Tuesday, 9 September 2014
A visit to Hazebrouck
["Hazebrouck en Flandre." Jersey ("maillot") of the Hazebrouck-based CCFVL cycling club.]
One of the unexpected high points of my summer bicycle trip from the Swiss Alps to the Scottish Highlands was a visit to the town of Hazebrouck in French Flanders, from which my family name is [most likely] derived.
If my name wasn't Hasbrouck, I would probably never have gone to Hazebrouck. But I'm glad I went to Hazebrouck, I had an interesting and enjoyable visit, and it would have been worthwhile even if my name weren't Hasbrouck.
There's a lesson in this.
It should be taken as axiomatic that it's impossible to publish an accurate list of "off the beaten path" destinations. Travel writers, by our writing (or more precisely, by disseminating what we write) change the places we write about. Putting a place on a published list of destinations necessarily puts it on the tourist track, even if it wasn't before. This is the travel analog of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Perhaps I should call it the Hasbrouck Uncertainty Principle of travel.
The only way to find places that are truly untouristed is to go to places that aren't recommended, and maybe aren't even mentioned, in any guidebook or bucket list.
What amazes me is how rarely even people who profess to ackowledge the truth of this axiom act on it.
I went to Hazebrouck because of its connection with my name. I had an excuse for a visit, and an explanation for why I was there. It was a reminder of the importance of taking advantage of these excuses, connections, and opportunties, no matter how tenuous.
But I didn't need this or any other excuse to visit Hazebrouck, or to visit other communities that are interesting precisely because of their "insignificance" to people in bigger and more self-important places. One of the particular benefits of bicycle travel, for example, is that it makes you not just pass through but spend time in places along the way that you may never have heard of before, and wouldn't have chosen as destinations for a separate trip.
There's no particular reason to visit Hazebrouck, and it isn't mentioned in most guidebooks. But that's true of most places. It's not the oldest, or the largest, or the most traditional town of the region, or the one that would-be visitors are likely to think of, or be directed to, as either most "typical" or the most "distinctive". But in reality, that makes it both more "authentically" its own place, and more representative of the vast majority of communities that aren't shaped by or for tourism.
Hazebrouck is located in present-day France, near the border with Belgium in an area that was a center of textile and later coal-mining industries. Hazebrouck's greatest period of growth was the 19th century, when it became a significant railway junction between France, Belgium, and the Channel ports at Calais and Dunkerque.
The most historically significant local events were during World War I, when Hazebrouck was a major supply center and evacuation route for casualties as the closest major railhead behind one of the most important sectors of the front lines of the Western allies. As many as several million allied soldiers passed through Hazebrouck during the war, some marching off trains and some carried back onto them shell-shocked, blinded from poison gas, or otherwise crippled. Unlike most of the towns in a broad arc around it, Hazebrouck was never occupied by the German forces, although one of the last German offensives of World War I was a failed attempt to cut off allied supplies by capturing the Hazebrouck railways. I've seen the name Hazebrouck in the lists of battlefields on British imperial war memorials from Edinburgh to Canberra.
But my Hasbrouck ancestors had left France centuries before any of this. They were Huguenots -- French Protestants -- who fled the religious pogroms instigated by the French royal family beginning with the the St. Bartholemew's Day massacre in 1592.
[Addendum: Robert Hasbrouck, president of the Hasbrouck Family Association, wrote to me after reading this article to point out that, "There is no proof that our American branch of the family had any link to the town, although, logically, it seems quite likely... I suspect our ancestors left (or were forced out) after converting to Protestantism.... The whole issue of our family name and ancestry is quite confusing, and the loss/destruction of records over the centuries has rendered it impossible to clarify."]
"Grants" of land in overseas colonies were especially attractive to refugees who had lost whatever ancestral land their families might have had in Europe. In the 1670s, after trying and failing to put down new roots in the Palatinate ("Pfalz") in what is now Germany, two Hasbrouck brothers including my seven-greats grandfather emigrated to the Dutch colony of the New Netherlands. They were among the first dozen European settlers of the town of New Paltz, on the Hudson River in what is now the state of New York. A generation later, in the 1750s, another presumably-related Huguenot named Haasbroek emigrated to a small town in the Dutch colonies in South Africa. There's a branch of the family in South Africa to this day, and my name was immediately recognized by many Afrikaaners when I was in South Africa a few years ago.
