Fleur-de-LuffaFamily

May Seedlings

May Seedlings

Last winter, one of my Master Gardener friends asked for suggestions on what to plant in our Ag Progress Days high tunnel this year. I suggested luffas. At our next meeting, Chris handed me a packet of seeds from Renee’s Garden.

Luffas, it was.

Few Centre County Master Gardeners have grown luffas, but I had the benefit of raising them over several years on our chicken fence at the Hottenstein Road chicken coop, next to the F-d-L cutting garden.

Just before I left for Belgium, I handed Chris a dozen or so healthy seedlings to plant in the high tunnel. While I was gone, Chris planted them and attached twine to the bar above the raised bed so that the luffas, being vigorous vines, would have direction. Up.

June 25, I got an email, photo, and another assignment from Chris. “Look at me, I can climb” was the subject line message. Here’s the photo. Chris named her Lucy Luffa. “You and Marie can name the rest,” she wrote.

Lucy, 6-25-15

Lucy, 6-25-15

Chris went to high school with my middle sister, Lee Ann. My mother has told her on numerous occasions: “I have five daughters and they’re all Ls. Laurie, Lisa, Lee Ann, Larissa, and Leslie.” Chris decided Marie would be the perfect person to help me name the Luffa family.

We came up with Lucky, LuLu, Luvvy, Laffy Taffy, Loopy, and Loony, and a whole lot of Laughter. Chris has a way of convincing you to embrace a project.

The luffa tendrils hugged the strings Chris hung, and the vines took off toward the tunnel’s support ribs. Then, bright yellow flowers appeared like headlights on an evening drive. My “Luffa Baby Alert” email went out July 24. While I was filling up the irrigation barrel on my watering day, I noticed tiny luffas smaller than my pinky.

Well, days later, our luffas lassoed the ladder we use to check the water barrel level, and completely took over a bamboo grid we used last year for our Square Foot demonstration plot, swallowing it whole. (Luffas are members of the cucumber family. The young fruit, under 7” long, can be cooked and eaten like squash, or eaten raw, as a substitute for cucumber, but most often they are grown to maturity so the fibrous tissue “skeleton” can be used as a bath or sauna sponge.)

Pollinator at work

Pollinator at work

During our next work session, I tied purple twine connecting a support bar on the backside of the high tunnel to the support bar opposite it, giving the vines traveling room. Purple, I figured, would become invisible once the luffas make contact.

By Ag Progress Days, I expect Lucy, Lucky, LuLu, Luvvy, Laffy Taffy, Loopy, and Loony will create a shady cave of leaves, flowers, and fruit  inside the high tunnel. We may have to post a warning for visitors to enter at their own risk—they just might get caught up in the Luffa family. Laurie Luffa Lynch

Perks of Volunteering: One evening, while working at the MG high tunnel and demonstration gardens, we had a special visitor. A bald eagle perched high above us in the tree row. Magnificent. The eagle’s back was toward us. I’d guess it was a good two feet from the top of its white head to the tip of its white tail. It was the first bald eagle I’ve seen in the wild. When we have an environmental success, we must revel in it.

Luffa fruit

Luffa fruit

Perks of Attending APD: Penn State’s Ag Progress Days, August 18-20, is at Rock Springs amidst the university’s experimental farms. It is free, open to the public, filled with educational displays and the latest in farming equipment—and could pay off big time if you are an ice cream fan. This summer, there is a special Penn State Passport Program. Visitors get their “passport” stamped at each of the 15 Penn State exhibits (Master Gardeners are in the Yard & Garden Tent—and you can see the Luffa family in the nearby high tunnel, if you dare.). Turn your passport in and you get chance to win…Berkey Creamery Ice Cream for a YEAR (1/2 gallon per month).

Perks of Reading to the Bitter End: It’s cantaloupe season and I made Chilled Cantaloupe Soup over the weekend. It is so easy and so delicious. Place one chilled cantaloupe (peeled, seeded and chunked) into a blender with 1cup plain yogurt, ½ tsp. vanilla, and grated nutmeg to taste. Liquefy and serve in bowls, garnish with fresh blueberries or chocolate mint leaves. (Next time I make it, I’m going to try fresh grated ginger instead of nutmeg.) The chilled soup gets foamy and can be refrigerated for two days or so. It has a lovely color and can double as a treat for breakfast or a low-calorie dessert.

Fleur-de-Music

Nonna in her concert throne with Marina, 2014

Nonna in her concert throne with Marina, 2014

If music gives us a soundtrack of our lives, mine has certainly spun into fast-forward in the past four years.

At Lemont Elementary, I think everyone tooted on the flutophone for a year or two. There was one brief moment in the late 1960s when I owned a guitar. I still remember my guitar teacher’s name, but no chords. In college, I listened to my Porgy & Bess album more than The Beatles or The Rolling Stones; I was smitten with the South.

