2005-11-14 : Belgium, man.
In between pontificating on matters I don't have a particularly educated opinion on, I also like to occasionally spew forth the minutiae of my various adventures around the place. So without further ado, I present “My weekend in Belgium“.
On October 28th I set forth for Brussels – my primary goal was to catch up with my stranded colleague, Wazza the Mad Irish Bastard. However my secondary goal was to find out – Is Belgium REALLY as boring as everyone says it is ?
I shot out of the office bang on 6 in order to make it to Waterloo to get the Eurostar (another first for me – a train between countries). Waiting in the departure lounge and drinking the obligatory coffee that I didn't want but had to kill time somehow and couldn't get near the bar, I ran into one of the blokes from the office who was on his way to Paris. Intriguing how someone you work with and barely say 2 words to week in week out can suddenly be overjoyed to see you and conversational just because they've seen you outside the office environment. Such is the way of London though I guess. We boarded the Eurostar eventually and it hurtled towards Brussels. Frustratingly, I was sitting adjacent to some South Africans and an American who seemed content with loudly trying to impress each other with stories of who'd been to more countries out of the group of them thus marking them as the most hardcore traveler, whilst making it quite obvious that they had no idea where in fact Brussels actually is. Oh yes, and one of them suggested going to Bruges.
Now here's another thing about Belgium – every time I've been in a discussion with anyone about Belgium, they always ask the person who's going which city they're going to. No matter *what* the response, the asker will always say “Oh, you should go to [Insert Belgian City Name Here] – I hear it's much nicer”. I'll come back to this.
Got in to Bruxelles Midi and hooked up with Wazza, and we legged it back to the flat. Legging it seemed the option, as the Belgians had conveniently staged a train strike. Luckily, it was only 10 or so mins to his ranch anyway. By some sheer fluke of timing, Wazza had had a minor meltdown at his apartment, whereby none of the lights worked… so mood lighting it was ! But as it was getting on to 10pm, it was surely time to head off and sample some Belgian beers. Fortuitously there was a bar only a matter of minutes away (via the most polite ATM in the world).
It was probably the bar that we went to that first kicked off my feeling of non-specificness about Belgium. It genuinely felt like the place had no real culture or customs of its own. The languages of Belgium are French and Flemish (which I'm told is effectively Dutch). Nobody I spoke to leading up to the trip could tell me anything specific about the place, other than excellent beer & chocolate. It's the capital city of the European Union. It holds the distinction of being thought of as the most boring place in Europe. But you name me one famous real Belgian (apart from Hercule Poirot and Dr Evil). You can't do it, can you ? Those with an itchy Google finger will know that Adolphe Sax is one (I'll give you one guess what HE invented), then there's Rene Magritte, Herge (of Tintin fame), and I'll concede that one or two punters may have heard of Kim Clijsters (but only because she was going out with Little Lleyton) and Justin Henin-Hardenne. Oh good, and it turns out that The Smurfs were created by a Belgian (Peyo) – they were originally known as “Les Schtroumpfs” in French. But APART from the roads, the sanitation, the aqueduct, public safety… etc.
Digressing here, aren't I ? How unusual. Right, so we've gone to this bar/pub/beer cafe. Whatever you called it, it was home to I'm pretty sure the single largest collection of different types of beer I've ever seen. Great atmosphere in there – chequered lino floor, chunky wooden furniture, bizarre continental goings-on, and of course everyone speaking French. Waz, being a bit of a dab hand at this kind of thing by now, took care of the ordering, and soon enough I was knocking back a bottle of Satan. I found myself frequently getting a bit anxious that we weren't getting served as fast as I'd have liked (my primary reason for calling it a cafe rather than a pub: table service of beer), however thinking back on it, if we *had* been drinking at the same speed as one does in Australia or England, one would probably very quickly wind up dead. That's one of the things about Les Bieres Belgique – they taste *amazing*, but they tend to start around 7 or 8% and head upwards.
