Thursday, December 16, 2010

Flanders Boekenfestijn 2010

My fiancé's dad loves two things among others: books and bargains. A Boekenfestijn ("book feast") has both. Off we went.

The Boekenfestijn trade fairs are held annually in various cities around Belgium (at least in Brussels and Gent, as far as I can tell). Surplus books are shipped in from warehouses all over the area and sold for a ridiculous price. Where else would you get the complete works of Shakespeare for only €7?

I was surprised and pleased by the great number of English-language books on offer. There was a healthy balance between fiction and non-fiction, and much of the literature was sorted by genre, such as new age, manga, history, and cooking. If that's not your thing, how about a book on golf course architecture? 50's automobiles? Norwegian aerial photography? It's all to be found at Flanders Expo this weekend. Rest assured that I got my share of the goods.

For an idea of how huge it was, check out this video from this year's Boekenfestijn in Brussels.

Friday, December 10, 2010

New poll!

In my never-ending quest to find out more about my readers, I've put up a poll about food (and beer). Vote on the right to find out which type of food (or drink) the wide world has in common with the Belgians.

Photo: Wikimedia/Dvortygirl

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Crime and punishment II: hunks and horror

I covered most of the basics about the Belgian police force in an earlier post, but for some reason I forgot to show you what they actually look like. To make up for it, here's one of the suspiciously many photos my mother took of the policeman who came to my apartment after the burglary. His face is blurred - because.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The first snow

Our garden right now.

Growing up in northern Norway, you get used to six bone-chilling months of winter each year. Many times have I seen thundering snowploughs send a thick white spray through the air, barely reaching the top of the six-foot high bank of snow already bordering the road. I've crawled through snow caves that would have impressed the Vietcong. You have to be friends with the snow up north lest it become your enemy.

I remember how, as a child, I would wake up one morning between October and December and see the first soft layer of snow on the lawn. My sister and I would cry out with joy, immediately waking our parents, who for some reason were never quite as excited about the snow as we were. It was the happiest day of the season, and I still feel excitement at the first snow. It's something new.

A typical Belgian's reaction to snow would be a little more along the lines of Harry from "3rd Rock From The Sun":

Monday, November 15, 2010

The 2010 flood

For the past week or so, Belgium has faced heavy rainfall and subsequent floods in many areas. Among the provinces most affected were Limburg, East Flanders, Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant.

Deforestation and a high level of urbanisation make Belgium vulnerable to such floods, and hundreds of homes have been damaged by the water. The police and fire departments have been working around the clock, helping people protect their homes against the oncoming water and rescuing those who might have perished if left to themselves.

On Saturday I watched the Brussel-Charleroi canal rise up from its cement banks and inundate the towns on it, including Halle. My father-in-law-to-be was clever enough to save the event for posterity:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Crime and punishment in Belgium

Three days ago I went to Halle to spend the day with with members of my family. While we were away, someone smashed the lock on the door, walked into our apartment and helped themselves to two laptop PCs.

Luckily, I still have my desktop computer, so now I can tell you a little bit about crime and punishment in Belgium. We'll start with the cops and finish with the robbers.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


As Belgians recover from shocking revelations about a certain high-ranking Catholic, their attention turns towards another well-known bishop. He also loves children, but in a different way.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Clash of the Cultures: Why shopping for groceries in Belgium thrills me and annoys me

While reading this, please keep in mind that I'm not trying to argue that Norway is preferable to Belgium in any way. Even if that was possible, I wouldn't do it by writing about grocery stores.

Autumn 2010 arrives in Ghent

A friend tipped me about a supermarket not far from where we live, and today I went there for the first time. Since Bika's bike was vandalized last week, she has to borrow mine to get to work until her own gets out of the shop. This meant I had to walk today, but that only gave me more time to take pictures. Enjoy five snapshots from a clear, cool (10 °C) autumn day in Ghent.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My first look at Antwerp (with photos)

Last Friday I got the chance to see Antwerp (Dutch: Antwerpen; French: Anvers) for the first time. It was a short but memorable visit.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

An introduction to Belgian music

Belgian music is mostly unknown outside Belgium, but you can be sure that the country has its Beethovens, its Beatles and its Britneys, too.