At Charleston’s Spoleto USA festivals I was introduced to “scat singing,” Rachmaninoff, Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd, and helped Ella Fitzgerald find an authentic barbecue joint. In the baby years, music was Raffi, Barney the purple dinosaur, and the wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round… As the kids grew older, music consisted of the “routine” pieces at Kutztown twirler events, saxophone-induced howling from the family Bouvier, and my singing of Janis Joplin tunes as I drove the curves of Eagle Point Road.

Now, as my mother’s caregiver, I’m in the midst of a music explosion. On Friday nights we have Concerts on the Village Green in Lemont. Sunday nights, it is the South Hills Music Picnic Series. We attend Jazz at the Palmer (Art Museum) once a month. At Webster’s Bookstore Café, we sip tea at evening concerts and Sunday Brunch gatherings, listening to live performances of Chilean folk music, the senior center’s Second Winds big band, or a duo called Hops & Vines. This is all FREE music in Happy Valley, and doesn’t include special events such as the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, JazzPA , the Acoustic Brew Series, or anything and everything musically related to Penn State.

It gets so crazy that two questions have been added to my mom’s repertoire of “What day is it? What’s on the agenda? Should I wear a dress?” Yes, when she knows we are planning to go to a concert, the big two are: “Is the concert indoors or outside?” and “Do we need to bring chairs?” Fashion and comfort are main concerns.

This summer, we joined in The Pat Farrell Community Sing, inside, seated on the pews of State College Presbyterian Church. I thought you might be interested in this slice of local history, all of which was new to me.

Fifty or sixty years ago, State College residents got together for a “community sing” each summer week under the direction of Frank Gullo, then director of Penn State’s Glee Club, and Hummel (Hum) Fishburn, then director of Penn State’s Blue Band. This tradition disappeared in the 1970s. The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts brought it back in 2011 to honor the memory of Pat Farrell, a former Arts Fest board president. At that time, the organizers polled community singers, musicians, and other interested folks to compile a list of songs that represented the State College community, which they gathered into The Pat Farrell Community Sing Songbook.

The songbook contains a mix of hymns, folk, patriotic, and protest songs, show tunes, and yes, the Penn State Alma Mater. (For you history buffs, Pat Farrell is recognized as the force behind the change in a few critical words in PSU’s alma mater, written by Professor Fred Louis Pattee in 1901. When I was a student at Penn State, the words to the alma mater said Dear Old State would “mold us into men” and we feisty young women would shout as loud as we could, “and women.” Well in 1975, Professor Pat Farrell convinced the Board of Trustees to substitute “childhood’s gate” for “boyhood’s gate” and had Dear Old State simply “mold us” rather than “mold us into men.”)

The directors of this year’s sing-along introduced each song and got the crowd going. My mom lit up when we sang Do Re Mi and Oh What a Beautiful Morning—she loves old musicals. I had a smile on my face recalling Cat Stevens’ take on the 1931 hymn Morning Has Broken. But I was really captured by one song I don’t recall ever hearing before (although I’ve read since that it has been sung by Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary). The lyrics of A Song of Peace, written by Lloyd Stone between World Wars I and II, touch my heart:

This is my song, O God of all nations,

A song of peace, for lands afar and mine;

This is my home, the country where my heart is.

Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.

But other hearts in other lands are beating

With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,

And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.

But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,

And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.

O hear my song, thou God of all nations,

A song for peace for their land and for mine.

I think it is time for a global anthem. This one has my vote. Laurie Lynch

Written on Slate: “Music is the divine way to tell beautiful, poetic things to the heart.” –Pablo Casals

Fleur-de-MagicCarpet

BasilDisease in the garden seems to be the story for the summer of 2015 so I daydream for a magic carpet ending.

First, Marina’s garlic at the community garden plot was speckled with Leek Rust (they grow a lot of leeks in Belgium). The orange flecks become raised pustules and before you can say GROSS, the garlic has Puccinia allii. The disease can be spread via the soil or wind. At best, it “reduces the vigor” of affected plants. At worst, it kills them. After a series of email exchanges and online research, her stunted harvest was salvaged.

On this side of the Atlantic, my garlic was getting too much rain, but short of dozens of golf umbrellas, what could I do? In the end, my harvest date was delayed from around July 4 to a few days after Bastille Day (July 14), when the rainclouds parted long enough for the sun to shine on Centre County. Yippee! The garlic bulbs actually look good, despite the clumps of potter’s clay clinging to their roots. That task done, it was time to make some pesto.

