Le Plat PaysThe North of France is not exactly the most touristic or famous part of the country. In fact, it is stereotypically grey, wet, and flat... but I think there is a melancholic charm to its landscapes. Actually, the song by Jacques Brel that you are hearing right now (player located at bottom of page) is called "the flat land" and describes exactly that (by the way, can you phoneticians out there hear his distinctive uvular trills?). This is maybe the most iconic song of our region! Admittedly, it does sound a little sad. After all, our typical rows of brick houses do carry the heavy past of having been the setting for two world wars, and of the collapsed coal mining industry. But hey, don't let this gloomy picture make you miss out on the hidden gems of this welcoming region, reknown for the warmth of its inhabitants!
"Hares' Marsh"Hazebrouck (we pronounce it [azbʁuk]) is in fact a Flemmish name meaning hares' marsh, or rabbit's swamp. If you look around the area on the map above, you can see a bunch of towns with this linguistic origin (it's not always easy to figure out how to pronounce them, but then add a French accent to that!) It's no mystery why this was the chosen name for this town: it was built on the grounds of a dried marsh, and rabbits are only numerically surpassed by cows.
In fact, Hazebrouck is in an interesting Linguistic spot: while historically in Flemmish territory - it is the Capital of "Flandre intérieure" (French Flanders) - it is also very close to the surrounding Picard domain, and is a main town to those surrounding villages. Today, both Picard and Flemmish are on the downslope, but there is a definite local color to the regional French, I like to think that's how the past varieties are persisting in disguise :)
LandscapesEven without any curves, our region has its own beauty. Growing up, when we were driving back home along the windy streets bordered by deep ditches, my brother and I would play a game of who could be the first to spot the steeple of the next town. Steeples make really good landmarks for finding your bearings, after a while you become really good at orienting yourself based on the recognizable steeple of each town or village.
We don't have a lot of hills, but we do have these curious man-made piles, called "terrils". They are the piles of excavation waste from the old mines, and now they are really a unique trait of our region. Some towns are more creative than others in their recycling: Noeux-les-mines made theirs into artificial sky slopes.
It rains quite a bit in Hazebrouck, but it doesn't keep us from having lots of fun, even in the middle of february! The "Festival de la Mi-Carême", in the middle of Lent, is marked by Carnaval. Carnaval is a really important time of the year here, filled with traditions. One of them is called "le lancer" (the throwing): there is always a parade, and one of the floats carries things to throw at the crowd. In each town, there is a different tradition: usually, it's oranges, walnuts or candy. In Dunkirk, for example, the tradition is to throw fish. In my town, it's candy and little rabbit stuffed animals (apparently, there was a time where it used to be rabbit skins!)
Every year for Carnaval, our Giant "protectors" parade around town and even perform dances. Each town has its own giants, with their own traditions. In Hazebrouck, they are called: Tisje Tasje, the famous traveling merchant, Toria, his wife, and their children, Babe Tisje and Zoon Tisje. That is the one time in the year that they come out, so you don't want to miss it.
|And every year, the town celebrates the "Mongolfiades": an event that sends into the sky all the local hot-air balloon. When I was growing up, the take off happened in the neighbor's field!|
|The rainy sky makes for dramatic sunsets.|
As cultural borders are not limited by political ones, French Flanders are just as famous for their production of beers as Belgium! The best place to enjoy one is a nice, hop-decorated, countryside Estaminet.
Fun facts about Hazebrouck and surroundingsIn 2013, Hazebrouck became the world-record holder for the largest prepared portion of "fries in a cone" (a must-try local delicacy)
While we are talking about food, I may as well mention that bakeries are one of the places I miss the most from home.
The great thing about Hazebrouck is its proximity to many other sites, which are easy to access because of the town's central train station. From there, you can go to Brussels, Paris, London, in less than three hours! My favorite places to visit are Lille, the largest city in the Region, which used to belong to Spain (you can tell by the architecture) and my favorite place of all: le Cap-Griz-Nez (litteral translation: "Grey Nose Cape"), from which, on a clear day, you can get an impressive view of the English coast, on the other side of the Channel.
|View of England from le Cap-Griz-Nez|
That's my hometown in a nutshell! It's in the Nord Department of France, and there is one last thing I'd like to leave you with: there was a very popular movie made by a famous French actor from the region (it made more movie theater ticket entries than Titanic!). The English subtitles do not do it justice, especially when trying to translate the Northern accent - but enjoy this short trailer: