Rain drifted down, pitting the dark gleam of the canals, as my tram rattled round the periphery of the city. Waiting for me in our usual hotel overlooking the red-light district was Mrs Weasel, snoring gently after a hard week at an academic congress. Aside from adding to the world's stock of knowledge, this annual event enables me to take on the not entirely disagreeable role of kept man.
The sensible Ghentians enjoy a lie-in on Saturday mornings, but by midday the streets are teeming. These people are world-class shoppers. Overhearing our conversation in a restaurant, a woman at a neighbouring table sighed dreamily at her memory of London's retail cornucopia: "All those shops - ooh!" In a coffee-bar, a matron waved her Laura Ashley bag at us: "Look, I've been buying English things!" No slouch herself at quick-drawing a credit card, Mrs W pored over duvets, watches, Aboriginal paintings, orthopaedic furniture, avant-garde light fittings, diamond rings (gasp!), ornamental cabbages, antique dining-tables and, bizarrely, a display of scrubbing brushes. I generously acceded to the purchase of a garlic-press.
Mrs Weasel wrestled with black trousers in a clothes shop for three or four hours, giving me ample opportunity to indulge my passion for Belgique Muzak. Her consumerist mania peaked in an inexplicable attempt to buy me a 1999 calendar featuring 12 moody shots of Jacques Brel. Since I have never knowingly listened for a single minute to the soulful chanteur, the prospect of spending 12 months staring at his phizog did not appeal.
We bought a loaf only a little smaller than a cartwheel and, according to my calculations, around pounds 35-worth of gouda. A similar splurge in a charcuterie inadvertently caused us to break the great British taboo. You may recall that during my trip to Ghent last year I managed by a hair's breadth to avoid consuming a dish of entrecote van het paard, otherwise poor old Mr Dobbin. This year, while purchasing vast, greasy slabs of pate and countless strata of cured meats, we somehow acquired a small quantity of something called paardefilet. Sorry to admit it, but thin- sliced nag tastes rather good, a bit like bresaola. Not that I'll make a habit of it. I doubt if hack should eat hack.
On Sunday morning, I treated Mrs W to a tour of Ghent's Castle of the Counts, though I received scant thanks for this treat. A guidebook revealed that this forbidding 12th-century fortress was occupied successively by Philip of Alsace, Philip the Fair and Philip the Bold. But my companion seemed less than riveted by this plethora of Philips as we puffed our way up an apparently infinite spiral staircase. Nor was she entranced by the view that greeted us when we emerged on the battlements. Since Mrs W is no great lover of heights, I was able to observe the city's pantiled roofs for all of five seconds before embarking on our descent.
"We paid pounds 8 for this!" squawked Madame, as we teetered down another endless stone spiral. However, the castle's greatest treasure was yet to come: an impressive array of torture implements in a gloomy gallery at the foot of the stairs. The shackles, thumbscrews, etc were appreciatively observed by a gaggle of tourists, mainly men in raincoats. A caption cheerfully explained that a massive knife was "for chopping off hands and feet or even the head". I pointed out to Mrs W that the rack appeared too tiny to inflict more than marginal discomfort on most people, but I sensed that her mind wasn't on such macabre practicalities. "Those lights," she said, pointing at the halogen bulbs above a display of branding-irons. "Do you think they'd go in our dining-room?"
Next door to the exhibition was the castle's oubliette. Oddly described as an "underground prison" (it was in fact on the first floor), this depressing spot was scarcely enhanced by a haunted-looking fellow plucking away at a harp. Mrs W moved over to look at the display of cassettes and CDs by his side. It was a fatal move, for the harpist interrupted his rendition to rasp at her: "You can buy this nowhere else!" After I'd whisked her away from this irresistible temptation, there was one final spectacle in store. The castle's buttressed cellar turned out to be where the implements previously displayed were in fact applied. A cartoonist's cliche of a torture chamber, it was not exactly an elevating experience, but at least we learnt the Flemish for dung-well (mestput). You never know when it might come in.
After perhaps a dozen visits to Ghent, Mrs W's command of Flemish extends to about the same number of words. The major bar to learning is that most people speak English over there. She points out also that the official spelling of certain words is subject to change. Only last year, for example, one of the few words in her vocabulary was suddenly pluralised: kippegaas became kippengaas. Quite why she needs to know the Flemish for "chicken- wire" remains a mystery.
In order to assist her command of this protean language, I invested in a volume called Engels Zonder Taboe (British Slang) by the euphonious Veronica Sierra-Naughton. Her work not only illuminates the argot of the streets, but offers an intriguing insight into Belgian psychology. For example, "brewer's droop" translates into the prosaic impotentie door overmatig drankgebruik, while "birthday suit" takes on a biblical overtone as in adamskostuum staan. Weirdly, the slang equivalents for the Belgian word lesbienne are given as "dike, lemon, woman in comfortable shoes". I rather like the way a Belgian "Jack the Lad" is the snappy haantje-de- voorste, and "prat" becomes idioot of nietsnut. "To go wobbly at the knees" sounds better as knikkende knieen hebben, but "dead as a dodo" loses something as ze dood als en pier. For some reason, Ms Sierra-Naughton suggests that "shut your cheesehole!" (kaasgat!) is a much-used English expression. She also insists that "gnat's piss" (fluitjeswater) is impossibly rude. Apparently, it's OK to say "bollocksed", which she says is a synonym for being drunk (stomdronken zijn).
One misplaced inclusion in the section on drunkenness is "he couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery", which snappily translates as hij is zo dom dat hij niet eens een zuippatij in een brouwerij zou kunnen organiseren. However, following our recent culinary mishap concerning cured meat, I don't think we'll be needing Ik heb hinger als een paard - "I could eat a horse" might be taken literally.Reuse content