The patch of basil my sister Lee Ann planted for me looked beautiful, about knee high and itching to be picked as I passed it on my way to and from the garlic field. I had already made one small batch of pesto but something was off. Days later, going over the recipe in my mind, I realized I had forgotten the walnuts… So, I was ready to fill the freezer with some good stuff. I got a large basket and began pinching off the tops of each branch of leafy basil. As I dropped the clusters into the basket, the undersides of the leaves looked fuzzy with dark blotches. An armful of basil was reduced to a cup of salvageable leaves.

The culprit is Peronaspora belbahrii, which causes downy mildew. This new-to-the-U.S.-disease on basil is thought be transported by infected seed, and perhaps by air. According to Cornell University, where researchers are tracking this devastating basil disease, growers in Switzerland reported downy mildew on their basil crops in 2001. Two years later, there were reports of it in Italy, and the following year, France and Belgium. In this country, it was first discovered in Florida in 2007. It moved to Mid-Atlantic and New England states by 2008, the West Coast in 2009, and Hawaii in 2011. Prior to this century, the only known occurrence of downy mildew affecting basil was in Uganda…in 1933.

Sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum, is most susceptible to the disease spores but other types of basil have been affected. Once you have the disease in your plants, you should destroy the crop, preferably on a sunny day, since the disturbed spores will be killed by UV radiation. To prevent the problem, Cornell suggests minimizing wetness and humidity. (Yeah, right.) Seed treatments and fungicides can also be used as preventive measures, and researchers are working hard to develop resistant varieties.

Meanwhile, my Salad Leaf Basil is not showing nasty signs of downy mildew, so I’m going to hurry up and make a batch of pesto before it is too late.

I’m a firm believer of variety in the garden and trying new things. When something goes wrong, there is always something to glory about. This year, I grew my first cauliflower plants. And, they’re doing well. I’m not sure how the two of us will manage to eat all of this cauliflower…but that can be an experiment too.

My chef-phew Wille introduced me to roasting cauliflower with olive oil and a hefty shower of curry and fennel. It has become a standard for me. But to celebrate this first cauliflower event I decided to go for a Moroccan twist. I was checking out some recipes combining cauliflower and lemon and olives, and remembered I had an unopened jar of preserved lemons in the refrigerator…

Roasted Cauliflower with Preserved Lemons & Olives

1 head of cauliflower

1/3 c. olive oil

Four slices of preserved lemon, rinsed of excess salt and cut into eighths

½ c. pitted olives, chopped

1 ½ teaspoons cumin

1 teaspoon ginger

½ teaspoon smoked paprika

½ teaspoon turmericLilies

Cut cauliflower into 2-inch pieces and mix with oil, lemon, olives, and spices. (You could substitute a fresh lemon for preserved lemon, cutting off bitter ends, slicing thinly and then into eighths.) Arrange mixture in one layer in a roasting pan. Place in 400-degree oven and roast for 20 minutes, stirring a few times.

These exotic flavors brightened our weekday meal and remind me of sitting at my favorite café where my magic carpet is always waiting. Right now, the lilies are in bloom. The fragrance of the Star Gazer lilies wafts of spicy temptation, transporting me to Marrakesh, or what I imagine Marrakesh smells like. But it is the soft yellow trumpets of an Oriental lily that capture my heart. As I stand on the sidewalk where I park my bike, she towers over me. On the porch where I sit and contemplate her loveliness, she looks me in the eye. Borrowed landscapes, borrowed gardens, are always perfect. Laurie Lynch

Written on Slate: “A visit to Marrakesh was a great shock to me. This city taught me about color.” –Yves Saint Laurent

Fleur-de-More

What I learned about beer in Belgium: Don’t reach for Chimay Blue unless you plan to drink it.

Slug Pub

Slug Pub

I’m not a beer drinker—left that grand experiment in my college years—but when I opened the refrigerator and said I was about to take a bottle of Chimay Blue into the patio garden, I heard Koen groan. “Take the Maes.”

Marina and I had sunken a plastic container into the soil near a nasturtium that was chomped the night before. We were determined to get those slugs with our homemade beer trap. All we needed was beer. So, Maes it was.

In the morning, there were seven dead slugs at the bottom of the slug pub—and no more nibbling on the nasturtium. I eventually figured out what the fuss was about. The Maes was left over from a bachelor party weekend; the Chimay Blue is the good stuff.

While planning my trip to Belgium, I had two gardens on my mind. The one at my mom’s house, which I abandoned, leaving transplants of tomatoes, peppers, basil, celeriac, and who knows what else for my sister Lee Ann to plant. (She did a great job!) The other was the garden Marina and Koen began planning when they moved into their house in Ghent last October.

Ghent University Botanical Garden

Ghent University Botanical Garden

But Belgium held many more horticultural surprises.

The most formal garden I visited was Ghent University Botanical Garden. Established in 1797, the garden has been at its present location, not far from Ghent city center, since 1902. The 7-acre spread has more than 10,000 species, and includes tropical, subtropical, Victoria, and succulent greenhouses.