Tumbling out of there around 3am we elected to go in search of cuisine, and what finer idea than a kebab ! This proved to be something of a mission, as most of suburban Brussels seems to close around 9pm due to lack of interest. We eventually tracked a place down, and had a superb example of the genre.
Kebabs have different names the world over – you can often tell where you've woken up by what a kebab's called. In Adelaide, it's a Yiros. In Melbourne, a Souvlaki. In Syddeny, a Kebab. In Germany, a Kebap. In parts of London, a Shawarma. And it seems in Brussels, it's a Durum. With umlauts. Une durum poulet, avec pili-pili, mais pas des tomates, s'il vous plait.
The next day we set ourselves an agenda of breakfast, seeing the sights of Brussels, and finishing up with some more beer. Wazza said that the sights oughtn't be a huge challenge, as they're both closely located. First though, breakfast. I've no idea of the name of the place we went, but we got there via an awesome view of Brussels (including being able to see The Atomium, which we didn't get around to visiting), and a lift which had mysteriously been erected out in the middle of nothing in particular – it was like a bridge to a lift shaft. Peculiar. Ordering breakfast took a while, although I can't remember clearly whether it was because my grasp of French wasn't so good, or because we kept getting distracted from the menu by the exceptionally cute waitress. After breakfast though, we set off in search of “Brussels' 2nd biggest disappointment”, the Manneken Pis.
In terms of actual tangible tourism fixtures (what we prefer to call “photo opportunities”), Brussels primarily relies on a statue of a urinating infant. Interestingly, everyone seems to think it's a huge letdown. I'm not quite sure I get that – how much could you possibly build it up ? It's really quite small – but then, infants are. It's only a tourist attraction because tourists keep going there. Why tell everyone “you HAVE to see this” when you think it sucks ? Anyway, the explanation I heard about the origins of this statue involve a royal infant being placed in a hammock for safety during a battle between Belgian nobility and marauders from somewhere, however all the Belgians were killed, and as the challenger Captain went to capture the young King/Duke/whatever, in a final act of defiance he peed over the edge of the hammock onto the Captain. After Googling though, none of the explanations for the statue match that, and once again Belgium maintains an air of nondescriptness.
And of course as with any tourist attraction, there's no shortage of shops in the immediate vicinity selling off cheap souvenir replicas of the statue in a huge variety of different forms.
When I went into one to get some postcards I overheard a comical exchange (in French, but I'm able to understand enough French to have some idea of what's happening around me) where a guy was looking for a Manneken Pis wine bottle stopper, but the only one the shopkeeper had had a tube through the centre and the stopper was effectively a pourer – yes that's right, one that pisses wine. Horrifying, really.
Next stop, as we were in the area, was La Grand Place – The Big Place. OK, it's the Great Square, around which are some awesome buildings, which I've got to say I was surprised to see as I thought being where we were a lot of that stuff would've been destroyed or damaged during WW2. They all appeared to be guildhouses of some sort: fletcher's guild, weavers' guild, etc. Some incredible architecture and detail on those buildings, that's for sure !
As interesting as all that was though, it was equally fascinating to watch the tourists. Aside from clustering around the Manneken, and milling about in the square, the place really was a bit of a ghost town. Whether there was another main street leading out of the square that we didn't see, or those people just stayed there all day, I'm really not certain. But that didn't concern us, because we had beer to go try ! We went to one of Wazza's favourite pubs, only to find it shut… so it must be more of a night place and less of an afternoon place. We found an afternoon place however, and settled in there. It was at this point that Waz introduced to me the incredibly cool Japanese chess game known as Shogi.
We left that pub to go to a chess pub nearby. That's right, a chess pub. Thrillseekers, I was as mystified as you are, but such a thing exists ! It was a big 1920's style hall, and sure enough there were quite a few pairs of people dotted around the room, playing chess ! We settled in with a couple of glasses of Belgium's finest, and played some more Shogi.
I'm going to leave it there, because I've just realised how long this post has become. Stay tuned for the gripping conclusion !