We spent the late afternoon walking along Ostend’s beach promenade and staring out at the sea, happy not to have to keep a look out for kids on tricycles zig-zagging every which way and not to have to avoid puddles of melted ice cream that had fallen off some unfortunate person’s cone. Our stroll eventually brought us to the spot on the beach that the receptionist had told us about.
A small tent had been set up on the beach, under which there were food and drinks stalls. We were early by local standards and fresh oysters were still being shucked and laid out on plates for sale. Outside the tent, several fires were lit on fire-burners and fresh sardines were being prepared on a standalone griddle. As soon as a sardine was cooked and ready, a slice of bread was wrapped around it and the warm snack was handed over to someone.
We were curious and went closer – the aroma emanating from the grilled sardines was just too difficult to ignore. After I’d been handed two of the warm sardine bites, my husband proceeded to pay but was told that this was a local tradition and they were free. But this was “the only thing that was free – drinks and other food items still had to be paid for” said the woman behind the grill in a mockingly strict tone of voice, as a smile dangled on her face. We laughed and said that yes of course, we understood.
Standing on the beach, protected from the winds by the tent while the fires flickered in front of us, with a glass of crisp white wine in one hand and biting into a warm grilled sardine, while locals caught up with old friends, is a memory of the warm and friendly culture of the people of Ostend that I will long remember.
I’ve also noticed that one of the other lovely things about travelling in the off-peak season is that fellow travellers are friendlier as well as more relaxed and open to sharing their stories and insights into how things are done where they are from. This means that you can actually get to know about multiple cultures, often at a slower pace than if you were surrounded by strangers who were anxiously looking after their children while on holiday.
Remember that restaurant in De Haan? There were two other guests in there at the time that we were dining. I noticed that they were conversing in French, and as Ostend is a Dutch-speaking area, I assumed that they were not locals. The two women were friendly, and just as they were leaving the restaurant after their meal, our dessert-to-share arrived. One of the women walked over to us and passed a comment that we had picked an excellent choice for dessert and she had that every time. Surprisingly, she spoke to us in Dutch without a French accent. I smiled and thanked her, then asked her how many times she had been to the restaurant. “Oh I’ve been coming to this restaurant about once a month for the last year. Not in summer though – too many people! De Haan is a quiet and calming place, and I come to visit my old school friend who still lives here,” she replied.
At this stage, my curiosity got the better of me and I told her that I had assumed she was not local as I had overheard her speaking in French with her friend. “Oh yes, I was not born here. My family is from France. But my parents moved here when I was young and I went to school here. Funnily enough, I ended up marrying a French man but now I live in Holland. I come here for an escape from my husband and the kids – it’s also one of the few opportunities I get to speak French to someone apart from my family,” she told me laughingly.
So, whether it’s a holiday on a mountain or on a beach that you’re keen on, if you’re interested in finding out more about the local culture of the area that you are visiting – away from the ice cream cones of summer and the après ski evenings of winter – then choose, at least once, to visit a place and spend a weekend in the off-peak season. You’ll have more genuine and meaningful interactions with the locals that go beyond “Can I have the chocolate flavour, please?” and gain an insight into the local people and culture.
Hi, I am Monica Devi Lim, and I am originally from Singapore. I started my career in the television industry where I got to travel to a different country every few months, and then moved on to aviation in search of more of the world. During my free time, I love cooking exotic dishes and also reading for further travel inspiration. I speak several languages and now live between Belgium and Spain with my husband of Danish descent.