Other times, the gardens or plants I discovered were simply by accident. The wisteria trained along the building across from Marina’s place was painstakingly pruned and a work of art; a beautiful foxglove growing out of a chink in the sidewalk, a fortunate fluke. I was just walking down a boulevard when I came across a stunning water garden entranceway, and rounding a corner when I was jolted by the brilliance of a golden chain tree at a neighborhood bar.

Wisteria

Wisteria

I never expected to see so many barge gardens docked along the canals and rivers of Ghent. Many of these floating gardens were practical: potted herbs or privacy vines surrounding the dinner table; others featured low-maintenance ornamental grasses or high-maintenance sculpted topiaries.

Entrance Garden

Entrance Garden

When I rode my bike along the canal into Ghent, I always parked near the office building where Koen works. I knew if I ever got lost, anyone could point me toward the building with the silver Xs, squares, and diamonds. Across the street from that building, I was drawn to a window-well garden under the sidewalk. Day after day I admired it, plump hydrangeas and healthy basil growing under my feet where I expected sidewalk cement, not glass.

Golden Chain Tree

Golden Chain Tree

On my next-to-the-last day in Ghent, I brought my camera—but construction dust had covered the windows. Never fear, I know Belgian women. Throughout my visit, I saw them outside with buckets, mopping, wiping, and scrubbing sidewalks, door stoops, and windowsills. I knew the windows would be clean by the next morning. I returned, and not only were the windows washed but the gardener was there.

Barge herbs.

Barge herbs.

She told me the one window-well garden was outside her basement kitchen, so she planted herbs. The other, outside her living area, was for the blooming hydrangeas. At Christmas time, she replaces those with a miniature Christmas tree and lights. “I can open by basement apartment windows and have the garden inside,” she explained with pride. (Unfortunately, my photos didn’t do these gardens justice.)

Koen's office.

Koen’s office.

My favorite garden was the patio garden Marina and Koen created. It was the garden I woke up to each morning and the last one I saw in the evening. Koen built a planter across the back of the walled patio with wooden pallets, and Marina filled the planter with vegetables (and sunflowers) they grew from seed—heirloom tomatoes, fava beans, salad greens, kale, etc. On a side wall, Koen’s father made the coolest planters out of metal roof gutters for herbs. My contribution, besides occasional weeding, was an Italian jasmine plant, next to the patio table, sharing the lovely scent I have at home in my mother’s atrium. Laurie Lynch

Early patio photo.

Early patio photo.

And More: Al Haring, my country neighbor when I lived in Maxatawny Township, is an email buddy. We often exchange photographs—his are artwork; mine are snapshots of his son Keith’s work that pops up in places like Venice or Brussels. Well, in our last exchange, Al told me that the solo Keith Haring exhibit The Political Line is at the Kunsthalle in Munich through Aug. 30. Better yet, The Political Line moves to the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, Sept. 19 through Feb. 7, 2016. I’m hoping Marina and Richard will make a daytrip to see the exhibit of our Kutztown-raised artist.

Three weeks later.

Three weeks later.

Fleur-de-Veggieday

SkylineIf you haven’t figured it out, let me put it in black and white: I have a new love affair…with Ghent.

Photos of the ornate and ancient brickwork, tile roofs, and canals with arched bridges captivated me long ago. On two previous trips to Belgium, I got as close as a two-minute stop at the train station on my way to somewhere else, each time saying, “I’d really like to visit Ghent.”

This year, I was able to. The storybook views of the medieval city disguise a youthful vibrancy that seemed to spill off the pages the more I explored Ghent with my fork, spoon, and camera.

Check out Ghent’s recent claims to fame:

  • In 2009 Ghent became the first city in world to adopt a weekly vegetarian day. Some say Ghent has the highest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita across the globe.
  • Ghent has the largest car-free city center in Belgium—the more biking and walking you do, the more hungry you become.
  • The KAA Gent team (The Buffalos) won its first Belgian Football (aka soccer in the US) Championship in 2015. Must have been all of those vegetables.

Here is the rest of the story:

GravensteenShortly after the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization issued a report saying meat production was responsible for 1/5 of the world’s greenhouse gases, the Ghent city councilor decided that encouraging residents to abstain from meat one day a week would be good for the planet’s climate, good for his citizens’ health, and good for everyone’s taste buds. And that is how Donderdag (Thursday) officially became Donderdag Veggiedag (Thursday Veggieday) in this city of 230,000 residents 30 miles west of Brussels.

According to the visitgent.be website, the average Belgian eats 1,800 animals in his lifetime: 890 chickens, 789 fish, 43 turkeys, 42 pigs, 24 rabbits and other game, 7 sheep, and 5 cows. By abstaining from meat one day a week, each person could save 250 animals over the course of a lifetime.

