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The Season of Darkness

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The sun begins to rise later and set earlier. Its rays, although bright, offer little reprieve from the cold. The trees become bare and skeletal. Winter isn’t coming, it has arrived.

Mid-October autumn, in my opinion, is the most beautiful season. I think it’s because it’s the first time I visited Belgium. We stayed with my aunt in Keerbergen, a very forested area. It’s the first time I experienced the low sun where it felt to me as if it were 6 a.m. and it was actually 10 a.m., the first time I saw a ginger squirrel and real snow. These flakes were the size of coins and floated down to earth ever so carefully! It’s also the first time I smelled the unique combination found in train stations here. The warm mingled aroma of coffee, warm waffles and friet. A train station without a coffee and waffle merchant is a sad place.

There’s a huge difference between winter here in Belgium and winter where I come from. Seasonal change to winter meant that the grass, (already hard, dry and brown) became harder, drier and browner. All in all the only real difference between winter and summer where I come from is that the mornings are colder and the daylight a little shorter. The afternoons are still quite pleasant and the sun is still warming.

It’s startling how the sun’s path changes so drastically here in Belgium and how weak its rays become. In December the midday sun in Belgium doesn’t rise past what would be the 10 a.m. position where I come from. To me its perpetually morning or evening during the winter days here.

The marked change of entire wooded areas is amazing! All the trees seem to join in on the autumn fashion parade with their leaves turning to golden yellows, fiery oranges and blood reds. Then the winds come up and strip all the leaves off the trees and I find I can see much further into parks and woodlands than I used to. These forested havens seductively shedding their gaudy garments and revealing their inner starkness. The wet bark of trees showing them off crisply black against the vast openness behind. The sun’s rays that shine through are bright but offer no warmth at all. If anything the brightness seems to add to the cold by highlighting plumes of breath and sparkles in the ice and frost.

It’s cold. Not only in the mornings but the entire day. All the time! When I first arrived I’d always expect the cold to lift like morning mist and for it to become at least slightly warm. That’s what I was used to. Even after four years living in Belgium I still catch myself expecting this… this miraculous warmth materializing at around lunchtime. The cold persists though and I’m sharply reminded that this is Belgium where winter is winter and not some added irritation. Winter here is an event. It’s life changing or at least lifestyle changing!

After summer vacation, the roller-shutters on our street don’t rise as high or as often as they used to. The street is quiet and dim, lit only with the yellow streetlights when I arrive home at around 17:00. There are no greetings of “Hello” and friendly waves that happen in summer. The mornings are the same. Dark, cold and quiet.

Something quite remarkable happens with our food too! Where I come from, our food remains fairly consistent in variety but here! Here something remarkable happens. The availability and price of items change with the oncome of winter. All the fresh, cold and summer appropriate foods tend to get more expensive and rarer and the winter fare is suddenly available. Nuts, wild game meats, patés and hearty winter vegetables like pumpkin abound. A wonderful feast of earthy, deep flavors and smoky, salty meats are suddenly offered. Desserts with warm spicy flavors such as speculoos and marzipan also become more prevalent.

This season also brings with it, if you’re brave enough to venture into the cold, a wonderful assortment of feasts and festivals. There’s inevitably the arrival of de Sint, Zwarte Pieten and Slecht Weer Vandaag in a town or community near you and usually occurs at the end of November. I’d describe this Sint fellow as a more stern, religious figure than Santa Claus but with a similar wardrobe tastes of predominantly red and white. There’s always a fun amount of pomp and ceremony around his much anticipated arrival as well as an excellent chance that any attending children will have a superb time.

The light and fire festivals also begin. Antwerp Zoo has an annual light festival and our community of Boom has Putteke Winter which is a marvelous show of light and fire attractions.

Various Christmas markets crop up this time of year and I have one word that I must share: Glühwein! I’ve tasted this in the country where I came from but it was, well, not very good. I’m not sure if it wasn’t made correctly or if the weather wasn’t cold enough. When I had it for the first time in Belgium at a freezing Christmas market it was amazing! It warmed me through, lifted my spirits and made me feel wonderful. It’s now one of those aromas that is synonymous with a good Christmas market on a cold night. Without it, a market is simply a huddle of wooden huts.

There are things I also change to accommodate the season. My choice of beer for instance changes from the more summer appropriate triple, amber and light beers to the darker beers. I take to drinking Kasteel Donker which is a deep, rich, black beer.

Instead of cereal and fruit juice – a summer favorite, my taste inclines more to hot tea, toast and cheese or paté during winter.

I also change the music on my cellphone to more somber tunes that include Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Tom Waits. I find these tunes are far more atmosphere enhancing. My summer music simply feels horribly out of place during this cold time of year.

So whether you’re a brave soul and venture out or a hibernating type who burrows in for winter – enjoy it!

Have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Ciao for now.

Clinton Ashworth

Clinton lived in a country he loved and had all the hope in the world for, but it turned bad. His mother was born and mostly raised in Ardooie, Belgium by her parents- Clinton's Mémé and Pépé. That’s his Belgian connection.

Both of his parents worked full day and he spent 5 days a week with his Mémé. Needless to say he could speak Flemish better than English in those days but things change. Eventually his Flemish washed away by the onslaught of Afrikaans (a language with Dutch origins which was compulsory in school) and the corroding effect of time. Many of the old world Belgian ways and values have stuck though.

He feels like he doesn't fit in perfectly in Belgium either but he must become Belgian at all cost! He needs to learn how to speak Belgian Nederlands or better yet - Vlaams and re-learn everything forgotten from his days with Mémé. So, He wants to be more than a Belgian on paper. He needs to be what his blood demands: Belgian!

He enjoys watching from a new-comers perspective what it takes to be the most elegant and unusual animal on earth - a Belgian. 

For his other blogs, visit: http://www.clintonashworth.com.