A weird pattern was developing. I enter a village bar/café in the morning during my walk and basically the same scenario plays out. Four customers, usually men are sitting around the bar. Unlike a cafe or bar at home, they do not sit together but are spaced out, so the Flemish conversation forms a necklace round the bar. As I enter, the customers, together with the landlord/landlady stare at me like a scene in a cowboy movie where a stranger who has just rolled into the peaceful law-abiding town enters the saloon and there is a sudden silence. I always asked for coffee because for me, beer and walking don’t mix, especially in the morning. In the first of the Poperinge bars (four men and a landlady) into which the stranger had stepped out of the rain, the answer from the stern landlady was a definite no. At the second cafe,(three men and one woman and a landlady) I got the usual stare treatment ,though she eventually warmed to the wet figure in the corner of the bar, and I received a smile and a coffee with two cinnamon biscuits.
That’s another thing about cup of coffee in Belgium. Even if you have wandered into some really grotty area you are still going to be given a biscuit with your coffee. In one cafe I was given a piece of cake and a biscuit though my favourite(in Passendaele village), was where a tiny bowl of what I took to be cream was placed beside my coffee. On further examination I realised that it was far too viscous and yellow to be cream for my coffee Making sure that no one was looking, to avoid looking stupid,I dipped my teaspoon into the delicate little dish. The taste was fantastic – a tiny bowl of what I would call creme Anglais -a beautiful cold vanilla custard. Early one morning I was walking up the Broodenside ridge, a much fought over village which during the war had been reduced to virtually nothing but mud,when I spotted an open cafe bar. I had been looking out for a chateau which housed a museum that I hoped to visit on my way back. In I go -yep four men and a middle aged landlady. However the stare factor lasts only thirty seconds and the coffee and bicuits are on their way. I ask the landlady about the location of the museum nearby and whether she thought it would be open since it was a Belgian public holiday. Unknown to me the four men were listening in. One of the men brought over a museum brochure and the other had already used his mobile phone to confirm that yes, the chateau was open all day.
Langemark broke the numbers trend. It was nearly lunchtime. I had finnished my walk and walking through the village spied a board offering snacks. Eating out in Ieper was very expensive so I thought I would pop in and have a cheap lunch of macaroni cheese. Once inside, my audience consisted of only a young man,his wife and a landlord. He looked in astonishment when I asked for macaroni.”We only serve food at weekends”. Completely non plussed by the fact that he had gone to the trouble of putting out a chalkboard on the pavement, I forgot myself and ordered a beer!