Welcome to our "Back of House" blog!
A bit of history, a bit of background, a bit of everything.
From how it all started (blog #1)
to how it all went (wrong)...
Sometimes things seem obvious. For writer. And for computer scientist. Not so much for guests. When staying in a bed and breakfast, is breakfast included? Seems obvious, but is the most frequently asked question.
Should we bring towels? And bed linen? It turns out that guests can come up with more questions than a hundred wise men can answer, and after seven years and hundreds of bookings, the writer is still tweaking information emails to avoid misunderstandings. Which inadvertently provokes new misunderstandings. For example, when booking the chalet, the size of the sofa bed is stated: 130 cm. (Suitable for a couple in love, therefore, but less so for two tough cycling friends). Because it did not state that it was about the width, an e-mail promptly arrived from a worried guest who feared he would not fit in.
For each guest's stay to be harmonious, arrangements must be made. Flexibility on both sides is essential here. Although it often seems to be mostly flexibility from one side. Of course you can still have breakfast when you arrive at the table an hour after the agreed time. Of course you can make dietary demands or pack part of your breakfast for lunch. Of course you can borrow a charger for whatever device you have. Of course the writer can make restaurant reservations or translate a walk into French. Of course, you can have breakfast separately from your wife, so she can sleep in, and of course a table on the terrace is then set up especially for her.
And when writer and computer scientist feel they have met all the requirements, it turns out afterwards there is still a complaint, which was saved for the review. ("Not enough towels.")
Society seems to impose an urge to express oneself and a review without criticism is unthinkable for many. Even when guests are satisfied with all aspects of a b&b (hospitality, sleep, hygiene, breakfast and location), it rarely leads to a maximum score. "After all, there is no such thing as perfection." In simple arithmetic, a flawless test leads to a flawless rating, but in hospitality, five 10s can easily lead to an eight. Or a six.
Solution according to the computer scientist: artificial intelligence. Solution according to the writer: just ask for those towels. The only risk you run is that their colour won't match your bathroom.
74. Nothing can be done
Occasionally, Les Fagnes briefly becomes the party venue it was intended for as family comes to stay. This provides extra conviviality, but also an extra to-do list, because instead of one meal, three a day must now be offered. And not only do the guest rooms have to be prepared, the private rooms also have to be converted. In addition, of course, taking part in the activities is expected, so time for practical organisation shrinks.
An added complication are already existing reservations, which should not be affected by children running around or family barbecues. Usually this goes smoothly. Sometimes it doesn't. For example, when a guest announces he will arrive at 4pm, an hour earlier than the scheduled check-in time, it derails the schedule. When the same guest then appears another three hours earlier and starts with asking for coffee, the schedule flies out the window. When he then reports that the accommodation is not up to his expectations (because he did not read his information email), not only the schedule evaporates, but also the happy vibe. Especially when his highly personal value scale and observations turn out to extend to the weather as well. The forecast for coastal municipality De Haan promised significantly more sunshine and the writer feels that the distance between Spa and De Haan is blamed on her personally.
Next, there are complaints about the temperature of the water, but when the writer gets burned, he eventually finds it warm enough. Then the burglary safety of the windows (which he does like to have open at night for ventilation) is questioned. The argument that a professional gang of burglars, who manage to force the entrance gate and bypass the alarm, would probably be more interested in the computer scientist's computer equipment than a tourist's underwear does not reassure him. He also wishes to verify whether there are enough German-language TV channels available and lapses into a kind of muttering disapproval. The writer does not point out to him that staying at Les Fagnes is voluntary, but it takes effort.
Apprehensive of a bad review, the booking service is contacted. The service takes note of the concerns - as per regulations in English. It sounds like this: "Partner (i.c. Relais des Fagnes) wants to provoke a bad review." Provoking a bad review is precisely not the intention, so the writer suggests the verb "to prevent" instead of "to provoke". She is wholeheartedly proved right by the friendly youngster on the other end of the line, but the note "has already been posted, so nothing can be done."
Nothing can be done. Indeed.
Most of the time, trips Les Fagnes-Antwerp are made by car. But every now and then, the writer makes an attempt to reduce her ecological footprint by using public transport. Unfortunately, such inter-regional travel proves more complicated than a return trip to the ISS. Not only does it require an investment of several tens of euros and four hours of precious time, it is also a test in resourcefulness, stress resistance and sheer willpower. Just conquering a valid ticket is a relentless dropout race. For the train, you click and scroll your way on a soulless machine among all sorts of obscure options. While an over-helpful because hurried commuter is breathing down your neck, taking over the click-through and narrowly missing out on booking an intercontinental flight.
But getting a bus ticket is really an adventure. It can only be done via an app that gives the IT-consultant acute depression, and then only if you have digipass, Visa verification, Tec account password and mobibcard to hand. Mobibcard? Easy to order through the app. To log in to the app: just enter your Mobibcard number! Or your Tec password, easy to request via the app. Indeed, after entering.... you guessed it, your Mobibcard number....
Next. you are not only asked which bus you want to take, but also at what time. Hard to predict with hours of train ahead. Maybe go to the SNCB info desk first. Where they refer you to the offices of "De Lijn". Where they stare at you in dumb bewilderment at your intention to take a bus across the language border and cannot provide you with any answer.
So the computer scientist ploughs through the app anyway, installing it on both smartphone and tablet for safety. Armed with his clear instructions, the writer orders the bus ticket during the last leg of the train journey. But without his assistance, she proves unable to switch between two screens (that of the TEC app and that of the payment app) on her phone. So let's get the tablet: one app per device, that should do it. Or not. The app on the tablet turns out to have automatically deactivated itself "for safety's sake". The writer's killing intentions do not make her surroundings any safer.
All that remains is the old-fashioned way: asking the bus driver for advice. He sends the writer to the station ticket office, which gives her a feeling of déjà vu. But he is adamant: "They sell train and bus tickets there, don't worry!" The station clerk looks decidedly reproachful at such audacity: "No, ma'am, this is a train station, as you can see. And that driver should know better!" Back to the bus driver then... He notices her arrival, opens his door and nods: "Didn't think of that just now... You could buy a ticket on the bus too!" The writer does just that. After recovering from her hyperventilation attack.
About once a year, writer and computer scientist experience a "Murphy weekend". What can go wrong, goes wrong. And keeps on going wrong.
It starts even before the first guests arrive with a phone call from an Italian skydiver informing that he will not arrive until 2am. The suggestion to use the key box system makes him more nervous than jumping out of a plane. So a spare room is set up in the private area so that he can be personally welcomed without disturbing the other guests. This means not only a broken night for writer and computer scientist, but also limited access to their own quarters. At breakfast, he announces that he needs transport. (To his surprise, the receptionist at the car hire company had not adjusted the opening hours to match the schedule of his flight.) Since the village of Sart is not a metropolis with its own taxi company, the informatician takes him to his destination. "And to the ATM-machine too, please." In the midst of breakfast service.
Meanwhile, other guests complain about an unpleasant smell. A drain in the basement appears to have burst. Graciously, they too are offered the spare room, which is available after the skydiver's departure. Just some cleaning to do. Still during breakfast service. One consequence is even longer limited access to the private rooms.
Next, the pressure pump gives up. Needless to say, guests are prioritised for water consumption, so the garden cannot be watered, washing machine and dishwasher are set to inactive, resulting in a mountain range of laundry and dishes. Slightly annoying, especially since the writer is struggling with a bacterial infection and cannot take a beneficial bath. An extra antipyretic, then. And keep smiling.
While processing the administration, it is found that there are errors in the pricing by the booking service. It takes the writer time, stress and a few more painkillers to get the error fixed, with the prompt result being a cancelled booking.
As the weather is nice, a well-deserved breather on the terrace. The neighbours across the street have also noticed the sunshine and improvise a garden party with a level of music that Tomorrowland cannot match. The writer chokes on her effervescent tablet and moves across the street to negotiate the peace and quiet of her guests without causing a neighbourly quarrel.
At the end of the day, another unexpected message. A guest comes to the disconcerting realisation that he booked for the wrong dates. So he won't be using the room after all and instead leaves straight back home, 1 100 km away. With - "if possible, it might, may I ask..." - the assurance that his stay will not be charged.
A few days later, clouds of dust and smell rise from the basement, where a crew of plumbers, plus one computer scientist, is busy repairing the pump and replacing a piece of sewerage. A review arrives. Apparently, the furnishing of the private bathroom (with bath/shower, toilet, sink, three sets of towels, shower gel, soap, tissues, hairdryer and shower caps) leaves a bit to be desired. The writer sighs and takes another painkiller.
One of the big reasons for writer and computer scientist to buy Les Fagnes was the writer's hope to be able to work on her novels in peace and quiet. But between dream and deed, as ever, there were some practical objections. First they had to renovate and then the b&b turned out to be a success, which is fine, but not peaceful. Still, two books appeared recently, mostly courtesy of the lockdown period.
One is a historical fantasy novel, set in 5th-century BC Greece, for the author one of the most fascinating periods and the one on which our civilisation is based. Through the book, she shared her passion with the public, but it seemed a shame to leave the extensive research that preceded the book in the desk drawer. So the computer scientist designed a website and the writer filled it with background information for the interested reader. Quite satisfying, but not very interactive.
When guests at the b&b pointed out to her that on the social media platform TikTok there is a whole community around books and bookworms (the so-called "booktok"), it did not appeal to her at first. The computer scientist sees no added value in any social medium and she herself considered herself several centuries too old to perform silly dances in front of the cameras.
Then Pipi Longstocking came around the corner again: "I've never tried it before, so I guess I can do it." And Tik Tok filmmaking turned out to be a lot more creative than she had estimated. She found her niche, working with like-minded people to find traces of antiquity in contemporary society, on Tiktok and Instagram. And it seems she can now also write "content creator" on her business card.
(Follow?... #boekenvanbaukis / @boekenvanbaukis)
70. Midlife couples
During the Valentine's period, the b&b welcomes guests who want to enjoy each other romantically even more than usual. Remarkably, it is not the young couples who exchange the most intimate glances and sit closest together. A relationship that is only a few months old is exciting, but also uncomfortable. After a night of passion, the young lovers sit at breakfast, puzzling over each other's choice of spreads, while across the table a coffee - milk, no sugar - is offered with tender naturalness.
After three and a half decades together, writer and computer scientist feel a kinship with midlife Valentine devotees and midlife couples in general. In these blunt times, it is heartening that people manage to be sweet and respectful to each other, even when they have been living together for years.