On Thursdays in Ghent, vegetarian meals are served in schools and government offices have veggie lunch meetings. Non-vegetarian restaurants are asked to limit meats to an alternative section on menus and the city has a Veggie Street Map highlighting vegetarian restaurants, vegan bakeries, and health food stores.

I went to two of Ghent’s vegetarian restaurants, twice.Avalon

Avalon is in the shadow of Gravensteen Castle. If you get lost in Ghent, follow the tram tracks toward Gravensteen and they will take you right to Avalon. It is open one weekend a month, Friday and Saturday evenings for a five-course meal, and reservations are hard to come by. Otherwise, it is only open for lunch. Marina was lucky enough to arrange a reservation for the two of us while I was visiting.

The menu for that night was:

Triomfbal: An apple and celery deep-fried dumpling made with chickpea flour.

Aspergerisotto: Risotto with thinly sliced asparagus, fried onions, and halved cherry tomatoes.

Bloemkoolsoep: Cauliflower soup with almonds and a green herb oil with lime sauce.

Groenteburger/witte bonen/gele bietjes/radijs: Sage puree with yellow and red beets and kale.

Chocoladecake/rabarberijs/aardbei: Chocolate cake with strawberries, and rhubarb-soy ice cream.

The meal was paired with white and red wines throughout the night. Review: Lovely presentations, delicious and unusual combinations, and small but satisfying portions.

The only complaint for the entire evening concerns a table of four on the other side of the room. When each course arrived at their table, out came the camera and FLASH! Food photos are all the rage, but I consider it rude behavior when others are dining.

The restaurant has a cookbook—Avalon: Grow-Eat-Share. Although the title is in English, the rest of the book is in Dutch.

I returned one afternoon for lunch, and serving sizes are much more ample (I ended up leaving a portion of my pasta on the plate—I simply ran out of room. The waitress, the same one who served us two weeks earlier, recognized me and handed me an English menu. The dish of the day was Pesto Pasta with Vegetables. The pasta had “homemade nut cheese” which is something new to me, as well as baby eggplant sliced lengthwise, caramelized red and yellow onions, grilled scallions sliced lengthwise, halved cherry tomatoes, and, of course, basil. Yum.

LekkerLekker GEC (Gent Ecologish Centrum) is across from the Gent-Sint-Pieters railway station and is a perfect place to eat before or after a train journey. You can also get a “take-away” meal for the train ride.

At Lekker, food is served cafeteria-style. Each plate costs 2 Euro, and then you load it up with what you want. The plate is then weighed, and you pay E 1,65 per 100 grams. I paid about E 8 after filling my plate with a red beet, pear and onion chutney, roasted vegetables with creamy dill sauce, tempura vegetables, a mixture of green peas and black beans in vinaigrette, and a salad of pureed avocado with chopped celery and dressed with cilantro and lime. That also included a cup of coffee with a cube of a brownie with hazelnuts.

On my last day, when Sabine, Richard and Lais arrived to go on a canal boat tour of Ghent, we had a late lunch at Lekker. Salad, fresh baked bread, and a table outside shaded by a large umbrella made the perfect afternoon meal. Eet smakelijk(D), bon appetit(F), or as they say in the good old USA, Enjoy your meal(E). Laurie Lynch

Café Culture: One of my favorite morning stops was for a cup of coffee. In Belgium, each cup of coffee is served with what I refer to as a sweet amuse-bouche, often with a delicate demitasse spoon. At Barista in Ghent, it was a 1-inch cube of bread pudding. At Le Pain Quotidien in Charleroi, it was a similar portion of raspberry cheesecake or brownie. At Bread Fast in Ghent, it was a tiny Speculoos. No matter where I went, there was always a little something to make my cup of coffee a treat while watching shoppers pass my outdoor café table.B&W Pride

Forget Pennies…Strawberries from Heaven: After years of growing strawberries for our market, I learned the trick for the most delicious strawberries was picking them dead ripe (as well as growing varieties with excellent FLAVOR rather than ship-ability.) But they had to be consumed in the next day or two or they would become mush or mold. Well, in Belgium the strawberries were as good as anything I ever grew, plus they had longer staying power. They were red all the way through, ripe, juicy, and flawless. They didn’t have to be smothered in Belgian chocolate or sandwiched between steamy, crisp waffles and billows of whipped cream. They were exquisite as just plain strawberries.

When I got home, I did a little research. In Flanders, you want to look for the Hoogstraten Aardbei(D) label. Strawberry farms in northern Belgium produce 40,000 tons of berries for this cooperative. In Wallonia, Wepion Fraise(F) is the strawberry to buy. Farms in Wepion and nearby Namur produce about 4,000 tons of strawberries a year. Wepion also boasts an actual Musee de la Fraise with a 35-acre of Jardin des Petits Fruits that I put on my To-See list.