A brief summary of Belgian music

In the 16th through 19th centuries several Belgian composers gained international fame. Arguably the greatest of these was André Grétry (1741-1813) from Liège, known for his many operas.

The most notable Belgian composer today is Wim Mertens. This is his Struggle for Pleasure, which features heavily in advertisements for Proximus, the largest telecommunications operator in Belgium.

Folk music has a strong tradition in Belgium. While traditional folk lives on through bands like Kadril, Urban Trad and Laïs, the music scene also offers the concept of kleinkunst. Originally a term describing Dutch cabaret entertainment, it is also applied to Flemish artists and groups in the singer-songwriter and folk genres who perform their songs in Dutch. Some examples are Yevgueni, Jan de Wilde, Bart Peeters, Eva de Roovere, Johan Verminnen, and Louis Neefs.

"Als Ze Lacht" ("When She Laughs") by Yevgueni, my fiancé's favorite Belgian group:

And here's Laïs' recording of "Min Morfar", a traditional Swedish song:

Jacques Brel (1929-1978) from Flanders was arguably the greatest Belgian chansonnier, and one of the biggest artists to come out of the country. His songs have been recorded by international stars such as David Bowie, Frank Sinatra and Terry Jacks. Jacks' 1974 monster hit "Seasons In The Sun" was an adaption of Brel's "Le Moribond" (1961). Both songs can be heard below.

Blues and jazz also live in Belgium. Small wonder, considering that the saxophone was invented here, by Adolphe Sax, in 1846.

Toots Thielemans was born in Brussels in 1922. He was likely a great influence on a young John Lennon, and is hailed as one of the greatest jazz harmonica players of the 20th century. In 2009 he became an NEA Jazz Master, the highest honour for jazz musicians in the United States.

Django Reinhardt (1910-1953) is perhaps the most widely known of all Belgian musicians. Although his left hand was partially paralysed from a fire, he became one of the most renowned jazz guitarists in history. If you don't know what gypsy jazz is, go watch a Pixar movie.

I'm less familiar with the pop and rock scene in Belgium, but here are a few names if you are interested: Soulsister, Noordkaap, dEUS, Zita Swoon, Malibu Stacy, Hooverphonic.

If you feel more like electronica, techno, house, dance or trance, check out Kate Ryan, Technotronic or 2 Unlimited.

If you like rap, go to the Netherlands.

Got some more suggestions? Tell me in the comments section!


Thursday, September 16, 2010


Yum yum.

They're one of the most basic fast foods in the modern world. Every minute, thousands of deep-fried potato strips slide down the hungry gullets of people from Anchorage to Addis Abeba. But do you know the origins of this magnificent food?

If you're from North America, you probably call them "French fries", which is a common mistake. You can thank your (great-)great-grandparents for this.

The first potatoes were fried in the Meuse valley in modern-day Belgium in 1680. Over two hundred years later, during the First World War, the fries became popular among American troops serving in the area. Because their colleagues in the Belgian Army only spoke French, it would be harder for the Americans to make a distinction between French and Belgian culture and cuisine. Thus, when the troops returned home, they told everyone about the "French fries" they had been served in Europe. Today you can find fries on the menu of restaurants in all 50 states - even the one with Springfield in it:

Thank you, Lord, for this bountiful Belgian food.
A still from The Simpsons Movie (2007).

The tradition from 1680 is alive and well in today's Belgium. In millions of househoulds you will find a countertop deep fryer, and on every street is a fries shop (called a friterie if you speak French and frituur if you speak Dutch) selling the national snack in white paper cones. The most common condiment is mayonnaise, but you can also get them with ketchup, barbeque sauce, or "gypsy sauce", the contents of which I'm not sure I want to know. The idea of putting mayonnaise on fries used to be as foreign to me as eating a snail, but now I never eat fries without it.