The classic joke about the secret of a successful relationship: answering "yes, dear" to every question or request. Or: "happy wife, happy life". The fact is that if one of the partners does not feel appreciated, the relationship will not last. Clear and respectful communication is essential.
Tens of thousands of books have already been published on this subject and yet the author wanted to add one more. Her own experience and hundreds of conversations with family, friends and guests show that communication often gets bogged down on the same arguments/accusations, genre I'm really trying! and Do you even know what you want? She analysed dozens of these so-called "non-sentences" and compiled them into ten chapters.
A first rough version of the book is available for free via the link below. The author is hoping for an AHA experience from readers, but above all for feedback. After all, just about everyone has experience with the subject. All comments, additions and suggestions are welcome at the b&b's e-mail address.
On sale from St Valentine 2024 in bookshops and on "Relais des Fagnes":
SCHEYNEN, I., All men do their best* (*All f/x too.).
Long ago, a sign of nobility and class was when you could spend your day in idleness. The idea of "working for a living" was vulgar and too gruesome for the aristocracy to contemplate. A noble gentleman filled his days with drinking port and hunting rabbits and a lady of standing would at most bend over an embroidery frame from time to time.
Today, the credo is "labour nobles" and lack of time has become a status symbol. Utility is the measure of all things and activities such as handicrafts have been relegated to hobbies, which should only be practised in "spare time".
The writer has had such a hobby since childhood and to this day a vague feeling of guilt creeps up on her whenever she engages in it. After all, her crocheting can hardly be considered as useful as washing, cooking, ironing, cleaning, gardening (or writing). Therefore, it is mainly while watching TV - well, listening to TV in her case - that she crochets. Or while waiting for arriving guests or running washing machines.
To temper her guilt, she sells her scarves in the b&b. A piece of warmth from Les Fagnes to take home. If that's not useful.
68. Guilty pleasure
Guests wishing to watch television at Les Fagnes can do so in the chalet or in the Spa suite. They should bring their chromecast though, as cable TV is problematic in the region. Via satellite, a number of channels can be watched live, but for following a soap opera, a sports event or the Eurovision song contest, streaming is best. It is simply impossible to put together the right channel package for every guest. The writer herself has to experience this every time she tries to receive her favourite channel (BBC) while on holiday.
Writer and computer scientist themselves have few "guilty pleasures" when it comes to TV. They have no time for live sports matches and no patience for soaps. And they would only watch the Eurovision song contest if Listenbourg is allowed to participate. (Just google it!)
But between September and December, during the darkest days of winter, they happily put all their prejudices aside. That's when they don't go on holiday and get sucked into the colourful and glittering universe of "Strictly come Dancing". This is what colour television was invented for: 15 weeks full of glitz, glamour and breathtaking kitsch.
Christmas time is a time for family and cosiness, wants the cliché. Now the writer is generally not a fan of clichés, but for this she makes an exception. She prefers to believe in the magic of Christmas and genuinely loves everything that comes with the "holiday season": Christmas decorations, Christmas lights, Christmas cakes, Christmas music,... Even the obligatory Christmas movies on TV she doesn't pass up.
St Nicholas has barely touched his heels, or the family is called together to decorate the Christmas tree. In which the tree is traditionally assembled by father and son, the daughter hangs the lights in it and mamy and grandchildren get busy with the three thousand glass and silver ornaments. While in the background, a Christmas list plays that is added to every year. The picture is complete with a fairytale snow covering the estate and glistening icicles on the roof, transforming Les Fagnes into the setting for a romantic Christmas story.
And then an unexpected guest arrives at the b&b. An amiable elderly gentleman, with greying hair and beard and a warm smile. Who enthusiastically talks about the exceptional transport he is involved in at this time of year. He seeks out the largest size Christmas trees from the Ardennes forests and installs them in market squares at home and abroad. With heavy trucks, big cranes and police escorts. The computer scientist looks at the pictures fascinated.
The writer secretly glances out of the window. Just to check if there isn't a red sledge in the car park by chance...
66. Yellow Roadsigns
The region of Wallonia has a "Commissariat Général au Tourisme". This is located in Namur and is responsible for the recognition, classification and promotion of all tourist accommodations. For recognition and classification, some 12 web pages have to be completed and for promotion, the web tool "Visit Wallonia" was recently launched.
The province of Liège has a tourism department, also with a promotion budget. Part of it was recently used to distribute bicycle repair kits to accommodations with the "Bienvenue Vélo" label. These already have this. Required by the above-mentioned "Commissariat Général". The promotion budget did not provide for consultation.
The Jalhay-Sart tourist office organises activities to highlight the region's attractions. It operates completely independently of the tourist services of Stavelot, Malmedy, Liège, the East Cantons, Spa, Coo, Polleur, Stoumont, Trois-Ponts, Le Pays des Hautes Fagnes, Robertville, Trooz, Le pays de la Vesdre, La Gleize, La Reid, Vielsalm, Francorchamps, Waimes and dozens of others, all less than half an hour away.
It is one of the municipalities' mandates to place yellow arrows (with an icon of a bed or a crossed knife and fork) to indicate catering and sleeping facilities. Le Relais des Fagnes is located in a border area. The application should be addressed to Jalhay, Spa, Stavelot and Malmedy. But the neighbouring municipalities' budgets do not provide signposts to commercial establishments outside their own territory.
From Le Relais des Fagnes you can walk straight into the high fens. Beautiful nature reserve with endless hiking possibilities and the best known tourist attraction of the region. Located in the German-speaking part of the country. For management and tourism development, cooperation is possible across national borders. But neither across municipal borders nor regional borders.
Conclusion: in Wallonia, tourists must first identify themselves as "Walloon region-tourist", "German-speaking part of the country-tourist", "Stavelot-tourist", "fen-tourist" or "Sart-tourist", before they can look for information for their weekend trip.
65. Family Favourites
"Is there a possibility of table d'hôtes?" A common question in the b&b. But cooking for - paying - guests is a step too far for the writer. Not that she reluctantly stands in the kitchen. From the heart, she has spent years putting hot meals on the table for her family, and now that the nest has grown a bit emptier, she still does. (Assistance from the computer scientist was never wanted in this regard. The latter can repair oven and cooker, but not operate them).
Her cooking style, however, has not evolved with the spirit of the times. Asparagus à la Flamande and meatballs in tomato sauce have never been replaced by quinoa and courgette pasta. There is no mother dough for sourdough bread in the cellar and the closest she comes to fusion cuisine is a Chinese takeaway. At every suggestion of veggie, vegan or flexi, the computer scientist pulls a pout and the term molecular both associate with the Atomium rather than the Thermomix. The writer can appreciate salves, foams and emulsions, but in her bath. Once, she had lunch with the daughter in a two-star restaurant, with perfect cuisson and Picasso presentation. Luckily, sandwiches were also served with each course, otherwise they would have left the table hungry.
However, the author does serve home-made jam and bread pudding for breakfast and to her surprise, she recently received a compliment for this from a pastry chef. Who convinced her that there is still interest in traditional meals - "especially in these uncertain and expensive times" - and recommended that she compile her handed-down family recipes.
And so there now exists the book the author never thought she would publish: " Sober, simple and quick. Family favourites in times of crisis."
Available exclusively on Les Fagnes.
64. Light bulbs
Since their move to the Ardennes, writer and computer scientist have been living according to the rhythm of the seasons. From the moment the first hesitant rays of spring sunshine appear, the writer - thickly wrapped in hat and scarf - goes into the garden. She tidies up, prunes and rakes and from the passage of the "Ice Saints" she can start "pottering" to her heart's content.
Summer is the time of barbecues, aperitifs by the pond, dogs out on the lawn, conversations with guests on one of the terraces and spectacular sunsets.
In autumn, when the forests turn orange (the computer scientist's favourite colour), long walks are taken and the gardener points out the ceps, which offer themselves in abundance every year.
The dark winter time, however, works on the computer scientist's mind. To dispel the gloom of the short days, he enthusiastically sets to work with Christmas garlands and light bulbs. No energy crisis can stop him from brightening up another dark corner with lights, to the admiration of guests.
And to the astonishment of the neighbours, who describe the b&b as "the house visible from space".
63. Scaffolding wood
Order in the house creates order in the head, popular wisdom would have it. For writer and computer scientist, the opposite is especially true: chaos in the home creates chaos in the head. This does not mean that they need a Spartan living environment to function, but rather that they appreciate a harmonious home and prefer to surround themselves with objects, which are both frugal and useful. (Contrary to what the computer scientist believed, both the writer's squirrel and elephant collection fall into these categories.)
Opinions differ on the destination of items that no longer serve their purpose or have broken down. According to the computer scientist, these should be kept, "for spare parts", "as a backup", because he "can probably still fix it" or, of course, for "you never know what it might come in handy for." The writer wants these items out of the house.
Unless they can be used for something else. "Upcycling" was already a custom at Les Fagnes when the term was still to be coined. An old garden bench is suitable as a coffee table, inherited cupboards stand gleaming in black high-gloss paint in the bedroom; grandchildren hold tea parties with an antique whistling kettle and a rock garden is created with the quartzite blocks with which the estate was littered.
The ideas for redevelopment often come from the writer. The elaboration is for the computer scientist. His latest masterpiece is a piece of garden furniture made from a discarded cabinet of scaffolding wood. Ideal for the smoking corner.
62. Fix it daddy?
It is in the nature of a computer scientist - and it is also part of his job description - to foresee and solve problems before they manifest themselves. But when you start a b&b in a neglected villa that is just under a century old, this is a utopian endeavour. As hiccups and struggles succeed each other at the speed of light, there is simply no time or brain capacity left to foresee, let alone solve, additional problems.
Fortunately, the computer scientist has an analytical mind and a pair of strong right hands, so that a broken washing machine or installing smart switches do not require assistance right away. "Fix it daddy?" (or nowadays "Fix it papy?") was always a given when - usually due to a carelessness of children or writer - a toy or household item got damaged. So painting, masonry, joinery or electricity, it's all part of his weekend chore list.
It may seem a bit unfair to outsiders to allocate so much work to one person, but the computer scientist wouldn't have it any other way. He likes to learn and takes every opportunity to study a manual or take something apart. A dose of physical labour as a change from his office job is also a plus for him, as is the satisfaction of "building" something tangible and visible in the real world.
Moreover, he likes to be proved right. And to get compliments.