After a little more reading, I found out the secrets to Belgian strawberries, at least those in Flanders. First, the berries never touch straw, or the ground, for that matter. They are grown in raised gutters or troughs in greenhouses. The berry stems fall over the gutter and the berries hang in the air. The plants are watered and fertilized in the gutters, and prompted to grow with LED lighting from March through November. A series of varieties are grown for continuous fruiting. By not touching wet ground, which often harbors disease, the strawberries can be harvested at full maturity, full of sugar and taste. One added detail is that harvesters all grow long fingernails. They use their fingernails to cut the stems, without their hands ever touching the berries.

Kapsalon & Sauce Andalouse: OK, I love strawberries from heaven, but I’m no foodie angel. At times I stray from the healthy and organic and unprocessed. One night Marina and I were at her house, alone and exhausted. Marina suggested ordering out. I was game. She got on her computer and ordered two kapsalons to be delivered to her doorstep.

The translation for the Dutch word “kapsalon” is “hairdressing salon”. Apparently it was named after a hairdresser in Rotterdam who loved to go to the Turkish restaurant next door for doner, shaved lamb cooked on a vertical rotisserie and served in a wrap. But he created his own twist with the add-ons, and thus, the kapsalon was born. From the Netherlands it traveled quickly to neighboring Belgium.

Our kapsalons arrived in aluminum loaf pans. The bottom layer is frites (French fries). Next, thinly sliced lamb and melted gouda cheese topped with shredded cabbage and carrots, and halved cherry tomatoes. You can order a variety of sauces, and I decided to go with Marina’s choice—Sauce Andalouse. Sauce Andalouse is a Belgian specialty—a mixture of mayonnaise, tomato paste, roasted peppers and spices (curry, I’m guessing). Talk about pigging out. I was hooked. I packed a bottle of Sauce Andalouse in my suitcase.The Buffalos

OK, Last But Not Least, The Buffalos: The Flemish sports pages were not required reading to figure out that Ghent is proud of its national champion football team, De Buffalo’s (stet).

There was a two-story team jersey draped on one of Ghent’s stately buildings, and blue-and-white posters of the mascot, the profile of a Native American in full-feathered headdress, in windows of homes and businesses. What, I asked, was going on? The KAA Gent football association was founded in 1900. This, it appears, coincided with visits of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his traveling Wild West Show. The show toured Europe eight times, making its first visit to Belgium in 1891 and its last in 1906. The Native Americans in the show made quite an impression, and Ghent began its love affair with “The Buffalos” of the Wild West.

Fleur-de-Language

My kids laugh, but this whole language thing in Belgium had my mind spinning faster than the pinwheels on a balcony across from Café des Halles. It was at Café des Halles, by the way, that I saw a poster with Keith Haring figures—first Venice, now Brussels—his artwork dances through Europe.

Café des Halles, located at an 1882 market at Place Saint-Gery, has a delightful terrace and its menu is on a vinyl record, so unique that the following guilt-free message is found on each one: If you steal me, make us famous and post a picture on FB.Cafe des Halles

Belgium is one of those culturally divided countries, the northern portion is Flanders, where Dutch is the language of choice, and the south is Wallonia, where French is spoken. On the far east of Wallonia, there is a tiny section of the country where residents speak German, but that’s too much for me to deal with at this point—as are all the unofficial dialects. So much diversity in a country that is not much larger than the state of Maryland.

The city of Brussels(E)/Brussel(D)/Bruxelles(F) is the center of the European Union, so street signs are in both Dutch and French, making sign spotting and map reading twice as challenging. Marina and Richard spend their working days in Brussels, but Marina goes home to Ghent(E)/Gent(D)/Gand(F) in Flanders while Richard lives in French-speaking Charleroi (and, thanks to King Charles II of Spain, this city has been spelled “Charleroi” in English, French, and Dutch since 1666).

On the GoI needed to take two trains to get from one city to the other, which means Arrivals/Departures lists in the railway stations depends on geography. In Gent, the lists are headed with Aankomst and Vertrek while in Charleroi, the charts say Arrivee and Depart. Add to this mix that the translations of city names can differ dramatically, many times I didn’t know if I was going Oost or West, Nord or Sud.

Marina tells a story of when she was an au pair, a mere 18, waiting for a train somewhere in Flanders to go back to Liege. Trains kept coming, but they all listed their destination as Luik, and she had no idea Luik was the Dutch spelling of Liege.

Things got even more complicated with my rail pass. Before each trip, I had to list the day of the week, the departure city and the destination city. I figured if I was leaving from Flanders, I should list the day in Dutch. So, Woensdag was Wednesday. When I was leaving from Wallonia on a Saturday, I wrote Samedi. When I wasn’t sure, I made the day up, as in Mondag and Tuesdag.