With 10,000 or more Hasbroucks and an active family genealogical and historical society in America, I expected that people in Hazebrouck would be bored at best, annoyed at worst, with Hasbrouck visitors from America. But nobody we talked to in Hazebrouck -- not the proprietor of the one hotel in the center of town, and not the staff of the tourist information office at city hall -- was even aware that there was a family in America named after the town. Nor had anyone we talked to in Hazebrouck ever before met anyone named Hasbrouck. For that matter, we didn't see any other obvious tourists while we were in Hazebrouck. The other guests at our hotel were all business travellers and tradesmen, and nobody else came into the large and prominent tourist information office while we were there.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. None of the members of my immediate family, all of whom have travelled in Europe, have ever bothered to go to Hazebrouck, not even to pass through and have their picture taken with the "Hazebrouck" signs on the railway platform or on the road into town before continuing their journey.
[Correction: After publishing this, I got a note from my sister to say that during a trip to continental Europe on one of her breaks from a year of college study abroad in England, "I did go through Hazebrouck on the train and looked out the window at the town."]
[Seal of the city of Hazebrouck: The Flemish lion holds the Hazebrouck hare ("haas").]
My Hasbrouck ancestors came from a place that today is in France (although less than 15 km or ten miles from the Belgian border), and their first community in America was initially Francophone. But my name is spelled in Dutch/Flemish fashion (not the French spelling of the name of the town), and the etymolgy of the names of both the town and the family, however they are spelled, are clearly Dutch/Flemish.
Ten generations later, should I say that my Hasbrouck ancestors came from France or from Flanders, or that my Hasbrouck ethnic "heritage" is French or Flemish or both? What does that mean? And how would either answer be understood or misunderstood by people who live in those places today?
In Belgium, I've learned, any answer to questions about my name is liable to be misunderstood. "French AND Flemish" is viewed as a contradiction in terms. To most Belgians, "French Flanders" is an oxymoron.
From the point of view of a Dutch-speaking (Flemish) immigration inspector at the airport in Brussels, "If your family spoke French, it was because they were forced to speak French by the French occupiers! You have a Flemish name. You are Flemish, not French. You need to know who you are."
To Walloons (French-speaking Belgians), however, "Flemish" means both "Dutch-speaking" and "not French". If my ancestors lived in France and spoke French, they were French, not Flemish.
"Flemish, NOT French?" "French, NOT Flemish?" Or French AND Flemish?
Historically, Flanders was a region (and at times a distinct political entity) comprising portions of both today's Belgium and today's France. But today, Flanders is often defined as, "That portion of Belgium where the majority of the people speak Dutch or a dialect of Dutch as their first language." Wikipedia -- not a reliable source of truth, but often a good indicator of widely-accepted belief -- says that, "Flanders today normally refers to the Dutch speaking northern portion of Belgium."
Many contemporary maps of Belgium show the border within Belgium between the administrative regions of (Dutch-speaking) Flanders and (French-speaking) Wallonia in the same manner as international boundaries. On the ground, crossing between Flanders and Wallonia ("Wallonie" in French), you would think you were crossing an international border if you didn't know better. Signs welcoming you to Wallonie, with no mention of "Belgium", are more prominent than the signs today at many international borders within the Schengen Zone . The Belgian "national" tourism office recently split into completely separate government tourist promotion offices for French-speaking Brussels and Wallonia and for Dutch-speaking Flanders ("the northern region of Belgium").
Across the border in today's France, I found that people in Hazebrouck and its environs define "Flanders" and "Flemish" in geographic and cultural (including in particular gastronomic) but not linguistic terms. Belgians of either linguistic community might not like or accept the existence or legitimacy of "French Flanders" or a "French Flemish" identity, but today's Hazebrouckois see no contradiction in identifying as both French-speaking and culturally Flemish. And both officially and informally, they were unanimous in defining the region as French Flanders.
You won't find "French Flanders" labelled as such on any political or administrative map of France, however. The "départment" (an administrative subdivision somewhat analogous to a county in the USA) that includes French Flanders has the uninformative name "Nord" and the "région" (larger administrative division consisting of several départments, somewhat analogous to a state although considerably less autonomous) is "Nord-Pas-de-Calais".
One of the ways that French Flanders has more in common with other parts of France and with Francophone Wallonia in Belgium than with right-of-center (and often ethnocentric and anti-immigrant) Belgian Flanders is the predominance of leftist political opinion and votes in French Flanders. The mayor of Hazebrouck and the "député" who represents the district including Hazebrouck in the French national legislature are from socialist parties.
When I asked if anyone in Hazebrouck still speaks Flemish, our hotelier told me (in French, of course), "No. We all speak French. Well, there is a special Flemish dialect -- it's not even good modern Dutch -- that some peasants and old people in the country still know how to speak. But they all speak French."
