Of knives and forks

I’m back from a week in Belgium. I love Belgium: quiet, laid back, pretty and with plenty to do and see. And above all: British people don’t tend to holiday there.

I’ve only once been on a package holiday, about 15 years ago. I went to Corfu. It too was lovely, but it was infested with Brits – and I hadn’t even gone to the rough, partying part (Paleokastritsa), instead choosing a quieter area (Kassiopi) overlooking Albania. The problem was that Thompson or whoever it was had run a special offer I hadn’t known about and had hoovered up a lot of other British tourists more used to Spain. I spent two weeks in the close company of people who moaned that the newspapers were yesterday’s newspapers, that the plumbing was wipe-and-bin rather than wipe-and-flush, that there was no McDonalds, that there was no Sky TV, that there was too great a chance of running into a local who might not speak English, that the pool was smaller than Spanish pools, that the beach was shingle not sand… on and on, all ending with the refrain “It’s not like Spain!”

That was the reason I hadn’t gone to Spain. Spain was full of British people complaining. I thought a relatively expensive, out-of-the-way not-quite-a-resort like Kassiopi might have been fairly free of Brits. I was wrong and the experience still haunts me.

So Belgium is lovely in that regard… except that we long ago fell in love with Ieper (Ypres that was) and I got my Commonwealth War Graves hobby going. Ieper, home of the Menin Gate and bazillions of CWGC sites obviously attracts lots of British tourists. Still, they’re mainly coach parties, doing a night in Ieper then off to the Somme or Dunkirk or somewhere with tulips and pot, so you don’t see all that much of them.

Except at dinner time. I wouldn’t mind, if it wasn’t for the bloody incessant complaining of the Brits aboard. It’s ABROAD – it comes with differences, that’s why you fucking well went abroad in the first place. Still, I’m pretty good at tuning them out most of the time, and if they’re too far away for me to hear with my useless hearing, it’s quite easy to do. And then I can switch to people watching – the proper study of mankind being man (also, I’m nosey).

One evening, we were eating dinner at Brasserie Central on the Grote Markt. We’ve become friends with Sergio, a waiter-manager, so tend to take breakfast or dinner there four or five times in a week. He tends to seat us with the locals rather than the tourists, so it’s win-win. I watched as a family of three came in and pegged them (in a sociological kinda way, not at all a snobby kinda way, ahem) immediately: Brits on holiday by Chunnel and car, used to Spain, branching out.

They sat down and I waited for the usual food order to be placed – fish and chips for the mum and dad, burger and chips for the (alarmingly large) 11 year old son. Well, slap me down: they ordered off the set menu. This is reasonably priced, but quite exotic in places so I was shocked. It features neither fried fish nor burgers. Still, it does have some “normal” food on it, and the starter of melon and ham they ordered didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the main course – they all had Flemish Stew.

Flemish Stew, I thought, was quite an adventurous meal for them. It can hide a multitude of sins (liver being one) in the thick, beer-based brown gravy it comes slathered in. But they cooed over it (it was, as usual at Central, beautifully presented) and tucked in.

I have in the past, here, on foodie forums and on my previous blog, complained that the Tory decision to remove Home Economics (ie Cooking) from the school timetables created a whole generation of parents that can’t cook even a simple meal and is creating a whole generation of unhealthy children who don’t know what goes into food. Smug in my chef-fy, middle class world, I prescribed reintroducing Home Ec, or where it already exists making sure that there are actual cookery lessons, teaching the basics (hygiene, how to make a roux, how to make a soup or stew) to solve this problem.

The son proved that my solution wasn’t really addressing the problem. I’m not talking about the horrors of an obese 11 year old (although this is Not Good in itself, and I speak as a bit of a porker myself). No, this is more fundamental. I watched as he picked up his knife and fork and looked confused. He watched what his parents were doing and tried to replicate their behaviour, swapping the cutlery from hand to hand as he attempted to saw at a piece of meat. He tried valiantly, but soon gave it up as a bad job, put the knife down and ate with fork alone. Anything too large was simply crammed into his mouth and chewed at, wide-open, until it was swallowable.

This child had clearly never used a knife and fork to eat with before. All his food – and he’d had plenty in his time – had been edible with just a fork or, more often, with just his hands.

How does this happen? How could his parents have let him get to Secondary School age without once noticing that the poor boy had never had reason to use a knife? How in future will he cope in school dining rooms, cafés, restaurants, dinner parties and any one of the thousands of other social occasions that include sharing food? Is he expected to spend his life eating only in McDonalds or Pizza Hut, never again to experience a civilised meal that doesn’t involve using either or both hands to get the food into his gob?

This spell of people watching was the worst spell of people watching I’ve ever done. And I’m all the more convinced that I should holiday in places without (other) British tourists more often.

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