What a long, long road language is. I have so much admiration for my kids and their friends to have navigated it so well.

Remember the 1969 comedy “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” about a busload of American tourists traveling through Europe? Maybe sticking to one form of transportation would have helped me get my bearings, but it wouldn’t have been as fun. At dinner one evening in Restaurant Matinee in Bruges, I went searching for the waitress to add a waffle to our dessert coffee order. I ended up talking to her reflection in the wall mirror, instead of the actual waitress. I caught myself about midway through the question—but so did Richard from the adjoining room. It will be a long time before I live that one down.

The next day, we were leaving Bruges and hoping we were headed for Ghent (we weren’t). I stopped to ask a couple for directions. Even though almost everyone speaks some English in Belgium, I always start out a conversation with: “Do you speak English?” before asking my follow up questions. Well, this time, the woman turned to me and said, “Dear, we are English.” I laughed and said I didn’t speak English, only American, and was very lost. She couldn’t help with directions but we had a pleasant conversation in our mother tongues.Where's Laurie?

While you might expect traveling to be confusing, surely I should be at home in the kitchen…well, not really.

I’ve grown, cooked with, and eaten herbs for more years than Koen has been alive, yet he taught me a simple trick for prepping herbs. He simply walks into the garden with an empty coffee cup, fills it with the herbs he wants to use, and returns to the kitchen. Then, he picks up a pair of scissors and just starts snipping back and forth in the cup. When he’s done, all of the chopped herbs are right there in the coffee cup, not spread out all over the cutting board like I would have done. Marina calls it, “The Belgian way.”

In Charleroi, as I was going to bed one night, Sabine told me she put oatmeal on the counter for my breakfast. I woke up the next morning and didn’t see the familiar Quaker Oats cardboard cylinder, so I rummaged around and found plain yogurt and Museli. Later during my stay, she asked why I never made any oatmeal.

“I couldn’t find it.”

Well, then she showed me a sack, similar to our bags of sugar, but much smaller—500g. It was chartreuse and red, with a Bio-Time (bio means organic) label. Below, was written Flocons d’Avoine,(F) and below that, Havermout(D). Next time I’m in Belgium, I must have a bowl of Belgian oatmeal, the Belgian way. Laurie Lynch

Sign Language: I love the large, green neon crosses in Belgium that indicate pharmacies. The pharmacies are called Apotheek, which is close enough to apothecary for me to understand. Unlike our CVS or Rite-Aide, which have turned into mini supermarket-perfume-and-whatnot stores, an Apotheek is simply there for what ails you, or makes you better.

I visited my first Apotheek early in my trip for citric acid to make a batch of Elder Blossom Cordial. Not only did the pharmacist have what I was looking for, measuring it into two plastic vials, but she knew why I wanted it. “Ah, it’s the season for elder blossoms.”

CompeedA day or so later, the blisters on my feet were pretty gross and painful. Marina introduced me to Compeed “blister plasters” that cushion and heal your blistered feet. Believe me, they work. The name “plaster” always bring a fond memory of Shauna King, our Northern Ireland summer visitor in the 1990s and early 2000s. Shauna always referred to Band-Aides as “plasters”.

Anyway, I was hooked on Compeed. After I went through Marina’s supply, I bought several packages, in a variety of sizes and shapes to fit individual blisters, and also found the plastic, teal-colored containers enchanting to Lais, who sucked on the rounded corners.

A Whisper from the 1600s: While in Belgium, Richard gave me a copy of The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. I loved reading the tale Burton wove based on Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house on display at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Although the historic novel is set in Amsterdam, it could have just as easily been Ghent, and it touches social issues that are as pertinent in the 21st century as they were then. I highly recommend it.

Fleur-de-ArtofBEing

canalThe customs officer looked at my passport and said, “Welcome back home.”

Tears veiled my eyes. I had to gain my composure. I had 45 minutes to catch a connecting flight and it was on the other side of Philadelphia International. I made it to the small commuter plane and upon arrival in State College was welcomed “home” by my mom, sister, and a surprisingly excited Sandy III, my mom’s Golden Retriever. Three weeks of bliss in Belgium. Now, back to reality.

Several times during the longest vacation of my working life I was afraid I might not make it. Just after I left the States to visit my kids and bicycle in Belgium, I heard John Kerry was coming back prematurely. He broke his leg bicycling in France.

I was luckier than the Secretary of State. I had two minor spills. The first—slow-mo—happened as I was getting off my bike to take a photo along the canal path. I fell into a bed of stinging nettles. My biking pant cuffs were pulled over my socks, my fleece jacket covered by upper body, and the strong hands of a newly graduated 23-year-old pulled me up and out of danger. For the second fall, a tram track caught my tire. What seemed like half of Ghent watched me tumble, and I ended up with a bruise the size of a 5 Euro note on my right calf, not to mention the injury to my ego.

