Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Z is for Zomer, Zand and Zee (Summer, Sand and Sea)

“I’m glad it’s Friday,” I said collapsing into a chair at the corner cafe. 
“Twee bieren,” my Belgian friend signaled to the bartender.
“What a week.”
“Sounds like you need a vacation.”
“I’d love one.”
“Let’s go to the Belgian Coast.”

Beer, cheese, chocolate, comics—the Low Countries are full of best things in life. And in the summer things get even better because you get to enjoy all these things outdoors, alfresco, under the sun and at the beach. Summer is the time that Belgians live for and spending time at the North Sea coast is the highlight they long for. Or zomer, zand en zee—which means “summer, sand and sea”. The Dutch language is a lot like English as far as words beginning with “z” are concerned.

As promised Saturday morning Astrid and I met at Brussels Zuid Station and boarded the Thalys Train. Ninety minutes later we debarked at the city of Oostende on the Belgian Coast. The sea air was salty, the dune sand tan and where the tide kissed the beach the sand was bluish-brown. It was beautiful. We celebrated our arrival by eating crepes with Nutella at a cafe overlooking the beach. 

From June to early September the Belgians, Dutch, Germans and all Eurocrats living in Brussels flock to the Belgian Coast to relax and enjoy eating über fresh seafood and sweet ice cream cones. This stretch of beachfront is little over 40 miles long so it may be small, but it's mighty fun.

Astrid and I hopped on the coastal tram and took it to the town of Middelkerke where we took off our shoes and ran around on the beach playing beach tennis. Afterwards we had salads—and strawberry milkshakes—for lunch.

We hopped on the tram again and got off at Knokke-Heist where Astrid’s parents have a second home. Their house was decorated in clean lines and nautical stripes in blue, yellow and white. Astrid showed me my room, which had with a fluffy duvet on the bed, a painting of an oversized red poppy and a thick white carpet. The living room lacked artwork but that’s because it had sliding glass doors that looked out at the ocean. What a view.

After showering we slipped into our summer dresses—hers white eyelet, mine cornflower blue—and went out to explore the affluent city of Knokke. The streets were lined the occasional chapel, some cafes and plenty of art galleries, that were a treat to see. People who can paint amaze me!

For dinner we went to a restaurant preferred by her family. When the staff saw Astrid, they rolled out the red carpet serving us each a Kir aperitif. In case your knowledge is like mine and your before dinner drinks consist of tap water or 20-year old Bourbon, a Kir is a drink of dry white wine with crème de cassis, which itself is a sweet black currant liquer. The Kirs did the trick and stirred our appetites. 

Being at the coast I had to order the national Belgian—Mussels and Frites—which was cooked and served in a pot with white wine. Although we sat at a two-top window table, I spent so much time looking out the window at the water it felt like we had three diners at our table—Astrid, me and the Sea.

For a nightcap we walked along the boardwalk and ate ice cream cones. It was “fancy shmancy” and so fun. 

“How do you feel?” Astrid said licking her chocolate cone. I breathed in the night sea air.
“Like I’m relaxed, without a care in the world, on vacation.” 
“That’s all from the zomer, zand en zee.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Belgian Coast was a wonderful way to finish my stay in the Low Countries. Thanks for traveling with me this month! I enjoyed sharing the trip with you!

Y is for Ypres (World War I)

“It’s impressive,” I said gazing up at the massive Menin Gate in the city of Ypres.
“It commemorates the World War I battles that were fought here,” the tour guide said.
“It’s somber.”
“It honors the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died here.” 
“It’s important.” 
“It’s…” He stopped and nodded.

Whether you’re a resident or just a traveler passing through, the longer you spend in a place the more you pull back its layers and truly discover it, which is what happened to me in the Low Countries. 

Belgium is a small country wedged between the North Sea, the Netherlands, France, and Germany. In 1830, the British encouraged the creation of the nation of Belgium to serve as a buffer-zone country between France and Germany. They’d seen how easily Napoleon had taken over Brussels and how close he’d gotten to invading England and therefore wanted to prevent the French from invading the land of the Belgae again.

With this goal, the young nation of Belgium signed the Treaty of London (1839), which guaranteed its neutrality and noninvolvement in the case of war between France and Germany.  

Nevertheless in 1914, Belgium was invaded, again, this time by Germany. The Kaiser’s troops marched over the Belgian border, and charged through the Ardennes, Brussels and Flanders fields on their way to the North Sea. Militarily out-matched, the Belgians still fought valiantly against the German military machine who unleashed a two-pronged war: one on the Belgian Army and the other on Belgian citizens—including killing women and children. This shocking assault on the Belgian population in the first three months of the war came to be called the “Rape of Belgium”. 

All this bloodshed and death enacted on a population whose country was neutral infuriated the world. Thus prompted, the British entered the war to defend Belgium and the legality of treaties. To this goal the British and German forces met on the fields of Flanders just east of the city of Ypres.

Ypres is a small city—even today it counts just 35,000 residents—however during World War I its position near the North Sea and at the confluence of a network of roads and canals running to the north, south east and west made it a vital military post to control. 

If there’s any city that embodies World War I, it’s Ypres. The British fought the Germans at the First Battle of Ypres (1914). Later the British and its Commonwealth’s Armies fought the Germans at a Second Battle of Ypres (1915) at which point both sides dug trenches from which to fight (creating trench warfare) and for the first time gas was used as a weapon of war by the Germans. Two years later the British and Germans squared off at the third battle of Ypres called the Battle of Passchendaele (1917). Later that year the combatants continued in a fourth battle of Ypres called the Battle of the Lys (River). The Fifth Battle of Ypres (August 1918) occurred as part of the Hundred Days Offensive by the Allies against the Germans which finally pushed the Germans out of Belgium and France and led to the Allied victory and Armistice. 