The cliché image of the computer nerd is that of a lanky young man with glasses, staring mesmerised at his screen, with a bottle of soft drink on the desk and a trail of crumbs between the keys. His only physical activity he undertakes with VR glasses on his head and addressing people he dares only in the "metaverse". He makes money like ooze developing apps and trading in virtual currencies and, as an "early adopter", he invests his wealth in cutting-edge technology.
None of this applies to the computer scientist at Relais des Fagnes. Which is convenient, because a shy host is not practical. Furthermore, he prefers his local beer to soft drinks and virtual reality makes him nauseous. Lacking a modern phone, developing apps is not an option and for mining bitcoins there is insufficient internet capacity on the Ardennes mountain in the woods. His experiences with "early adopting" involve an electronic hoover as a gift for the writer, which almost earned him a divorce. And a PDA, precursor to the smartphone, which he left in a trouser pocket and which was then washed at 60°C. So far for enthusiasm for new gadgets.
And yet. Both writer and computer scientist unhesitatingly downloaded the still relatively unknown app "What3words". A - free - navigation tool that can literally save your life because with three random words you can show your location on the globe to within 3 m3 accuracy.
And which will take you straight to the entrance gate of domain Relais des Fagnes: "humankind.rambled.dynasties". Look it up!
Recently, a circular arrived at Les Fagnes with recommendations for gender-neutral language, which led to some discussion indoors. Not that writer or computer scientist are opposed to neutral communication. When a society is in transition towards less discrimination, that can only be seen as positive. And how someone deals with language, that is how he(/she) deals with the world.
Newly introduced concepts and terms always sound a bit uncomfortable at first. Over time, familiarity sets in, leading to acceptance and eventually a change in attitude. When both pronouns are consistently used in a lecture or recitation (she/he/him/her), the speaker invites his/her audience to at least pause for a moment to consider the importance of equality.
But by introducing too many terms and requirements in a short space of time, absorption becomes overwhelmed. While there is no need to. Gender-neutral, inclusive, anti-discriminatory, equal, woke, non-racist... it all comes down to respect. And that is not a new value.
The writer has been starting her emails and messages with "good day" or "good afternoon" for years. The circular suggested "dear" as an address. But she doesn't get that out of her pen.
59. Slower Pace of Life
The BBC has been running the programme "Escape to the country" for years, where city dwellers seek the countryside in the hope of a "slower pace of life". To finance their new life, many contestants plan on opening a b&b.
But in terms of "slower pace of life", this is rather disappointing. Running a b&b is running a household "on steroids" and especially for the partner with a little less experience in daily chores, it can be challenging. The first few weeks, it is exciting to scrub all the rooms gleaming clean and make the beds as elegantly as possible. After that, routine strikes and it's just called "work". Moreover, it is work that requires not only tight planning but also perseverance. No job, be it vacuuming or snow removal, should be put off, as a guest house should look neat and welcoming at all times.
When it comes to administration too, life does not get any lighter or slower. From shopping lists to invoicing, from planning files to grant applications, from website design to diary management, an executive secretary would have a job to do.
The only thing that somewhat refers to a "slower pace of life" is the fact that in a b&b there is a lot of waiting. Waiting for guests to arrive, for them to go to bed, for them to get up, for them to come for breakfast, for them to finish breakfast, for them to come for checkout and for them to leave. Times six.
And then wait for the review. And that remains as exciting as in the beginning.
58. Salade Caesar
Most people are in the habit of having three meals a day. Le Relais des Fagnes can provide for two of these three meal times: breakfast and, if desired, a packed lunch. For the evening meal, guests can go to one of the fine restaurants in the surrounding area. Several of these restaurants obtained the "Relais des Fagnes" quality label and were compiled in a "A Table" folder. To be included in this directory, they meet the following basic requirements: a warm welcome, good cuisine with some local colour, attentive service, a pleasant setting and a fair price.
Writer and computer scientist use slightly different frames of reference. Complete objectivity is not feasible and is not pursued.
One of the writer's sticking points is the authenticity of the recipes. A salad with beetroot and sun-dried tomato, call it "frivolité du chef" or "Frühlingsteller" for all she cares, but not Salade Caesar. Don't describe your chocolate mousse as Moelleux either. Don't serve a Bloody Mary without a celery stalk nor a "tomate-crevette" with pink prawns. Five iceberg leaves and a hard-boiled egg do not make up a Salade Niçoise and not every chocolate cake is a Sachertorte.
The computer scientist does not bother as much. His assessment depends mainly on the number of beers on tap.
The credo of the small business owner used to always be "hear, see and be silent." In today's times, when everyone is supposed to have an opinion about everything and promptly swish it on the internet, this is less applicable. People are inundated with opinions, most of them not based on factual knowledge or sense of nuance.
Fortunately, the loud, crude and blunt environment of the internet is not quite yet that of real life. At the b&b's breakfast table, our guests entertain each other in polite and pleasant ways. If heavy topics come up at all, they are the climate crisis, the energy crisis or the war in Europe, where the chances of violent disagreements are limited. More sensitive political or social topics, such as the woke or headscarf debate, are not discussed. While the company at the table is quite diverse.
Because at Relais des Fagnes, everyone is welcome. All ages, all origins, all orientations and all beliefs. And yes, even people with a headscarf.
Gladly in all colours of the rainbow.
56. Festive Atmosphere
50 is the new 30, it is claimed these days. For the writer, the opposite seemed mainly the case, so the big 5 bothered her much less than the big 3.
Moreover, when you have a sister who no longer gets to experience birthdays, every year older is a gift.
Birthdays, anniversaries, engagements and births need to be celebrated and, for many guests, they are the reason for their weekend getaway. Enjoying a moment of intimacy and giving attention to each other. For that, the b&b is happy to open its doors.
For a different kind of festivities, however, the doors remain closed. Le Relais des Fagnes does not organise events and the accommodation is not suitable for student parties, birthday receptions or colleague get-togethers. This is also stated on all booking sites. Yet requests for this kind of noisy group outing, from carnival parties to stag barbecues, come in regularly. Because not compatible with "peace and quiet in the blue Ardennes", these are rejected.
But if you announce at the time of booking that it's your partner's birthday or that you're heading out with the newborn baby for the first time, the computer scientist and writer will be happy to do their bit to create a festive atmosphere.
After all, they also appreciate a small gift at a hotel or restaurant, even if it is just a candle in the mayonnaise!
Customer friendliness is a core concept in the hospitality sector. At Relais des Fagnes, great importance is attached to a respectful and warm welcome. Since this is regularly mentioned in reviews, it is clear that guests appreciate it.
It seems natural that any business would strive to be as customer-friendly as possible, if only to avoid being buried under negative reviews. But that is rather disappointing in the experience of the writer and computer scientist. Especially for orders that require home delivery, respect for the customer is few and far between.
Why does an estimated delivery date of 1 day turn into 8 weeks from the moment your payment is confirmed? Why do you spend 12 hours at the window on the agreed day and have to learn in the evening that you were "not present"? Why does a company prefer to cancel an order rather than deliver on a day that suits you? Why are you forbidden to make phone calls and can only submit a "ticket"? Why are you referred to the courier service, when it is the seller with whom you, as a consumer, have a contract (which includes delivery)? Why - and how - do you, as a customer, have to prove that you did not receive a parcel? Why does it take more than a week for someone to respond to your complaint - and even then by sending you a pre-printed form as "proof" of delivery? How do you manage to get a refund on a lost order?
While it is common to point the finger at the courier companies in all this, they - at least on Les Fagnes - are not the biggest source of frustration. It is the webshops themselves, who do not seem to realise that their job is not over when payment is received. They also have to get the product to the customer.
Their responsibility. Not that of the parcel service.
54. Granny proof
In the world of computing, the concept of "granny proof" means that the software developed is clear, unambiguous and user-friendly. Some programmes achieve this standard.
No programme, however, reaches the "Inge-proof" standard. No software has yet been written that the writer cannot break. Unintentionally and unknowingly, she brings out the most hidden bugs. Her special gift - or curse - first manifested itself when, as a young student, she cracked the municipal accounting programme while doing some research in the library, and since then her laptop, I-pad or phone have been producing the most memorable special effects. In the testing department of a computer multinational, she could have earned tons, according to the computer scientist, if the programmers would throw themselves off a bridge first.
As a regular bug magnet, she also regularly drives the computer scientist to despair and more than one marital quarrel began with the question, "But how did you do this again?"
After all, the writer does not know. She does nothing special, it is the software that takes on a life of its own. And beyond that, it's because of the keys, which never stay in the same place on a touchscreen device.
This is also why she stubbornly sticks to her Moleskine diary, which does not let her down. If it were up to her, she would do all her administration with her Mont Blanc in a leather-wrapped notebook.
Meanwhile, the "oops-button" is the most frequently used function on her laptop.
Les Fagnes was largely bought as a refuge during a difficult time. A refuge, hidden in the Ardennes countryside, where the daughter could relax and enjoy the garden without fear of a silent and menacing figure behind the hedge.
Purchase and move were done with complete discretion and the location of the Ardennes country house, just like the flat in Antwerp, were kept as vague as possible, in correspondence, e-mail traffic and especially on social media.
But starting a business where you want to avoid all forms of publicity is not obvious. It was crucial to erase all links between the family, the b&b and the consultancy business. For instance, on the Relais des Fagnes site, only very brief personal information is given and the writer is known in Wallonia only by her middle name.
This occasionally leads to confusion and more than once the computer scientist is attributed a polyamorous relationship.
His standard retort?
"Can't afford that."
Le Relais des Fagnes was not designed as a b&b, but grew gradually. As the plan matured to furnish guest rooms, it became clear that it should not become a sterile hotel with uniform rooms. That was impossible, by the way, as the building imposed restrictions on size and shape.
The intention was for the design of the b&b to refer to the beautiful and traditional region in which it is located. So you will not find the obligatory sea view with lighthouse, New York skyline or a reproduction of Niki de Saint Phalle as decoration.
The room closest to the writer's heart is Malmedy. Here she wanted to evoke the atmosphere of the "old Ardennes", with its peat cutters and craftsmen who sat around the fireplace in their rustic cottages at night, telling each other ghost stories. It took her months of browsing flea markets and online auction sites to find the right bathroom ornaments (with milk glass), chandelier (with candle-shaped lamps), antique desk (with leather writing surface), wardrobe (with oval mirror) and wallpaper (with medallions). Then again, she did not buy a granny-style bed. In its place came a comfortable box spring (with bedspread).
