of forest predator, pacing up and down the rows of desks, turning the pages of pupils’ notebooks with an air of amused disdain. In normal circumstances it seemed that nothing could undermine his cool.
At Overijise it was different. Perhaps Monsieur Blanchard was affected by the change of air. Perhaps the journey into Flanders and the sound of Flemish voices released something normally buried deep in his personality. Whatever the cause, once on the racetrack Monsieur Blanchard was a man unleashed. He raced around the oval – still wearing his tinted glasses – twirling the hula-hoop with something close to abandon, whistling and calling out for everyone to “Regardez!”
Then the task of emulating Monsieur Blanchard was left to us. But nobody could emulate Monsieur Blanchard. He was the acknowledged king of the hula-hoop race, and his subjects could only look on his works and despair.
The Belgian approach to extra-curricular school activities like exercises and games was to me a very pleasing change. There was none of the English determination to enlist children into competitive teams, or indoctrinate them with the lore of field games. There were no house colours to be worn, no songs to be sung, there was no cricket, no rugby, no football, no practices bound by ancient rules and prohibitions, and there were no uniforms.
I wonder now whether these few months in Belgium did not crystallize my lifelong aversion to such things. I liked the way that our Belgian teachers who were set to the task of filling our days with physical challenges clearly had no idea of what to do, no interest in the question, and were quite obviously making it all up as they went. I felt an affinity with them.
And as if in recognition that the whole business of attending what was supposed to be an athletic training camp was essentially pointless, on most days, before lunch, the organised games were gradually abandoned and then we were led a short way down the road to the lake where there was an artificial beach and a designated swimming zone where we were left entirely to our own devices.
The beach was grey, the tideless water never rising over the dirty sand. The lake was grey, stretching away into a colourless horizon. It was a static, anaesthetised zone. We loved it.
There was something about this lake and its environs that seemed to release things pent up. We would lie on the grey sand and talk as we did not talk elsewhere. I would talk in English to Matthew, while the Belgian boys gathered around and tried to communicate across the wall of my almost zero grasp of the French language. Sometimes some of the girls from our school group would dare to violate the ingrained law of gender separation and sit near us. There was one girl, small and with wispy short blonde hair, who showed particular signs of being keen to exchange words. I was fascinated by her. There were no blonde people in my family, and there were no blonde people among my parents’ friends. Perhaps some primitive identity force was at work, automatically separating blondes from brunettes. But the blonde girl was shy, and in me she had met her match when it came to shyness.
Then we would swim in the grey water. There was a rather small area allocated for swimming, with ropes and floats marking the boundary. The lake which was artificial had the property of being very small but seeming infinitely large; I asked Matthew why we were restricted to this small segment of water.
“Sharks,” he said.
And then we would return to the institution, and take our lunch.
The food at Overijise was much better than the food at school. Several middle-aged women who might well have walked straight out of a peasant scene as painted by a minor Dutch master would serve us fat slices of aromatic ham, with Belgian fries (so much better than any other version), and huge damp leaves of lettuce and sprigs of endive, to be washed down with fresh grape juice. If my home life in England had not seemed so distant I would have compared this food to the dried-up sections of pie and spoons of elderly peas that counted as a school lunch at home. But as it was I just accepted that this was how life was now. I always asked for more, and more was always available. Here food was considered a human right.
Lunch was followed by an interlude. This was one of the few times where it seemed that the culture of home had followed me to Belgium. The enforced rest was something I knew well from my grandparents’ house at number 1775. My grandmother’s system of life included the conviction that eating food was so dangerous that anyone and particularly children should be made to lie down in a darkened room following any meal, due to the threat of ‘cramps’. She did not furnish anything to lie down on, while she and my grandfather went to their respective bedrooms for a period of sleep, or perhaps just solitude. Thus I had spent many hours trapped with my brother in the downstairs sitting room, looking in the gloom at the dead TV and the extinguished fireplace, waiting for release.
At Overijise there were no darkened rooms. Instead we all lay on camp beds laid out on the gymnasium floor – the boys’ gymnasium, the girls were in some other part of the facility. Some of the other boys read books or comics – although I noticed that many did not, and merely lay motionless. I have never been able to enjoy meditative silence and I have always disliked sleeping during the day, so the first time this happened the minutes felt like a form of torture. After that I brought something to read.
Sometimes there were walks or more gymnasium sessions after lunch. Sometimes, towards the end of the weeks when we went to Overjise instead of school, there would be a second swimming session at the lake after lunch. Possibly the teachers had grown tired of devising meaningless and half-hearted games for us to play.
On the last day at Overijise all the pupils were given a large bunch of grapes from the vineyard to take home, in a brown paper bag. The grapes were very ripe, and liable to burst.
As we crowded to get on the bus that would take us, for the last time, back to Woluwe St Lambert and the resumption of school, there was more jostling than usual. Someone seemed to push me from behind and I stumbled forward to collide with the small blonde girl, and as I tried and failed to stop my bag of grapes slipping to the floor I stepped on her foot.
This was cue for tears and a wave of scandalisation among the other girls, who led the blonde girl away as she dabbed her eyes. I sat down next to Matthew. He looked at me and slowly shook his head.
“You’ve done it. You’ve done it now.”
“Tu as des problèmes.”
The bus arrived at the school gates. Most of the pupils had parents waiting, but we walked. By this time my paper bag was beyond salvation, so I abandoned it and carried the partly crushed grapes in my cupped hands. The sun was still hot, and the juice ran down my arm and dried to a sticky treacle.
A car swerved in front of us and mounted the pavement. A man got out, came up to me and began to jab his finger. This was the father of the blonde girl, who was looking through the back window with a blank expression. If I had acquired any French at all, at that moment I forgot all of it and said in English “I’m English. I don’t speak French. I’m English.”
The blonde girl’s father was in an incandescent state of fury. He harangued me in French at the top of his voice, occasionally turning around to address the empty street, then back to me for more finger jabbing and more abuse. Meanwhile, the oversized bunch of grapes in my hands continued to run with juice which now seemed to be making its way on to everything I was wearing.
The harangue continued under the hot sun until it stopped, when the blonde girl’s father spat on the pavement and got back into the car, slamming the door. They drove off, leaving a haze of blue exhaust.
I looked at Matthew, who shrugged. “C’est finis,” he said.
We waited for a moment or two, as if it would somehow be impolite to not to watch the car disappearing down the long road. I continued to hold the grapes in front of me. Methodically the thick red juice dripped on to my socks and shoes.
And then we turned to walk up the hill towards Avenue de Septembre.