It is estimated that over 1.7 million people died in the city and Battles of Ypres including British and Commonwealth troops, Belgian soldiers and German troops. The loss of life is staggering. While many of the dead have been identified and given a respectful burial, there are thousands of solders who gave their lives fighting the Battles of Ypres yet whose bodies were never found and identified. To honor them the Menin Gate War Memorial was created. 

The Menin Gate (called Meenenpoorte in Flemish) is the gate leading out of the city of Ypres and heading east to the city of Menin where the Battles of Ypres took place. The Monument Arch was built by the British and dedicated in 1927 to honor the missing soldiers of the British and Commonwealth countries, who have no known graves. Visitors can walk through the gate and see the names of over 54,000 soldiers engraved on the walls. 

When I passed through this gate I sensed how impressive their sacrifice was. I felt how somber the visitors were. I realized how important monuments like this are for they serve as reminders never to forget those fallen and to work toward lasting peace.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

X is for Xenophobe

“Goedendag,” I said upon entering a kitchen supply shop in Antwerp, Belgium.
“Goedendag, juffrouw,” the shopkeeper replied in Dutch.
After me, two women entered the store and addressed the shopkeeper in a language that was neither Dutch, English nor French. He gave them a shrug to say “I don’t understand you.” The women huffed and promptly exited the store. The shopkeeper shook his head in disbelief.

When briefly vacationing in another country it’s impossible to learn the host country’s language in its entirety unless you are a walking-talking Berlitz dictionary, a whizz at memorization or a major overachiever. I don’t fall into any of those categories naturally. Nevertheless before I went to Belgium I tried to learn how to say “hello”, “please” and “thank you” in French and Dutch. 

Spoiler alert: After studying French for seven years, let’s just say I didn’t have a problem in the Bonjour-S’il vous plait-Merci Department. Meanwhile Dutch was a different kettle of  pronunciations. But with a little bit of practice in hacking up phlegm lodged in my throat I learned to say Goedendag-Als u blieft-Dank u in a convincing Dutch accent. Don’t get me wrong: Dutch speakers in Belgium never thought I was a Dutch speaker from Belgium, they just thought I had a bad case of hacking up phlegm lodged in my throat.

Thus despite my pseudo language prowess, I was a foreigner in a foreign land and to hear a shopkeeper of pots, pans and spatulas say disparaging things about foreigners didn’t sit well with me. I gave him a tight smile.
“What’s wrong with foreigners?” I said in Dutch.
“They act like they own the place. This isn’t their country, it’s mine.” I winced. He sounded like a xenophobe, that is someone who feared (read: disliked) foreigners. I’d been warned about people like this blue eyed, blond haired shopkeeper. Since the 1990s many European countries have experienced large waves of immigration from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, which has brought peoples who look different, speak different languages and follow different laws and values to predominantly white, historically Christian, European countries. Since the early 2000s, many European nations have seen the rise of anti-immigrant political parties who were created to fight against the foreigners in an effort to protect their white, traditionally Christian cultural identity. Belgium and the the Netherlands were not exemptions.

“But I’m a foreigner,” I said. “Are you saying you don’t like me?”
“You’re different.”
“Because I’m white like you?” The shopkeeper shook his head.
“Because you speak the language of this region. And you don’t expect everyone in Belgium to speak your language which makes you different from the other foreigners who immigrated to Belgium and refuse to speak Dutch or Flemish.”

Needless to say, the shopkeeper did not want to see a Chintown or Little Africa in Belgium.

The United States is a nation founded—and still run on—the skills of immigrants. Immigration is part of the American experience. However immigration and its challenges to the host culture are new phenomena in Belgium and the Netherlands, which have led to the rise of right-leaning political parties like the Vlaams Belang in Flanders and the Partij van Vrijheid in the Netherlands. Both of these political parties promote speaking Dutch or Flemish, in the Netherlands and Flanders, which is understandable. What is less understandable is how these parties are fighting to leave the European Union and wanting all immigrants to leave the Low Countries.

If I can speak a few words of Dutch on a vacation, I think immigrants to Belgium and the Netherlands should at least try to speak the language of their new country. Doing so might help eradicate xenophobia and even promote international understanding.

And if those immigrants need help learning how to speak Dutch, I can teach them how to sound native by hacking up phlegm lodged in the throat.

Monday, April 28, 2014

W is for Belgian Waffles

“What a great exhibit,” I said catching the afternoon light on the museum’s front steps.
“Art is inspiring,” my Belgian friend said grasping a rolled up poster of a Surrealist painter. 
“And stimulating.” 
“And expensive.”
“And makes me hungry.”
“Let’s get waffles!”

Whether domestic or international, traveling allows one to experience the local cuisine. Thanks to my various journeys I’ve enjoyed eating Po’ Boy sandwiches in New Orleans, fish and chips in London and sushi in Kyoto. But then I like eating sushi anywhere, anytime, anyhow. That’s exactly how Belgians feel about waffles. Find yourself peckish between lunch and dinner? Get a waffle. Want a snack? Get a waffle? Want a pick me up? Get a waffle! In Belgium waffles are the go-to snack and a popular hot food of choice. They’re sort of like New York City’s salt pretzels, only they’re sweet and good. And unlike salt pretzels which native New Yorkers never eat, all Belgians eat waffles. Sometimes several a week. 

Astrid’s smiling blue eyes sparkled in her attempt to convince me to get a waffle. 
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s get Belgian waffles.”
“Uh… Belgium doesn’t have Belgian waffles.” Was this some joke? Had the exhibit we’d just seen on Surrealist painters infected Astrid’s brain with a sense of playful fun and nonsense? 
“Of course Belgium has Belgian waffles,” I said. She shook her head and proceeded to explain the waffle situation in the land of the Belgae.

