Flying for the first time ever

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The world’s most incredible views: from the sky

As I marched through Southampton airport, I was focused on getting a large cup of tea before boarding a Sunday morning dawn flight to Spain.  I approached the queue at security feeling smug because all my toiletries were already in a regulation plastic bag, my laptop was out of my holdall and I had unzipped my boots ready to put them into the grey plastic tray and saunter through the electric gate like the veteran of flying that I was.  I initially didn’t notice the 50-something lady with the straw hat and immaculate make-up looking somewhat bewildered next to the smiley and sad face buttons of a ‘how have we done here today’ machine in departures that you’re supposed to press on your way through as an ‘on the go’ customer survey.  I stopped because she was the only person not rushing around furiously or carrying a sombrero.

While fingering an IKEA ziplocked bag with miniature shampoo and conditioner in it, she asked if her choice of container would pass muster with the bulldogs at security; “I’ve never flown before so this is all a bit new to me”, she said.  We compared plastic bags and I told her she would no doubt be fine, while gasping inwardly.  How, in 2018 had she never flown before.  Judging by her appearance (and it is dangerous to judge any book by its cover) and the makes of the toiletries in her bag, she was smart, probably educated and had spare cash.  So how was she one of the apparently only 22% of Britons who have never travelled in a plane (according to a survey by Kayak, a travel website)?  I asked if she was nervous or excited and she answered “a bit nervous but mostly excited; I’m going to visit a friend who’s moved to Spain”.

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Later at the departures gate there was a bit of a commotion in the queue ahead of me when a passenger told the Flybe operator that they were not comfortable in an exit seat. Seats had been allocated randomly and the Flybe employee had asked the question on the assumption it was a no-brainer. Exit seats have much more leg room so tend to be at a premium.  But it was my friend on her maiden flight and she wasn’t “at all sure I could open the door if I needed to”.  I told her if it came to that we were all in trouble and that flying was the safest form of travel, but she was clearly not going to enjoy the flight with the burden of even the slightest of probabilities.  So I offered to swap seats.  I was her rather embarrassed hero as I settled into her original seat, the spacious and neighbour-free 1A on the propeller-driven Q400 Dash 8 aircraft, and she made her way back to the considerably more cramped seat 11A.

This was just a 2 and a half hour flight to Spain on a budget airline and even though I absolutely love flying, I was focused on just getting to destination and getting the job done.  On this occasion I had been completely taking the journey for granted.  So as we pulled out of our stand, I tried to put myself in this lady’s shoes, seeing all this for the first time:

I actually watched the safety demonstration closely.  If you really think about it, it is somewhat alarming – albeit necessary – that someone stands there calmly telling you how to inflate a lifevest, “topping it up here” and “with a light and whistle to attract attention here”.  I mean, where else do you go where the first thing you’re told is what to do in the worst-case scenario?  Hardly something to fill you with confidence on your first ever trip; no wonder she didn’t want to have to contend with opening the emergency door too.

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Ready for take-off

I got a pang of disappointment on her behalf that she was experiencing flying in the modern age of budget travel and had missed out on the glamorous old days of flying where you were offered a drink on take-off (usually served on a small square napkin with some peanuts and always with lemon and ice even if you’d only asked for water).  You were then served a meal (included in the price of your ticket) and it was served with metal cutlery and a warm smile (with the notable exception of one 26-hour Alitalia flight when I was about 10 years old where the air hostesses made absolutely sure we felt their pain too) by an immaculate air hostess.  To be fair, Sarah and her colleague – now called cabin attendants – were lovely and very professional.  Both even had the colourful scarves tied around their necks at a jaunty angle, harking back to British Airways adverts in the 1980s when the airline’s logo was “We’ll take more care of you” and they really did. Now you get the hospitality and warmth of that VIP treatment, but only if you’re paying the VIP prices.

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Dawn above the clouds

The lady did get one priceless treat though; we took off as the pink dawn broke over clear skies and we flew low over the unmistakable wide Thames snaking through Greater London. Small marinas dotted around the tributaries and on the coast, the toy yachts carefully lined up in their berths. She couldn’t have picked a better day to see the world from the air.  We reached the top of the climb and you could almost touch the white fluffy cotton wool clouds as we passed them and settled at cruising altitude just above the duvet with a golden glow from the early sun.