At the same time, Hazebrouck foregrounds its Flemish self-identification. Before describing the Dutch etymology of the town's name, the municipal tourist office's Web site says that, "When they arrive in Hazebrouck, everyone knows that they are in Flanders. Everything contributes to this."
One of the things that identifies Hazebrouck and its environs in French Flanders as both French and Flemish at heart is the role of bicycling (and bicycle racing in particular) in civic life, popular culture, and tourism. Flanders is the place cyclists from around the world come to ride on the roads where their heroes have raced, to test themselves on the pavés (paving stones), to learn from the world's best riders, and to see if they have what it takes to compete at the highest level.
The Belgian tourist office for Flanders has an entire separate Web site for visitors, in English, about cycling in Flanders, with articles on topics including Flemish bicycle craftsmanship, cycle clothing designs and fashions, cycling heritage and culture, famous Flemish cyclists, famous Flemish cycling routes, accommodations and other services for cyclists, cycling for people with disabilities, and cycling and beer.
In Brussels, there's a Metro station named after Belgium's greatest sporting hero, the Flemish cyclist Eddy Merckx. In Oodenarde, there's an entire museum of the history of the Ronde van Vlaanderen ("Tour of Flanders"), featuring a paving stone inscribed with the name of each year's winner.
[At the museum of the Tour of Flanders, Oodenarde, Belgium.]
In France, the most arduous of the annual one-day "classic" bicycle races goes from Paris to Roubaix, in French Flanders on the outskirts of Lille.
The most common type of bicycle race in Flanders is the "kermis", a circuit race typically of 10-20 laps around a course 5-10 km (3-5 miles) long. The Chain Stay, a guest house in Oodenarde offering long-term temporary acommodation by the week, month, or racing season to visiting bicycle racers (where else but Flanders would there be demand for such an establishment?) has more information here about kermis/kermisse racing and Belgian bicycle racing in general.
We encountered a kermis race in the village of Geluwe, on the main road from Menem to Ypres in West Flanders, Belgium. (Here's a video of a different kermis race on the same street in Geluwe.) As we came into Geluwe, we found ourselves passing between barricades holding back a crowd that grew denser as we approached the center of the village. Everyone from retirees who had brought their lawn chairs and picnic coolers to stylish teenagers showing off their racing bikes and kit had turned out for a midweek afternoon of semi-pro bike racing. Is this the kind of following that high school football has in Texas?
[Turnout for kermis racing on a weekday afternoon on the main streat of Geluwe, West Flanders, Belgium.]
Each time the racers came through, the road was closed to other traffic for a few minutes.
[Kermis racers turning onto the Menem Road in Geluwe, West Flanders, Belgium.]
Kermis racing offers a nice balance between bicycle race formats that are easy for spectators to follow and formats that allow for more challenging and diverse routes, strategies, and tactics.
A cross-country road race, especially a multi-day stage race, lets the largest number of spectators get close to the riders, as we did this summer at the "grand départ" of the Tour de France in England:
[Spectators crowd lead riders Jens Voigt, Nicolas Edet, and Benoit Jarrier on the first stage of the 2014 Tour de France outside Ilkley, Yorkshire, England, UK.]
But a road race like this passes each point, and each group of spectators, only once.
At the other extreme, you can watch the entirety of a track race from one spot. But track racing has the least in common with riding a normal bicycle, and involves very different strategies and tactics than road racing.
Criterium races are ridden on short circuits, typically of less than 1.5 km (1 mile). The racers pass each point on the course every few minutes, so it's easy for spectators to follow the race. But a criterium still calls for different strategies and tactics than a cross-country race. A criterium is nothing but short sprints alternated with sharp corners, and the circuit is too short to include any long straights or climbs.
With the start-finish line typically in the center of a town but the course extending out into the nearby countryside, a kermis race can follow a more interesting and road-race like route while still being accessible to spectators who can see the racers pass by every 10-15 minutes.
I'd never seen a kermis race before, but I enjoyed it, and liked the format a lot.
At one of the bike shops near the center of Hazebrouck, we saw some flyers for an upcoming group ride that were illustrated with a sketch of the local cycling club's riding jersey. Thinking that a Hazebrouckois cycling jersey would be the perfect souvenir, I set about trying to track one down.
The bike shop sent me to the cafe on the square where the club holds its meetings. The bartender got the club president, retired English teacher Paul Declerck, on the phone for me. Sadly, M. Declerck had no jerseys to sell, as they are made to order for club members in infrequent batches. Quelle dommage! "But just wait there, and I'll come down to the cafe. I might be able to find something that would interest you," he said.
A few minutes later, he showed up at the cafe with his recently-replaced personal jersey in the club's former colors (the club got new jerseys in a new design this year), which he insisted on giving me, refusing reimbursement. It was an extravagantly generous gift, and I will wear it proudly wherever I ride.