“There are three main types of waffles,” she said holding up two fingers and a thumb. 1) Stroopwafels; 2) Brussels waffles; and 3) Liège waffles. A stroopwafel consists of two hard, round disks—like flat cookies imprinted with a faint waffle pattern—that are bound together with a sugared caramel center. It’s like an oversized Oreo cookie with caramel and they are delicious. Often they are eaten with coffee or tea and they may even be set on top of a coffee cup or mug—much like a lid—which warms up the caramel center and makes it even tastier. Stroopwafels are sold in packs of eight in grocery stores and supermarkets. And speaking from personal experience, they are addictive.

“Then there are Brussels waffles,” Astrid continued which come in a rectangular shape and have deep, square grooves, which are perfectly designed for holding powdered sugar. These waffles are sold hot on the street by food vendors. They can be eaten with the fingers or on a paper plate which is then topped with strawberries and whipped cream. No Belgians eat Brussels waffles with strawberries and whip cream, that’s for the tourists. Rather Belgians either eat Brussels waffles plain or with a dusting of powdered sugar and they use their hands.

“Then there’s my favorite,” Astrid smiled as we walked side by side. “Liège waffles.” These waffles use a brioche dough and pearl sugar whose granules will cling to the cooked dough like a barnacle on a ship, like ivy on a chimney, like a five-carat diamond ring on a woman’s finger, like— You get the idea. Traditionally from the eastern city of Liège, these waffles are now sold nationwide from street vendors who will make them fresh while you wait. Vanilla is also in the batter but once you taste the pearl sugar, everything else fades away. It’s surreal.

“What about Belgian waffles?” I said as we crossed the street to a waffle street vendor. 
“Those only exist in America,” Astrid said with the flick of her wrist. 
“What about serving fresh fruit and syrup with your waffles?” I said trying to legitimize the Belgian waffles found at every Denny’s restaurant in North America and devoured by every one under 102 years of age. “The ones you eat with a fork and knife?”
“Those Belgian waffles only exist in America,” Astrid shrugged.

We stopped in front of a vendor selling Liège waffles on the street.
“Twee wafels,” Astrid said ordering for both of us. I watched the vendor rub butter on the waffle irons, pour the batter onto the waffle grids and close the lid. In the waning sunlight the smell of baking vanilla and sugar made my mouth water. Soon a bell beeped. The vendor opened the waffle iron and using a two-pronged metal fork, whose tines were as long and thin as knitting needles, poked the fork into the waffles, slipped them into a piece of wax paper and handed one to Astrid and the other to me. 

“Do I eat it with my hands?” I said lifting the hot waffle to my face. 
“It beats eating it with your nose,” she said biting into the dough. I followed her lead. She was right: no matter how good it smelled, it tasted so much better on my tongue.
“Lekker,” she said chewing her waffle. There was nothing surreal about it. Eating hot waffles while walking in the street with a friend was delicious.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

V is for Van Gogh

A failed pastor.
A starving artist.
A devoted brother.
Vincent Van Gogh changed art forever.

Van Gogh was born in the province of North Brabant in the Netherlands. Like his father, a Methodist minister, Vincent felt drawn to work in the church and took an assistant pastor’s job in a poor coal-mining region in Southern Belgium. While there he noticed the demeanor and tired faces of the poor residents and started to draw and paint them.  

Although he failed at pastoring he proved inspired at drawing. In his late 20s he moved to Paris where he spent time with his brother, Théo, an art dealer. In Paris Théo encouraged Vincent to draw and paint. 

Growing tired of Paris, Vincent moved to the South of France settling in Auvers where Provence’s bright sunshine and vibrant colors intrigued and inspired him artistically. Soon these colors and the light quality appeared in his artwork. He employed plenty of paint, applying it in thick masses. He also used colors in unique ways, for example, in one of his self portraits he gave himself a green face. 

In a decade’s time he created over 2,000 paintings, sketches and drawings. Yet he was unhappy and suffered from mental illness. At 37 he died of a gunshot wound. 

The bright colors he infused his paintings with greatly appealed to viewers and fellow painters alike. In the 20th century, his fame grew. People were captivated by his vision of white blooming almond trees, blue irises and portraits of Dr. Gachet. In 1990 one of his paintings of Dr. Gachet sold for $149 million dollars. A single painting.  

Some 200 of his paintings are on view at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This is the largest collection of Van Goghs under one roof anywhere in the world. The museum also displays letters and personal effects of the artist. The museum is often crowded thus illustrating how many people still admire and are touched by his emotional works and life. 

Vincent Van Gogh was both ahead of his time and timeless, which it’s too shabby for a failed pastor.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

U is for U

“Thank u,” I tapped the letters on my phone and pressed “Send”. Bleep.
“But in English ‘u’ does not equal ‘you’,” my Dutch friend texted back. Bleep.
“But you understand that ‘u’ = ‘you’.” I thumbed the key pad. Bleep.
“That doesn’t make it right,” he texted back. Bleep. I put my phone down and turning to Benny beside me looked him in the eye.
“What are you—the spelling police?” 

When I first started texting I told myself I would always type things grammatically and correctly. “You” would always be “you”; “my fabulous friends” would always be “my fabulous friends” and “Thank goodness it’s Friday” would always be “TGIF”. But I haven’t, I don’t and I won’t. Clearly I’ve broken this promise to myself. 

In texting I take shortcuts with my spelling and quite some time ago I started typing “you” with the letter “u”. After all, the sound is the same so my typing is just reflecting the pronunciation. Little did I know that my little laziness in texting reflects what’s happened to the Dutch language over the last 1,000 years.

