As I mentioned previously, the family and I spent most of July in Europe, and, more specifically, in Belgium.* It turns out that the Queen B’s folks, the Papa and Nana Bs, are lifelong friends with a perfectly nice Belgian couple called Mel and Cel, who offered to put the Nana B and us up for three weeks and show us around central Europe. Of course we said yes, although for slightly different reasons: the Queen B said yes because missed these family friends and wanted to spend time with them; I said yes because I’m cheap and this might be the only way we’d ever see Europe.
* I apologize to all sentient lifeforms in the Universe who find this offensive. Or, at the very least, to the carbon-based fans of Douglas Adams.
I’m not really going to give a day-by-day accounting of our exploits across the pond, because I doubt you care to hear them, but largely because I’m too lazy to embark on such an account. (The Queen B is not, however.) Instead, I’m going to post some big observations and maybe a story or two, and I hope that will suffice. (And we took a boatload of pictures, too, if you’re really interested after all.)
We spent most of our time in Belgium, so it’s the part of Europe I came to understand the most. Here’s a quick guide to Belgium. Today’s installment: the Belgian people.
Perhaps the greatest misconception about the Belgian people is that there is such a thing as “the Belgian people.” Belgium really consists of two distinct regions separated by language and history: the northern half is called Flanders, is symbolized by a lion, and is populated by Flemish*-speaking folks who are, generically speaking, of Dutch descent; the southern half is called Wallonia, is symbolized by a rooster, and is populated by French-speakers who are, generically, of French descent. A history of Belgium is largely a cyclic tale of the back-and-forth rise to political power of one of these factions over the other. As a result, the only main attribute shared by folks in either region is a common mistrust of folks in the other region.
However, to anybody not from the “wrong” side of Belgium, however, Belgians are infallibly polite, friendly, and courteous to a fault. Belgians live to eat gourmet food and drink gourmet beer, and there’s not really a day that goes by that there’s not some celebration of something that doesn’t involve a city-wide street party with music, chocolate, and beer. In fact, every year the whole of Belgium goes on a collective three-week vacation (starting on July 11, which is like the Independence Day for the Flanders side), which means that at any given party held in July, about all of Belgium will be in attendance at any given time.
* Flemish is a dialect of Dutch, and it’s really quite something to hear. It’s a bit like listening to a Canadian cowboy who is recovering from a wicked chest cold — Rootin’ tootin’ HACK HACK es gooden, eh? Seriously, the speech of northern Belgiumers is so punctuated with pseudo-coughing up of lung-butter that it ought to be called Phlegmish.
Really, Belgians just enjoy the simple things in life. A typical day in the life of a Belgian begins at sunrise (around 5:30) with the setting up of breakfast. Breakfast in Belgium is less a brief structured meal of eggs or waffles than an expansive buffet of breads, cheeses, meats, fruits, yogurt, juices, and coffee. As a result, setting it up is a Herculean effort: there are baskets of breads and rolls, saucers of cheeses in a rainbow of colors and smells, plates of cold cuts from almost mammal imaginable, and bowls of seasonal berries, along with a standard suite of condiments including butter, yogurt, chocolate, and a spreadable goop called pasta that looks exactly like peanut butter but tastes exactly like Biscotti cookies. Upon the completion of breakfast, which may take up to an hour, the enormous process of cleaning it up begins: re-bagging the breads, re-wrapping the cheese and meats, repackaging the fruits, and washing the 2-meter-tall tower of dirty plates and cups that accumulate during throughout breakfast.
By the time the breakfast is finally cleaned up, it’s almost time for lunch. In Belgium, lunch is less a quick bite of a sandwich or a burger than an expansive buffet of breads, cheeses, meats, fruits, juices, and beer. Definitely beer. (But no yogurt.) Once lunch is finished, another enormous clean-up is executed exactly as before from breakfast, except that now there is an additional tower of exquisitely crafted beer glasses to clean.
Once lunch is finally cleaned up, one is so completely exhausted that it is time to relax a bit with a nice beer, watch a little velo (that is, cycling) or futball (that is, soccer) on the television, or maybe take a catnap. By then it’s probably time for dinner, which (if you haven’t yet surmised) is an expansive buffet of breads, cheeses, meats, french fried potatoes, mussels, sausages, beer, and soup, a bowl of which precedes every dinnertime meal so consistently that I assume it some kind of national law.
The completion of dinner means it’s time for dessert, which typically involves ice cream and an assortment of chocolates so sinfully delicious that, in certain neighboring countries, a single bite is grounds for an eternity in Hell.
It’s then time to clean up dinner, and once that‘s finished, it’s time to start the day and get something done. Of course, by then it’s 8:00 at night, but fortunately the sun won’t set in Belgium for another four hours, so there’s plenty of time to stop by the village pub and have a beer.
In short, Belgians enjoy good food, good friends, and repetition.