Arrival in Alicante was equally spectacular.  With only the odd wisp of cloud, the temperature was “nudging 30 degrees” according to the Captain.  The rising tower blocks of the Costa Brava and the scattered bright blue squares of swimming pools nestled incongruously against the moonscape of the limestone peaks of the Alicante mountains.  The sea, dotted with pleasure boats and larger ships further out, stretched as far as the eye could see.

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The Alicante mountains

We touched down with barely a bump and trundled round to our stand.  It was textbook and probably the ideal flight on which to travel for the first time.  As I disembarked, my mind went back to business and I strode off to find the sign with my name on it in arrivals.  I hope the lady in 11A enjoyed her first flight and – holiday notwithstanding – cannot wait for the return journey.  She certainly helped to remind me of the magic of flying.  Even on the shortest flights and even in an age when commercial imperatives have binned much of the glamour and the fast pace of life has taken some of the sheen off, it remains one of the wonders of our age.  No amount of budget packaging or familiarity should take away from the fact you can eat breakfast on one continent, lunch in the air, and be ready for dinner on the other side of the world.  We can admire the most spectacular views in the world, all while somehow travelling at hundreds of miles per hour up at 30 thousand feet in a tin can.  I don’t know about the lady now relaxing in Alicante with her friend, but I’m already looking forward to my next take-off.

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Landed safely

 

KNUCKLEHEADS – A hidden gem on the other side of the tracks in Kansas City (Part 3/3)

PART 3/3 – A MUSICAL PRIVILEGE

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Knuckleheads – settling in for a musical treat

Equipped with glasses of Bourbon and chilled cans of Kansas-brewed beer, we perched on stools in the shady area, alongside a pair of toe-tapping cowboy boots and bright pink cropped top.  And onto the stage came Scotty Dennis and his incredible voice.

Wearing jeans and a short-sleaved panelled shirt with a baseball cap and dark glasses, Scotty was about 6 feet tall and a big strong man with lungs to match.  He oozed soul as he sang Eric Clapton’s “Five Long Years” and gave the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Wait on Time” an epic Blues makeover, making the hairs on my arms stand on end.  Through the loud beat thumping out of the speakers, John shouted in my ear that it would put hairs on my chest, but I think he was referring to the rather strong Bourbon he was sampling in small shot glasses, rather than our friend Dennis. As the big man wandered past our table after his set, we couldn’t help gushing at him how brilliant he was. Ever the professional, he handed me a card for his band Scotty and the Soultones, told me about his recording contract and when his next album was coming out, before ‘disappearing’ me into a huge bear hug.  I got a faceful of pecs and biceps and a drawled deep gravelly “Thank you Lorna” in my one uncompromised ear.  He could sing to me anytime.

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The big man with the big voice – Scotty Dennis

As the resident band carried on and Dennis worked his audience shaking hands and hugging people all around, country music followed soul and the scorching sun over Kansas City continued to burn the necks and shoulders in the seats in front of us.

As the afternoon jamming session was drawing to a close, a striking looking woman, with dramatically black cropped and shaved hair with a shock of orange on top, heavy eye make-up and covered in tattoos made her way towards the stage.  She was one of the few non-bikers at the venue and had been noticeable throughout the afternoon for sitting quietly at one of the picnic tables near the stage.  She had spent that time watching and filming her friend on her phone.  The friend was tall and lithe with long bleach blond hair extensions, ‘boyfriend’ torn jeans, and a cropped knotted T-shirt showing off a very tanned and taut midriff and was making the most of her fabulous figure.  About 30 years younger and at least fifty pounds lighter than most of the biker ladies boogeying on the dance gravel, and with legs up to her armpits, the friend threw her legs up into splits high kicks repeatedly, posed suggestively, laughed theatrically and threw her head forward and back swishing her extensions like a mane in the manner of a shampoo advert.  But when Megan Ruger took to the stage and picked up the microphone, her platinum friend became photographer, general groupie and proudest fan.  Megan kicked off her shoes and – in her ripped jeans, socks, Rock n Roll black T-Shirt and Ray Ban Aviator glasses – was, as Simon Cowell might say, “stripped back”. And she had a voice worth waiting for. She flipped from country to rock with ease.  She projected gutsy chesty notes across the train tracks, talked through some toe-tapping old country favourite lyrics and held the most delicate breathy high notes while holding the band and the audience under her spell throughout.  I might even have got up for a bit of a dance so she must have been doing something right.