Dutch is spoken from Friesland to Amsterdam to Antwerp, Bruges and Brussels. Even today the pronunciation of Dutch varies between the populations of these cities with Amsterdammers having a harder accent where the /g/ sound resembles a person with a pulmonary infection hacking up a lung. Meanwhile Brusselaars have a softer accent where /g/ sounds like a person with a lisp, laughing—hee, hee. Understandably, the accents in the other cities fluctuate between these two extremes. 

Therefore it isn’t any surprise that a millennium ago when Dutch speakers transcribed their language that they wrote the words down exactly how they pronounced them. This created slight differences in the spelling of the language which continued for centuries. Finally in 1804 the government decided to standardize the spelling and grammar of the Dutch language making it the same throughout the Netherlands and Belgium. The idea was to have the pronunciation of the word be reflected in the spelling of said word. Although the spelling of the diphthong letter IJ was introduced at this time, other changes were not embraced by some of the population. Afterall people get attached to their language and don’t like others changing it. 

But once you start changing the spelling of a language it’s a slippery slope—for when do you stop? The Academy of the Dutch Language, the Nederlandse Taalunie, didn’t know for it revised the language’s spelling again in 1844, 1864, 1883, 1934, 1946, 1947, 1996 and 2006. 

One good change in 1946 was to rid words of letters that were never pronounced. Therefore the Dutch word for “fish” pronounced /vis/ changed its spelling from visch to vis. If anyone knows about the spelling police, it’s the Dutch.

“It must have been hard in the beginning but now I’m glad Dutch standardized and simplified its spelling system,” Benny said stirring four cubes of sugar into a caffe latte. “Why don’t you change the spelling of English?”
“Noah Webster made some spelling changes to American English in the 19th century to differentiate ourselves from England, which is why U.S. prisoners go to “jail” and British ones to ‘gaol’.”
“But there’s still so much confusion in English. Take ‘gh’—it can sound like /f/ in ‘laugh’ or /o/ in ‘dough’.”
“What spelling revision would we take? American English or British English?”
“Why not a little of both?”
“English is too international. We can’t change its spelling now because people are attached to their form of it and don’t want others changing it.”
“Ah, hah!” Benny said stabbing the air. “That’s why you should type ‘you’—not ‘u’—in your text messages.” 

When foreigners point out my mistakes in my own language, they leave me speechless. So I texted my Dutch friend.

“Thank you.” Bleep!

T is for Tulips

“Every house has a vase of cut flowers inside,” I said cycling past a row of homes beyond Amsterdam's city limits. 
“We like flowers,” my Dutch pal said over his shoulder.
“And outside every garden is growing flowers."
“We dig flowers.”
“Look at all the tulips!”
“We love tulips!”

I come from a family of flower people. My grandmother belonged to the local garden club and served as its president. My mother’s white iris garden was a fragrant oasis every June. My father created a rose garden with over 100 different varieties of roses including the House of York's white rose and the House of Lancaster's red rose. When dad wanted to usurp a bed of my mom’s irises to expand his rose collection, that’s when the real War of the Roses began. 

Needless to say, flowers and gardening are in my blood and I adore them. But growing up I recognized that my family’s affection for horticulture meant our yard was the only one on the block that had any blooming plants and flowers. The rest of the neighbors couldn’t be bothered.

That’s why it was refreshing to be in the Netherlands where no matter how small the garden or the house, every resident landscaped with blooming plants outside and displayed fresh cut flowers inside. Forget San Francisco's flower children. The Dutch are the original flower people because they appreciate all flowers, although they are complete suckers for tulips. 

Tulips belong to the Tulipa family and are distinguished by having a few large leaves from which a single flower stalk arises whose petals open in a cup-like form in a myriad of colors and patterns. Their original, wild growing region consists of a wide path from western China to Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Greece, Spain and Portugal. Notably they’re not from the Netherlands. So as much as tulips are the favored plant among the Dutch, they didn’t originate in the Netherlands but have been growing there since the 16th century when bulbs were imported from Turkey. Turkish tulips.

Grown from bulbs—not seeds—tulip bulbs are sunk into the earth in September to winter underground then in the spring, usually in April and May, they burst from the ground in a countless array of colored petals—red, yellow, white, purple, striped, striated. The flowers’ bright colors appealed to the Dutch immediately and soon certain colors became more favored, with the more rarely seen striped-petal tulips considered the most beautiful. This preference for certain tulip colors over others launched a Tulip Mania in the 17th century where people would buy and sell tulip bulbs claiming that there were one of the favored, striped patterns. Only months later after the tulip bloomed would the buyer realize if the seller had told the truth or not because that’s the thing with bulbs, they don’t have a label identifying what color the blooms will be. Pesky tulips. 

In order to use the bulb again the following year, every June the bulb is dug up to rest in a cool, dark place until it is replanted in September. Technically a seller could say, “These bulbs produced red and white striped tulip blooms this year, it will do the same thing next year.” This would allow him to sell the tulip bulbs at a higher price to the highest bidder. In a craze for the striped tulips, wealthy Dutch merchants and other buyers spent exorbitant sums of money for those bulbs, sometimes taking a second mortgage on their home to pay for the tulips. Let me repeat that: Dutch people borrowed money they didn’t have to pay for chic tulip bulbs they wanted in order to show off their wealth, which they used to have before buying the bulbs. Status symbol tulips.

