Odette Toulemonde, the protagonist of the Belgian movie with the same name, reminds me of Amelie Poulain. Odette finds happiness in little things and in helping others; she levitates when she is happy (a sur-realistic touch which I find adorable). Her dream is ordinary, like her life as shop assistant. But in a world where people think that “more” (money, houses, cars, career, appliances, clothes, exotic holidays, parties-socializing etc), means happier/better, I find it refreshing that her idea of happiness is to go on a trip to the Belgian seaside. However, the first time I got there one windy summer day and bathed in the cold and murky sea water, trying to ignore the sight of the big grey blocks of flats flanking the beach, I wondered why would this be anyone’s dream destination. But it’s like Belgium – at least this is how I discovered it while living here: it’s not love at first sight. On the contrary, on first sight one might be deceived.
So I decided to give it one more chance and this Sunday I took a trip to Oostende, on the Belgian coast of the North Sea. It was the end of October and the weather was not exactly inviting. The sky was heavy with low, grey clouds, a fine drizzle was falling, making the air cold and wet, so that no jacket seemed warm enough. In spite of that, the train from Brussels to Oostende was packed and the seaside was full of people, as if it were a summer day. I think this is one of the valuable lessons I learned while living in Belgium: to ignore bad weather and to really cherish each sunny day. When I say to people I live in Belgium, their first reaction is, making a compassionate-sorry face: ‘It rains a lot, isn’t it?”. Indeed, the weather is quite bad here. Especially the summers are cold and rainy and the lack of light is the worst. In August everybody designs escape strategies, in order to make a stack of sun, heat and light, which has to last until the next escape. But as I said, here you don’t plan your life according to the weather, otherwise you would end up staying at home all the time. I believe people here learn since they were toddlers, carried by their parents on the back of the bike, through rain and wind, that bad weather is no excuse.
On that rainy October day in Oostende there were couples strolling on the beach, playing with a dog or flying kites, families on four-seat tandem bicycles, children building castles in the sand, elegantly-clad white-haired ladies, with an air from 1900, sitting in wheelchairs, pushed by equally distinguished old gentlemen, youngsters chatting and laughing loudly, as teenagers do, kids with skateboards and karts, outdoor terraces where people were having the traditional moules and frites lunch (mussels and fries, Belgian fries, mind you!). Everybody, from young to old, from sporty to romantic, was out. And me, photographing all this 🙂
All this fantastic material for black and white photography would be enough reason for me to like Oostende. But there is something more: the museum of the Belgian painter James Ensor, hosted in the house where he lived and painted for more than 30 years. His bizarre, unsettling, lonely, weird, different paintings with masks, carnivals, death, religious themes stayed in my mind for a long time.
That was Oostende for me. If you want to see the photos, take a look here. And if you haven’t visited already, I hope you will.