Walking in Flanders (1): Haaltert to Vlierzele

Low, coldish, grey, no rain.

When I walked through Luxembourg, France and Germany the pattern was village — fields or woods (2-4 km) — village. Here there are houses along the length of the country roads. For planning reasons I think it is easier to build new houses in Belgium than in Britain or the Netherlands; and to build the house you want. As I walked along, I saw many joyful brick houses.

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brick house Mere 1119 5.JPG

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brick house Laar 1119.JPG

There were also several street corner chapels, like this.

chapel Mere 1119.JPG

I’ve only seen them before in Bavaria and Austria. I liked this modern version which still, I think, is a chapel not a church.

chapel Laar 1119.JPG

I saw sheep,

sheep Bambrugge 1119.JPG

llamas,

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and chickens.  At lunch, in Mere, I met the president of the James Bond society of Belgium and the Netherlands. Towards the end of the afternoon, in Zonnegem,  tiring, I had a beer at ‘t Oud Bierhuisje, which is three hundred years old. The landlady welcomed Dog. Dog and Landlady’s two dogs raced around the bar and garden for half an hour.

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dogs ‘t Oud Bierhuisje Zonnegem 119.JPG

We established after discussion that, as at home, dogs are not allowed on the table.

Done in, I got two buses and a tram from Vlierzele to Ghent where I’m staying.

(In the photo at the top, look out for the ironing boards.)

Walking in Flanders (0)

On a Saturday morning in April 2008 I cycled away from my house in Ixelles, Brussels, heading southeast. That evening I reached Rochefort, in the Belgian Ardennes. It was the first of 53 days over the last ten years that I’ve spent walking (solid lines) and occasionally cycling (dotted lines) in that direction. A year ago this month I reached Vienna.

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I love my job at the European Commission.  I realised, though, that for work I mostly visited the capital cities of member states. The idea of this journey was to see what the rest of Europe is like.

The journey has done that, and given me other things too. In a Richard Long sort of way, I like the invisible line I have made. I think that it didn’t exist before I did the journey;  it does now. The journey also gave me the chance to spend full days in the company of Old Dog – until in 2014 or 2015 (I’m not quite certain of the dates in Bavaria)  I more or less dragged him into Dingolfing because he couldn’t do it any more. We missed our train by five minutes and got home half a day late.

This line, understood as a succession of Hodson-powered stages, has three gaps. On a summer’s day in Lorraine, west of Binche, Old Dog was too hot to walk on. We had to get a taxi for 10 km. (He was a Spring and Autumn Dog.) In the suburbs east of Karlsruhe I ended the walk one year at the foot of a funicular and could not resist beginning it the next year at the top. And for railway timetable reasons I finished one walk at Münchmünster in Bavaria and started the next at Neustadt an der Donau, 6 km further on.

I go out and back by train. Now I’ve got so far, it takes a day in each direction. That means it’s only possible to journey onward when I have something like a week of time off. So in April 2016, when I had just a weekend to spare, I walked away from my house in Ixelles, Brussels, extending the line west.

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Since 2013 I’ve been getting physically less good at long walks. In April 2017 I did another day heading west from Brussels, reaching the town of Haaltert on the day that the Round of Flanders was being cycled. I did a couple of days’ walking in Rwanda later that month, visiting Daughter.. Conclusion: I couldn’t keep comfortably going for any decent distance.

Last year, therefore, in Austria, I cycled. It was fine, physically. But it isn’t the same. You see less because you have to devote some attention to the act of cycling, you are more limited in where to go, and you eat up the journey too fast.

Now I have a long weekend. (New) Dog has never done a proper multiday walk. I haven’t done one for 2½ years. As a experiment, we’re on our way. Tomorrow morning, we will set out northwest from Haaltert.

One of the interesting things will be, before, when I was walking in Flanders, I was comparing it with Brussels. Now, after eight months in Alkmaar, I’ll be comparing it with the Netherlands.

The journey from the research site where I work to Aalst where I’m spending the night was slow (20 kph door to door) and expensive (€0,45/km). I changed trains in Antwerp. The station entrance hall is as gorgeous as it was when I was last here.

Antwerp station 1119 9.JPG

I don’t know another European jurisdiction which would have prevented the building of shopping opportunities in such a space (think of Milan station, or Liverpool Street in London).

Aalst: I wanted to stay in the New Hotel de la Gare for its low price and unFlemish name. They don’t take dogs so I’m in the Tower Hotel instead.

Living in Holland 4

This lunchtime I cycled from work to the beach at St Maartenszee. A good wind. Roiling waves.

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Two long lorries were taking away long pipes.

