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.