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Megan Ruger

It turned out Megan and her friend were visiting for a couple of days from Vegas, where she is currently appearing in a tribute show (John and I found this out by shamelessly fawning over her like two groupies when she grabbed a beer at the bar).  Her friend was probably, judging by her dancing moves, in another show in Vegas.  Megan had spent some time in Nashville and, keen to pursue her love for rock rather than country, had gone to Vegas.  The old favourite country songs and her rock renditions of “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” “Sweet Home Chicago” had everyone on their feet.

Who knew that such a gem as Knuckleheads could be found on the wrong side of the tracks in Kansas City hidden in amongst the industrial hangars and deafening horns of passing freight trains.  What a revelation of a Sunday afternoon… my friends and I were welcomed into the bikers’ haven like old friends, served inexpensive cold beer and lip-smacking barbecue meat.  But most of all for a small optional donation into a bucket, we were entertained by a talented band of musicians who played for the best part of five hours and by two standout performers.  They sang live – no frills and nothing but musicians to support them – and had talent and voices that would put many of the popstrels, boybands and divas in the charts today to shame.

The X Factor and American Idol don’t know what they’re missing, and I hope Dennis and Megan get to perform in their own right to sell-out arenas.  But just for that Sunday in Kansas City, I felt selfishly thrilled to have our own intimate live gig, and the music world’s loss – at least temporarily – was our gain.

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A musical treat

 

 

KNUCKLEHEADS – A hidden gem on the other side of the tracks in Kansas City (Part 2/3)

PART 2/3 – BLENDING IN….IN HARLEY HEAVEN

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We’ve arrived?

With a name like Knuckleheads, its location should not have come as a surprise and – in hindsight – its clientele probably should not have either.  Glowing profusely in the scorching midday sun and humid 35C degree heat – having been shivering in the taxi’s air conditioning just seconds before –  and dragging our weekend bags behind us, we made our way toward the heavy beat.  A simple gate entrance led us into a dusty bit of road, temporarily turned into the Knuckleheads parking area.

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Knuckleheads, Kansas City

Over a hundred Harley Davidson motorbikes stood glinting in the blinding sunshine, guarded by a heavily tattooed man wearing black wraparound shades below a bandana-covered head and sporting an impressive handlebar moustache.  As he was busily tucking into what looked like half a fried chicken and had both his large muscular arms and his mouth full, I thought John and I might just be able to take him on.  Thankfully we never had to find out as he gave us an apologetic greasy smile as he wiped his mouth, said “Howdy” and waved us in.

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The entire hangar wall at the entrance to Knuckleheads was a shrine to musical greats – with huge black and white graffiti type paintings of artists ranging from Prince to John Lennon, and Johnny Cash to James Brown.

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A shrine to musical greats

John and I eventually tracked Witek down – our concern that he might have been taken round the back and filled in was unfounded – and were able to dispose of our travel bags in his hire car.  Relieved that we would now be able to truly blend in, we made our way through the throng of black Harley Davidson T-Shirts, bushy sideburns and ponytails (the men), rhinestoned bandanas and unfeasibly tight and trendily torn jeans (the ladies) and lengths of skin adorned with garish tattoos depicting skulls, American flags and what looked like scenes from horror movies (both).

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Beards, beer and bandanas

Inside, Knuckleheads had a basic outdoor stage constructed from what looked like scaffolding poles and wooden slats, facing a small gravel dance area and a collection of wooden picnic tables and benches.  Further back and under the shade of a protruding roof, were long bar tables with stools down either side.  Further back still, was an indoor warren of smaller rooms with stages and seating areas. Dotted inside and out, were bars cluttered with neon lights and rows of different types of beers and Bourbon, and a brightly lit hatch where you could order the ubiquitous Kansas BBQ food. Every wall was covered from top to bottom with music memorabilia, cowboy hats and plaques shouting philosophical statements.

