I got my first impression of Belgium from the Agatha Christie mystery series on PBS, featuring the best-selling detective of all time. Who would that be? (Hint: It’s not Sherlock Holmes.)
Why Hercule Poirot, of course.
Poirot had many qualities to recommend him, but I will mention those that are specifically ‘Belgian’: he is very tidy, well-groomed, and polite. It wasn’t until after my time at university that I had the chance to take a trip to Belgium and I bought an Agatha Christie book for the plane-ride: Murder on the Orient Express.
When I landed in Belgium it was a damp country, dampened by a light drizzle that muddled the landscape’s colors into a grayish brown mash that would swirl together and form my first impression of the country.
Belgium has an understated beauty that comes from its history of influence from other countries. There is no Belgian language. Rather, the north speaks a dialect of Dutch called Flemish and the south speaks French. The result is a country that feels a bit like it lacks an identity, yet at the same time remains distinct from other European nations. In what sense is it distinct? What is ‘Belgian’? If the wild and sensual aestheticism and sensuality of Paris were combined with the sturdiness, stodginess, solemn grandeur of London, and then you spiked the cocktail with just a touch of Amsterdam, you might end up with Brussels. In fact, that is exactly what happened.
My first night in Belgium was a harrowing one. Stricken with jetlag, I found myself on the cusp of slumber, lying in bed, teetering on the edge of consciousness and waiting to be enveloped by sleep. Before I knew it, I had been waiting nearly two hours. Lying awake in bed at night, wracked with pain and isolation is something I do at home, and certainly not acceptable vacation behavior. So I pulled myself from the comforts of a quilt the grandmother who ran this inn had likely sewn, donned a windbreaker (to fit in), and went out for some night haunting. Walking in any metropolis after midnight is usually not a good idea, but international health insurance is an incredible confidence builder, not to mention a good idea for those who travel often.
I stepped out onto the rain-soaked streets of Brussels. They gleamed brilliantly in the night, reflecting the yellow and orange of the street lamps. The city seemed evacuated, though a few other sleepless dregs sauntered through the darkness, though with more intent and conviction than I could muster. On a whim, I followed one such character down a main street, around a corner where the pavement turned to cobblestone and into a partially lit cave from which a saxophone wheezed pitifully into the desolate street.
The place was called Goupil le Fol. It is run by an insomniac chocophile and stayes open from 8pm until all the weirdos have trickled back out into the night from whence they came. The music is exclusively francophone and revisits a bygone era of French chanson singers including Édith Piaf, Georges Brassens and the pride of the Wallonia, Jacques Brel. There was a good selection of wines (tending toward the sweet) and chocolate to enjoy while being absorbed by any of the plush leather couches on offer and listening to the dulcet tones of people whose misery mirrors your own.
The next day I took a more diurnal approach to exploring the city. The previous day’s rain had miraculously dried up between the last night’s final glass of wine and now, so I adjusted my disposition accordingly. I wanted to try some authentic regional food but there is no real “Belgian cuisine” apart from frites and waffles and the credit for the former is often attributed to Belgium’s neighbors to the west. Nevertheless, I headed to the first waffle stand I found and ordered a the house specialty: a chocolate covered waffle topped with strawberries. I took this masterpiece snack to the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels’ ancient opera house, and sat outside to take in the scenery and appreciate the 300 year old cultural venue. Rose-cheeked cherubs chased each other around the seats as their stoic mothers looked on, sipping coffee drinks. I decided to stop by the Royal Palace next, the ex-home of Prince Albert II and his progeny. It’s right on the bus route, which is strange for me since I can’t visit the castle-homes of any centuries-old families where I’m from. It was pretty cool! I stopped at another street vendor to pick up some moule frites (mussels and fries) before making my way to the Royal Library, because I’m an academic type, see? In addition to the library
The next day, I got a tip there was a old-timey fête in a town called Mons located just south of Brussels. I hopped on a train and rode forty minutes to the fabled town unsure of what to expect. When I arrived, it was clear something was happening. I could barely make my way through the drunken crowd that spilled out of the station. When I finally made my way to the city center, I was greeted by thousands of people reaching out to seven men wearing white garb, black belts and maneuvering a giant fake dragon around. I learned this was called th Ducasse of Mons, affectionately shortened to “Dou Dou Fest” and commemorates a medieval battle that took place in that very spot (according to legend) and establish Mons as the noble, quirky town it is now. At the suggestion of some locals, I tried the signature drink, also unfortunately called Dou Dou, though much better tasting. The drink was like someone had squeezed a grapefruit into a glass of sugar-sweetend vodka; I could see why someone would want to commemorate their blue-blooded past with this purple-pink drink.
Mons as a town was very quaint, and I would suggest a visit, if you’re into that sort of thing. Though everyone was in hysterics for the time I was there, it was a pleasant, I’m-in-college-again type of hysterics that’s nice to see in smaller towns. Also, there are lots of golden statues that hold deep, secret meanings to the progeny of the Dou Dou slayer: a pensive monkey, for example, brings luck to those who rub his head; a woman lies dorsally, inviting you to run your hand over her body. There is no luck myth associated with this statue, so I just felt weird doing it. When in Rome!
By the end of my trip, Belgium had revealed its true face to me. A benevolent, subdued, peculiar face, but one I would like to see again. If one day you do find yourself in that mecca of history and culture known as Europe, you would do well to spend just a bit of time ‘dans le porte de Belgique.’