Confession: I’m possibly the first traveller in history to go to Belgium and not eat waffles.
It wasn’t intentional, I swear. I like waffles and I kept meaning to try them, but ended up getting distracted by impossibly long beer menus and people saying funny words like ‘doodlesac’.
Belgium packs a lot in for a small country. And being there during the festive season definitely intensifies the experience. I was there for about 5 days over Christmas, staying with my friend Sofie (who lives in Antwerp), and her family (who live in Elewjwit, a small village near Mechelen, near Antwerp, ie in the middle-ish up the top of Belgium, where the people speak Dutch). It’s a very pretty part of the world.
Aside from being with a different family, in a different country, Christmas was surprisingly similar, with a plethora of food, booze, presents, games, and laughs. Even though I would have loved to have been back in Oz (this year, I promise!), being adopted by this merry Dutch family was definitely the next best thing. I feel so incredibly grateful for their generosity, in putting me up, showing me round, spoiling me rotten, and what’s more, doing all of it in English.
Of course it all feels like so long ago now. But here’re a few things I can remember about Belgium:
The cities have bronze statues of rather unusual ‘mascots’
Brussels – Mannekin Pis (little boy pissing into a fountain), Jeanneke Pis (little girl pissing into a fountain), and Zinneke Pis (little dog pissing on a post).
Mecchelen – Opsinjoorke, a fictitious young rascal whose statue depicts him being tossed in a blanket as punishment for his drunkenness and womanising.
Antwerp – Hero throwing the severed hand of a giant.
Ghent – Old fat man wearing a very distasteful dress and a noose around his neck
Bruges – I didn’t go there. Whoops.
Belgium is full of “Beguinages”. What the hell is a beguinage? At first Sofie got a bit exasperated, because I had no idea what she was trying to show/tell me. But as it turns out, her translation was perfect, and I’m just an ignorant Aussie who’d never heard of a beguinage before (though apparently neither has Microsoft Word). Well, in case you too are wondering, it turns out that a ‘beguinage’ is an all-women’s refuge, built for the widows of crusaders in the Middle Ages. These housing collectives were a liberal, well organised, and practical alternative for women who or couldn’t (or didn’t want to) enter into nunneries. These days, they make for quaint little architectural showpieces, with pretty green courtyards.
Beer and chocolate. I did my best. But I doubt I even managed to try 0.00001% of what was on offer.
Food: Aside from beer, chocolate and waffles, most other typically Belgian food seemed to consist of cheese, deep fried potato thingies, deep fried meat thingies, and lashings of creamy calorific sauces. I wonder how these people lived past 50? In the past, that is. Because given the current availability of ethnic restaurants and organic hipster cafes, and the notable absence of overweight people, I guess that modern Belgians enjoy a healthy and varied diet, and don’t live solely on their own cuisine. Christmas dinner(s) with the family was representative of this, being a thoroughly international affair, thanks to Sofie’s Dad’s recent obsession for Thai cooking and her Mum’s love of Spanish food.
My favourite city: Ghent. Like most Belgian cities, it was full of beautiful facades, tree lined canals, and artsy cafes. But compared to say, Brusssels, it had fewer tourists, a cosier feel (despite the persistent rain), and was much more navigable. It’s also said to have a pretty awesome music festival in summer. Food for thought.
Brussels, by the way, has one of the most unfriendly and counter-intuitive transport systems I have ever come across.
Dutch: If I was immortal and a lot more intelligent, I would happily dedicate a few years of my life to studying this fun and colourful language. As it is, I’ve come away from Belgian with a rather eclectic (and probably useless) base*.
Smikkelen = the act of eating something you really enjoy or relish the flavour of
Knabbelen = to nibble, feast on tapas/hors d’oeuvres/antipasto
Winkel = shop (in which case, does fairywinkle = fairyshop?)
Doodelsak (doodlesac) = Bagpipe. No idea how this came up in conversation. Just imagine me trying to explain to my hosts why I thought the word was so funny.
Bob = Designated driver (an acronym for something. All drivers who pass breath tests are given “Bob” key rings by the police)
Ik heb myn klopke = I’m stonkered. ie, I’ve eaten/drunk/walked/talked/partied too much, now I cannot move, but it was worth it.
Een engeltje dat op mijn tong pist = it’s like an angel is peeing on my tongue (to be said when drinking very nice champagne)
Ijsblokje = iceblock. Sounds very similar to English when spoken aloud. Dutch is like, so easy. We should all be learning it.
* possibly incorrect spellings!
Language: Most (if not all) young Belgians speak fluent English, with a barely notable accent, even if they’ve never travelled to an English speaking country. This says a lot for their education system. In addition to Dutch and French, a dominion of English would put a pretty large chunk of the population in the trilingual category. These people are clearly superhuman. No wonder they can eat so much chocolate and not get fat.
The weather: You should never say never. But I could never live in Belgium.
Click on the gallery below to check out some of the photos I managed to take, despite the ever pouring rain.