Despite the mishaps, it is the joys of bicycling I’ll remember. Our rental bikes from Max Mobiel were, as Richard describes them, “One size fits none”, but what a world they opened. We had hardly left Ghent when we got lost—but found an ancient farm windmill, muscular cattle resting in the grass, and patches of red Flanders poppies peppering the countryside. We biked along the North Sea in Oostende, careened over cobblestones in Bruges, and successfully biked from Bruges to Ghent 55 km (34 miles) with only one false start.

Richard, Oostende

Richard, Oostende

During three weeks of traveling by train, tram, metro, bus, car, cobblestone-blistered feet, and bike, I have to say biking is close to perfect. Besides being able to Brake for Photos, it is a wonderful way to SMELL Belgium.

The intoxicating scent of elder blossoms massed in hedgerows along bike paths and canals is etched in my memory. I Googled “scent of elder blossoms” because I have a tough time putting the “nose bouquet” into words. The most common description I read was “they smell like summer.” Well, that may be so if you grew up in Belgium, or the UK, but growing up in PA, summer smelled like Coppertone and chlorine. I didn’t meet an elder bush (Sambucus) until 15-20 years ago. Ah, yes, a whiff of the fragrances of elder blossoms, shrub roses, lavender, and, I swear, the sulfur-bearing compounds created from consuming asparagusic acid that tinged the air as I passed a park-side urinal not far from Station Gent-Sint-Pieters.

I’m told Belgians are practically born on bikes, or fietsen, as they call them. We actually bought train tickets for our bikes (8 Euro a day) and there were special sections where you could secure your fiets (bike) with a Velcro strap. We met a fellow cyclist on the train who already qualified for the cycling event in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. When he heard I lived in the U.S., he mentioned that he had raced at the velodrome in Trexlertown. Ghent, by the way, has two velodromes, so popular is cycling.

Big Red

Big Red

Each day I’d give myself little goals, such as biking to the BioShop for groceries and carrying them back home to Marina’s and Koen’s house. Or navigating to a museum and exploring a bike trail through the adjoining park. After three weeks, I almost broke the habit of swinging my leg over the seat to clear the bar that wasn’t there—Big Red was a girl’s bike. On my last day, it was time to conquer my greatest bicycling fear—riding a bike in a dress. I kept pulling and tugging at my skirt, trying to keep my knees covered while those same knees were pumping up and down over the pedals. Finally, I threw modesty to the wind, and just rode.

Back to my motto: I Brake for Photos. I have a few for this blog, but it is the missed photo ops that are the clearest:

–Marina carrying Italian Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) trellised on a bamboo tripod about 4 feet high with pot tucked under her arm after a Sunday morning shopping trip at the Bloemenmarkt (Ghent flower market) at Kouter Square. There, you can stroll through heady drifts of potted lavender, dianthus, lupine, and delphinium while a brass band plays “California Dreamin’ “ in the gazebo and more adventurous souls sip champagne and guzzle fresh oysters too early in the morning. I didn’t get a photo because I was busy balancing a bag on my handlebar. I was carrying a pot of Campanula carpatica to plant in the wall cracks of the patio garden

–A man riding a bicycle with no hands, playing a harmonica with both hands.

–A woman wearing a soft cast from just below her knee to her ankle, riding her bike with crutches in a sling across her back. We were stopped at a traffic light together. By the time I thought to ask if I could take a photo, she was sprinting down the bike lane and I could never catch up…

Where's my bike?

Where’s my bike?

Fleur-de-Family: The Art of BEing must include my ever-expanding Belgium family. Richard graduated from Vesalius College wearing my dad’s woven leather wingtips. They share more than a March 25 birthday. We had a post-graduation celebration with Richard, Sabine, and Lais, as well as Sabine’s family, Marina, Koen, and friends. I was entertained at Koen’s parents’ homes in typical Belgian fashion—quail eggs and ham on baguettes, lots of meat, potatoes, cauliflower, and homemade mayonnaise, plenty to drink, and, in not-so-typical Belgian fashion—sunshine. I met Koen’s twin brother, Sven, and Sven’s girlfriend Fleur, and ate a delicious strawberry tart with Koen’s grandparents.

I pushed a stroller, babysat, sang B-I-N-G-O, played peek-a-boo (coo-coo in French) and heard my granddaughter’s first words as she bent her tiny fingers toward her chubby palm: “Bye-bye.” Au revoir and Vaarwel. Laurie Lynch

Lais StrollerWritten on Slate: Bicycle means simplicity and simplicity means happiness! –Mehmet Murat ildan