My future father-in-law rocks one of these like Hendrix with his Strat.
The majestic deep fryer, a mainstay of the Belgian home kitchen.

Fries are also a vital ingredient in the country's national dish, mussles and fries, which I will tell you about later. For now, remember that "French" fries are really Belgian, and the best ones have mayonnaise on them.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Ten notable Belgian comics

You can read part 2 in this series here.

Comics have a prominent place in Belgian culture. Just as Belgians love to read Scandinavian mystery novels, so are Belgian comics exported all over the world, sometimes making it as far as the Arctic Circle and beyond. As an introduction to the topic, I've composed a list of ten highlights from the Belgian comics industry.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A brief history of Belgium before there was a Belgium

This is a quick overview of Belgian history, from the first human activity up until the country was internationally recognized as an independent state in 1839. Certain topics mentioned, such as the Flemish art of the Late Middle Ages, political and cultural differences between Belgium and the Netherlands, and the battle of Waterloo, will receive a more thorough treatment at a later time.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The hunt for Manneken Pis

The most famous inhabitant of Brussels is a tiny, curly-haired boy, standing proud and naked above the heads of passers-by, urinating nonchalantly into a stone basin all day long. His posture is self-confident and defiant, as if daring anyone to keep him from performing this act of public indecency.

Manneken Pis ('Little Man Piss'), is a 400-year-old statue fountain at the junction of Rue de l'Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat. He was one of my main targets when I penetrated Brussels for the first time in July 2009.

My fiancé would have preferred to avoid "ugly Brussels" completely during my first visit to Belgium, but she finally agreed to show me what she referred to as "the nice parts". I was excited about seeing the de facto capital of Europe up close for the first time, and I wanted to take some pictures of the imposing buildings and vibrant city life.

The town of Halle, our 'home base', lies southwest of Brussels proper. Ten minutes by train and you're at Brussels South, one of the capital's three main railway stations. It is the departure point for the white and yellow Eurostar, bound for London, and the maroon and silver Thalys, heading into France. A trip to Paris on the Thalys will cost you about €80.

The railroad cuts Brussels in half from south to north. A little further along this axis you’ll find the Central Station. It is home to Guapa, the best smoothie bar in the world. This is what the station looks like on a normal day:

We got off the train at the North Station, which sits comfortably between the city's central shopping district and the political/business district. We decided to see the diplomats at a later time, and so we descended into the crowded shopping streets. To a guy who is used to chain stores and streamlined franchises, it was very refreshing to see how well small businesses seem to be getting along in Belgium.

A pair of old ladies sat in a cozy little wagon at the Muntplein, selling waffles straight from the iron. I had the feeling we weren't the first to ask them for directions to the Manneken Pis, but they were more than willing to help. In endless gratitude we bought two chocolate-covered waffles. I can still taste the sticky chocolate and the even stickier waffle, its sugary dough crunching between my teeth. My mouth runs over every time I think about it. After a fair bit of walking, passing places like the Drug Opera and a shop selling 'Manneken Fries', we suddenly found ourselves in a little square full of Asians. But we were not in Chinatown. Looking over their heads, I could just barely make out a tiny bronze statue, about the size of a loaf of bread, up on the far wall. We had found it.

Never have so many owed so much to someone so tiny.

After Manneken Pis was put in place almost four hundred years ago, legends have popped up with numerous explanations to the statue's origins. These are a few of the "theories":
  • The statue is inspired by Godfrey III of Leuven, who was only an infant at the time of his succession. During a battle, his army put him in a basket and hung the basket from a tree to encourage the troops. The child urinated on the heads of the enemy army, who retreated to change their clothes, giving Godfrey’s army the upper hand and, eventually, victory.
  • In the 14th century, Brussels was besieged by an army that planned to breach the city walls with an explosive charge. A little boy put out the burning fuse with his urine, thus saving the city.
  • The perhaps most plausible story tells of a little boy who saved the city from a great fire by putting it out with his pee.
Back to 2009. As cameras flashed and excited Asian murmurs filled the little square, I lifted my own Canon EOS 350D above the crowd and got some snaps. Then we left.