As I stood trying to read a sign that was perched upside down over a doorway, I came face to face with a T-Shirt that read ‘Harley Fucking Davidson” stretched over a very large pair of breasts.  I stumbled out of the way feeling thoroughly inadequate, un-motto’d as I was in my patterned linen shirt.  I needn’t have worried.  John, anticipating my unease, reappeared having bought me a memento of our visit – a bright pink T-Shirt with ‘Knuckleheads’ emblazoned across it.  I resolved to wear it on Monday back at Fort Leavenworth for our first session back in class, as an adviser to the US and UK military on their joint military planning exercise.

Next Part 3/3: A Musical Privilege…

 

KNUCKLEHEADS – A hidden Gem on the other side of the tracks in Kansas City (Part 1/3)

PART 1/3 – FROM KANSAS CITY BRUNCH TO KANSAS KNUCKLEHEAD KNOCK-OUT

I had finished my spot of retail therapy in the neatly aligned four blocks of the disconcertingly modern and clean shopping district, Central Plaza, in Kansas City.  Showing great restraint, I had managed to limit myself to just two books from Barnes & Noble and an overpriced but irresistibly cute pair of leggings covered in whales for my baby daughter (she’s a huge fan and shouts ‘Bubba! Bubba!’ at every picture of a whale).  My colleague and friend John and I had indulged in a leisurely brunch under a parasol on the terrace of the Classic Cup Cafe – it was Sunday morning, gloriously sunny, there was some quality people-watching to be done and we had a rare day off.   I was tucking into another carb-heavy meal – a treat of American pancakes covered in melting butter and maple syrup with a side of bacon.  John – a well travelled and hugely experienced humanitarian worker with a penchant for good food and lethal cocktails – was feeling smug after opting for the moderately healthier option of ‘crab benedict’; basically eggs benedict with crab cakes instead of an English muffin.  His dish had spinach on it.  It meant at least one of us had succeeded, for the first time in our two week work trip, to consume one of our ‘five-a-day’.

Our colleague and venerable team leader on this trip, Witek, had raved about a bar and music venue on the outskirts of town, that played live music on Sunday afternoons.  We were not sure what to expect but thought why not?

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Kansas City’s Union Station

As our Uber made its way past the impressive Union Station, along the cosmopolitan and eclectic River Market in the North end of Kansas City and left the business centre and dormant night spots of the Power and Light district behind, we wondered where our driver was taking us.  Heading East along the river, we gradually found ourselves with train tracks running either side of the dusty single lane road, wasteland on one side and an industrial area made up of large warehouses and the odd metal water tower on the other.  I began to wonder if I was suffering a repeat of my cab drive from hell on my visit to Kansas almost exactly a year ago or if we had distracted our Palestinian driver so much with our questions about immigrants in Trump’s America, that he had driven off the page on Google Maps.

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Road to nowhere?

The Uber came to an unexpected halt near an open parking lot full of outsized pick-ups and John and I looked at each other with a hint of alarm.  With a “We’re here”, our driver was drowned out by the sudden sound of a mile-long freight train honking its way through a level crossing a few feet away from our parking spot.  I felt like the main character Ariel in the movie Footloose, when she and her small-town friends spend their evenings playing chicken with freight trains by standing on the tracks screaming at the oncoming beast, as its driver frantically pulls the horn to get them to move.  At the last minute, Kevin Bacon’s heartthrob out-of-towner character leaps to get Ariel out of the path of the speeding train as the classic 80s Bonnie Tyler soundtrack crescendos in the background.  Clearly in my case, I wasn’t standing in front of the train, I wasn’t screaming or wearing red cowboy boots (“I wear ‘em cawz my Daddy hates ‘em”). And my friend John standing looking perplexed in his shorts, t-shirt and flip flops – absolutely lovely though he is – was no leaping life-saving Kevin Bacon.  Suffice to say it brought back memories of 80s classic movies, so many of which depicted ‘authentic’ middle America, and which for so many of us Europeans, were our earliest and sometimes only exposure to places like Kansas.