"Ein Haus mit Seele" is one of the nicest comments she received from guests in room Malmedy.
However, there are also those to whom the design choices totally miss the point.
Those note in their review: "in need of modernisation".
The automotive world is one of abbreviations. The calendar of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit is riddled with them. Combinations like PK, F1, 2CV, everyone can imagine. But what about DTM, ELMS or WEC? For the writer, it is an annual voyage of discovery through wikipedia. She notes the most important races in her diary, to know when big crowds are expected at Les Fagnes. But lacking a feel for the whole car thing, she fails as yet to tell apart the different makes, categories and levels of championships.
Still, both she and the computer scientist find it important to gain an insight into this separate world. After all, many of their guests are connected to it in one way or another. Porsche or VW enthusiasts, vintage car owners, racing drivers and mechanics, they all pass through the bed and breakfast. A genuinely interested question at breakfast breaks the ice. And for those who can talk about their passion in the morning, the day has started well.
The writer has nothing to do with cars. The computer scientist does, but then again he has nothing to do with smalltalk. So he got a PDE for his birthday. Now he can join the conversation.
Le Relais des Fagnes offers several rooms, each with its own facilities and comfort level. This is reflected in the price. When a booking comes in for a particular room, an e-mail is always sent with an overview of what the room offers (and does not offer.) Depending on the preferred language, it is drawn up in French, English, German or Dutch. Sometimes this shows a difference between what the booker expected and what is provided. In that case, a cancellation can be made free of charge and no one will be blamed. If no cancellation follows, it is reasonable to assume that the guest finds the facilities/price ratio OK.
Or not. It seems those who pay the least expect the most. And continue to expect, even when they have all the room details . They ignore the information and keep their booking, then find that the room is exactly as described and complain about it in an "honest" review. Of course, with the sole and noble intention of saving other potentially interested parties from the mischief that has come to them.
A little reassurance for these brave guardians of the tourist guild: another potential booker will be sent exactly the same information as you, in their own language.
And may well be able to read.
49. Pedalling Frequency
Someone who goes out for a weekend does so in the company of a person they enjoy spending time with. But at Les Fagnes, it is found that people rather prefer to spend time with themselves. They have devices that facilitate this. For instance, at breakfast they check their watch to see how many minutes they have spent in deep sleep, check on their phone if their Strava record is still valid or count the number of likes on their profile.
After that, it can go two ways. Either a conversation ensues, which consists, for example, in explaining to the interlocutor the functioning of the watch and the importance of blood pressure measurement, heart rate frequency and recovery time. (After all, the life coach has assessed burnout as a real risk.) There can also be a deeper discussion of the newly delivered cycling performance with mention of resistance coefficients and pedalling frequencies. The other side of the table politely waits for a pause and begins an unrelated but similar exposition with him- or herself as the subject.
Either they remain silent and both are swiping, typing and scrolling, each according to their own experience and interest. Which leads to a growing sense of unease, as fomo lurks and watch findings are ominous, according to Dr Google.
People who can afford to go on weekends belong to the more privileged group of society. By and large, they are also physically fit.
But of course, if they believe that themselves, they won't buy expensive watches.
Some people are world famous. These are one of the answers in the preliminaries of a parish quiz and meet some criteria. Either they are very beautiful, so their photos are shared multinational. Either they excel at something, like driving a car or understanding physics. Either they are rare, like someone with enough money to buy up the planet.
Some people are nationally famous. Those are an answer in a national television quiz and somewhat less rare. Still others are limitedly famous. They are recognised by people who share the same passion and are an answer in a specialised quiz. And others are locally famous. They are not an answer, but an article in the billiard magazine.
The first category does not show up at the b&b, which computer scientist and writer understand and do not regret. As for the other categories, your celebrity is unlikely to extend to Les Fagnes. Due to a lack of social media, streaming services and generally any sense of trendyness, you are unlikely to be recognised. Not even if you sign in with a jovial wave and selfie grin. Nor if you introduce yourself slowly and insistently, pausing between each syllable to build tension. But when you then spell out your name on a piece of paper "just to google it", you are guaranteed to stay in the memory. And you will also be Les Fagnes-famous.
"Why don't you write a book about all this?" the writer is often told. "Hilarious, what you guys go through!"
However, most things only become hilarious with enough time in between. The son didn't find it even a little comical when three stupendously drunk partygoers thundered into his room looking for their beds, almost putting an end to the fledgling relationship with the love of his life.
It was also only moderately appreciated when the national hockey team held a team-building event at a nearby hotel, which included an air alert at four in the morning.
When a guest decides that his - kindly lent - mountain bike is adjustable, then tears it apart and can't get the pieces back together, it seems funny. Wasn't.
Nor did it lead to mirth when a cow invasion took place across the newly sown lawn, especially when wheelbarrows of flans had to be disposed of. Or when a young bird invaded via the (cooled) fireplace, stubbornly ignored the widely opened windows and sprayed the living room with soot and droppings. Or when a goody goody of a dog got lost in the garden and the writer thought she could reunite him with a grateful owner. (Instead, she got scolded for misinformation on his badge.) Or when an overly affectionate cat turned out to belong to none of the neighbours and had to be taken to the shelter, where they were received very suspiciously.
And it led to panic rather than chuckles when a farm horse was under the bedroom window one morning, galloping down the driveway and nearly giving passing walkers a cardiac arrest.
Fun for a blog, though.
46. Weather forecast
A phone call to Relais des Fagnes usually follows the same pattern. "No, unfortunately we no longer have availability for the requested weekend." Or "Yes, there are still rooms available. Please send us an e-mail and you will get all the information and you can decide at your leisure." Most people put down the phone and send a message with their questions, if any. They get a thoughtful, comprehensive and detailed answer.
Some people do not disconnect the phone. They would have liked to know just how many square metres the available room is, whether the curtains are fully blackout, whether there is a separate shower, whether a cot can be placed and how many square metres are left, whether there are mosquito screens, or shutters, whether their small and well-behaved dog is really not allowed to sleep in the room, what material the duvet is made of, whether the breakfast is nutritious enough for big eaters, whether the garden is fully fenced in, how far the car park is from the street, which walk would be most suitable for their party and whether they can't get extra pictures of the bathroom. Oh, and any idea of the weather forecast? All this preferably in English, German or French.
These people choose a time that is convenient for them so they can talk all the way through their potential booking.
That is rarely a convenient time at Les Fagnes.
Many people are curious about the story behind Le Relais des Fagnes. "And where do you come from?" "And do you live here permanently?" "And is this your only income?" "And did you buy this house in the state it is now?" "And has it always been a b&b?" Then the same story is happily told again and, using the "before and after" photo book, visitors get an insight into the transformation from haunted house to bed and breakfast. Whenever possible, they are also shown around, as long as it does not disturb the other guests.
There are also people who are equally curious but do not ask questions. Who assume that by booking a room they have access to the whole house and go browsing unashamedly. Who suddenly find themselves shouting "hello" in the private area. Who come after you when you go to the office. Who pull open all the doors - with or without a "private" sign. Who deadpannedly use another toilet "because the private bathroom is occupied by the partner."
Or who invade the wellness area uninvited when the IT person is showering there.
For that, an apology came. Not from the informaticist.
Who felt they should pay extra.
44. Formula 1
The unwritten rule for the hotel industry in the - wide - surroundings of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit is that prices double during the Formula 1 weekend. A bed and breakfast like Le Relais des Fagnes, which is within cycling distance of the circuit, is expected to at least triple.
Neighbours empty their bedrooms and send the children to relatives. Farmers stall their cows, order a portable toilet and declare their pastures a campsite. Or parking. Hôteliers rent out the broom closet and in every garden you can pitch your tent. Hotel industry acquaintances report that the Formula 1 weekend "makes up for their whole year". Surely, then, there are questions to be asked about their business plan. And of course panic strikes at rumours that the Belgian Grand Prix would fall off the calendar.
At Les Fagnes, things are not so dramatic. The income from that weekend is nice, but during the rest of the year the rooms are also occupied. The F1 weekend is actually more like a family reunion, with guests already coming for the fifth time. Days that are stressful and exhausting for the competitors are calm and convivial. Guests arrive on Thursday afternoon, equipped with fan-shirt and (folding) bike. A quick catch-up at check-in and then they pedal to the circuit. The following days, they discuss their favourite's performance over breakfast and then the house is empty again until late at night. On the last day, they cycle back after the race, pick up their luggage and have a nice dinner, while the rest of the hundred-thousand-strong crowd queues up.
But not before making reservations for the next year.
A scam trick has been circulating in the hospitality world for years. An e-mail arrives asking to book an undetermined number of rooms for an undetermined number of people for an undetermined number of days at an undetermined time. (This is because bookers are very flexible and can adjust to availability). When you make a proposal, they promptly reserve as many rooms as you offered "and immediately pay per visa". Then they cancel and demand their money back, while obviously no payment ever arrives via Visa. Relais des Fagnes has already received such a mail several times and vertically classified it.
One lawyer who did not pay for his ordered breakfasts. One missing towel. A few drinks not paid for. Such is the b&b's experience of cheating and scams. Over seven years and several hundred invoices, this is negligible.
The reverse is much more common.
People pointing out that you have undercharged. People who drive back dozens of kilometres because they accidentally took the key with them. People who give you the chance to solve a problem instead of throwing it on the internet. People who leave a huge tip "because they had such a good time." People who bring, or leave, a gift. People who write a personal and warm review.
People who give you energy.
And eagerness to carry on.
A well-known thought experiment gauges whether you have a rather negative or rather positive mindset. Imagine you are standing in line at the bank branch. (It's an old experiment already.) An armed robbery takes place and a fatality occurs. You yourself are also hit, in the shoulder. How do you react? "How is it possible that this is happening to me? I might remain disabled for the rest of my life." Or: "How lucky I survived. Such a tragedy for the other man and his family."
The computer scientist and the writer have never experienced anything of that magnitude, but still think they belong to the latter category. After a burglary, they noted with relief that mostly money had been taken and no of the children's belongings. When vandals abroad had smashed all the car windows, it was reassuring to know that it was a company car with full assistance. When they caught a late-night thief, they first alerted the neighbours and only then reported it. And whenever their car is no longer where it was left, they are glad that it was towed away and not stolen.
By experience one learns, is the saying. Computer scientist and writer have learnt nothing. They do not know which ethnic group to blame for anything, they still think the police are there to help and have kept their faith in the rule of law.
