I’ve been in Belgium for a few days now and I’m still getting over the first night I spent here when I stayed in a celeb’s house in Bruges… I didn’t know they were famous at the time, which I think is the nicest thing, as I may have acted very differently. So how did I end up in a Belgian musician’s house? Apparently it was down to “body language”, sheer good timing and massive generosity on their behalf.
Earlier that day.
I’d cycled around 100km from Roubaix (near the French/Belgian border) to Bruges and got there round dinner time. I’d been given a bottle of strong Belgian beer called Duvel (apparently this translates as “Devil” because of its fierce kick) by a man I’d stopped to ask directions from on the way. Welcome to my weird and wonderful world of being given beer and other things as I cycle around the world!
As soon as I got to Bruges I headed for the most picturesque part of town I could find – quite hard to decide in Bruges as there are SO MANY beautiful canal side views to be enjoyed. I bought my first bag of Belgian frites (chips) to go with the beer and enjoyed a gorgeous view of medieval cobbled streets alongside a canal complete with a quaint old bridge and church. The perfect background for my Belgian dinner.
A chance meeting
I’d almost finished my beer and chips supper when a couple walked past and I gave them my friendliest Flemish “Hallo”. I’d learned from crossing the Franco-Belgian border earlier that speaking French did not seem to go down well in this part of Belgium – this part was definitely Flemish speaking first which is a language much more similar to Dutch than French. I got a friendly “Hallo” back and was asked “Are you here for the football game?” I had no idea what they were talking about and was told there was a European qualifying game on TV that night between Belgium and Wales. The couple had assumed that my red cape was in fact a giant red Welsh flag and that I was in town for the big match.
I explained what I was really doing with a red cape on my back and said my next job after finishing my chips and Duvel was to find a place to sleep for the night. Without hesitation, the couple said if I couldn’t find a place, that I should give them a call and I could have a bed at theirs. WOW!
I was feeling pretty knackered after the day’s cycling combined with too little sleep and a late finish from the previous day after a very busy and baking hot day cycling to several war memorials in the Somme area. I let the couple know that I’d love to just accept their offer of help right then and there, as I wasn’t really interested in staying in a field or a soulless hotel in Bruges. I had never been offered a place to stay by strangers in the street before and I really wanted to go with the flow of this spontaneous act of kindness. I also just really wanted a good night’s sleep. I took their phone number and agreed to call them after the match to meet up.
90 minutes later…
I texted the couple (who I now knew as Raymond and Siegried) reiterating just how much I’d love to stay if I could. I got their address back and soon I was knocking on a huge wooden door right on the banks of the canal. The double doors opened up into a marble hallway and Siegried came down to greet me to show me where I could put my bike and belongings.
They had just finished entertaining guests for the evening who they had been watching the football with. We stayed up chatting for a while. I asked the 64 million dollar question of “Does this happen often?” that they offer people on the street places to stay. They replied it was the first time… and I believed them. They asked what I liked for breakfast and I said whatever was going. They mentioned the best thing about Sunday morning breakfast was going to the local breakfast to get freshly baked “pistolets” (which literally translates as pistols – bizarre!) which I later found out were super soft bread rolls.
I was shown to my bedroom that was decorated like a children’s bedroom with football players from magazines and toys everywhere. The bed was incredibly comfortable and I fell asleep in a flash.
The next morning.
We all seemed to crawl out of our respective rooms round 9am and I found there was a bag of pistolet bread rolls waiting on the breakfast table as had been discussed the previous evening.
I spotted two guitars in the sitting room and I asked who was the musician in the house was and Raymond said it was him. Siegried said she was a teacher for people who wanted to learn Dutch. Over breakfast, Raymond mentioned that over the years he had made “a few songs” that “people had liked a little” and that he had been on the same label as the Beatles. He mentioned that he continued to do small gigs twice a week in Belgium. He really seemed like a man who enjoyed doing what he did and was clearly successful, but hadn’t had to sell his soul or give up his privacy along the way. He genuinely seemed like one of the happiest people I had ever met.
As I packed my bags after breakfast to leave them in the peace for the rest of their weekend, I heard Raymond tinkling away on the piano, then strumming on a guitar… it was great to hear someone talented just playing music for the fun of it.
I said my goodbyes and thanked both Raymond and Siegried for their huge generosity at letting me/a complete stranger stay the night. Raymond signed my large yellow bag on the back of my bike which doubles up as my Visitors’ Book.
A Belgian legend.
I pedalled east on to Ghent and stopped at a cafe for lunch. I got chatting to a waiter and told him how generous the Belgian people were being and that I had a feeling I had stayed with a famous Belgian musician the previous night, but I wasn’t sure as we didn’t get too much Belgian music played in the UK. I described Raymond to the waiter and remembered he had mentioned one of his songs was called “Meisjes” which translates simply as “Girls”. The waiter said “Are you kidding me?” and I thought that he was just pulling my leg, but he quickly googled Raymond and his long surname on his phone in front of me to show a load of images of Raymond performing at large concerts. The waiter told me a bit more about Raymond and how he famously closed one large music festival and instead of stopping at 11pm as was on the schedule, apparently he kept on playing until 2am as everyone was just loving the tunes so much! What a guy!
I had a feeling Raymond was a bit of a legend, but I think he became all the more so with me in the way he had been so modest throughout our chat in the evening and over breakfast. There was never any “Don’t you know who I am?” or “Have you never heard my smash hit song?” (apparently the Meisjes/Girls song was kind of like a national anthem in Belgium that everyone knew the words to). He was obviously a successful guy who had no need to take in a smelly cyclist, but he had. And done so in the most humble and generous of ways. He had even woken up at the crack of dawn to fetch the pistolet bread rolls for all of us for breakfast.
Raymond van het Groenewoud. You now have a new British fan. Not just of your music, but of you as a great human being. Talented, successful, generous, and above all, modest. This bike ride I’m on is in partly a celebration of everyday superheroes and heroic acts people do each and every day. Raymond and Siegried. You were true everyday superheroes and I’m proud to have “Meisjes” on my playlist as I pedal around the planet: