I received a lot of great feedback about my previous post and I thought I would be fair and share my top 10 things I love about Belgium. Everybody knows I love Belgian beer so that will play a big role in this list, but I really tried to find cultural things that are not so obvious. To be honest, it was a difficult task. Not because there aren’t things to love about Belgium, but I think it is human nature that we find it easier to think of the things that annoy us. They are funnier to talk about. And as I was making this list, indeed I was continuing to find even more things that I don’t love about Belgium. But the light of positivity managed to shine thru enough for me to come up with 10 things that I do love (in no particular order). And no doubt there are more. I welcome any of your comments.
- YOU OWN THAT SEAT AT THE CAFE
Wanna nurse that one beer unbothered by pesky waitstaff at a cafe for two hours while you have the sun in your face on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in May? Or just sit there with an empty glass (who would really want to do that?) and chat on WhatsApp or browse Instagram or even better… read my blog? In the USA, your ass would be tossed out in the street, or you would be driven to madness by the constant interruptions and irritated looks of the waitstaff. But in Belgium, one beer, one measily 25cl bottle of Coca-Cola, or a tiny espresso with an annoyingly small Speculoos cookie and that table is yours. I don’t necessarily see this as an act of cultural kindness. It could very well be related to the fact that Belgian cafes are always understaffed and low maintenance people taking up space are easier to manage.
- EASY BANKING
I am still amazed when I deal with companies in the USA who want to send me a check whenever there is a refund, rebate, or similar. Yes, old fashioned tree-killing paper checks. Everything — and I mean everything — in Europe is done with easy electronic bank transfers. China has an even more sophisticated and user friendly system. But ask a business in the USA to refund my money electronically to my bank account and suddenly you find yourself listening to elevator music for 45 minutes while they check with their manager if it is possible.
- YOU PAY WHAT IT SAYS
I have devilishly enjoyed the stories of my international colleagues who have found themselves frustrated when they are in the USA shopping. They go to the Best Buy cash register to proudly buy that new iPhone for $1500 to try and take advantage of a favorable exchange rate only to find out it really costs $1620 because of the missing sales tax. Oh I so wish I could see the looks on their faces. One of the great joys that I discovered living in Belgium was paying exactly what was on the price tag. The same goes for dinner, where a $100 bill in the USA really means $115-$125. In Belgium a 100 euro bill really means 100 euros.
- BIKING CULTURE
Looking to reduce your carbon footprint? In Belgium, it is quite possible to get by without a car. It helps of course to live in a city, but Belgian villages (particularly in the Flemish part) are short distances apart. One of the reasons the road system in Belgium is so abominably horrible, or at least the reason I am told, is that the villages grew up organically and the roads simply filled a need afterwards. But this makes Belgium a joy to travel by bike and it also means you are never very far from a train station or town center. I lived about seven years here in Belgium before I finally broke down and bought a car. People here ride their bikes to work, rain or shine and in all temperatures. Grandmas, grandpas, schoolkids, parents hauling children in wheelbarrow-shaped bikes. I love that about Belgium… except when my progress to work is thwarted by a sea of schoolgirls riding three-across and looking in every direction but at my on-coming bodily mass. That is when I love the really loud horn on my bike. There is nothing better than interrupting Justin Bieber discussions with my really loud bike horn.
- CHEAP BEER
I don’t often get back to the USA anymore, but the last time I was there, I was aghast at having to pay in the neighborhood of $8-$12 for beers everywhere, even at your normal franchise restaurants. I remember looking around and wondering how I ended up in Sweden. The craft beer boom in the US has completely got out of hand. I never felt so tempted to go for the $5-$6 Michelob Ultra, which is in and of itself a ridiculously disgusting price tag for a shitty beer. In Belgium, you will pay $3-$5 for all top quality Belgian beers, beers that make Michelob Ultra and frankly most of those $8-$12 craft beers seem like liquified sweat socks or pine trees.