What they do know now is that you don't react the way you expect of yourself. The computer scientist never thought to politely ask a burglar to leave the premises. And the writer never thought she would scream herself hoarse when she saw one - long ago - standing over her.
Nor that for the rest of her life she would jump up startled at every leaf that falls from a tree.
According to the automatic translations of reviews on a booking site, the bed and breakfast has beautiful owners. Not that the compliment isn't appreciated, but it doesn't seem very relevant information for future bookers. (Of course, it's also not what it says in German.)
Despite all the progress in recent years, computer translations continue to contain inaccuracies, grammatical mistakes or glaring errors. At Relais des Fagnes, it is only used for documents, which can be easily corrected. If an error is pointed out by a passing native speaker, it is corrected as quickly as possible. Printed matter, signs, advertising panels or other "fixed" texts are always submitted to someone who knowledge of the language for checking.
It hurts the writer's heart when language is handled carelessly, no matter in which way. Incomprehensible that large organisations such as a municipality, for example, fail to handle translation work professionally. For instance, a campaign was recently launched in our own village to make tourists aware of the problem of litter. Fine initiative. But part of the message goes awry when littering is actively encouraged in one of the four languages.
Once the computer scientist and the writer drove together on a Friday evening, with two worried children in the back seat, from Schoten to Durbuy, to look for the daughter's cuddly toy. Not come home with her after forest classes... the grief was immense. Luckily, Fanny was obediently waiting for her among a mountain of other lost objects.
At Relais des Fagnes, the mountain of lost items is also growing steadily. When it comes to a lace tanga, an orphaned sock or a lighter, their destination is a plastic box that is emptied at the end of the year.
When it comes to a stuffed toy or a pillow with the inscription "dearest daddy on the planet", every effort will be made to return it.
Some people believe it is materialistic to get attached to soulless objects. But are they really that soulless if they can provide comfort? Or tell a beautiful story? Like the bracelet the writer found at a flea market: pearls from 1986, bought in Benidorm and treasured for decades in its original red velvet box. Wouldn't call them soulless.
There is enough cynicism in the world already.
The writer has a rock-solid memory. At least according to the computer scientist, who feels he is too often reminded of his missteps. But a visual memory it certainly is not. She does not recognise faces. Glasses, a beard or curls, it completely eludes her. Were she to witness a crime, based on her composite sketch, the police would probably arrest the computer scientist. Or the baker.
She also doesn't recognise cars. Which is tricky when someone comes driving up the driveway and she is not sure if she has already greeted him. She then has to rely on the assistance of the computer scientist, who helpfully informs her whether the people in this blue Volvo or yellow Tesla are new guests or not.
So at breakfast, she just hopes that she greets you in the right language and puts you next to the right partner.
In contrast, it takes her little effort to remember that you like to eat speculoos pasta, are an ultra-runner or teach clarinet.
Chances are also good that a bell will ring when you send another email later. Because your name, she probably remembers. And what you wrote in the guestbook.
But facial recognition would have been more convenient.
199.45 euros. That was the "fair fee" for playing Bach and Beethoven at breakfast for a maximum of six people for a maximum of an hour and a half. That seemed a bit generous, especially since classical music is not subject to copyright. Objection raisd, understanding lady on the phone and soon the amount was corrected to.... 642.89 euro. Objection raised, understanding gentleman on the phone and soon the amount was adjusted to... 412.82 euro Objection raised, understanding lady and gentleman on the phone and eventually 3.32 euro a year proved fair enough.
There are as many music tastes as there are people. To adapt the choice of music to all guests is impossible. But only following one's own preferences is not ideal either. Exuberant salsa music in an average brasserie quickly gets on the nerves, and cheap pop in a 4-star hotel doesn't really give a sophisticated impression.
At Relais des Fagnes, they keep it simple and the volume low. Just out of bed, one probably doesn't need the local radio with a rundown of all the bad news in the world every 15 minutes. Nor experimental jazz, carnival hits, Bel- or K-pop or some "wrong list".
Playing quiet, instrumental pieces by composers who have been considered masters of their craft for hundreds of years seems the path of least resistance.
And there are earplugs, too.
One of Flanders' most famous and lauded poets once declared she did not use social media. She did not want to read reviews of her work and had forbidden friends and family to pass on criticism - good or bad. A good review made her feel good for a few days, a bad one for a few days. And life went on. It's not that she would start adapting her work to the opinions of reviewers or audiences. Nor is it that those expected it. So then what was the point?
At Les Fagnes, this view is shared. Taking part in a tv-show like "Four in a bed" will never be an option and the b&b has no presence on social media. The computer scientist distrusts their intentions and finds it a questionable business model to make money by communicating to multinationals when and how person X is most prone to make an impulse purchase. The writer finds mandatory reviews on booking sites stressful enough. Moreover, she considers I-messages overrated, especially since that day she received her book prize and a committee member kept insisting that she "personally" would have preferred a different winner. In fact, she was recently confronted with another such unconstructive I-message, when a self-proclaimed fan of her work cancelled the fan-ship by whats-app.
All information about the b&b can be found on the website and for more background there is this blog. You can always comment on this.
But you don't have to.
36. Muddy tracks
One overnight stay, it goes like this. A day in advance guests announce lightheartedly that they will arrive in the morning. "Just parking the car..., we're going for a bike ride!"
When they arrive, in the middle of the breakfast rush: "Small question, can we change somewhere?" With all the rooms occupied, that will be in the private area. Where no vacuuming has been done yet and invoices should actually be made. Then just - "very briefly" - to the (private) toilet. And with an enthusiastic wave, they cycle down the driveway.
After the breakfast shift, cleaning follows. First the cyclists' room, because there is no telling when they will return. So stay at home, no shopping. Gonna be tight, as the actual check-in starts at 5pm. After cleaning the rooms, the entrance and corridor follow. There is still plenty of mopping there, when they come back up the driveway, panting and sweating with the bike in hand. "Heavier than we thought, say! Now we can get into the room already, surely? Not that we minded having to improvise a bit this morning, mind you!" Their muddy cycling shoes draw a trail across the tiles.
"Question... Can we leave our luggage here tomorrow? We are planning another tour." The next day, suitcases are in the private room, the own walk is canceled and a new wait for muddy tracks in the corridor begins.
Of course, they need the toilet once more. "And euh... question: a quick shower, would that be possible?" They don't need shampoo. "And one towel will do, you know!" And when they leave in the evening, after cleaning the bike with the borrowed pressure washer, they sound cheerful: "It was only for one night, but we thought it was worth it anyway!"
For your information: at Relais des Fagnes, it is preferable to book a minimum stay of two nights. Check-in from 5pm, check-out at 11am.
35. I'm leaving
Every week?" they are told in consternation when they tell about the family visit to Flanders. "Then you guys sure do a lot of miles!"
That's quite OK. No more per week than the average commuter, who commutes back and forth from the suburbs every day.
Distances are relative. In the eyes of the average Belgian, computer scientist and writer have left belongings behind and can join the TV programme "Ik vertrek" (I am leaving). To the average American, they just kept living under the church tower. This one does drive an hour and a half by car for a good burger joint.
Of course, having a home base in Flanders is also an advantage. A cosy, bright and well-located flat, which has the atmosphere of their beloved home in Bloemendaal. When they announce "going home" at a family party in Flanders, it is to this that they refer.
For a long time, they felt they had to choose. That for some reason it is not OK to feel "at home" in two places. In a natural way, they would one day realise that Les Fagnes was their only real home. That never happened.
And yet. When they leave for the Ardennes after a day in Flanders, the writer always hears the same question: "Going home?" and the computer scientist always gets the same answer: "Yes, please."
34. Listing girl
The writer is affectionately called a "listing-girl" by the computer scientist. She cannot deny it. She doesn't go to the shop without a shopping list, to-do lists for gardener, plumber and husband hang on the memo board, her computer contains checklists for all kinds of holidays, her playlists are sorted according to genre, mood, time period and alphabet and her diary is her most precious possession.
Some call her a perfectionist, which sounds bizarre for someone who was known as an absent-minded professor in her youth and who once left for school half-dressed. So she can and does deny being a perfectionist. After all, everyone puts their coffee cups in the cupboard with the ears turned neatly to the right. And surely towels are sorted by colour, size and folding procedure in every linen cupboard in the country. And who leaves laundry labels in their garments?
The computer scientist sometimes thinks - to himself - that she is exaggerating. Must he say, with his three hundred carefully arranged folders and his draft sheets that look like concepts for a particle accelerator.
9.8 out of 10. That is Le Relais des Fagnes' score for hygiene. That applies inside the gate.
Outside it is a different matter. How carelessly people treat the beautiful nature that surrounds them.... Cans, food leftovers, plastic bags with and without contents, even construction waste and white goods: thrown out of cars, dropped or dumped.
Computer scientist and writer couldn't stand it anymore. So they joined the "Ambassadeurs de la Propreté en Wallonie" (Ambassadors for Cleanliness in Wallonia) and have been going out ever since, armed with gloves and a grappling stick. They drag rubbish bags out of the woods, fish bottles out of streams and signal illegal dumping to the relevant services. The municipal rubbish man comes for weekly coffee and throws their loot into his pick-up. Sometimes ten bags at a time.
They mainly go out in winter. In summer, the problem seems less acute and they also have less time. From September onwards, they start plogging again. Accompanied by approving honks from passing cars, encouraging applause and raised thumbs up.
Because tidying up is sexy!
32. Flying chickens
Most of the b&b guests are aware of the major challenges of these times. In particular, the issue of wastage comes up quite often. However, with the best of intentions, they sometimes make it more difficult than necessary. When one does not need cereal with his breakfast and for another the apples can be omitted, lists have to be drawn up for that. While the apple has already been purchased and the cornflakes can sit quietly in their sealed jar when one does not want them.
To reassure everyone: at Relais des Fagnes, nothing is wasted. Hardly any portioned packages are used and, furthermore, surpluses are frozen, jams, soups and vegetable gratin are made, bread puddings, French toast, croûtons and apple pie are baked, breadcrumbs are mixed, cold meats and eggs are made into salads, croque-monsieurs are topped, cheese leftovers are ground and jars of chocolate and speculoos spread are shared until they are empty. Even the hot water from the thermos or the cooking water from the eggs is not flushed down the sink, but poured over the weeds between the pebbles.