[Outside the Café de Paris in Hazebrouck with Paul Declerck, president of the Club Cyclotouriste des Flandres et de la Vallée de la Lys (CCFVL).]
Standards of riding skill and speed for even "recreational" riders are high in this region, as we saw on the roads. I'm not sure if I could keep up with M. Declerck and his comrades in the CCFVL. But I hope that some day I get back to Hazebrouck at the right time with the right bike and get a chance to try. At the very least, I'll try to uphold the honor of the CCFVL while I'm wearing their jersey. [Update: See the note and photos in the CCFVL forum: "un maillot qui voyage".]
M. Declerck hung out with us for as long as his schedule permitted, and we had a fascinating chat about bicycling, economic development, politics, education, and other issues in Hazebrouck and San Francisco.
The Club Cyclotouriste des Flandres et de la Vallée de la Lys (CCFVL) is the Hazebrouck-based affiliate of the Fédération Française de Cyclotourisme (FFCT), the venerable French counterpart of the League of American Bicyclists (originally the League of American Wheelmen) in the USA and the Cyclists' Touring Club in the UK. The CCFVL is not a racing club, but despite what its name might suggest in English, it's more a group for fast and somewhat competitive randonneuring and cyclosportif riding than a group for what in English is called bicycle "touring".
For any Hasbrouck family members reading this who decide to visit the town of Hazebrouck on your next trip to Europe, I recommend the Hotel du Gambrinus as good value for the price. It's basic but very well run, and pretty much the only hotel in the "centre-ville". The tourist office has a directory of other lodging options including a more expensive motel on the highway bypass, a few "chambres d'hôtes" or bed-and-breakfast homestays, and some classier and much more expensive country inns nearby.
If you have a car, you could stay in Poperinge or Ypres, across the border from Hazebrouck in Belgium, or in Menem slightly further beyond. There's a wide range of accommodations and tourist services (including bicycle rental and guided tours by bicycle) in these towns, especially in Ypres, including many catering primarily to English-speaking visitors to the nearby World War I battlefields, museuems, memorials, and graveyards.
The best-known destination for cultural, gastronomic, and historical tourism to French Flanders is the picturesque medieval hilltop walled hamlet of Cassel, just north of Hazebrouck. Cassel is the site of the Musée de Flandre and several hotels and restuarants, all very fine-looking but far out of my budget.
Less pretentious and exceptional value is the Hotel Au Tonnelier in Bergues, another walled city slightly further north than Cassel along the Roman road to Dunkerque. We rode into Bergues at sunset acrosss a bridge over the moat and through one of the historic gates in the city wall. Being too narrow for two lanes of cars, this bridge and gate are reserved exclusively for bicycles and pedestrians. It's hard to imagine a more story-book entry to a town by bicycle. But it's a real town, not a museum and not even appearing to be dominated by tourism (although it's certainly a presence). The rooms at the Hotel Au Tonnelier are nothing special, but the food was some of the best we had anythere in our two months of bicycling in Europe, with a menu centered on Flemish regional specialties.
The nearest hostel to Hazebrouck, nearest substantial airport, and nearest major car rental facilities are in the regional metropolis, Lille.
The high-speed rail (TGV) line to and from the Channel Tunnel bypassed Hazebrouck between Lille and Calais, leaving Hazebrouck a much less important node in the railway route network than it used to be. There's a separate high-speed line between Paris and Dunkerque via Hazebrouck, but it doesn't connect well to anywhere else. It's allowed a few people with sufficiently well-paying jobs in the capital but who prefer to live in a small town to buy homes in Hazebrouck, but hasn't spurred much other change in Hazebrouck. There's no direct rail service these days between Hazebrouck and Belgium: You have to change trains in Lille. The additonal time and cost that entails is why I haven't managed to get to Hazebrouck on any of my previous vists to Brussels.
All the Eurostar trains between London and Brussels stop in Lille, at the junction with the TGV and Eurostar lines to Paris. Lille is an interesting case study of the implications of high-speed rail routing decisions. While some NIMBYs don't want high-speed rail lines through their cities and towns, Lille welcomed the Eurostar and TGV routes into a new station in the center of the city. As a result, Lille now has faster and better connections to London, Paris, and Brussels than any of these cities have to each other. Almost entirely as a consequence of this, Lille has built a new idenity as a "European" (rather than solely or primarily French) city, successfully driving development by promoting itself as a desirable location for businesses and other entities and individuals that want quick, convenient access to both "the City" (of London) and the Continent.Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 9 September 2014, 11:27 (11:27 AM) | TrackBack (0)