London has Big Ben. Rome has the Colosseum. Paris has the Eiffel Tower. Brussels, the capital of Europe, has a tiny peeing boy. This is Belgium.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

My first hour in Belgium

It was July of 2009. My fiancé had already been on multiple visits to my home above the Polar Circle, but it was only then that I finally had the means to purchase a ticket of my own.

After nearly four hours of flying south, the plane descended from the clouds and I gazed upon the green flatness of Flanders for the first time in my life.

Stretched out far beneath the belly of the Brussels Airlines jet was a vast plain of farmland, villages, towns and cities, all teeming with life that scared the crap out of me.

My mind was racing. What kind of people live in those houses? Who are inside those cars I see crawling along the highways? Where are they going to? I felt like an alien visitor looking down at the Earth for the first time. I started to realize that I would find a lot more than what Wikipedia could tell me.

Stepping off the jet bridge and into the terminal, my ears were tickled by the unfamiliar feeling of not understanding a word of what people were saying around me. Flemish and French (might as well have been Mandarin) was attacking me from all sides, and my brain repelled it like hail on a car’s windshield. Still, it was more exhilarating than terrifying. The foreign tongues reinforced my sense of adventure. I wore a secret grin on my face as I followed the arrow signs toward the exit, and my love.

terminal at Brussels Airport

While journeying down a long tunnel on a moving sidewalk, a blur of colors on the wall to my right caught my eye. It was a thermographic projection of the body heat radiating from the people passing by it. Suddenly I saw myself not as a thinking human of flesh and blood, but as a big, red, yellow, faceless blob sliding across the wall. This means something, I thought.

Later, the path snaked through a multitude of cafés and shops serving the two flavors Belgium is most known for: chocolate and beer. The Belgians have yet to find a way to successfully combine the two.
I was soon reunited with my luggage and, almost immediately thereafter, my fiancé. It was a tender moment best kept within one’s heart. We took the stairs down to a well-lit train station with ornamented columns of gray concrete, and minutes later found ourselves on a train to Halle.

My fiancé told me not to look out the window as we passed through Brussels. She explained that this was not the nice part of the city. I looked anyway, and saw millions upon millions of buildings, stretching into eternity from the graffiti-covered walls bordering the train tracks. Here and there I spotted great belfries and golden domes, but most of the city seemed to be made up of clusters of smaller brick buildings. Some of the graffiti along the railroad was spectacular, such as a giant spider occupying the entire wall of one of the houses. Some of the buildings were also spectacularly rundown, giving credit to my fiancé’s remark. I was anxious to get even closer.

Brussels, capital of Europe

At this point I was merely a tourist, free to study the city the way you gaze into a fish tank to spot the different creatures living inside it. I would comfortably observe and enjoy this strange country and then return safely to my homeland with some nice memories. No harm done, no big deal.

A year later, I jumped into the fish tank.

Photos: Wikimedia

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Introduction (or why I’m here)

dawn over Oostende, Belgium

In September 2008 I first met the woman I was meant to live my life with. She came to me from Belgium, three thousand kilometers away from the place I then called home. That moment changed my life forever.

All I knew about Belgium at the time was that it was the birthplace of Tintin and some notorious pedophiles, and the one doesn’t really make up for the other. Nonetheless, in April 2010 I found myself quitting my job at the grocery store and packing my belongings to move to Belgium.

I had two failed attempts at college behind me and a student loan I’ll still be making payments on when apes take over the planet. I was ready for a fresh start. I jumped on a plane with one hand holding my suitcase and my other hand in hers.

My life now is Belgium. I’m starting college here. We’re getting married here one day, and our kids will have Flemish as their first language. Hovering above all of these future adventures is the challenge of moving to a different country, a challenge most people never have to face. I’ve got a whole society to learn.

One day I’ll have earned the right to call myself Belgian. This is the story of what I discovered in the meantime.