The last leftovers then serve as a treat for the fox, which is on post every night. For the hedgehogs and squirrels, hares, deer, martens and mice. But especially for the tits, nuthatches, sparrows, blackbirds, finches and thrushes. And for the jackdaws, magpies and the pair of jays, who even like potatoes and chips.
To the suggestion of keeping chickens, the answer is invariably: there are already chickens on the premises. And they can fly.
31. Penguin ice cream
The Ardennes house was supposed to be a country retreat for the family of four. But when it was finished, writer and computer scientist were down to two, the family had expanded to eight and "Le Relais des Fagnes" was running as a bed and breakfast. For computer scientist and writer, it is now the place to live and work, and on holidays they go elsewhere.
To a hotel in the German Eifel region, for example, where they enjoy being served instead of serving. Where they have their regular room (no 225, "nicht wechseln") and are greeted at breakfast with a sincere: "Wie schön das Sie wieder da sind..."
To Europapark with children and grandchildren, where they for one week feel like a family again. Always seasoned with the little absurdities they have grown accustomed to. Like the sudden disappearance of a set of hubcaps from the son's car.
And instead of making the weekly commute to the Ardennes, mamy and papy now drive to Antwerp, to the granddaughters. Because they are their best friend. (They've said so themselves and, of all the compliments so far, it's the best). For a day away. At the zoo. With kids and friends, with grandmas, grandpas and nieces. And a penguin ice cream.
A short break.
And so it went full circle.
Some people attach no importance to St Valentine's Day. Neither does the computer scientist. The writer does. Just as she attaches importance to Christmas, birthdays, school parties and Mother's Day (the real one, the one in August!).
So the computer scientist regularly has to go hunting for presents. With varying degrees of success. Scales, anyone? Or a self-propelled hoover?.... ("Then you'll never have to clean again!")
He has learnt that - however illogical in his eyes - a collection of earrings, bracelets, necklaces and rings is never quite complete, but still wants to come up with something more original from time to time.
The writer's most cherished Valentine's Day gift was given some 30 years ago, when the son was born. The most original she got recently, when the computer scientist thought he had received a tip after they had watched a cycling race together. The writer had delighted in how cute she thought the prize awarded was, a giant rubber duck. Since then, a bright yellow plastic duck has been swimming in the pond of the Relais des Fagnes, much to the delight of the guests. The writer loves him - and the computer scientist. She has named him Valentin.
29. La campagne
The neighbour proudly reported that her husband had caught three moles again. "Are they bothering you so much too? They are ruining the lawn!" Carelessly, she added that the moles were now in the meadow behind the house. The writer naively asked if they wouldn't just come back then. Which made the neighbour look up in amazement, saying, "He did kill them first, didn't he!"
Such heartlessness is incomprehensible to the computer scientist, who was once in complete shock when he fished a dead mole from the slurry pit. In fact, he still has nightmares about a little mouse, which turned out to be very dead - and flat - after he accidentally put a fridge on top of it.
For "les gens de la campagne" they will probably always be city people, those from Le Relais des Fagnes. Who, with their camera at the ready, excitedly look out for anything that looks like a deer, enthusiastically search for wild boar tracks, hope that the wolf will show itself to them one day and give each passing piece of fauna a name. Meet (column by column) Victor, Chip, Kobe, Benjamin, Frits, Minimoys and Martin!
28. En amoureux
The lady from the tourist office, who came to inspect the b&b to decide how many stars ("épis" or "ears of corn" in the Walloon system) she was going to award, was sorry that there was no communal lounge area. But there was. With great pride, the computer scientist and writer showed her the - self-created - chalet, with vintage pinball machine, DVD library, widescreen TV and surround-sound. She was impressed, even if it didn't bring an extra ear of corn.
Then came corona and the chalet lost its social function.
A rebranding urged itself and on "Airbnb" the "glamping" chalet (where pets are also welcome) became an instant hit. An average score of 5 stars, with the sole exception of two Dutch ladies, who expected at least a waterbed for the price of a camping space.
But the space is mostly booked for romantic weekends "en amoureux". Which means a little more for some couples than others. As the computer scientist found out, when he wanted to explain the operation of the television to newly arrived guests and inadvertently confronted them with full-screen breasts, buttocks and penises. Preselection of the previous couple.
En amoureux, indeed.
Is Relais des Fagnes well located? Yes, for the cyclist, who wants to improve his Stravascore on the Ardennes slopes. For the hiker, who can wander across the fens along the "Croix des Fiancés" to Baraque Michel. For the car fanatic, who is fifteen minutes away from the most beautiful race track in the world.
For Ukrainian war refugees with no transport and no means of livelihood slightly less so. Shops, services and schools are barely accessible on foot or by public transport, and if you have nothing to do, a day in nature takes quite a long time.
Not that they weren't welcome. Le Relais des Fagnes had applied and held a space for them. No applications came.
So the solidarity was converted into a financial contribution and the b&b was taken off the list again.
But they remain welcome. As does everyone else.
If you do not advertise on a booking site, you are untraceable on the net. Even if you were to register with all the tourism services in Wallonia (which is not even allowed due to territorial regulations), your beautiful guest rooms remain empty.
This visibility comes at a price. In money and in dependence. Not only do you pay commission, the site also decides who gets to book with you and, after a stay, every guest opinion is published unfiltered.
That's when everything goes well.
When things go wrong, a bug can suddenly cause a booked room to be re-released. The result is a double booking and you have to hastily vacate your bedroom to camp in the living room. Because as a host, you are not allowed to cancel. (Is allowed, but costs money and is pernicious for your scores...)
When things go wrong, you can also get angry customers on the phone, who have booked with the competition, but nevertheless call you on holiday and demand a room.
Do booking sites have a monopoly position? Absolutely. The Walloon government therefore considers it its duty to break this monopoly and launched its own site. Heard of it yet?
I rest my case.
People demand value for money. But more than that, they desire respect.
Applies to computer scientists and writers too.
They respect every guest and try to comply with as many wishes as possible, even if one request seems more reasonable than another. Want to know the route of some carnival procession or parade? They look it up. Like a printed version of the walk description? Coming soon. Want a vegan breakfast? Or breakfast before 6 am? Can be arranged. Is the adolescent son coming along unexpectedly? The room will be converted. Stranded with tyre trouble? Depannage is on the way. No transport to your destination? They'll take you there. Too cold in your mobile home? They'll lend you a fire. Watching Netflix series? Just use their chromecast. Stuck in the snow? On the tow rope up the mountain.
In other words, they do their best. For everyone.
When their guests don't appreciate that, it hurts. When they write that they were received "coldly." When they honk that the lovely reviews are really "richly deserved" and rate the b&b themselves with a paltry seven. When they disappear like a thief in the night. When they give a ten in all areas except price-quality. (What's the message? Everything was perfect, but for free would be better?)
People who write bad reviews do so under the guise of warning others of the risk of a bad experience. That sounds noble.
But mostly it is revenge. Now to find out why.
Thunderstorms were forecasted over Antwerp. Lightning, wind, rain and hail. It became a supercell.
Since then, computer scientist and writer have been driving around with a car like a golf ball, which they affectionately call a Dacia Bluster. But no windows broke, it did not rain inside and lightning struck elsewhere.
Rain was forecast over Liege. Lots of rain. It became a water bomb.
They were hosing down in the cellar at night, guests fled and the chalet flooded. But they suffered no damage, did not sit on the roof for hours and most importantly, they didn't loose loved ones.
Severe weather had been forecasted inland, with warnings of strong winds. It became a twin storm. Garden furniture flew away, electricity failed for hours and some trees tumbled down. They lit candles and made it cosy.
"Don't judge a book by it's cover," is a well-known saying. But however open-minded you want to be, subconsciously you still form an image of a voice on the phone or expect a certain type of person with a certain make of car. That image rarely turns out to be true, and that is one of the most fascinating aspects of hosting guests.
A motard in tough leather suit (with skull) who comes timidly to ask if a vegetarian breakfast is among the options. A businessman in tailored suit and tie, who has not mastered the use of the toilet brush. A young couple in ripped jeans and full of tattoos, who make the bed and polish the bath tap as they leave. A lady with plunging cleavage and her self-assured partner, pulling the curtains of the wellness area so tightly that not even the cows are given a glance. A Tesla owner with trophy-wife, paying off the tourist tax in copper cents. A racing driver, who comes to inspect the room after booking, declares everything fine and then cancels his booking. The couple of motorcyclists, who come flying noisily up the driveway, appear to be unfairly chased away from the competition and burst into tears when you offer them a room. The reserved German industrialist who signs a jolly racing car in your guest book. Seven giggling scout adolescents, who leave a super sweet thank-you note. An elderly lady and gentleman, deftly coiffed and shaved, from whose room at night the sound of a patting hand on bare buttocks echoes.
Lots of books, even more covers.
"You give colour to your lives," they sometimes hear. But computer scientist and writer have no sense of adventure. They do, however, try to maintain a kind of Pippi Longstocking attitude when projects present themselves: "I've never tried it before, so I think I can do it."
When they married, they were 22, recent graduates and the only experience of independence was two years in student accommodation. At 26, they were raising two children in the middle of a renovation. While one was working full-time three quarters of an hour away and the other was pursuing a career that included overseas travel. Meanwhile, they tutored, took courses and got involved in parish work. Set up a tutoring centre and bought property. Had beginner's luck in the stock market and each received recognition in their respective fields.
That they also experienced financial difficulties, were stalked, faced four lawsuits and even experienced a robbery is less known.
Equally little known is the deep grief that so unexpectedly invaded their lives and still affects it every day. A grief in which they could not comfort each other because it overwhelmed them both, on that cruel autumn day in September. A grief in which they could not even be together because a funeral had to be arranged in two families, of a mum and a sister, who had died not together but at the same time.
Since then, they have been even more aware of opportunities that arise, keeping in mind Grandpa's motto: "A man suffers most by the suffering he fears."
The writer's motto echoes this: "It all comes down to attitude."
The computer scientist's is on his favourite shirt.
21. Camping enthusiasts
A camping enthusiast is a free bird. He considers himself independent and can pitch his tent or mobile home wherever he wants. But in Belgium, this is prohibited by law. Tent, caravan and mobile home belong on a campsite, where the facilities are tailored to their needs. And where constant investments are made to respond to the changing market, for example to the growing demand for extra comfort and privacy. With rising prices as a logical consequence. (3 figures for a place with its own bathroom is not exceptional.) While it still remains a campsite, without the free feeling that for many belongs to camping.