- THE IPA IS NOT A BELGIAN BEER STYLE
Speaking of liquified pine trees, as far as I’m concerned, the USA can keep its unofficially adopted national beer. To be fair, I can enjoy all beers. But come on. An IPA is no contest when stacked up to a Belgian blond, dubble, tripel, quadrupel, and lambic. Looking at a craft beer list in the USA is essentially choosing which IPA you are going to have. In Belgium, when you look at a beer menu, it is which Nectar of the Gods. There is no place else on Earth which can even come close to touching Belgian beer. I know everyone was expecting this to be #1. As I said, in no particular order.
Beer & Bike, Baby. There is a clear trend as to the things I love about Belgium. For sure, when you want to plan a bike ride in Belgium, you can almost randomly generate your route and still not have to worry about getting hungry or thirsty along the way. Why? Because Belgium knows how to take care of its cyclists, that’s why. And one way that it does that is by strategically planting fietscafes everywhere where cyclists ride…. which is practically everywhere. Fiets is Dutch for Bicycle by the way. Fietscafes will serve up a respectable beer menu with the typical boring but hearty fixins of croque monsieur and spaghetti bolognese to fuel the cyclist onwards while usually providing ample outdoor seating for kicking back in those tight spandex bike shorts and enjoying the vibe. Oh yeah, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of a stomach full of spaghetti bolognese and beer while wearing spandex biking shorts.
- BEER ABBEYS
Planning a bike ride should never simply be about getting from A-to-B or for exercise. Screw exercise. When I bike, I want it to be an event. And Belgium makes that possible by having so many interesting landmarks all over the country. That is true for all of Europe, of course. Beer, Religion, and History are quite intimately linked in Belgium and if you are drinking a classic Belgian beer, there is a good chance it carries a name with some reference to a religious person or place. Many of these places referenced in the names of the beers are abbeys which either still exist as functioning monasteries or as schools, museums, or even ruins which can be visited. Even after almost nine years living here, I haven’t visited them all yet. Combining Beer and Religion is marketing genius. If you want to sell me a beer, print a stained glass window on the label and put “St.” in the name. I will buy it.
- THE THREE-HOUR RULE
I made up the 3-hour rule from my experience living in Houston, Texas. That was roughly the driving time from Houston to San Antonio. In between Houston and San Antonio is nothing but rattlesnake and wild pig-infested nothingness. When out-of-towners ask me where they can day-trip or spend a weekend without taking too long to get there from Belgium, I like to inform them that they are within three hours from Brussels of the following places either by car or train:
- The Hague
- Luxembourg City
Just missed the cut:
- Reims, France (gateway to the Champagne Region), 3 hours and 1 minute by train
- Cochem, Germany (Mosel wine region), 3 hours and 4 minutes by car
You get the point.
- NAKED, CURVY WOMEN ON CANVAS
Thank you, Peter Paul Rubens for giving women of all shapes and sizes a place in our hearts. Rubens’ Venus in Front of the Mirror was a depiction of one of the world’s first selfies and today we have Instagram. I am incredibly appreciative to be able to live in the shadow of this legacy. It is also very cool to be able to literally walk in the footsteps of Rubens. Not just Rubens but Anthony Van Dyck, Jan Van Eyck, Rogier Van Der Weyden, Hans Memling, Adriaen Brouwer, Jacob Jordaens, David Teniers, Pieter Brueghel, and all the siblings and Youngers and Elders. It’s a shame that my favorite artist Frans Hals, who was born in Antwerpen, is considered more of a Netherlandish painter. But I will throw him in the mix as well.
Belgium has so much to offer and be passionate about for fans of art, history, beer and biking. Four key ingredients to this blog. In fact, this blog doesn’t exist without Belgium. And it may be this synergy that I love the most.
As the COVID-19 crisis carries on and keeps us from doing the things we love or seeing the people we love, I wish good health to everyone that has read this. If it aroused even one chortle, please let me know in the comments along with your own favorite things about Belgium. Thank you to all who honor me with their presence here.