Ghent and the virtue of stroppy

Terry and Lieven in Velootje, Ghent. January 2016
Terry and Lieven in Velootje, Ghent. January 2016

Stroppy adjective: bad-tempered and argumentative. Origin: 1950s: perhaps an abbreviation of obstreperous. That’s from the online Oxford Dictionary. My Collins doorstop print edition also gives it as ‘awkward’, which I like more and suits this telling better.

It’s a cold start to the year and we are in Ghent for a five-day jaunt around Belgium. Four cities we end up visiting. It’s quiet for a city so pretty. Maybe it’s the season.

On the first morning we take a short boat trip on the Leie, one of two rivers in Ghent, the other being the Scheldt. One theory is the city’s name has come down from ‘ganda’, the Celtic word for confluence.

Because it’s so quiet, we are the only two people on the trip. It’s a low, narrow boat, the gunwales no more than a foot above the water. It could probably hold around a dozen, all sitting in a row like ducks.

The skipper’s name is Astride and she has a warm, quick smile and ruddy cheeks. She looks like a cross between a happy beer drinker, a milkmaid and an ideal mum. She tells us the story of how the people of Ghent came to be known as the stroppendragers, or noose bearers.

It goes like this. Charles V of Spain was Ghent-born and by 1519 was Holy Roman Emperor. As was usual for someone of his position at that time, he was forever fighting wars. And wars cost money, raised by taxes.

In 1539, the citizens of Ghent, which fell under Charles’s rule, were fed up with shelling out for their famous son’s military exploits so announced they would pay no more. This became known as the Revolt of Ghent.

Unsurprisingly, Charles was having none of this so marched back home with his army and suggested, in the strongest possible terms that his people reconsider. Which they did. Without a fight. By way of punishment, Charles had the rebel leaders march through town barefoot with a noose round their neck.

Far from being mourned as a quiet capitulation, the people of Ghent have turned the whole episode into a celebration of the initial rebellion and appropriated the noose, or stroppen, as a symbol of defiance against tyranny. Hence the stroppendragers, which encapsulates a sense of proud defiance. Or belligerence.

Astride says she once had an English professor of etymology on her boat. She didn’t say: ‘You’ll never know who I had in the back of my boat,’ but I wish she had. The professor reckoned this story of the stroppendragers could contain the origin of our English word ‘stroppy’.

‘I like this,’ she tells us with a massive smile, hands up and off the steering wheel. ‘We are a stroppy people.’

The professor’s theory of stroppy stropendragers puts me in mind of someone we had met the previous night.

Here’s how it went. We check in to the hotel and wander out into the evening and find ourselves down an alley between low buildings, one of which has fairylights showing through the window. There are people inside. It looks like a bar.

The door is a corrugated metal sheet that scrapes the cobbles when I pull it open. Inside does not look like a bar.

The light is low and comes from several places and in several colours, and the ceiling is entirely covered by hanging bicycles. Dozens and dozens of bicycles.

Workmen’s benches take up most of the floor space, each covered in this, that and the other. It is dusty and chaotic. Half a dozen happy men sit squeezed along a bench underneath the window.

In front of a lit wood burner next to a pile of timber sits a middle-aged man with collar-length grey hair, balding on top, with a grey beard to match. He is wearing what look like clothes bought from a charity shop some time ago.

‘Is this a bar?’ I ask. The men at the window roar with laughter. ‘You have come down the rabbit hole,’ shouts one.

The bearded man gets up from his easy chair. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘This is a bar.

Only slightly convinced we find space enough to sit. The workbench next to me is covered in waxed brass candlesticks, beer mats, pens, buttons, screws and kindling.

‘It doesn’t feel like a bar,’ I say.

‘We have beer,’ says beard. ‘We are a bar.’

I order something light, Terry goes with a suggestion from one of the window men, which turns out to be the strength of wine.

Beard’s name is Lieven, he’s 52 years old and looks like he’s spent most of them staying up late.

Lieven says he’s only just reopened after being closed by the authorities four years ago. From what I can gather they didn’t like his insistence of having an open fire taking up the full length of one wall, it being considered a safety risk.

Looking around, it seems replacing the fire with a stove has been his only concession to satisfying any notion of how a bar should be.

‘I am a bit of a rebel,’ he tells me. ‘I don’t like the socialists.’

Lieven shows me photos on his computer. That he has a computer seems to add to the general weirdness of the place, as if Pinocchio’s Gepetto has pulled out a smartphone.

The images show him sitting outside surrounded by people and empty beer bottles. A good number have him with a younger woman on his lap.

‘Is she your girlfriend?’ I ask of a dark-skinned girl.

‘One of them,’ he replies.

The window men have left by now, replaced by a woman who may or may not be one of the others. We have another beer and settle the tab.

‘Write me a review on TripAdvisor,’ says Lieven. ‘It is called Velootje. It means little bicycle.’

A better name might be The Stroppendrager.

The day of the boat ride we visit St Bavo’s Cathedral and the notion of stroppy comes to me again.

Walking beneath the huge vaulted ceiling, I’m struck with the misery of so much of the iconography, particularly when it comes to Jesus on the cross.

There He is, at the moment of transcendence and the statues have Him gaunt, worn out, a gaping wound in His side. Unutterably suffering, ravaged and broken.

As a footnote, I discuss this with The Goff back in England and he tells me Eastern Orthodoxy has Jesus in a much less diminished state, altogether more glorious.

But back to St Bavo’s and I’m staring at the pain and I think about the stroppendragers and about the choices we have when we tell stories, including those we tell about ourselves.

The people of Ghent have the noose as a symbol of pride; the Catholics of St Bavo’s have Christ on the cross as a symbol of suffering. Jesus could have been portrayed as defiant, the stroppendragers considered wretched.

This tells us much about the people telling the story, on whether they valued humility or belligerence. On whether they saw the virtue of stroppy.

We leave the cathedral and I don’t feel like going in another one for the rest of my life.

Ghent and the virtue of stroppy

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