Belgium, the country that can’t take a joke
I wasn’t planning on writing about Belgium again but after thoroughly insulting the entire nation with my last post, I thought I would try to set the record straight – especially since I am probably no longer welcome to enter the country. I don’t hate Belgium, I actually really love it. Having said that, Belgium really is a weird place and the people there should really know it by now.
But seriously, I have been to Belgium – three times – and I actually do love it. I’ve been to Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges and it is probably the country I would choose to live in if I had to leave Australia. Anyway, here is a list of things that I do like about Belgium:
Nobody can deny that Belgium has a rich history of art. From the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, Belgians have been at the forefront of the art world. Names such as Reubens, Breughel, Magritte and Van Eyck are practically household names. Well there is another name that should be added to that list: Wim Delvoye.
“Who?” You might ask. Well to provide a little bit of background, Wim Delvoye is a Belgian neo-conceptual artist who “is involved in a way of making art that re-orients our understanding of how beauty can be created”. His most famous piece is a “comment on the Belgians’ love of fine dining” which, obviously in Belgium, means a machine that makes poo. I’m not sure what made Wim wake up one morning and decide “what the world needs is a machine that makes poo”. Anyway, the poo machine – or “Cloaca” as Wim prefers to call it – is a real thing and apparently he even sells the “smelly” turds for $1,000 each.
“Cloaca” in motion
Charles de Gaulle once famously said about France “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”. If what he says is true, then it’s no wonder Belgium is such a shambles. How does one govern a county with over 1,000 types of beer? If you read my last post, then you will know that the answer is, not very well at all.
Belgians and beer go together like Russians and vodka. In fact, Belgians love beer so much that they even used to serve it to children at school. While Belgium may be world famous for Stella Artois (AKA “wife beater”) I have to admit, the place does have some amazing beers. My love affair with Belgian beer started with Hoegaarden (which frankly tastes a little like soap) and continues today. I would drink Belgian beer exclusively if I could, but it’s pretty expensive here.
An interesting beer is called Gueuze which is brewed in an open vat during a certain time of year when wild yeasts are floating around. The end result is a sour and pretty much undrinkable beer that most people would throw away – most people that is. Some of these beers are infused with fruit like cherries or ninkeberry (whatever that is) and given ominous names like “Sudden Death” (Mort Subite).
The supposed “world’s best beer” Westvleteren 12 is also brewed in Belgium, and the people who run the brewery sound like they have modelled their business plan from Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. To buy the beer you have to reserve it beforehand on their designated “beer phone”. When somebody calls up they are told the type and quantity of beer that they are allowed to purchase. People are even restricted as to how frequently they can buy the beer. Sales are limited to one order every 60 days, per person, per license plate and phone number.
The Belgians take their love of beer to a new level. Other countries like Germany and the UK are also famous for beer, but they are generally not too fussed about the presentation. As long as it’s cold and fizzy (or in the UK, warm and flat) then that’s enough for them. The Belgians however are a different bunch. For each of their 1,000 or so different styles of beer, there is a glass that is specifically suited to enhance its flavour. There are far too many of these to list but my personal favourite is the one for the beer Kwak
Apparently this strange design came about to allow coachmen to have a drink even though they weren’t allowed to leave their coach. To get over this hurdle, Pauwel Kwak had a special glass blown that could be hung onto the coach, enabling the coachman to drink without getting off. This is true Belgian ingenuity, most countries would have just accepted the fact that they couldn’t have a drink and carried on with their job. But not the Belgians, you can never get between a Belgian and their beer.
This obsession with glassware goes deeper than simply serving a beer in its own special glass. If the correct glass isn’t available, I suspect that most Belgians would refuse to drink it at all. I stayed at a hostel in Ghent where the owner apologised profusely when I ordered a beer from him that he he didn’t have the right glass for. Having to drink an Orval from a Liefmans glass really didn’t bother me but clearly this is a sacrilege in Belgium. The owner of the hostel (Hostel Uppelink by the way, which is an amazing place) nearly didn’t sell me the beer, just because the correct glasses were in the dishwasher at the time.
Another example of this strange obsession with glassware happened at a bar in Ghent called Dulle Griet (which is presumably named after the cannon of the same name that has a soft toy stuffed inside). The bar had a sign outside advertising a beer served in an oversized Kwak glass. When the waiter came to take our orders, I pointed to another customer who was drinking out of one of these abominations and said in my best Sleepless in Seattle moment, “I’ll have what he’s having”. The waiter smiled and replied, “Ok, and as a deposit, I will take your shoe”.
The waiter’s reply confused me – I have never been asked to remove a shoe in a bar before – So I asked “My shoe? Why do you want my shoe?”. The waiter replied casually, as if he had made a perfectly reasonable request “So you don’t run away with the glass”.
I gave the waiter my shoe who then placed it gently onto a serving tray and carried it delicately away. I then looked around the room and noticed that hardly anyone in the bar was wearing two shoes. It really was something to behold, a room full of people missing a shoe with huge smiles on their faces. The shoe thing really is a genius idea, who is going to steal a glass if it means having to walk around in a sock all day? Not me, especially since it was the middle of winter at the time.
There are a lot of things that makes Belgium such a fun place, but the main thing really has to be the people. I’m not trying to suck up, they are (generally) really nice people and they are also just damn hilarious. For example, in my last post I copped a lot of flak for not getting my facts straight. I’m prepared to own this but it seems that not even the Belgians can agree on what the “facts” are. Some commenters even got into an argument about whether or not Antwerp was the capital of Flanders. Come on guys, if you don’t even know what the capital is, how the hell is anybody else supposed to work it out?
A lot of people accused me of cherry picking ‘facts’ to make Belgium look silly and that you could do this with any country. I promise you that this is not the case. Belgium is just one of those places that is full of surprises – and it’s just plain strange. Belgium is like that kid at school who used to sit at the back of the class and eat glue. You couldn’t stop him from doing it, you just had to sit there and watch as he went for another bite.
Enough of being an arsehole, I do really love Belgium, even though I am just a silly Australian. But before I finish I have one parting comment: Gotye, who is everybody’s favourite Belgian musician, is actually an Aussie. So suck on that!