Unbeknownst to the growers, buyers and sellers, a funny thing had happened to the tulips: the plants were contracting a Tulip Breaking Virus that caused the petal to have striped patterns (which was good) but that eventually killed the plant (which was bad). Even solid-colored tulip bulbs could become striped the following year before reverting back to a solid color the year after that or just dying. Sooner or later, every tulip infected with the Tulip Breaking Virus died. The virus and the unpredictability of the tulip colors sent the tulip market into chaos and ruined the fortunes of countless Dutch men, women and children. This was a real futures market meaning people bought something now to have it turn a profit in the future. The Dutch tulip mania closely resembled the real estate boom of the early 2000s and the painful crash of 2007. In a similar way, the tulip mania of the 17th century caused a rise then a horrible cash to the tulip market, personal fortunes and the national economy. Ah! Greedy tulip owners.

These days the Tulip Breaking Virus is understood and mostly eradicated. Which is a good thing because the Dutch grow tulips throughout their country, especially at Keukenhof, the largest growing grounds in the country where row after row of tulips are grown for the fresh-cut tulip market. If you admire tulips but have never visited this area, book a ticket soon to see the colorful floral displays at Keukenhof.

Or you can just cycle through the countryside and appreciate the personal gardens of Dutch homes. I guarantee they’ll have tulips. Bold, beautiful tulips!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

S is for the Smurfs

They’re blue, wear white (mostly) and have the most descriptive names ever.
“Lazy Smurf”. “Papa Smurf”. “Smurfette”. 
Ahhh, the Smurfs! 

Who could forget those lovable, forest-dwelling cartoon characters who speak sentences in the smurftastic language like “I’m smurfing to the smurf!” This ambiguous phrase could mean: 1) I’m going to the forest; 2) I’m singing in the forest; or 3) I’m singing in the rain and dancing in the streets. That’s one of the joys of the Smurfs—also known as Les Schtroumpfs in French, which is the language they first appeared in—is their silliness. Created by Belgian comic book author Peyo in 1958 the Smurfs have been doing their funny smurf-shananigans for over 50 years.

However if you’re not smurfing the Smurfs, never fear! Belgium has plenty of other home-grown comic strip authors and characters to feed your travel bug or tickle your funny bone. There’s the fearless boy reporter Tintin and his dog Snowy. There’s the boy-girl tween adventure duo of Suske and Wiske. There’s the adventurous World War II MI5 agent, Blake, and his brainy scientist partner, Mortimer. There’s stoic Jeremiah trying to survive in a post-Apocalyptic world, (which inspired the Showtime series 2002-04). There’s cowboy, Lucky Luke, who’s faster than his shadow. There’s the good-hearted Nero who always seems to get into trouble. There’s the lovable marsupial-monkey Marsupilami. There’s the goofy, office worker, Gaston Lagaffe, who does absolutely anything to avoid working. And there’re… so many others comic strips.

Belgians love their comics. In fact for a country with a population of just 10 million, 16 million of them read comics. Most of these comics started in weekly magazines but now they are found bound in hardcover books measuring 9 inches by 12 inches and composed of 50 pages of colored panels. So much of the artwork in these paneled pages is rich, intricate and/or amusing that the Belgians call Comics the “Ninth Art”. 

Yes, the Ninth Art. So after the six ancient arts of Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Dance, Music, and Poetry, there is the Seventh Art of Film, the Eighth of Television and drumroll: the Ninth Art of Comics. 

Comics are so important to kids and adults in Belgium alike that there is a whole museum devoted to the Ninth Art in the heart of Brussels. The Comic Strip Museum has permanent exhibits on the countless Belgian comic book characters—written in Dutch and French and translated into English. Plus there’s a gift shop selling hundreds of volumes of comic books written by such well known Belgian authors writers as Herge, Willy Vandersteen, Edgar Jacobs, Hermann Huppen, Morris, André Franquin, Jean Van Hamme and William Vance.

The icing on the cake is that this museum is housed in a light-enfused Art Nouveau building designed by the famous Belgian architect, Victor Horta. Belgians love their comics. 

If all of this adoration of the comic strip is too much for you, relax. You can always smurf to the smurf!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

R is for Rue des Bouchers

“This song is catchy,” I said tapping my foot on the wooden floor of a Brussels café.
“It’s In de Rue des Bouchers,” my Belgian friend said as the accordion music poured from the speakers.
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“The song or the street?”
“That’s going to change. Now!”

When living in a foreign country early on you learn that some things are difficult to translate from the host language and culture into your own language and culture. Cases in point: 1) The democratic Netherlands chose to become a monarchy; 2) A statue of a peeing boy became a Belgian national monument; and 3) The ever popular Eurovision Song Festival. On the flip side of the coin you also learn that somethings in this world are definitely universal, for example: 1) Delicious meals; 2) Good friends; 3) Great accordion music.

Not a fan of accordion music? Then you haven’t heard In de Rue des Bouchers by Belgian singer/songwriter Johan Verminnen. This song has an infectious beat, which is just like catching the flu in kindergarten: everyone gets it. You hear it, and you get it, whether you like it or not.

Feeling the need to introduce me to Belgian culture, my friend Astrid grabbed me by the hand and marched me across Brussels to the oldest part of the city. On the way she explained how back in the Middle Ages merchants of a certain business would all set up shop on the same street. To this day you can still see the Rue des Brasseurs/Brouwersstraat (Beer Brewers Street), the Rue des Eperonniers/Spoormakersstraat (Spur Makers’ Street) and Rue des Marchés aux Frommages/Kaasmarkt (Cheese Market Street). And of course the famous Rue des Bouchers/Beenhouwerstraat—the Street for the Butchers.

