From the looks of it, it’s been a good 7+ weeks since my last real update. I’ve just been testing you to see if I had any real readers left, and according to the comments on the last post, I have at least 5, so that’s enough reason for a new post I suppose! Well it certainly has been a busy several weeks at that, and we have some big plans coming up too, so I’d better get as much out now as possible.
The first big adventure was a quick weekend trip to Brussels, Belgium (home of Dr. Evil, if you recall) with a couple workmates having found some cheap Lufthansa flight specials. Before leaving for the trip I had to give myself another geography lesson as a reminder of exactly what part of Europe I would be headed to – for the life of me I couldn’t picture Belgium, much less Brussels, on a map. Turns out it’s the little country nestled to the West of Germany, Northeast of France, and to the Southwest of The Netherlands with a short bit of coast line on the North Sea, just a short hop over to the UK. After looking at the map I had an “oh yeah, I knew that” moment as I realized, oh yeah, I knew that. Brussels, the country capital is just to the north of the very middle of the country, which I found out later, is deeply and bitterly divided across an east-west line based on how the different regions prepare mussels with french fries, the country’s most popular and official national food.
Brussels, it turns out, is also the official capital of the European Union, as that’s where the European Parliament meets. You can see pictures of the EU buildings the Brussels Weekend photogallery – they’re the huge silver, reflective glass and steel buildings constructed among otherwise Gothic and Baroque architecture of the rest of the city (ok, I just made that up – I don’t know how the rest of the city would be classified architecturally, besides “old”). You can imagine that has ruffled some feathers in Brussels and elsewhere as to what the European Union represents: is it a union of many of the oldest modern (“oldest modern”? What does that mean?) civilizations on earth that should be represented by traditional cultures and architecture, or is it a coalition of ultra-modern countries that are banding together to fight for relevancy in a world dominated by American pop-culture, and increasingly by Asian commerce and trade. I don’t know much about the EU, but one thing I do know is that they don’t know the answer to that question themselves. I made that question up just now, by the way – feel free to use it if you’re looking for a topic for a thesis or dissertation in European Studies. 😉 Oh yeah, you may recall in one of my first posts about my trip to Strasbourg, France in which I called it the European Union Capital. Apparently I was mistaken, as any Belgiumer will tell you that the dinky town of Strasbourg may have a couple insignificant EU buildings, but the real EU headquarters and buildings, no matter how shiny and garish, are in Brussels.
Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French and German, and Flemish, a variation of Dutch, is also popular. Of course as I know none of those languages, I had to rely on good old English, which once again was not a problem – but this brings me to another completely unrelated point. We all know that mainland Europeans are much more keen at learning foreign languages while young, with most Europeans known at least one, and usually two in addition to their native tongue. But there are dozens of languages spoken throughout Europe, from Spanish, French and German to Swedish, Flemish and Turkish. So what happens in Europeans visit other Europe countries where they don’t speak the language? They speak in the single language that most people have in common – English! So you may think that while visiting somewhere like Brussels you will only hear other Americans and Brits speaking English to annoyed Belgiumers (Belgiumites? People of Belgium?), that is not true at all. The chances that a Spanish or Italian tourist in Brussels knows how to speak Flemish or German is actually much lower than they chances they speak English. So as strange as it may sound, it’s not uncommon to hear two Europeans from two different non-English speaking countries speaking English to each other. Now that isn’t to say that I think Americans should remain complacent in their (our) elitist “we don’t need no stinkin’ foreign language skills” attitude – on the contrary, living and traveling here has reinforced my wish that I had paid attention in the 4 years of Spanish and 2 years of Latin I took in school, with nothing to show for it now – but it is kind of comforting to know that basically anywhere in the civilized world you go, chances are you’ll run into plenty of people who speak English.
So anywho, we arrived in Brussels on a Friday evening and naturally took the train into town and the tram to our hotel. We didn’t really have any plans for what we wanted to do or see for the weekend, so when we set out on Saturday morning and asked the hotel clerk the best way to walk to downtown and she asked if we were headed to the beer festival, we were quite pleasantly surprised – she just gave us our agenda for the rest of the day! I didn’t know this, but apparently Brussels is The City of Beer and we happened to show up on the same day as the Brussel’s Weekend of Beer Festival – what timing! Coming from Munich, where all I hear is “Germany has the best beer in world”, “Munich is the beer capital of the universe”, “Our children start drinking beer as soon as they’re done nursing”, I hadn’t even considered that a city like Brussels could out-beer Munich. But let me tell you: they can! but more on exactly how in a minute.
