The European adventure is over! I’m going home. New house, new community, and a new book release. Are you ready for a ghost story? I’ll be back in Colorado next week and life starts again!
Let’s find out! I visited Bruges recently and share some of my photos below.
The 12th and 13th centuries were characterized by renewed religious fervor. New spiritual pathways emerged. Some of them were seen as heretical (like the Cathars), while others were tolerated. Franciscans and Dominicans came into existence to reorder the Church from the inside out. The beguines emerged as one of the most original spiritual pathways and they endured for hundreds of years. They can also be viewed as the first feminists.
The beguines appeared at the end of the 12th century. These women initially came from the poorer classes and sought a life of faith without taking formal vows. At first, small groups located themselves in urban settings near hospitals or abbeys. They dedicated themselves to prayer and contemplation, but worked in their communities caring for the sick. The beguines were a conundrum and a challenge to the social order. Free from the male dominance of a husband or spiritual director, the beguine was an independent entity. Her freedom also required she support herself by working. This beguine structure for the first time opened a religious path for poor women who previously had no access to it. Nuns came from wealthy classes and bought their way into the life through large dowries, impossible for poor women.
There is controversy over where the first beguine community was, but we know the movement spread quickly from Flanders through Italy, France, Poland, and Hungry. Over time a communal lifestyle prevailed and took hold. The beguines lived in a beguinage that functioned as a predominantly independent community, with rights and the ability to own property. Women often sought work in the thriving textile industries of their cities. By 1240, most of the beguines in the south of Flanders were living in communities surrounded by walls, where the door was closed at night creating its own version of a monastic center. The beguines had no founder and adopted no universal rule. There was no central authority. Each beguinage was a separately functioning entity, and this was sometimes a strength and sometimes a weakness.
Not surprisingly, beguine communities were the subject of much concern for the Church. The movement ran counter to the power structure and heresy was often a concern, but two papal bulls in the 13th century did support the movement. But it was not enough. Some beguines were burned for heresy while others received protection. By the 14th century, the beguines were suffering. They were subject to inquisitional authorities, and some beguinages closed losing their assets while others were absorbed into traditional monastic orders. Some beguinages persisted through the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, but only a few survived into the 20th century. These were clustered in Belgium including the one at Bruges.
I’ve been to several former beguinages in the Low Countries now. They are always peaceful, contemplative places. From these places, there are still echoes of women wanting spiritual space and a place in the world. Sauve Garde.
The Beguines:Women in Search of Sanctity Within Freedom -Silvana Panciera
The Wisdom of the Beguines- Laura Swan
Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics– Bernard McGinn
Owl Killers– Karen Maitland (fiction), starts and ends at the Bruges beguinage
Sisters Between-Molly Connally (fiction)
This was a Cistercian abbey founded in 1146 and active until the French revolution. It reached its height and fame in the 13th Century. It’s estimated that as many as one hundred monks and three hundred lay brothers lived here. Sleeping and eating accommodations were separate for the two groups. You can walk the tight passageways from the dormitories to the church, visit the rooms where they held meetings and stored holy books and vestments. The church remains a beautiful structure even in ruin.
The Cistercian order was known for its dedication to a life of manual labor and self-sufficiency. Abbeys supported themselves through agriculture and ale-brewing. This abbey had massive land holdings throughout the region.
During the Middle Ages, a lay group of women dedicated to a life of prayer, hard work, and community service thrived in the Low Countries. Known as the Beguines, Karen Maitland imagines what it might have been like for a group of these women to have struck out on their own to settle in an unwelcoming English town. The atmosphere is tense as the women are seen as outsiders, not part of Mother Church and not part of the resident pagan tradition either. The women bring their ideas of Christian charity to the townsfolk who regard them with suspicion and sometimes open hostility. As the village suffers through a series of disasters, the power of the Church is threatened, dark forces from earlier times reawaken, and the beguines must decide to make a stand or return to the safety of their continental shores.
Karen Maitland novel is well-researched and executed. The story is told from the various viewpoints of the characters in the town of Ulewic. In this way, we learn each of the beguine’s has her own history and her own reasons for joining the group. We understand the struggles of the local priest as he fits into a system that leaves him little room for personal choice. A nobleman’s daughter helps us feel the restrictions of living as a young woman in Medieval society. An array of townsfolk completes the cast. The Owl Killers are a group of masked men who harken back to a day before law and order. They are definitely flesh and blood and do their share of evil, but Maitland has, at times, blurred the line. Although most of the story feels firmly planted in third dimensional reality, there are a few places where things take on an otherworldly creepiness. Man’s ability for cruelty can be disturbing and this book certainly has those moments. The ending may leave you wanting more or maybe something else entirely.
(If you’re not an animal person, bail out here.)
In the 70s PBS had that show All Creatures Great & Small and I loved it. English countryside, small village life, vets in tweed. I went on to read many of the books placing those beloved actors neatly into their roles all through the 90s. I had lots of connections to animals then too, the kids were small and I did a jaunt as a humane educator. We’re a little further down the timeline and the kids are grown. I still have a small menagerie. A dopey Golden retriever named Luke (named because he was intended to be a healer), and two intense calico sisters, Maggie and Millie.
Moving to Belgium I suffered under a lot of delusions about what life here was going to be like. We are now at the six-month point. Many of the rough patches have been smoothed over, expectations lowered to ground level. On Saturday, it was time to have the two cats looked at and get their shots taken care of.
Belgium has a very different standard of veterinary care than what is typical in the US. Vets come to the house to provide basic care. There is the option of taking your pet to the vet at his/her practice at his/her home office during surgery hours (open once or twice a week). Think 1950s. Think All Creatures Great & Small.