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These pipes have run out into the sea since I’ve been coming to this beach, since last March. I supposed they were sewage pipes. My colleague the wise man of Garda put me right. They are, he thinks, sand redistribution pipes. They do their work and then are moved from beach to beach, along these parts, on a five year cycle.

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Living in Holland, Travelling Companion and I want to learn Dutch. When I started work a course started that very week and I got on it. Travelling Companion found it harder. One course was cancelled for a lack of participants. She couldn’t get on the next because it already had too many. She eventually started Dutch classes in Amsterdam last week.

Her classmates are mostly au pairs. Today (class two) they did family relations: oma, neef, dochter…  (granny, nephew/cousin, daughter…).

My classmates, like me, are EU staff working far from home. We learned these family words last month, in class forty.

מיומנויות השפה של עמוס טברסקי

Michigan required that all PhD students in psychology pass a proficiency test in two foreign languages. Weirdly, the university didn’t count Hebrew as a foreign language but accepted mathematics. Though entirely self-taught in mathematics, Amos chose math as one of his languages. For his second language he picked French.The test was to translate three pages from a book in the language. The student chose the book, and the tester chose the pages to translate. Amos went to [the library and] dug out a French math textbook with nothing but equations in it. ‘It might have had the word donc in it,’ said Amos’ roommate Mel Guyer. The University of Michigan declared Amos Tversky proficient in French.  (Michael Lewis, The undoing project, 2017)

In 1977 I spent time on a kibbutz. Wednesday night was film night. The film would be delivered in the afternoon, in a silver film can, to the dining/socialising block. We volunteers would try with our fragmentary Hebrew to work out from the label the title of the film we would see in the evening.

The film that I saw then, that stays with me now, is Duel.

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(Dublin, 2017)

At the « Terminus Nord » in Paris

It’s mid-afternoon on the first Sunday in November, getting dark. Travelling Companion, Dog and I are heading out of Paris. We’re on our way home from Châtelaillon-Plage in the west of France: taxi to La Rochelle (no public transport on Sundays), train to Paris Montparnasse, metro to the Gare du Nord, train to Brussels, train to Amsterdam, train to Alkmaar.

The available food on the La Rochelle-Paris train was awful.

In Paris, though, we had time to eat the last fish soup of this wet long weekend at the Terminus Nord opposite the station.

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The soup came, as it should, with bread, croutons, cheese and rouille, which you stir in.

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Travelling Companion asked me to pass the cheese – Oh, it’s in my soup I said. I thought that little pot was all for me. Well I explained and asked for more. The waiter brought a pot for Travelling Companion and an additional one for me, laughing.

Now this restaurant is evidently designed for people who are travelling through. There are plenty of places to leave your bags.

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The food comes quickly and, when you ask for it, so does the bill. Why do they bother about cheerful good service? The other places opposite the Gare du Nord do not. If you ask for a beer at the bar on the corner of the rue de Dunkerque and the boulevard de Denain they bring you a vast one without asking and curtly charge you eight euros. Could it be because at the Terminus Nord they have a commercial strategy of being the place you choose to come back to when you’re passing this way? (We still talk about the time we were there with our children and a waiter spilt coffee over Travelling Companion. We all four were brought a glass of champagne. It is, in any case, the place we go back to.) Or, as I think, is it that organisational cultures arise at random, or under a particular leader, and are then passed on over time and difficult to uproot?

When I was nineteen I worked for a summer in a pickled onion factory in Zeeland. We were 150 British men, randomly divided into alternating shifts. One shift crystallised around leadership, hierarchy and a macho culture. The other shared around the good jobs (shooting onions into the factory with a water cannon) and the bad (picking green onions off the conveyor belt).

In one of the work cafeterias I used to go to in Brussels, whoever the staff – and there was a decent turnover – they always worked slowly.

On the gate at the research site where I work now, whoever the staff, they are always jolly.

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Dog is slim and weighs 12 kilos. We told the taxi company she weighed 9 kilos and would sit on a lap (which she did). Is she at most 7 kilos and do you have a bag to carry her in, pleaded the ticket office lady at La Rochelle. We couldn’t say so, so we had to pay €31,50 for her, rather than €7, on the train.

At the Terminus Nord she wouldn’t settle. I offered her my nice leather bag, and a plastic one as an alternative. She dragged my new leather hat out of the plastic bag and sat on it.

Laps (living in Holland 3)

I’m learning Dutch. We’re doing the family. De baby zit op de schoot: it turns out that Dutch, like English, has a word for lap. Good. The photo is of Mother-in-law, on her 90th birthday at the Olive Tree in Loughton, with Great-grandson No 1 on her lap.

Barbara baby James Liz Paul Barbara's 90th Olive Tree Loughton 513.JPG

The French equivalent – le bébé est assis sur les genoux – the baby is sitting on the knees – sounds like blancmange in comparison.