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Footloose’s honking freight train without Kevin Bacon

As noise of the freight train subsided, John and I noticed a loud throbbing beat and the sound of some serious soul being belted out nearby.  Then I noticed the squiggly neon sign – scrawled in handwritten font – across the nearest hangar: ‘Knuckleheads’.  We had arrived.

Part 2/3 next: Blending in….in Harley heaven…

Surviving a taxi ride in Kansas

I expect a taxi driver to be able to drive. I expect cab drivers to have a vague knowledge of their local area. Maybe I’m just too demanding. Either way, yesterday I had to adjust those expectations radically. I was in Fort Leavenworth and had aspirations to get to Kansas City before nightfall. Leaving at around 3pm with about a 45 minute car journey ahead, I thought this was more than manageable. I should have known things were not going to go my way when the cab eventually turned up over an hour later, after three calls to remind the local firm that I was still waiting.

The battered saloon car coughed up to the porch and a large very sweaty looking middle-aged woman chewing gum noisily – in that way that suggests it’s a necessity rather than enjoyable – turned around from the driver’s seat as I slid across the back bench with my bag, looking at me as if I’d got into the wrong car. There was a meter and a taxi light attached to the roof of the car so I was pretty sure I hadn’t just hijacked an unfortunate local out for a drive to the local Walmart. I checked and she was indeed my designated cab driver. What an odd manner given her career choice in the service industry. As it would turn out she was just terrified of driving and in entirely the wrong profession.

We set off through Leavenworth town and all seemed well. I should have picked up when she asked for the third time where I was going that she was perhaps not as experienced as her age and the battered old 2-way radio suggested. She talked about the difficulty of following “the blue blob that is my car you know” as she unconvincingly juggled the Google Map screen on her phone with the steering wheel. She then started talking. To begin with I thought she was being friendly – like so many of the locals who invariably gave us a warm welcome when we came to Fort Leavenworth. Then I realised she was just talking, talking to herself continuously; a sort of mantra to calm herself down. Occasionally the odd comment was directed at me and it was clear a soothing response was expected. When at first I didn’t pick up on this, my driver’s control of the car faltered and she showed a propensity to swerve across lanes into truck-like vehicles – much larger and sturdier than our saloon car – to avoid imaginary threats. So I dutifully chipped in with “it’s ok, keep going straight on” and “don’t worry about the other drivers”, as the gum chewing behind the wheel grew louder and the smell of nervous sweat reached my nostrils.

As we approached the city, brake lights lined up ahead, unsurprisingly given that it was now rush hour on a Friday evening. The chewer in the front muttered quietly in a voice of shocked desperation: “oh my lord, there’s traffic”. There was a 2 second high point when the traffic cleared, but it was short-lived. As the skyscrapers of the city loomed over the freeway ahead of us, she said “oh my lord, Kansas City is so big”. Seconds later I saw my life flash before me as my sweaty friend dropped her phone into the foot well of the passenger seat, panicked that she was meant to be coming off the freeway, reached down into the foot well bringing the steering wheel violently round with her and ploughed us through the hashed area towards a large metal bollarded area in between the freeway and the ‘off ramp’. We cleared the bollards. Just. At this point, I took over. I held her shoulders from the back seat, brought up the route on my own phone, and ordered her to look straight ahead with a “do as I say” and “just drive”. I was hijacking a Leavenworth local after all.  She said “thank you, thank you” and “I don’t like to let my customers down”. I wasn’t sure how she felt about turning her customers into messy roadkill.

It took us another 45 minutes of missing turn offs because she “wasn’t quite ready’, or was “scared because of that big red truck”, or “was concentrating because I’ve been told to keep both hands on the wheel”, but we made it eventually. We pulled up outside the hotel and I breathed a sigh of relief. I felt like the driving instructor whose least favourite student had just made it to the end of the test – had failed but had at least got instructor and student to destination without killing anyone.

