Thursday, July 12, 2007

Reflections on a Year in Belgium

As of August 20, I'll have been in Brussels for a year (that sure went fast!), and Belgium being a country most people will only pass through on a train going somewhere else, I feel I should take a moment to share my impressions of the country with all of you, and perhaps entice a few of you to give the country a chance.

First of all, can you find Belgium on a map? See it up at the top there between France, Germany and the Netherlands? I bet at least one of you just learned something new. :) Partly because of its location, Belgium has three official languages - French (spoken in the southern part, known as Wallonia), Flemish (a variant of Dutch, spoken in Flanders, the northern half), and German (spoken in tiny pockets in the south near Germany). The two halves of Belgium have a long-standing rivalry, so much so that they periodically talk of splitting up. Brussels, the capital, is its own special region and is officially bilingual (French/Flemish), but in reality most people speak French most of the time. Everyone here seems to speak a minimum of three languages, though, including English, which makes us dumb Americans look, well, really dumb.

Brussels itself is famous for being the capital of the European Union and home to the headquarters of NATO, but did you know that it's also the birthplace of the Art Nouveau architectural movement, surrealist painter Rene Magritte, and actress Audrey Hepburn? Belgium is also the home of many of the world's most beloved comics - did you know that Tintin and the Smurfs are both Belgian? These facts seem almost incongruous at first, when you find that Belgian people are a bit cold and closed off, but then you find out that they have a very strange and ultimately endearing sense of humor, and all of a sudden the weird artistic movements start to make sense.

I mean, the most famous icon of Brussels is a tiny 17th century statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain! And not only that, but when foreign dignitaries come visit, they commonly will bring as a gift a costume in which to dress up this Mannekin Piss. The boy has a rotating schedule of over 600 costumes that he wears, ranging from Santa Claus to soccer player.

Actually, Belgian fountains are the most imaginative I've seen anywhere. To go along with the famous Mannekin Piss, there's also a (much less tasteful) Jeanneke Piss, which is the female version, and also a dog, though sadly he doesn't actually piss. There are also spitting statues, and, our personal favorite, a statue of Neptune accompanied by several mermaids. It was not turned on when we passed by, but I'm sure you can imagine what it will look like in action.

And then there are the Belgian festivals. I already told you about the famous Mardi Gras festival in Binche, where men have for centuries dressed up as stereotyped Incas with giant ostrich-feather headdresses and paraded through town playing drums and lobbing blood oranges as hard as possible at the crowd. There's also a Cat Parade in the town of Ypres every three years where people dressed as cats and large floats are paraded through town, culminating in stuffed cats being thrown out of a tower. This originated centuries ago, when REAL cats were thrown out of the belfry tower by the town jester, though apparently the reason for this has been lost. Sadly, I'll have to wait till 2009 to see this spectacle.

We also recently attended Ommegang, a recreation of a 1549 celebration of Emperor Charles V's visit to Brussels, which (this time) culminated in a laser light show, pyrotechnics and battling stilt walkers. The list of weird festivals goes on and on (you can see a few here) - from throwing onions to cross dressing, the Belgians seem to use these occasions to let loose, which I suppose is necessary when you are so reserved all the time!

And then there's the food. While traditional Belgian food is not so vegetarian friendly (they are famous for moules frites - mussels and fries), they do have what many consider to be the best beer in the world. Everyone I have met here who came here not drinking beer is now drinking it, including D. and me. They have any kind of beer you could want - most popular are those flavored with cherries, raspberries or peach, but there are many other fruit flavors, honey beer, traditional beers made by monks, beers made by spontaneous fermentation (meaning yeast comes from the air naturally rather than being added), dark beers, light beers, beers with lots of alcohol... it's quite impressive.

And the waffles: Brussels waffles, what you know as Belgian waffles, and Liege waffles, which are smaller and have whole sugar cubes baked into the batter. The Liege ones are best with warm chocolate syrup on them. Speaking of chocolate, Belgians take that seriously. It's some of the best chocolate in the world, and much of it is still handmade in traditional ways. And lastly the fries. They are double fried - meaning fried once, removed, then fried again - and I promise they are the best fries you've ever tasted. And there is usually a choice of at least 15 different sauces to put on them. It's awfully easy to gain weight here!

Anyway, if what you want is New York City (as I do), this is not it. I definitely don't want to live here forever - it's a bit too quiet for me and the weather is awful most of the time - but it's a great place to visit for a while, and I'm sure would be a great place to raise a family. Beautiful architecture, great food, funny and strange culture and traditions - it's worth doing more than seeing it out the window of the train.

But soon enough I'll be escaping the rain (it's July and people are still wearing winter coats outside - it actually hailed yesterday!) in Italy for the rest of the summer. I'll let you know how that goes when I get back in the end of August. Hope you all make the most of your summer, too! And as always, please keep in touch!


Adventure map for 2009...