Barley fields & cocoa beans

Barley fields & cocoa beans

Aylin Öney Tan -
Barley fields & cocoa beans I’m in a time machine. I see history repeating itself. There are moments when I completely forget about the sense of where I am or why I’m here and I find myself asking: “Where is here anyway?” The sense of time in me is lost. I think I just saw my great Grossmutter as a toddler being carried in a wooden cart a minute ago, but how is that possible? The women of my family remained in Königsberg, and the father left them to go to the Western Front and ended up marrying his second wife, a French priest’s daughter in Alsace. Years later, we discovered we had a great half-aunt Nanette in Paris. That Prussian soldier could have been my great great grandfather; he really looks like him. Then all of a sudden, I realize I’m completely confused. What I’m talking about is World War I. It might be because of the copious amounts of beer I kept consuming. I’m consumed in the confusion of time!

For the past week we’ve been on an immersion tour of Wallonia in Belgium, gazing through quite a number of war museums and memorials. Now I’m in the midst of sugar beets and barley fields in Braine-l’Alleud, the actual place of the Battle of Waterloo. I’ve spent the last few days seeing a lot of things about wars, both about the Napoleonic Wars of two centuries ago and the World Wars of the past century. Belgium has been a battleground in many wars, stepped on like a doormat by so many troops of various nations. With all the maps showing how global powers kept fighting on lands that did not belong to them, my crazy mind finds a parallel between Belgium and the Middle East. Belgium was a country that suffered greatly from such wars. Whole towns were evacuated, with an exodus of inhabitants migrating to safer places. History keeps repeating itself; nowadays the battleground is Syria and Iraq, and the exodus is refugees flooding into Turkish territory. 

Bacon & Chocolate

I decide to focus my mind on the Battle of Waterloo and go back to 1815. Just a few steps from the sugar beets and barley fields lay another world and another time. I show my press pass at the entrance to the bivouac site of the Allied Forces and step back in time. This year as part of the bicentennial commemoration of Waterloo, a re-enactment of the battle and reconstitution of the campaign grounds is the biggest live play one can ever witness. I let myself flow with the time. The barracks tents display life in the campaign as realistically as possible. People are not acting but actually living the time of two centuries ago. The faces, the outfits and the manners are like real. One could easily be taken into the past and lose their sense of time, but that is just not possible, as the reality of our time is everywhere, thanks to occasional selfies taken by lieutenants, or a commander taking photos of his troop with his iPhone, or the occasional watch on the wrist of an reenactor. 

I peek into the Allied Forces commanders’ tents; it is quite a feast they are having. Pineapples seem to be the luxury of the period; the commanders’ tables are always adorned with the triumphant existence of a single pineapple. Their water is freshened with orange slices, another luxurious feature not seen in other tents. They have their blue & white china, silver cutlery and pretty glasses made of actual glass. I’m puzzled by such finesse in a campaign tent. Watching how commanders eat, I feel hungry. I hear bacon sizzling.

Following the inviting smell, I end up in front of a humble soldier’s tent. He offers me a bite of the fried slab of the dubious meat and says: “Speck!” Oh, my haunting Germanic past again… I take a bite and instantly I’m part of the whole thing, eating with the soldiers. I suddenly need an escape from the past and take a bite from the 70 percent cocoa Galler chocolate in my pocket to bring me back to the present time. But no! The cocoa taste does just the contrary and provokes the remembrance of other disasters in other lands. The reputed Belgian chocolate owes much of its existence to the colonial Belgian Congo, from where a good supply of cocoa beans used to come from. Chocolate is an everyday commodity in Belgium today, but then it was a luxury which cost blood and tears. Well, a box of Pierre Marcolini chocolates costs blood and tears nowadays, anyway!  

These bites of bacon and chocolate have the effect of magic mushroom on me, like in Alice in Wonderland. I’m thrown in between here and there and now and then, almost instantly. Actually, I’m wandering around here and there all the time between various sites; I must have walked at least 25-30 kilometers in total all day. Funny, a group of French soldiers are lined up in a bush shed to pee, no wonder the symbol of Brussels is “Manneken Pis,” it must be because of all the beer consumed. There is a smaller version of it in Waterloo named “Il Gamin Quipiche,” the peeing kid. Thinking about this, I urgently need to find a refuge in a loo, so I surrender in an Asian restaurant on the way and a Vietnamese person helps to find me my rescue. Life is back to normal, and I roll back into history again. Oh God! That is Napoleon on his white horse; or in reality Frank Samson, the guy who is proud to speak French with a Corsican accent and a Napoléon impersonator.

Playing the French Emperor’s role since 2005, he seems to be completely absorbed in the process and lost in time too. As he proudly passes by, I join the tired French forces to walk another four or five kilometers back to where I started. The re-enactment of Waterloo has had a hallucinogenic effect on me. As I march with my fellow comrades that toiled the whole day in the barley fields, I’m exhausted, and now I have an idea what an exodus feels like. And I surely know how barley and cocoa beans, or beer and chocolate, are about the history of Belgium. 

Bite of the Week

Cork of the Week: Vive la bière! If you ask what I have been drinking while writing this article, it was shifts between Lambic and Geuze. There are several Belgium beers now available in Turkey, but if you have the opportunity to visit Belgium this summer, please do try the special local beers. After the re-enactment of Waterloo, I spent a day in Brussels with my architect friend Ayhan Koloğlu. He arranged two appointments for me in two breweries, Cantillon in Brussels and Drie Fonteinen in Beersel. Both are strongly recommended. But my experiences there will be for another article, that of fermentation and pickling, or getting pickled.