Save Belgium!

Bruges

Today’s news reports that our calming presence alone stabilized the nation of Belgium. Now that we have departed, Belgium’s government has collapsed. This is what I love most about traveling. Two weeks ago, I would never have clicked past the headline of that news story. But now that I’ve been to Belgium, I read every word with avid interest. And I’m flabbergasted to discover that Belgium’s constitution requires single-language voting districts. The country comprises a rich Dutch-speaking north and a poorer French speaking south. Brussels, roughly in the middle, is home to people from both language groups. According to our Belgian friend John, Brussels is a huge reason the two regions can’t split up. Both would demand Brussels. I learned from an Economist article of about a year ago that both regions feel so fondly about their king that they can’t separate and leave him without a country over which to reign. I surmise that his magnetic personality stems from his propinquity to the Atomium, just as a nail becomes magnetic when you play with nails and magnets together in physics class.

As long as I’m dwelling on Belgium (but not in Belgium, thankfully), I do have a few tales to tell. Despite what I wrote the other day, our trip to Belgium involved more than a scramble to get out. Our hosts lent us two guide books, one in French, which I promptly hid under the couch, and the other, in English, in which the writer seems to have gotten a huge kick out of Belgium. Unbeknownst to me, this little country has a reputation as “Boring Belgium,” but our guidebook author believes it deserves a promotion to “Bizarre Belgium.” As a fan of assonance over alliteration, I’ll go with the “Droll Low Country.”

Indeed, we experienced various droll incidents, and here they are:

At the turn of the 20th century, Brussels was a hotbed of the Art Nouveau architectural movement, related to Modernism in Barcelona. We visited the home of renowned Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta. Aaron is not a fan of this gaudy, fanciful style, but he agreed that Horta’s urinal-in-the-bedside-wardrobe was a brilliant touch. I guess he drank a lot of beer before bed. Mrs. Horta still had to trek through the dressing room to the bathroom, but Victor could reach for his closet door and relieve himself practically without leaving his warm covers. No pictures allowed in the house, and the Horta House website folks didn’t see fit to include this highlight.

I may have mentioned that we drank a lot of beer in Belgium. To enhance its delectability, the Belgians serve each beer in its own special glass. Here in Berlin, all beer glasses come with a little calibration marker so you know for sure that you got all 0.33 liters that you paid for. In Belgium, if you forget what beer you ordered, you can just turn your glass around and read what it says. Some beers come in tall flasky glasses, some in goblets, some in wine glasses. Part of the joy of trying new beers for me became the excitement of meeting each new glass. And I fell so in love with the glass for a beer called Kwak that I brought one home with me. I loved Kwak, but I can’t say how much of that love has to do with the glass. Or maybe it’s just the name. Kwak. Anyway, for the moment, I’m imbibing all my beverages from my Kwak glass. It’s like drinking from a giant test tube. Everything I drink seems like a special potion.

Sante!

No visit to a medieval cityscape is complete without due admiration of various churches. In Bruges, we visited one church where a martyr’s heart had been burned on the altar and which had a reconstruction of Christ’s tomb, complete with mannequin corpse, in the crypt. This church also featured a tatting demonstration. We dropped in on a roomful of silver-haired women silently making lace, for which Belgium is famous. Maybe once I master sewing I will take up tatting. Another Bruges church stars a Michelangelo Madonna and child. Yet another Bruges church hosts a vial full of Jesus’ blood. According to our guidebook, the blood is only displayed on Fridays. But we entered the church just as a announcement came over the loudspeaker to inform us, in English, that the Holy Blood was out and available for worship. One by one the people in the church filed up to the alter and placed their hands reverently on the clear plastic dome protecting the vial protecting the blood. After each pilgrim moved on, the presiding priest wiped away their fingerprints with a cloth. I wanted to get close to the blood, but I didn’t think Jesus would appreciate my grubby pagan fingers.

Holy Blood

With some of our extra time in Belgium, we journeyed to the suburbs to visit the Royal Museum for Central Africa, installed by the turn of the century King in a palatial building.

You can tell it's the Africa Museum because of the elephants.

And so we learned about Belgium’s time as an imperial power. Belgium controlled and heartlessly exploited the Congo. The king had a lot Congolese artifacts brought back to Belgium. Today, the museum also includes graphic exhibition about Belgium’s crimes. Half of that exhibit, though, recounts the story of Dr. Stanley who found missing explorer Dr. Livingston. When Stanley saw a white man living among the Congolese, he settled on “Dr. Livingston, I presume” as the most natural introduction. We stopped for a snack at the museum cafe which offers African beers. We had a choice of banana, coconut, or caramel. We chose coconut.

My pants meet an elephant.

For all the remarkable, droll experiences to be had in Belgium, one that I had looked forward to is sorely missing. Nowhere in Belgium can one visit the childhood home of Hercule Poirot.

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