It therefore seems an attractive idea to set up tent, caravan or mobile home in someone's garden. "After all, we don't need much..." Just a nice spot on the lawn for the tent or a paved surface for the mobile home. Also, of course, a place for the car. And electricity. And water. And wifi. And oh yes... private sanitary facilities. With towels and shampoo please.
We offer all this. Plus a large domain with pond and lounge areas in sun or shade, a petanque and badminton court, a children's area with swing, a ping-pong table, barbecue, campfire, extra equipment and breakfast in bed if you wish.
Comments? "We missed the camping feeling."
20. Monsieur Tom
With every visit to Flanders - once a week - by writer and computer scientist lurks irritation. For instance, when they stumble from crossroads to crossroads, surrounded by cargo bike mothers and bicycle couriers, while in Wallonia they only have to watch out for crossing wildlife and the occasional (Flemish) cycling tourist. Or when they walk between the shelves in an Antwerp supermarket and get only a blank stare back in response to their welcoming "good morning!". It also takes more and more effort not to take the condescending cliché jokes about the easygoing Southern neighbours personally. The majority of the Walloons they know are hard-working and generous people with a positive attitude and an open mind.
Who welcome them into their community and give them a sense of belonging. That feeling is in little things. When the hairdresser notes an appointment without asking for a name. When a waitress points out a table to "monsieur Tom" with exuberant glee. When an invitation arrives in the letterbox for the brass band's New Year's concert. When the plumber spontaneously calls his cousin the joiner to get the bathtub in place. When the neighbour's dog comes over to play enthusiastically. When the hardware store clerk asks for photos of the grandchildren. When you queue up to cast your vote in the hallway of the municipal school. When you alternate offering and being offered drinks in the local hospitality industry. There is that feeling of belonging.
Just need to learn to kiss. Always. Everywhere. With anyone.
Welcoming paying guests for the first time is nerve-wrecking. So there was no rush to open the b&b. In any case, renovations had to be done first and administrative obligations also took up a lot of time. The house was occupied only half-time and at those times, barbecues were planned and family and friends stayed. And, of course, the IT consultant had to consult and the writer had to write.
Then, with the 2015 Formula 1 weekend, the leap was taken. After a phone call to a friendly hotel owner, both guest rooms were occupied within 15 minutes. (Even after a Swiss Porsche driver suddenly changed his mind and then in all likelihood spent the night in his convertible.)
So they were launched, they learned by doing and the bookings poured in. While the consultant was still consulting, but the writer was no longer writing.
Then came corona. Not a single room occupied during the lockdown? Sure enough, that of the father-in-law, who came to stay for a few days and suddenly had to stay for eight weeks. By order of the police, who officially registered him in the "Les Fagnes-bubble". While the consultant still consulted and the writer wrote again, resulting in two novels.
The lockdown was followed by the "boost". Holidays at home are an enduring trend and the beautiful Ardennes are more popular than ever. Two guest rooms became three, then four, now five (to six). While the consultant still consults, but the writer no longer writes, except for this blog.
Even before there was talk of paying guests, it was clear that a wellness area was to be built. Even before the deed was signed, permission in principle had been sought and obtained from the municipality to build an annex at the back of the house. (The contractors we hired for the first phase did not know this, which led to open grumbling because they had to build a "couloir à nulle part").
The "Spa" was originally meant to be an open wellness area, which would be available to b&b guests within defined hours. All well organised and everyone happy.
Then came corona. Instead of an open space where everyone was welcome, it became a private area by appointment. The response to this was so positive that the appointment scheme was never scaled back. All was well and everyone happy.
Then came the energy crisis. The existing arrangement proved financially unsustainable, so prices were raised. The guests were very understanding and the wellness remained a nice extra to their stay. All was well and everyone happy.
Then came the climate crisis. During the hot summer of 2022, bookings for the Spa decreased drastically. Who crawls into a sauna at an outside temperature of 30°C? All well and no one happy.
So the Spa was converted into a sixth guest room. Not advertised, but available for last-minute guests or staying family. And the sauna? That can still be booked.
All well and everyone happy.
When "Les Fagnes" was for sale, it was advertised as a "charming place in a beautiful park with mature trees". In reality, it was a dilapidated building among mostly over-aged conifers and epiceas, dark mastodons of exotic greenery with no value for fauna or biodiversity. Turning the site into a park domain would take many years of careful selection, structuring and planting. Some trees had to be removed because of lack of space, others because of disease, others because of proximity to electrical cables and some also for renovations. With a tree-hugger in the family, this is no easy task. Moreover, two of the most valuable trees, an ash tree and a blue cedar, fell victim to drought due to climate change.
Although dozens of beeches, oaks, walnut trees, Japanese and native cherry trees, chestnuts and maples were planted in the meantime, the computer scientist was in deep mourning at each felling. To this day, every little lot he finds gets a bow tied and he carefully replants it to a protected part of the garden, where it is safe from lawn machines or weed whackers.
And he is very proud of the name the gardener came up with for him, which he considers an honorary title: Idefix, the tree-loving dog of the comic book hero Obelix.
The inspiration for the room names can be traced back to a Spanish b&b, where the guest rooms were named after hamlets and towns nearby.
In the early days, there were two rooms on the ground floor, called "Malmedy" and "Stavelot". Room Malmedy would have a rustic Ardennes atmosphere and room Stavelot would be a bit more exuberant, referring to the famous "laetare" (carnival). But "exuberant", on reflection, did not really fit in with the concept of "peace and quiet in the blue Ardennes". So there was opted for more serenity in (snow) white and (water) blue and the name was changed to "Hockai", after the nearby village.
The same recipe for the new guest rooms upstairs. Studio "Francorchamps" was given a sleek look in black and red, in reference to the racing circuit, and the green and brown tones of studio "Sart" breathe the palette of the Ardennes forests.
As the administrative centre of the whole operation, the private quarter was named "Jalhay" and for the wellness area, the name "Spa" was obvious.
Meanwhile, the computer scientist single-handedly converted the old wooden garage into a cosy guesthouse, proudly named "chalet". And finally, he created a gym in the sagging goat shed, which was upgraded from "shed" to "lodge".
All clear. Right?
When the computer scientist established himself as self-employed, a name for the company had to be found. Since his name is Tom and he specialises in software, "Atomic Software" was quickly coined. And of course, the a was replaced by an at-sign and writer and computer scientist were delighted with their originality and trendy hipness.
The new venture was accounted for in the existing company, after a renewed notary visit to have the articles of association amended to reflect the unique combination of software consulting and room rental.
There is little common ground between the two, but the good listener discovers a subtle connection here and there. For instance, the squirrel that reluctantly allowed them into its territory was named Chip. Not in reference to the jolly duo from American cartoons, but to a computer disk.
It was the daughter, who managed to capture the bv's two activities in one image, by drawing an at-sign (in French "arobase") as an eye in a squirrel silhouette. Since then, the squirrel, with or without arobase, has been the b&b's mascot and squirrels belong to Relais des Fagnes like Chip to Dale.
Moving from Rose Avenue to a street called "Cokaifagne" felt like a downgrade. It sounded ugly and besides, pronouncing the street name raised more than one raised eyebrow from English-speaking guests. Unlike the neighbours, who were attached to their "lieu-dit", computer scientist and writer therefore thought it was a fine plan when the municipality decided to rename some streets.
"Route de Hockai" may have seemed a bit banal as a new name, but it would put their guests unambiguously, clearly and accurately on the spot.
Not only did a "Route de Hockai" already exist in the neighbouring municipality, navigation systems are still not up to date a decade later. So it could happen recently that they had to explain to a police patrol the way to their intervention address.
So they still have to inform their guests that although the b&b is located in "Route de Hockai", they had better enter "Cokaifagne" in their system.
And they still get raised eyebrows in response.
A condition for starting a "bed and breakfast" or "chambre d'hôtes" in Wallonia is that the landlord must live in the property himself. But the family was registered at the Antwerp flat, where the children were studying. The computer scientist and the writer regularly stayed in the Ardennes and would receive guests at those times. In the government's thick rulebook, however, this option does not appear.
Domiciling everyone in the Ardennes had consequences for the children, keeping everyone registered in Antwerp meant no bed and breakfast. Splitting the happy family of four and leaving the children behind seemed like a drastic intervention. The compromise was that the writer would register at the holiday address, since she would become the person in charge of the b&b.
Unfortunately, this option does not appear in the government's thick rulebook either. Not only did an embarrassing surprise follow at the next tax assessment, the thirty-year marriage of writer and computer scientist now shows a gaping hole somewhere: one year of official separation.
When the writer was a young girl, she did see herself as a diplomat's wife. She considered herself quite capable of hosting garden receptions at an exotic embassy. In evening dress and tiara, of course. Or else stewardess, like that with a diagonally knotted scarf around the neck. But not on a plane, on a cruise ship genre "Loveboat". Much more stylish.
Receptionist of a super chic hotel also qualified, in designer coat suit and stilettos.
It became b&b manageress. No receptions in the evening sun, only breakfast before sunrise. No exotic palm garden, no luxurious cruise ship, no 5-star hotel. No gala dress, no scarf, no stilettos. In it's place a comfort dress, hair ribbon and practical footwear. A little less glamorous, but pimping up the picture with a heartfelt smile: welcome to Relais des Fagnes!
11. Les Fagnes
The Schoten building had a total area of about 390m2, which is not bad for a house in the Antwerp outskirts. But that was dwarfed by the 5 450m2 of the new Ardennes country house, which, according to the computer scientist and the writer, meant that it could rightly be called a domain.
So when a name had to be thought of, "Domaine Les Fagnes" (French for fens) was the obvious choice. Or shortened "Les Fagnes", for the friends. So it soon appeared on the newly installed mailbox and it also became the title of a beautiful photo album the daughter made to herald the new phase of life.
It was only when the first guests of the nearby 5-star hotel "Domaine Les Hautes Fagnes" drove up the driveway, unsuspecting and full of expectation, that they realised their mistake.
So - as they should have done immediately - they did their Google homework and searched for a new name that would not make potential b&b guests dream of butler service, hotstone massages and 5-course meals with custom wines.
After a bit more careful consideration than the first time, the choice fell on "Relais des Fagnes", emphasising what they do offer: the peace and space of Ardennes nature. And the fact that they did not have to buy a new set of adhesive letters was also a plus.
Which does not alter the fact that for themselves - and for friends - it will always be "Les Fagnes".
The Ardennes house was meant to be a holiday home, with the vague plan of renting it out occasionally as well.