Suddenly, the large sweat patches on her oversized red top dried out and the frantic gum masticating subsided. My incompetent driver announced loudly: “that’ll be 58 dollars now darlin”. I almost laughed out loud: she HAD to be kidding. But I did pay up – albeit while fulfilling my British stereotype.  I handed over the notes politely but muttered under my breath at the outrage: I expected a taxi driver to be able to drive. I expected a taxi driver to a vague idea of their local area…

Maybe it was the relief to have finally made it to my destination in one piece or maybe I just couldn’t face arguing or spending another minute with her. Or maybe I could afford to be generous: I was about to sip a cocktail while taking in the view of Kansas City from the rooftop bar of my hotel. My sweaty friend was about to embark on a nightmare return trip to Leavenworth. Through rush hour traffic. Searching in vain for the blue blob “that was her car you know”, on Google Maps. Sweating profusely and masticating loudly.  And – now – on her own.

Brussels: a unique city and a survivor

Someone said to me yesterday “Brussels is that place you pass through on the way to France, it’s hardly somewhere you’d expect a major terrorist attack to take place”. For me Brussels is a second home, it is the city I grew up in, it is one of the safest places on earth and somewhere I have escaped to over the years for a bit of family time and peace and quiet. It is far more than ‘somewhere to pass through’ but I would agree that until recently, it is the last place I would have expected a terror attack to be staged.

Brussels is a vibrant cosmopolitan city, with a different language spoken on every corner, a colourful blend of cultures down every cobbled street; its centre sprinkled with just as many cultural attractions, architectural feats, history, entertainment, parks and forests as it is the EU institutions everyone associates with the ‘capital of Europe’.

It has, in my opinion, an unfair reputation for being a dull and grey hub of European bureaucracy. In my experience that view is often held by visitors who swing through for a few hours on business, or those who are en route to France and see nothing more than the ring road. You would hardly judge London on a fleeting meeting, a stay in a big hotel chain or a few hours spent in traffic on the M25, would you?

For those of us who have lived there, the city devastated by yesterday’s attacks has far more to offer.

Brussels is today the crossroads of Europe and has been at the centre of some of the greatest wars of recent decades and some of the most momentus peace negotiations. It has survived invasions, continuous decades-long internal clashes between its multi-lingual and proudly different Flanders and Wallonia regions. In recent years, it somehow maintained its integrity and a functioning economy through nearly two years of political chaos when the leadership was incapable of forming a government – a record outdoing even governmental procrastination in Iraq.

Belgium’s history and its colonial past as a melting pot of cultures and languages has left a rich legacy of Renaissance architecture, beautiful medieval old towns jostling with Art Nouveau quarters, immaculately maintained memorials and historic battlefields, the unmissable ‘Atomium’, the lavishly ornate towers of the Grand’Place in central Brussels and a vast array of nationalities living side by side. And whatever you may think about the European Union, Brussels nurtures the story of over 70 years’ of our history as Europeans, the incredible journey of our continent from a fragmented collection of battered, bloodied and penniless battlefields to a (relatively) united and serious player in the global arena.

The mix of cultures has also left the country with what I think is some of the best food in Europe. I like to think of traditional Belgian fare as having the quality of French food, but served in German quantities – the perfect combination. Whether it is seafood – the traditional ‘moules frites’ – or meat – slabs of it served practically still ‘moo-ing’ all the way to ‘bien cuit’ depending on your taste or stewed in a Flemish ‘Carbonade’, or game hunted in the Ardennes – it is all served with a hustle and a suitably brusque waiter. In the most traditional of eateries, he will scribble your order on the table cloth, memorise the list, disappear and return with every dish memorised perfectly.

If you are not careful you could spend just as long picking which beer to sample, many bars routinely supplying pages and pages of varying strength and flavours brewed in different regions and all served in their own specific glass. And to finish, if you can manage it, there is always a mountain of chocolate and vanilla ice-cream lathered in hot sauce and crème Chantilly – the ‘Dame Blanche’ – and mouth-watering Belgian chocolates to savour with a glass of Calvados and ‘un petit café’ to finish off.