Astrid sang the first verse of the song in Flemish: Luckily she gave me a translation:

If you want to see Brussels live it up As ge Brussel wilt zeen leive
You don't have to spend a lot of money moede nie vuil geld oeitgeive
There's a place where you can go all out dô es ne côtei wô da g'a nie moe geneire
Where you can pass the evening goit er nen ôvend passeire
In the Rue des Bouchers (x4)         in de rue des Bouchers (4x)

“So the song, In de Rue des Bouchers, is about butchers?” I said as we crossed the Grand Place and entered an elegant shopping gallery.
“Oh, there aren’t any butchers there now,” Astrid said as we walked side by side along the flagstones. Passing through the Galeries Royales de St. Hubert we saw exquisite chocolate shops and expensive clothing stores. Then halfway through the Gallery we turned left and stopped at a narrow pedestrian street brimming with outdoor tables laden with colorful bushels of shrimp, crabs and lobsters on ice. 

“This is it!” Astrid said sweeping her arm toward the bustling street below.
“They should call it the Rue des Pȇcheurs,” I said looking at all the luscious seafood. Snuggled next to the displays of fish and shellfish were restaurant tables and chairs filled with happy people eating and drinking under the festive lights and heat lamps in the Rue des Bouchers.

Astrid sang another verse:

You can find anything there Ge kunt dô vanalles vinne
Russian mackerel and sardines Russe macreaux en sardinne
French fries and raw mussels         fritten en moules parquées
The Brussels people love to eat         slôge dei Brusseleirs in uile gilei
In the Rue des Bouchers (x4)         in de rue des Bouchers (4x)

The moment we stepped into the Rue des Bouchers, the voices of restaurant waiters lobbed at us.  
“Belles Mademoiselles! Vous vouler manger?”, “Pretty Lady one and two, eat here!” and “Please, I have table for yous!” Astrid and I exchanged laughs at their comments but the smells of cooked seafood, the bright colors and the cozy atmosphere of eating outside here was too much to pass up. We strolled the street until we found a good restaurant with a free table and an attentive waiter. Then we sat down beside each other so we two friends could eat and watch the world go by. The waiter was efficient and full of compliments for two women out on the town together. For entertainment we made him guess where we came from. He said Astrid came from Belgium (correct) and thought I came from Germany (no), then France (non), then Denmark (huh-uh), then Russia (niet). When he guessed “Modova” I put him out of his misery and revealed I was American. Needless to say, I blew his mind. 

“Vous ȇtes Americaine? Non! Pas vous!” Which just made Astrid and I laugh even harder. Then we ordered crépes Suzettes for dessert and more drinks in the Rue des Bouchers.

Astrid sang another verse:

Beer is poured and drunk there Dô we'd getapt en gezaupe
cafés are open until sunrise da blaift dô tot 's merges aupe
And when the door closes en as ze de dui todroeie
You can hear a rooster crow den es den ôn al on't kroeie

And this time I sang the refrain with her all four times:

In the Rue des Bouchers
In the Rue des Bouchers
In the Rue des Bouchers
In the Ruuuuue deeeees Bouchers

Astrid didn’t have to explain the song to me anymore since I was now living it. What a special night in the Butchers’ Street with: 1) A delicious meal; 2) A good friend; and 3) Great accordion music!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Q is for Queensday

“Queensday in Amsterdam! This is exciting!” I said hurrying along a red brick sidewalk in that city.
“It’s the Dutch national holiday,” Benny said carrying a bag of old bowls. Just then a man dressed as a woman in an orange dress and heels walked past us.
“The Netherlands has a lot of queens,” I continued.
“I could have told you that.”

When overseas you really get to know a country and its people if you are lucky enough to experience their national holiday. For over a century in the Netherlands the national holiday has been known as “Queensday” in honor of the three female monarchs who ruled this county consecutively throughout the 20th century. Queens Wilhemina, followed by her daughter, Juliana followed by her daughter Beatrix ruled the Netherlands from 1890 to 2013. Yes, the Netherlands has had a lot of queens. 

But this changed with Beatrix’s abdication in 2013, As of April 30, 2014 the national holiday is now called “Kingsday” in honor of King Willem-Alexander. Although the name has changed, the event remains the same. Kingsday is celebrated throughout the country but the biggest party is in Amsterdam where over 500,000 visitors descend on the city, who join the local residents in celebration by wearing orange, singing songs and sailing on the canals. It’s one big block party that’s city-wide. These activities on the national day show that Dutch people are proud, patriotic and like to party.

“What’s the bag of bowls for?” I said stopping on a bridge over a canal.
“I’m selling them,” Benny said removing them from the plastic Dirk store bag and setting all six of them on the ground.
“Today? But isn’t there enough going on with all the people and the dancing in the streets?”
“It’s also part of Queensday,” Benny said as a blond woman stopped to look at his bowls.
“You’re having a swap meet today?” He nodded then announced the bowls’ price at five euros. The woman asked for three euros, Benny agreed to four then put the bowls back into the Dirk bag and gave them to her in exchange for four coins. 
“Now,” Benny said “Let’s go shopping!” 

As Benny dragged me off the canal we plunged into a square that was packed with vendors selling merchandise on the national holiday. For Americans it would be like having a barbecue and fireworks while hosting a garage sale and shopping at other people’s garage sales, yard sales and antique markets. I found this buying and selling so odd… until I spotted a glass flower vase with gold stripes. It sounded ugly but was very cool so I bought it on the spot. Meanwhile Benny purchased seven lamps from two different sellers. Needless to say the four euros he earned by selling his bowls was a drop in the bucket compared to how much he spent on lighting fixtures. 
“Your apartment is so small, why buy seven lamps?” 
“Because more is better!” Benny grinned.

This swap meet also illustrated the Dutch character: the Dutch like selling things they no longer use. And since they live in small homes and houseboats without hoarder-sized houses, garages or storage units, it’s better to sell the stuff than store it. Likewise, they like to buy things—and here’s the clincher—at a good price. The Dutch rationale is: anyone can spend a lot of money on something nice but getting something nice for a cheap price? That’s part of the national character, too!

