Squashed between France, The Netherlands, and Germany (and also next to miniscule Luxembourg), Belgium is one of Europe's smaller countries — but its small size and small reputation bely what it has to offer. Belgium is the perfect example of European multi-lingual craziness: the country is roughly 60% Flemish-speaking (i.e. Dutch-speaking), and 40% French-speaking; but there are also some German-speaking spots, plus almost everyone speaks English at least semi-fluently. Not to be missed are Belgium's amazing chocolates, its hot crunchy waffles, and its formidable array of 500+ locally-brewed beers.
Today I finished my quick tour of tiny Belgium, by popping into the nation's capital, Brussels. I was originally planning to spend last night in Brussels, but I instead ended up staying in Liège with Christian. This morning, I got the train from Liège to Brussels, bright 'n' early with Christian, who's going there today anyway (for a training seminar). We caught the 6:45am train, and it was only an hour to the big city: when I got there, it was still dark (and stayed so until about 9am — dreary European winter). Too dark to begin exploring: so I checked my e-mail, and found a café for hanging out and having some coffee and waffle, before commencing my tour of the city. By 2pm, I was done with Brussels, and on my way to Amsterdam.
Christian is the last of (no less than) four people (or groups of people) with whom I've had a reunion in the past four days; of whom three were people that I met in South America. I met Christian while doing the Santa Cruz-Llanganuco hike in Peru, back in April. He lives in Wallonia (French-speaking Belgium) with his wife Nancy, and his two daughers Marine and Florine. I had a great time this evening, enjoying dinner with Christian and his family, and catching up on old times.
Last night was a big night — but it wasn't until this morning that I realised just how big. As far as I can remember, all that happened was that Stef and I returned home at around 3am, that I crashed straight into bed (I remember tucking in), and that the adventures ended then and there. My memory is that I slept solidly for the rest of the night, and that I woke up at around 11am, groggy yet otherwise fine. But apparently, there was an additional epilogue to the annals of the night, and one of which I have no memory whatsoever. It seems that for the second time on this trip (and in my life), alcohol has left a gaping gap in my memory. I experienced a Belgian beer blackout.
Turnhout may be a small and insignificant town; but if you're there with the locals, and if you're willing to hit a few pubs, you'll find that it sure as hell ain't sleepy on a Saturday night. To my great surprise, tonight was one of the biggest nights I've had this year. I drank more beer, more types of beer, and a higher quality of beer than I've ever drunk before in my life; and hopefully (in the interests of my own health and sanity) more than I'll ever drink again. After our greasy local dinner, we returned to Turnhout; and while Annick and Karlijn retired back home for the evening, Stef and I began a long and sustained night of beverage-sampling, that spanned several pubs and numerous brews. After tonight, I haven't yet conquered all 500+ of Belgium's beers; but I believe I've made a solid dent in the landscape, and a promising start.
When we think of "hot chips", most of the English-speaking among us think of the name "French fries", and we thus believe that the world's favourite cooked potato snack originated in France. This, however, is wrong. Legend has it that back in WWII, when the American troops were fighting in Europe, they sampled the dish for the first time, and liked it so much that they took it home with them. But so bad was their knowledge of European geography, that they thought they were down in France — when in fact they were fighting in Belgium! Having now been to Belgium, I now know that the true name of the dish is "Belgian fries". And what's more, nobody cooks up a better plate of fries than do the Belgians.
For today's main activity, my friends Stef and Annick took myself (and little Karlijn) on a drive out of their home town of Turnhout, and over to the big city of Antwerp. Antwerp is only 50km's away from Turnhout, so it was a quick drive of less than an hour to get there. Antwerp is the heart of Flemish Belgium, and I soaked in as much of it as I could, as Stef dragged me around in the dreary December weather to see the sights and sounds. Annick and Karlijn, however, had better things to do than get soaking wet while wandering the streets: they stayed warm and dry in Antwerp's central mall, where they embarked on that greatest of all female pastimes: window shopping.
Along with beer and chocolate, Belgium is also famous world-wide for being the home of amazing waffles. You can get a waffle in all but the smallest towns around here, and every time they're guaranteed to be fresh, hot, and delicious. This morning in Turnhout — as part of the town tour — Stef treated me to my first-ever geniune Belgian waffle (a syrup-coated beauty, no less) in the town's central Christmas market. What can I say, except that they live up to their formidable reputation, and warm you up to boot?
After last night's relaxing, beer-filled introduction to Belgium, this morning Stef continued the intro, with a tour of his humble town of Turnhout. Actually, Stef grew up in an even smaller town several km's away (almost touching the Dutch border) — but he's basically living in Turnhout now. It's a typical little Flemish town: filled with the things you'd expect from a town anywhere in Europe, such as shops, bars, and plenty of history. As well as seeing the more important landmarks, I also got to sample a bit of the local cuisine, and to hear a little about the town's developments over the years. Plus, of course, we had a bit more beer.
This afternoon I arrived in Turnhout (northern Belgium) to see my friends Stef and Annick, who are half of the original Belgian Front. As with seeing Regine in Cologne last night, this was a reunion with 2 of my 10 amazing companions from the Salkantay hike, that I did in Peru back in April. Stef was there, waiting for me at tiny Turnhout train station when I pulled in; and soon after, I also saw Annick, as well as the couple's little niece Karlijn (who they're looking after for the weekend). Good to see that The Front is as crazy and as fun as ever.
Europe is famous for being a small place with an awful lot of languages. Going through three or more language regions in one day is perfectly possible: and in the past few weeks, by hopping around on the trains, I've done just that. It was pretty intense in Switzerland, what with its German dominance, its smaller pockets of French and Italian, and its general nation-wide efforts at English. It was a little less full-on in Germany, where German is spoken by everyone around the country, and where almost everyone can also speak reasonable English. But upon arriving here in Belgium, it dawned on me just what a ridiculously over-linguified continent this is. And I'd say that as Europe goes, Belgium is about the most extreme example of language craziness to be found: the nation split virtually in half with the Flemish (i.e. Dutch) and French divide; smaller pockets of German in the east; and the whole place also being highly fluent in English. What with the plethora of languages to be learned, it's amazing they have time to do anything else at all around here.