I asked Google Translate if  this is all that French has to offer on the subject of laps. Lovelily it offers a translation of laptop as portable, leading to imaginary sentences like is your pension laptop? But lapdancing is just le lapdancing and I’m reminded of a colleague who went to visit his girlfriend in Moscow. If you don’t want to go to a laptopdancing club, he came back and said, there’s not much to do there in the evenings.

Since I started studying Dutch I’ve lost touch with Russian. Lap,  Mr Google says, is круг, circle, in Russian.

woman and baby San Sebastian 713.JPG(baby, San Sebastian, Spain, 2013)

 

History games 10 – The battle of Mantinea (418 BC) refought with the De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) rules

I’m working my way chronologically through my board wargames. I’ve reached the Peloponnesian war (431-404 BC). Ten days ago I had the chance, at the Amsterdam Sixshooters wargames club, to play a figures game of the biggest land battle of that war. (In this context, “figure” is the opposite of “board”.)

Athens and Sparta made a sort of peace in 421, but didn’t mean it. Athens stirred up Argos (previously neutral) and cities such as Mantinea (previously part of Sparta’s Peloponnesian league) to fight Sparta. The whole Spartan army, with Mantinea’s local rival Tegea, went out under King Agis to bring these cities into line. At Mantinea they defeated the allies and reestablished control over the Peloponnese.

Wargamers mostly depict ancient and medieval battles in one of two ways:

(a) A ‘historical’ set-up, in which each unit starts, on the battlefield, where we think it might have started in reality; or

(b) A ‘free’ set-up, in which the battle lines are drawn but the player, as commander, can decide where in the line each unit should be positioned.

I came across, though, a third idea, in which you start your depiction hours or days earlier, with the armies’ approach to the battlefield. This worked well last year in a refight that I organised of the battle of Pinkie (1547).* At Mantinea, according to the historian Donald Kagan, neither side’s set-up was optimal. Instead of facing each other properly, each side’s right wing extended far beyond the enemy’s left. This affected how the battle came out. This made me think it would be interesting to try an ‘approach’ battle here too, starting not in the middle of the day but with the armies further back, at the start of the morning. Obviously, you then need a bigger table; but a normal DBA table is small, even in BBDBA (big battle DBA) so this is feasible.

There’s only one source (Thucydides). Historians and wargame designers have derived from his text different army compositions and sizes. There’s a consensus, though, that the Spartan army was about 10%/1000 men bigger than that of the allies. It’s a requirement in DBA that armies have the same number of elements. I dealt with the disparity by giving the Spartans a bigger proportion of the hoplite spearmen that were the main fighters in classical Greece. Our armies, expressed in elements, had these divisions:

Sparta

  • Van (Spartans and freed helots) – 1 cavalry, 2 skiritae (solid auxiliaries), 3 hoplites
  • Centre (King Agis and Spartans)– 1 skirmisher (psiloi), 17 hoplites
  • Rear (Tegeans)– 1 cavalry, 1 skirmisher, 10 hoplites

Allies

  • Right (Mantineans) – 2 skirmishers, 2 peltasts (fast auxiliaries), 11 hoplites
  • Centre (Argives) – 1 skirmisher, 14 hoplites
  • Left (Laches and the Athenians) – 1 cavalry, 1 light horse, 1 skirmisher, 3 hoplites

I made up the battlefield from a 7½ x 4½ km rectangle drawn on Kagan’s map, assuming that the river was dry:

map Mantinea 1019.JPG

Our battlefield was 2 metres 50 x 1 metre 50.

I set up the Spartans in a single column coming along the eastern (right hand) road, and the Allies in three columns: the right in Mantinea heading to come out along the road, the left in the mountains and the centre in between.

DBA game Mantinea Amsterdam Sixshooters 1019 setup.JPG

Each side could have found some good defensive terrain, hung back and let the other side come on to them. I ruled that they couldn’t. King Agis had to attack because he’d called off attacks too often – most recently, at Mount Alesion, at the top right, the day before – and his credibility as a leader was almost gone. The Argives had to attack because their leaders, from Argos’ democratic faction, had taken them into this war and so far had nothing to show for it, either to their citizens or to their aristocratic rivals (many of whom were present in the army).

B, another player at the club, commanded the Spartans: I commanded the allies. We diced for who moved first.