We bee-lined for Benny’s apartment to deposit our purchases then we met up with some friends of his on a party boat. The plan was to drink beer and sail around Amsterdam but with so many other people having the same idea we didn’t sail, we anchored.  

A swap meet, dancing in the streets, boats, it was a different kind of national holiday.
“The Netherlands is funny,” I said lifting my bottle of Heineken.
“Funny as in ‘ha-ha’ or funny as in ‘strange’?” Benny said beside me before emptying his bottle.
“Funny as in both. But I like it!”

Happy Kingsday! Gelukkige Koningsdag!   

Friday, April 18, 2014

P is for (Chocolate and) Pralines

When in Belgium, you have to eat the chocolate and sample the pralines.

The Belgians didn't create chocolate, they just perfected it. Chocolate comes from the Theobroma cacao tree native to Mexico and Central America. The ancient Aztecs and Mayans were the first to fall in love with it, as a drink. Christopher Columbus brought chocolate back to Spain and by the 17th century it was served throughout Europe, as a drink. It was only in the 19th century that an enterprising Dutchman created a sweeter powder form of cacao that could be used in solid forms. This innovation was called “Dutch cocoa”. It’s still used for baking today. 

Which brings us to the Belgians. The Belgians have been consuming chocolate for over 400 years since the era when they were ruled by the Spanish crown. In the 19th century the Belgians imported cacao from their African colony, the Belgian Congo. Today each Belgian consumes 15 pounds of chocolate a year. 15 pounds!

What makes Belgian chocolate so good is its purity. Since the 19th century Belgian chocolate has been defined—by law—as consisting of at least 35% pure cocoa. This prevents manufacturers from using vegetable-based fats that are less rich and not as creamy—two of the elements that we all love about chocolate. 

What is the difference between “Belgian chocolate” and “pralines”? Chocolate comes in rectangles, bars and slabs and it is just that: chocolate. Chocolate is pure. Nuts, cherries, coconuts, etc. are not found in chocolate bars in Belgium. Popular Belgian brands eaten in the chocolate capital of the world include Cote d'Or, Bernard Callebaut and Guylian.

Then there are pralines. “Praline” refers to the process of grinding sugar-coated almonds, hazelnuts and other nuts into a powder which is then used to make chocolate confections. Pralines can have a center that is a nut, fruit or liquer which is then covered in chocolate. The varied assortments, colors and combinations are stunning to behold. Belgians do things with pralines that make being a chocolatier more than a science, it's a fine art.  

Brussels’ main thoroughfare, Anspachlaan / Boulevard d’Anspach is lined with countless praline shops. Come to think of it, most streets in Belgium have praline shops. How else would Belgians buy the 15 pounds of the stuff annually? 

Some popular Belgian praline shops include Godiva, Leonidas and Neuhaus. And if you really want your mind blown, go to the Place du Sablon in Brussels and eat the pralines from Pierre Marcolini, although before popping them in your mouth, feast upon them with your eyes. Belgian confections are perfection. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

O is for Orange

“I have a question,” I said sitting at a cafe overlooking the boats sailing down the Amstel River, their flags flapping in Amsterdam’s breeze.
“Yes, we’re going clubbing tonight so wear that new red top,” my Dutch friend said popping a peanut into his mouth. 
“That wasn’t my question.”
“Then shoot.” 
“The Dutch national flag is red, white and blue.”
“That’s right.”
“So what’s with all the orange flags?”
“…Why can’t you ask me about clubbing?”

The great thing about having friends who live overseas is you can visit them—score!—and learn about their culture—double score! Of course if your friend is a social butterfly who prefers pop culture to all other cultures, be prepared to hear a lot about the club scene, music and fashion. Which is all well and good because I enjoy those things. Further I know there is no one more knowledgeable about the club scene than my Dutch friend Benny; no one more into music and definitely no one more fashionable because he studied fashion and is now a clothing designer. In fact his jeans are more famous than me, which come to think of it, is not saying much.   

However if I wanted any other information about his country, his hometown of Amsterdam or the beers we were drinking, I had to ask him point blank. I’d noticed that every ship, boat and dingy in the Netherlands sailed the three striped Dutch flag. But there was also a large number of orange flags flying with the red, white and blue. What was it with orange flag?

“It’s in honor of the House of Orange-Nassau,” Benny said sipping his Belgian beer. He went on to explain how that was the last name of the Dutch Royal Family. “Our king is King Willem Alexander of the House of Orange-Nassau.”
“But why call themselves ‘Orange’ when there aren’t any oranges in the Netherlands?” 

Benny proceeded to explain that there is a city in southern France near the Rhône River that is called “Orange”. Over 2,000 years ago the Romans settled it and developed it in the image of ancient Rome complete with a coliseum and a victory arch. Then 1,000 years ago the city became part of the Burgundian Dukes’ Empire. 500 years ago and through another royal marriage, it became part of the far flung territories of the Low Countries—today’s Belgium and the Netherlands—at which time the leader of the Low Countries, Willem “the Silent” of Nassau added “Orange” name to his title. Then he went onto to lead a revolt against the Spanish and create a free Netherlands.

“But today Orange is in France, not the Netherlands,” I said trying not to sound too obvious.
“Yes,” Benny nodded. “But by the 1800 when King Willem I of the United Netherlands and Luxembourg ruled, Orange-Nassau was already his last name and it has remained so until today.” Benny popped three peanuts into his mouth. “Now let’s talk about tonight’s club.” 