Believing the hardest part of this visit would be locating and catching Maggie and Millie, my husband and I restrained the two patients in an inescapable, internationally-certified flight container a full half hour before our Belgian Mr. Herriot’s arrival. And waited. Maggie was very good in the cage, but her nervous sister was stressed. Two cat fights and twenty minutes late, the vet arrived. Pleasantries exchanged, we got down to business. I reached in for Millie and was soon dripping blood as the cat flew up my chest, down my back, and behind the sofa. Millie is four and a high-strung cat, but I’ve taken her to the vet at least twice a year and never had that happen. Both cats received a feline leukemia shot and (I found out later) a rabies shot. Neither got the physical exam they should have. Granted, conditions were not good, but the vet did nothing to slow the process down or get to know the cats. Some pet owners may be aware that in the US we are moving away from yearly rabies shots because vets have seen concerning instances of cancer at injection sites hence the three-year rabies shot which my cats have. Belgium is behind the times and still requires annual rabies. The vet did not ask me if I wanted this, the cats’ three-year inoculation was still active, he just did it. So, I’m not happy with the experience with the cats for multiple reasons.
Now, with regard to the dog. Luke has an on-going medical mystery since we’ve arrived in Belgium. It started one day when I watched him get down from a chair. It looked very much like a collapse incident I had seen with a previous Golden Retriever we had. In that instance, the dog had a vessel cancer and bled from the heart. Luke hit the ground, couldn’t get his legs under him, and fell to the floor. Because of the history with the other dog, I went and made him stay down. After a few minutes, he got up and was fine.
I talked myself out of it being anything more than maybe his legs were asleep and he hit the floor funny. Until. That weekend, a pet sitter observed an incident where Luke couldn’t get off the floor coupled with shaking, and general panic. The pet sitter was so concerned she contacted us in Amsterdam and we came home. In the US, I would have had the option of going to a 24- hour emergency veterinary facility (multiple ones in the Colorado Springs). Here- not so much. There is a mobile veterinary service that can come to your house and do x-rays, trauma surgery, etc. but my situation was going to require multiple specialties so it didn’t seem like a good option. An internet search revealed, a veterinary teaching hospital in Ghent (yay! – the only one on the country, maybe). Complying with their requirements, he had a full workup to the extent of their abilities and they found…nothing. Which could be good or which could require additional heart monitoring or it could always be a rare form of epilepsy or neurological problem. We were sent home with no answers except that making a video the next time it happens would be great. Anyway, we crossed our fingers hoping it was nothing serious and we’d never see Ghent University again. A couple of months passed and another pet sitter reported another incident. Now, I’m wondering if what we might be seeing isn’t a rear leg problem. Luke had a knee surgery about 18 months ago which healed fine. He has no lameness issue, but there are these incidents of him getting up or getting down on hard surfaces. Is it something quirky connected to the surgery?
I need an orthopedic surgeon to take a look. Back to our Belgian Mr. Herriot. I ask him to recommend a specialist. He doesn’t know any, but he knows a guy who can do an x-ray. WTF??? (Shouldn’t any vet be able to do an x-ray? Not so fast, this is Belgium. I must lower my standards.) I press on thinking an internet search might be a better option than this vet. Since coming to Belgium getting Luke on a good grade dog food he will eat has been a challenge and he’s gained some weight. Luke is pudgy. I ask the vet for options. He says decrease the dog food 20% from what the package says. We have already done this to which he responds, “ah, then there is no solution.” I am underwhelmed by his problem- solving skills. Given Luke is seven and from a breed known for hypothyroidism, I expected him to offer a blood test if dietary changes weren’t working. Silly, silly me.
Vet visit concluded. 100 Euro cash given (almost all interactions in Belgium are cash, including restaurants, hair appointments, etc.), no receipt, and the vet leaves. No jaunty smile, no tweedy jackets, no good- humored advice. I miss you Mr. Herriot, in more ways than one.
A later internet search reveals that there really aren’t any veterinary specialists in the country. It is illegal for vets to use any distinguishing titles or designations that might presumably mislead the public. I take this to mean that the profession has not reached a level where governing bodies have been established to self-police themselves. In the US, we have the American Veterinary Medical Association but here there is nothing comparable that I can find. At the EU level, there is a board of surgeons and there are three vets in Belgium who are listed as doing orthopedic work.
Be grateful for the veterinary care you can easily access if you are in the US (or the UK- it looks similar). Don’t take it for granted. I did. I thought all of Europe would have comparable service. It does not. Hug your pet today knowing you can get an array of pet specialists to help keep your special family member healthy! Heck, hug your vet too!
(photo: Paul IJendoorn)
It’s time to announce a big change. Over the next few months, I will be relocating to Brussels, Belgium. Living abroad will bring many new challenges and hopefully, lots of new experiences. I speak no French or Dutch so that in itself will be tough, but we’ve been assured that many Belgians speak English and there are lots of expats already in the city. My most pressing issue is to figure out how to get a big dog and two cats into the country. So if anyone has sage advice on airlines, routes, or anything else- please share.
We are planning to travel just after Christmas and so much has to be done between now and then. Because of that, I probably won’t be as available on social media as I have been. Be patient, I’ll be back. 2017 will bring the publication of a new book called Tender Tulips, Dark Diamonds:A Ghost Story. Part of the story takes place in the Netherlands and this move will allow me the opportunity to explore some of the places mentioned in that book. Oddly enough, I’ll be writing a new novel set in Colorado at the turn of the last century while I’m in one of the low countries. So on to new adventures!