01 August 2012

Impressions of Belgium

Grand Place

Prior to my visit to Belgium, my knowledge of the small lowland country was limited to a few unwrought facts.  Their greatest export, as everyone knows, is their superior beer.  So superior, in fact, that the only other country deserving of mention in a similar vein is neighboring Germany.  Second, at the turn of the 20th century, Belgium was ruled by the wildly decadent King Leopold II, who established a colony in the Congo delta of central Africa which essentially became his private possession -- noteworthy mainly because it would famously become the haunting setting for Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  Finally, I knew that, historically, Belgium was the German army's preferred route when visiting France.

Upon arrival to Brussels, which should be noted is not only the capital of Belgium but also of the EU, I was struck by its bustled diversity.  Whereas Germany is primarily a homogeneous country with a small Turkish minority, downtown Brussels teams with Africans, Arabs, Indians, and Asians.  Surprisingly, a quarter of Brussels adheres to the Muslim faith.  

The streets are chaotic and messy.  Traffic laws are mere suggestions, meant to be made up as you go along.  A taxi ride will leave even the most hearty of passengers white-knuckled and short of breath.  Once on foot, the culture of Belgium comes alive.  Taking a seat at a restaurant near the Grand Place, Brussels' cultural and historical center, is the ideal method of fully absorbing the intricate Baroque architecture, the mass of people, and the many buskers.

As is true of most of Western Europe, Belgium has a strong service-oriented economy.  Waiters and waitresses approach their work not as jobs but as careers.  They're on point, multilingual, efficient, and irrepressibly charming.  An energetic whirligig of a waiter in Brussels insisted on addressing me as "My Lord" while clearing used dishes and placing new ones all in one illusory motion.  What's more, each waiter carries a satchel filled with cash, so that when paying the check, he can easily accommodate his customer on the spot.  Tips are an informal business.  If a bill comes to 65, you hand the man €70 and call it a day.  No percentages, no calculations, just round up for convenience and everyone goes away happy.

Walking through Brussels can be exhausting, and nothing revitalizes the spirit more than an authentic Belgian waffle.  Made fresh-to-order at kiosks throughout the city, the sweet, thick batter crusts on the outside while remaining soft and gelatinous on the inside.  Topped with your choice of fresh fruits or spreads such as chocolate or caramel, the taste is nothing short of heavenly.

Want to bring home something memorable to share with friends and family?  A box of chocolates may seem blasé, but not when it comes from Belgium.  Instead of focusing on sweetness, the Belgian confectioner concentrates on texture, richness, and balance.  I'm not an avid consumer of chocolates and sweets in general, yet I was floored by the symphonic perfection happening in my mouth.

Brussels, unfortunately, does have the ignominy of "Brusselization."  In the '60s and '70s, a lack of zoning laws and a laissez-faire attitude towards development allowed massive unchecked construction of high-rises in quaint historical areas.  The result became the poster-child for disastrous urban planning.  Many of these high-rises are now abandoned sores in an otherwise prosperous city.

My visit would not be complete without a visit to Bruges, the crown jewel of Belgium.  A city near the coast of the North Sea, it went largely untouched during the war, leaving its medieval architecture virtually intact.  The cobblestone streets are about as wide as a parking space and cars are scant.  We happened to visit during the Feast of the Ascension, a repudiated holiday in America but hugely important in parts of Europe.  We were treated to a medieval procession of knights, monks, farmers, and merchants (and Jesus) through the city center, all whilst dining on Flemish style rabbit, the local specialty.  

In Bruges
Belgium is a happy and friendly place.  Many of the locals speak English and do not exhibit a hint of a superiority (or inferiority) complex.  Unlike other European capitals, most of the tourists were not Americans, but rather foreigners from the Far East and India, as well as Europe.  My sense is in the minds of American travelers, between France, Spain, Italy, England, and Germany, Belgium often gets overlooked in the milieu.  Perhaps unfortunate for Belgians, but wonderful for exploring Americans.  When traveling off the beaten American path, Belgium is a place that will stimulate and surprise.

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