In DBA the amount of moving that an army can do each turn is determined by a dice throw. In BBDBA three dice are thrown, with one allocated to each division. The player decides at the start of the game which division will (every turn) get the highest, middle and lowest dice. I allocated them from right to left, B from rear to van.**

To get to the battlefield the Spartan army had to follow a road through the Pelagos wood. Historically it seems that the allies deployed in an east-west line somewhere between Mantinea and the wood. Kagan writes, “As [Agis’] army emerged in column from the forest, he was shocked to find the enemy army close by, well away from the hills, and in close battle order… The Argive generals apparently chose not to strike the enemy as it emerged from the forest or to charge before the Spartans could form into line. Either tactic might have forced a Spartan retreat and led to another avoidance of battle, but, pressed by their soldiers’ disgruntlement, the generals seems to have been determined to fight that day.”

Historically, therefore, each side deployed facing the other on an east-west line. Each won the battle on their right. The Mantineans, on the allied right, kept pursuing the beaten Spartan left. The Tegeans, on the Spartan right, turned into the centre and, combining with the Spartan centre, defeated the Argive centre and won the battle.

My refight told the set-up story differently from how Kagan tells it:

1) It is easier for armies to advance than to retreat. Once their column had begun to emerge from the woods, the Spartans could not have avoided a fight if that was what the allies wanted.

2) However, moving from columns of march into line takes time. In my refight it appeared that this meant there wasn’t time for the allies to make a well formed east-west line in good order close to the woods. The allies had to choose between making a line further back – giving the Spartans time to get out of the woods and make their own line – or “strike the enemy as it emerged from the forest” with their own troops also in a ragged formation.

3) Thus, as depicted by DBA, it wasn’t because the allies held back to ensure a full battle – but because they wanted to fight the battle with a well formed line – that the allies, historically, would have chosen to let the Spartans get out of the woods.

4) As allied commander I chose instead to try to strike the enemy as it emerged.

My right hand division, to which I had given the highest dice, raced out of Mantinea down the westerly road and deployed from there into a north-south line to catch the Spartans as they came out of the woods. They quickly routed the Spartans’ weak van. The Spartan van bought time, though, for their powerful centre division, under Agis, to get out of the woods and off the road and to start deploying on a north-south line in parallel.

The allied left and centre, with lower-scoring dice each turn and no road to speed along, took a long time to get even fractions of each division into the battle. This meant that the Spartan rear, the Tegeans, had time to get out of the woods and deploy in a solid east-west line to face them.

For a while it looked as though the Spartans would win. On my right, where I was strongest, the remnants of their defeated left wing held stubbornly on and stopped me getting at their centre. On their right the Tegeans and Spartans, outnumbering me, marched solidly forward. They broke my Athenian left, killing my commander in chief Laches. This meant that the half of my Argives that had succeeded in forming a line – the other half was straggling – would probably be outflanked and broken.

But Sparta’s army, having got out of the woods, was formed up not in a straight line but in a right angle, with my allied army “outside” it.

DBA game Mantinea Amsterdam Sixshooters 1019 8.JPG

King Agis found himself defending the point where the line kinked. In DBA, such a point is a weakness.  I battered it and battered it, flanking Agis and in the end killing him. His division, unled, lost its momentum; and I was able to win the battle for the allies.

The game took 3½ hours – half for the approach march and half for the battle.

Reflections 

  1. Playing the approach as well as the battle worked well. I’d like to try it again. DBA is quick, and the space it needs for the actual battlefield is small, so it is a good ruleset for approach battles.
  1. On the other hand, in hoplite battles there was chivalry (unlike in the later battles of the Macedonians). Perhaps the “approach battle” scenario, in which the allies may monster the Spartans while they are coming out of the wood, rather than leaving them time and space to line up, is ahistorical.
  1. In BBDBA your army is in three divisions. One division always has the highest dice for movement, one the lowest. This has an even bigger impact than usual – for the good, the historical, I think – in an approach battle. But B regretted giving the highest dice to his rearmost division – which, in the woods, was prevented for many turns from using its full movement by the divisions in front. An apparently small choice may have had a big effect on the Spartans’ chances.
  1. I’ve played loads of DBA and not much else in terms of ancients and medieval. It’s become second nature to me that a kink in your line is a weakness. Is that historical? Do other rules say the same? At my new club, I’m hoping to try other rules – starting with the French ruleset Art de la Guerre – to see how they deal with this.
  1. It felt like the battle was over too quickly. In BBDBA divisions break when they have lost 1/3 of their elements, and the army breaks when two of its three divisions have done so – perhaps only 2/9 of the total number of elements in the army. In planning the game I made sure that the number of elements in each division was a multiple of three. Another time, I would do the reverse. That would postpone their break points.

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*Against history, in our game the Scots beat the English. My friend the Border Psychiatrist led her light horse down the length of a table tennis table to raid and destroy the English baggage train.

**We used a good modification, suggested by B. Two divisions can switch dice, but the higher score is then reduced by one.