Long renovation years followed, during which the life of the writer and computer scientist changed drastically. Not least because the Bloemendaal house was exchanged for a flat in Antwerp, where the children went to study. Thus the children remained firmly anchored in Flanders, while the parents' focus shifted more and more to Wallonia.
And as it turned out, once the renovations in the Ardennes were over, there was actually half a house left over.
Starting a bed and breakfast was then an obvious choice.
Neither computer scientist nor writer had experience in the hospitality sector, at least not on the delivering side. They had, however, holidayed in just about all of Europe, visiting hotels, restaurants, bars and coffee houses of all genres and all levels. They had camped, rented cottages, slept in cheap transit hotels, stayed in guesthouses and people's homes, stayed in 5-star hotels and taken luxury cruises. From everywhere, they had memorised what they liked.
If they liked it, hopefully their guests will like it too.
Skilled tradesmen regard house owners as a necessary evil. Pedantic dilettantes who get in the way and ask stupid questions. Which, in the case of the writer, is pretty accurate.
Admittedly, connecting the washing machine to a radiator pipe does not show much understanding of plumbing. So both writer and computer scientist had the utmost respect for professionals. And by extension, for specialists in all sectors of society. They still have. Though there have been some dents here and there.
the central heating installer sold them a remote-controlled burner, unfortunately only remote-controlled in Germany.
the bank consultant failed to arrange a loan and the insurance broker repeatedly refused any intervention, despite 50 years of loyal clientele and not one missed payment.
the plumber haphazardly connected all the pipes in and under the house, with no regard for drainage, let alone separation of "grey" and "black" water.
the swimming pool specialist assured that a budget of around €30 000 would suffice, after which the quote arrived, at a cost of €80 000 and including a Napoleonic code of regulations for a professional environment.
the accountant was as surprised as they were when they suddenly turned out to be registered as a divorced couple.
they stood for several weeks scratching paint splatters off the windows, which had been enthusiastically daubed around by the professional painter.
the all-round handyman neglected to use rustproof nails for the terrace, so that it now shows more freckles than a Scottish maiden in the Spanish sun.
every commune in Wallonia seems to have its own tourist counter, without any cohesion or cooperation, so that the b&b in nearby Malmedy cannot/may not be mentioned.
the contractor punched a doorway between kitchen and hall, which should have been between kitchen and basement.
the architect did not indicate that the floor under the showers should have a drain, so the tiles had to be broken up again.
the carpenter ordered a kitchen window in the wrong colour and also fitted unsuitable doors, which cannot be closed in sun - or rain - or thunder - or snow - or wind.
one of the workmen handed a radiator to be reused to the old-iron marchand.
they found the planned demolition work too risky to carry out themselves and therefore outsourced it to a patented and (self-)insured demolition specialist, who then tackled a floor slab with the grab crane and pulled the rear façade centimetres out, whereupon the house just barely didn't collapse and had to be underpinned with high urgency.
But it's finished.
Fact: proximity is important for good project management. In the case of the writer and the computer scientist, this was utopian, because they carried out renovations 170km away. Since they could only inspect progress once a week, this amounted to identifying flaws and plotting a course of action to rectify them. While they were still recovering from the previous week's flaters. Which, after a few weeks, leered like a Echternach procession or an unending series of Hanoi towers.
Fact: clear communication is important for good project management. Utopian in the case of the writer and the computer scientist, since she cannot read a building plan and he suffers from telephone anxiety.
Fact: tight time management is important for good project management. Utopian in the case of the writer and computer scientist, since he can think in 3D, but not in days, hours or minutes. And for her, the opposite is true.
Proximity, communication skills, technical insight, natural leadership... all very nice words for the qualities of a good project manager. And all utopian.
In the end, it comes down to this: perseverance. In short: mail and mail again, call and call again.
And meanwhile just keep going.
7. Door handles
A renovation is a test for a relationship it seems. Now according to most, the computer scientist's relationship with the writer was doomed to failure from the start, so in their case, two renovations were just a little extra challenge.
Their recipe for a successful remodelling and, by extension, a successful relationship? No trespassing on each other's domain.
The one who is technically inclined makes all the technical decisions. The one who is not technically inclined manages finances, administration, communication, calendar, design and decoration, public relations, bookings, travel plans, living expenses, landscaping, recreation, real estate and social contacts. In varying and unforeseeable order.
Going solo to choose a kitchen between parent contact and recorder lessons? Check. Stocking twenty litres of bright blue paint along with the weekly groceries? Check. Claiming a crew of gardeners to lay out borders? Check. Going to the bank alone for an extra loan? Check. Buying a flat without a viewing by the spouse? Check. Ordering door handles, flooring, window frames or bathroom furniture as you see fit? Check.
But doesn't all this include consultation? Nope. Waste of time.
Yet according to those who are tech-savvy.
6. Head over heels
Falling in love head over heels with a neglected villa in the Ardennes countryside. It sounds more romantic than it is, especially when a deposit has been paid with no key in sight.
Holidaying in the new house with the whole family. It sounds cosier than it is, especially when you have to cook on a campfire and wash your hair with cold water.
Starting the renovations in good spirits. It sounds more adventurous than it is, especially when that means demolition, demolition and more demolition. Chicken coops, donkey and goat pens, dog kennels, fences and enclosures, all driven metres deep into the ground in the previous owner's favourite material: concrete. Dragging pillars out of the ground with the all-terrain vehicle, smashing feed troughs and forcing floor slabs loose. Dragging tonnes of old rust out of the various pens and chutes, removing mouldy food supplies and filling container after container "tout-venant".
Working in concert with professionals. It sounds more efficient than it is, especially when electrical wiring needs to be prepared overnight or a pile of muck needs to be dug out from under the terrace.
Using and appreciating everyone's strengths as a couple. It sounds more harmonious than it is, especially when one digs unforeseen trenches right through the driveway and the other is given the sole - and frustrating - task of making phone calls. With the plumber. And with the gardener. And with the architect. And with the contractor. And with another contractor. And with the insurance company. And with yet another contractor. And with the tax inspector. And with the bank. And with the tourist board. And again with the bank.
Would they do it again? Sure they would.
Starting a second major renovation was never the plan. On the other hand, computer engineer and writer did think they had enough experience to do it over. Even more in-house this time.
So the computer scientist downloaded an architecture programme and started drawing. Version 18.3 was the right one: a clear plan of the new layout, with five en suite bedrooms, a dining room where the hall used to be, a kitchen instead of the garage, an extra staircase to the first floor, a relocated basement entrance and a passage to a planned extension.
The writer saw nothing in it. To someone without a 3D world view, a floor plan is a motley spaghetti of randomly running lines with odd little scribbles representing things like taps and sockets. Then again, the computer engineer didn't get that. For someone with only a 3D world view, it leads to frustration when spatial descriptions such as "in front" and "behind" turn out not to be fixed concepts, but can vary depending on where someone is.
Nevertheless, the writer confidently printed the plans and pasted them in enlarged versions on the walls for the contractors' information (with varying degrees of success). And when a sleek villa emerged from the ruins, with good flow and all modern comforts, she was not the least bit surprised.
Nor was the computer engineer, when the writer made what he considered bizarre design choices, which in retrospect turned out to be right.
Trading in a dream for another dream is not that difficult. Selling a dream before it is realised is completely different.
The seller of the Ardennes villa had imagined his life differently. He too had seen his family growing up in a safe nest in a warm neighbourhood. When that family fell apart, he could only cling to his memories. No amount of money and no buyer could convince him to let go of his dream home, though he could not cope with the upkeep and loneliness.
In the family of the writer and computer scientist, however, he seemed to recognise himself, and in a symbolic gesture of approval, he gifted them a framed aerial photograph.
But that did not sign the deed of sale. After three cancelled notary appointments, the writer and computer scientist plumply got into their car one evening and, after an hour and a half's drive, knocked on his door. With aerial photo in hand, they promised him sincere care for the property and eventually secured the key to their new dream.
His own dream ended abruptly, just a few months later, in a dark bachelor flat in a Walloon provincial town.
3. Haunted House
The blue Ardennes had been the favourite weekend getaway destination for 20 years, when the idea of buying a holiday home there began to grow. Following a tip-off from a hotel owner friend, the writer immediately lost her heart to the dilapidated villa, completely snowed under, with its romantic bay window, bustled staircase and wrought-iron balustrade. The computer scientist and the rest of the family saw a haunted house with peeling paint, broken windows and cracked awning.
In the first instance, the property appeared to have already been sold, to the writer's chagrin and the others' relief, but in the second instance, the sale did not go through, to the writer's enthusiasm and the others' resignation.
On the site visit that followed, everyone was confirmed in their first impression, so they bought the property there and then. And now, a decade and a lot of money later, the others too see what the writer saw, that one freezing cold day in half a metre of snow.
Buying a house is like buying a dream. The writer and the computer engineer bought that dream in the Schoten district of Bloemendaal. She had only two requirements when buying a house: a bathtub and a fireplace. The property in Bloemendaal had neither. It also had no kitchen, no central heating and no other form of comfort. But it was on a street romantically called "Rose Lane" and it had a large, south-facing garden. So writer and computer scientist embarked on a two-decade building project and realised their dream of a happy family with a daughter and a son, growing up in a warm neighbourhood.
Until a stalker invaded their calm life and turned the warm neighbourhood into a threatening environment, where a dark silhouette stood under the window at night and the daughter could only get around by taxi.
A move to the anonymous metropolis, where the children went to study, combined with weekends in the Ardennes countryside brought the peace of mind and security the family craved. And so a new dream began.
1. How you are
That the writer and the computer engineer would get together was written in the stars. Yet according to the writer, who at 16 had already thought it would be a good idea. It took the computer engineer two years longer. The rest of those around them were still not convinced after 10 years of marriage. The relationship would founder when the attraction between the two "opposites" wore off.
But several decades later, the writer is still proud of her phlegmatic anti-hero with his big heart. The computer scientist is still proud of his spirited princess-on-the-pea, whom he conquered so unexpectedly. And lets Jeroen van der Boom's song "How you are" pop out of the speakers with a broad grin.
"If you ain't got it, marry it," an American president once said. Opposites can also complement each other. The differences between the writer and the computer engineer are superficial. Neither needs to climb K2, go deep-sea diving or fly solo around the world. Both like cats, predictability and chips with mayonnaise. And despite usually being in each other's company, they are not done talking. Extra-marital excitement, drudgery or midlife crisis pass them by.
For now, anyway.