Clearly growing up there gave me a well-developed appreciation of gastronomy. But more importantly, Brussels was one of the most colourful but also safest places for a child and then a teenager to grow up. My siblings and I had the freedom to find our own way, without our parents worrying about violence or crime to the same extent as they might have had to in another capital city. That’s not to say Brussels does not have its issues, its crime rate, its poverty.

But on the whole, Brussels provided us with big-city cosmopolitan exposure with a feeling that we were in the thick of global events, but somehow also gave us a level of safety and sense of calm community that meant we could go and discover life and make our own mistakes without running any great risks (or giving my parents a heart attack). Having lived and worked in a number of other European capital cities since, I have yet to find another one that offers that unique environment. I still consider Brussels a home and every time I go back, I breathe a contented sigh of relief that it has not changed.

Tuesday’s cowardly attacks on Brussels have left people frightened, shocked, angry and grieving. But there is also a sense of community and defiance. Let’s face it, Brussels and Belgium have seen it all over the decades and are still standing strong. It will no doubt take some time to recover and those affected will not be forgotten, but the ‘Belges’ and the cohort of multi-national multi-cultural adopted ‘Belges’ like myself will not allow cowardly attacks like this to change the country or its capital city. It is far too strong for that.

 

 

 

A Patch Of dust That Changed History

Battlefield tour Isandlwana-Ward

A patch of dust that changed history

The notion of a ‘Battlefield Tour’ may evoke stuffy old historians going into intricate detail about some long-forgotten battle and a load of incomprehensible jargon. To many it is a niche pursuit solely reserved for military types, collectors of antique weaponry and nerds. Even to those who have previously ventured out on one – or been compelled to during their studies – it may mean disembarking from a perfectly warm and dry coach to stand around in a muddy field before being asked to conjure out of the grey drizzle of a Belgian farmer’s field ‘columns of tanks’ and ‘Battalions of advancing troops’ effecting ‘flanking’ movements into the enemy’s ‘rear guard’.

I am a military spotter, have a passion for history and an unhealthily creative imagination. So even driving rain, the cold and an unhelpful Belgian farmer would be unlikely to put me off. But for those who do think battlefield tours are all a bit of a waste of time, dull or irrelevant, I would say you have not been to Fugitives’ Drift in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. Take away the term battlefield tour, take away the dusty books, take away the military jargon. Replace them with exceptional stories of bravery, superhuman survival, incredible odds, superb military tactics, costly errors, leadership, pride, insubordination, alleged cowardice and unimaginably savage violence. On both sides. At Isandlwana, a force of over 1200 British troops – an entire battalion – was wiped out by the Zulus, “savages with sticks”. The latter only hours later, saw just 140 British soldiers, many sick and wounded, successfully hold their small missionary post, fending off repeated attacks by up to 3000 Zulus.

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The tiny and isolated post – Rorke’s Drift – held by 140 British against 3000 Zulus

Our guides transported us to 19th century South Africa, and a dusty brown plain in what was then on the border of Natal and the kingdom of Zululand. They told us the stories of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.

We were plunged into the period, the political tensions and were introduced to the characters one by one. We felt the unbearable heat of the woollen ‘red coats’ and the excruciatingly ill-fitting steel-capped boots. We stood on the spots where hundreds of men fell in the space of minutes, skewered by Asagai spears or exploded by the then state of the art Martini-Henry rifles. These battles had more drama, colour and highs and lows than the very best Hollywood blockbuster.

We delved into the context, the repercussions and drew out the important lessons in history that are still applicable to the complicated, violent and messy world we live in today. The stories reminded us of the power of the media – even back in the 19th century – to influence the public’s perception of a war fought thousands of miles away. We heard witness contributions from both the British and Zulu sides, and extracts from the press articles and historical reports written in the months following. These highlighted the bias and inaccuracy – and national pride, political influence and selective memory – that creeps into chronicles of historical events.

Beyond the political and military story, we were introduced to the soldiers and warriors themselves, through their oral testimonies passed down through generations of Zulus, and through the desperate final lines scribbled to mothers and sisters back in Britain. They were young warriors who had to blood their spears before they could hope to attract a wife. They were terrified 19-year old boys barely out of training, thousands of miles from home, battling disease, a climate and an environment they could never have imagined.