We set out with our map to downtown in search of nourishment. We walked to see as much of the city as we could. It’s a very nice city with lots of beautiful and old buildings. A bit dirtier than what I’ve gotten used to in Munich, but from what I’ve seen in the rest of our European travels, Munich and Bavaria are definitely the exceptions. Munich is a remarkably clean city for its size, but places like Brussels, Nurnberg and Florence are much more on par for large cities as far as trash, smog, homelessness, etc. So once we got downtown the main central square in front of the town hall and some museums and restaurants had been set up with a couple rows of beer tents representing breweries from all over the country. Expecting to be ripped off with sports stadium or State Fair-like prices, we were pleased to see that all glasses of beer were between â‚¬0.80 andÂ â‚¬1.50. As in Munich, where I’ve yet to see a paper or plastic cup of beer, all the beers were served in nice glass mugs. What’s less, though, is that each beer actually had its own specifically shaped glass with the name of the beer (the name of the actual beer, not the brewery) on the side.
Each tent served 5 to 10 types of beers, and this is where it differed greatly from Munich and everything I’ve seen in Germany. As I’ve mentioned, the beer selection in Munich is pretty straight forward. Each restaurant/bar only serves one brand, and you just order the type, which are pretty basic: Helles (light), Dunkels (dark), Weissbier (wheat), etc. But in Brussels, the varieties were astounding, with the huge selection of fruit beers taking me by surprise. The most popular fruit beer was kriek, or cherry. It was a deep red and, not surprisingly, had a rich cherry flavor – enough so that it almost tasted more like a fruit cocktail than a beer. Other fruit beers included peche (peach), orange, framboise (raspberry), cassis (grape), apple and coconut, all flavored and colored as you would expect and served in beautiful glasses.
We spent the day wandering in and out of the festival and to other sites in town, such as the famous Mannequin Pis statue, which was just a couple blocks away, and the Cantillion Brewery, which is one of the last remaining breweries that makes ÇƒË™Lambic beerÇƒË˜ in the traditional method by allowing natural fermentation though contact with the air instead of manually adding yeast (and producing a very sour beer in the process).
I mentioned before that mussels and French fries are the national food of Belgium that’s not a joke. They are the official food, and they are everywhere. Every restaurant we walked past had people sitting with mini-crockpots of steaming mussels and a pile of fries, generally garnished with mayonnaise rather than ketchup. To further drive that point home, we found out that on Sunday there was a mussels festival going on in another downtown square. We investigated and found out that aÂ â‚¬7 ticket bought us entry to the local Natural History Museum, which had a feature on mussels, then a shuttle to the festival plus a basket of mussels, fries and a beer (which actually was crappy beer served in a plastic cup – ahhh, reminds me of home). So we bit and took a quick tour though the local Natural History Museum and watched some videos on mussels and tried to learn what we could reading the German and Flemmish place cards. After that we caught a shuttle with several dozen other hungry visitors and headed to a church square in town that was packed with tables with a line of people wrapped all the way around the square waiting to pick up mussels and fries. We did waited our turn, got food and beer and got a table, and were immediately approched by a local TV station covering the festival! It didn’t take long for them to figure out we were American so we got to tell them how wonderful everything was, that mussels and fries are great, yada yada yada. So we have no way of knowing, but it’s quite possible we made our Belgium TV debut that evening.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot. I suppose a trip to Belgium isn’t complete without trying the waffles. We took the opportunity to stop at a few waffle stands and confirmed that they do live up to the hype. They looked the same as our ÇƒË™American Belgium WafflesÇƒË˜, but the texture and consistency was very different. From what we could tell by watching them being made, they use more of a dough than a liquid batter. Each waffle was made from a small, round, sticky clump of dough that looks like it was left to rise like bread dough. Then when they came out of the waffle iron, the edges seemed to be coated with a thin buttery shell or somethingÇƒâˆ‚. And the toppings were one of the main attractions, with chocolate syrup and strawberries being the most popular, followed by whipped cream and bananas and other fruits. Of course I saw no maple syrup or molasses or anything of that sort.
Well, believe it or not, this post has actually taken a full 10 days to create, writing about a paragraph at a time, and I barely got to 1/4 of the stuff I wanted to talk about. Oh well – we have some exciting plans coming up, and I know you will be sitting on the edge of your seat to hear about them all! haha more later.