Rorke's Drift-Ward

Rorke’s Drift

Thousands died on the field of battle, fighting literally to the death in hand-to-hand combat as they clambered over the bleeding corpses of their friends and colleagues. Those lucky enough to survive on the British side went home to a nation that had barely heard of Zululand or Rorke’s Drift, much less of the comprehensive defeat at Isandlwana. They went home changed men. Many would never recover from the apocalyptic scenes, the stench of rotting human flesh, the sight of the unstoppable ‘black wave of death’ careering down the hill or the blood-curdling fear of facing a painful, savage and bloody death again and again over hours and hours.

The formidable Zulus – the greatest warriors in all of Africa who towered over their red coat counterparts – lost thousands more men and just hours after a momentous victory at Isandlwana, would have their battle honour crushed at Rorke’s Drift. Their home and kingdom would be forever changed by the invaders in subsequent battles; invaders who had no real interest in Zululand other than to chalk up another conquest.

Zulu memorial Rorke's Drift-Ward

Modest and beautiful: a rare Zulu memorial to those warriors who fell at Rorke’s Drift

I would challenge even the most hardened soul not to have a lump in their throat by the end of the tour. The haunting recordings of Zulu songs and British marching bands accompany you as the open safari Land Rover rattles across the gravelly uneven ground to the different vantage points and key areas of the battle. To the spot where the first two posthumous Victoria Crosses in history were earned – the highest award for valour in the British Army to this day. To the ridge line where thousands of Zulu warriors lined up with their shields and spears stamping their feet in deafening unison, before moving as one onto the ill-fated British line of defence. To the missionary house under siege and ablaze, where one man ground his fingers down to the bone scraping through mud brick walls to carry his injured comrades to safety. The unnamed and last red coat left standing at Isandlwana who from his hiding place in the rocks picked off as many enemy as he could with his remaining bullets, then watched as his boyhood friends were hung from meat hooks, disembowelled and left tasting their own testicles. The feathered barefoot warriors who could outrun cavalrymen on their horses and charged unfalteringly into an unrelenting barrage of lead.

memorial Isandlwana-Ward

Painted cairns litter the Battlefield of Isandlwana – each representing the exact spot where soldiers fell and were buried

Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift are tiny battlefields in the middle of the vast plains of what is now Kwazulu Natal, the peppering of painted white cairns, humble monuments of remembrance and a small museum the only signs left of the carnage of the 22nd January 1879. But they were momentous events in history: they played a key part in changing the face of South Africa as we know it today and the Zulu legacy. Isandlwana would be remembered as the greatest ever Zulu victory, and one of the worst defeats in British military history. The battle of Rorke’s Drift still boasts the highest number of Victoria Crosses awarded – eleven – in one single battle. After the carnage of the battle of Isandlwana, Britain would no longer send men under the age of 18 to war. But they were also battles that could and should have been avoided, invasions across territories that were not sanctioned by leaders or politicians on either side. For Britain, it was war waged when heavy losses were already being suffered on another front in Afghanistan. And it was a mission launched out of contempt and with a lack of cultural understanding of their enemy. The aftermath was a political cover up of the defeat at Isandlwana and a contrasting over-hyping to the press of Rorke’s Drift. Mistakes we continue to make more than a century later and lessons from which we must learn.

Buffalo river crossing point-Ward

Buffalo river, a raging torrent (at the time) in the path of the few surviving British on a desperate retreat from Isandlwana, which claimed dozens of lives

But the political and military lessons should never tarnish the undeniable and incredible courage of the British soldiers and Zulu warriors who took to battle that day in 1879 and the thousands of men who gave their lives for their countries and comrades without hesitation.

You come away from Fugitives’ Drift informed by the history lesson and intrigued by the political machinations of the day. But most of all you are moved and inspired by the ordinary Zulu and British men who marched to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift and displayed unparalleled courage, resilience and dignity.

(our trip was booked through AfricaAndBeyond.co.uk)