Hmmm I guess it’s easier to show pride in the Dutch government with an orange flag than with a Nassau flag. Which raises another point…

“What’s Nassau?”
“Nope! We are done with history! Now we’re going to decide what you’re wearing tonight to go clubbing!”

After our afternoon together, I knew exactly what to do: I wore orange for the House of Orange-Nassau and a pair of Benny’s jeans. It was a fun Dutch night.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for Art Nouveau

“Wow,” I said stopping mid-stride on the sidewalk.
“What?” said my Belgian friend swinging a small shopping bag.
“Look at that shop window.”
“I’m looking.”
“See the architecture’s squiggly lines and curls along the windows.”
“That’s Art Nouveau. In Belgium, it's everywhere.”

One of the pleasures of traveling is being able to do the things you’ve always longed to experience. Going to the summit of the Eiffel Tower: Check! Riding elephants in Nepal: Check! Seeing the Taj Mahal at morning, noon and night: Check, check and check! Despite the exotic nature of these traveling experiences, it is expected that when one is in those locales, one will do them. These are what I call travel’s “Popular Pleasures”. But in the realm of adventure there’s another category of pleasure that comes from discovering something you’ve never seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, thought of or dreamed up. Those are what I call the “What the—?! Thrills”.

For me Art Nouveau in Belgium was a “What the—?! Thrill”. Coming from the Midwestern region of the United States I’d never seen buildings designed with such large glass windows that looked like they had been drawn with a paintbrush and decorated with the exotic flowers of the rainforest. My American background explained why I didn’t know this architecture: Art Nouveau was an artistic and architectural movement popular in Europe from 1890-1914. As an example of how how widespread it was across that continent, it went by different names in different countries: It was called “Art Nouveau” in Belgium and France, “Jugendstil” in Germany, “Arts and Crafts” in the United Kingdom, “Modernisme” in Cataluna and “Drop-Dead Gorgeous” by me. 

Art Nouveau embraced organic lines and drew its inspiration from nature—hence the flowers, trees and foliage used to decorate its paintings, sculptures, ceramics, furniture and buildings. Which raises another element to Art Nouveau—it was a complete art movement that influenced all the decorative arts, as well as furniture design and home architecture. Yet Art Nouveau manifested itself differently in different countries. In Cataluna, the exteriors of the Art Nouveau homes are bland but on the inside they are elegant. Meanwhile in Belgium the Art Nouveau homes were designed to be exquisitely beautiful on the inside and the outside. They are the complete package and completely stunning. 

My Belgian friend, Astrid, had spent her whole life walking around Belgian streets filled with Art Nouveau architecture. She had visited her grandmother’s house which was full of Art Nouveau furniture, lamps and ceramic candy dishes and didn’t see the appeal. Instead Astrid liked modern things with straight lines. Nevertheless, when I asked her to show me more Art Nouveau in Belgium, she obliged because she was a good hostess.

Together we visited Antwerp’s Cogels-Osylei street to see the string of Art Nouveau private residences—one after another, after another—like so many pearls on a string. One house was decorated like a boat, another a sunflower. In Brussels we visited the Musical Instruments Museum in the former Old England shopping mall. We didn’t go to see the instruments but the design elements used to create such a structure of metal and glass. Astrid and I strolled countless Brussels streets with Art Nouveau homes restored to their colorful glory. Finally we arrived ensemble at the pièce de résistance: the private residence—now museum—of Victor Horta.

Victor Horta wasn’t just an architect, he was one of the finest architects of the Art Nouveau movement. He designed countless structures in Belgium, some of which were destroyed in the wars or torn down by later generations’ changing tastes. But some of his houses are still standing and beautifully so. And none more beautiful than his own house. Here you can see his designs—inside and out—how he made metal bend, twist and float. How he preferred light, neutral colors. How he decorated the dining room in subway tiles.   

“What a house,” I said in  quiet voice out of respect for Mr. Horta. Astrid shrugged.
“In Belgium, this style is everywhere.” She wasn’t dismissive but realistic. But I could tell this tour of the inside of an Art Nouveau house had had an effect on her. “I’ve lived in Belgium my whole life but this is the first time I’m seeing Horta’s house on the inside.”  
Standing at the top of the stairs I looked down at the symmetry, the lines, the beauty.
“Wow,” I said with awe. 
Astrid followed my gaze. “Wow!”

In that house I experienced another “What the—?! Thrill” and even though she was traveling in her own country, Astrid experienced a “What the—?! Thrill”, too.

Who says you have to travel far from home for a “What the—?! Thrill”. “What the—?! Thrills” are all around. All you have to do is look for them.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for Manneken Pis

“Have fun in Belgium,” the AAA Travel Agent said handing me tickets and my itinerary. 
“Thank you,” I said smiling.
“When you're there you have to eat chocolate.”
“Drink beer.”
“And visit Manneken Pis!”

Before departing for a travel destination people always have tips on where to go and what to do. Going to California? You must see Yosemite, DisneyLand and the actor footprints at the Chinese Theater. Going to Belgium? You must eat chocolate, drink beer and see the statue of Manneken Pis.

In case your knowledge of European statues is limited to the sweeping statuary of Ugolino and his Sons in New York, Rodin’s Burghers of Calais in Paris or Michelangelo’s heart-breaking Pietà in Rome, think less grand in Brussels. In fact think small in size and action.

Manneken Pis is a bronze statue measuring just two feet tall. Not only does he have a petite stature but the Manneken Pis is depicted doing the most mundane of things—urinating. There is some debate about why Brussels has glorified a tiny statue of a naked boy peeing into a fountain. One says that back in the day—around 1300 or so—the city was on fire and a little boy extinguished the fire by urinating on it. Either the fire was not large or the boy had an enormous bladder. In any case this statue commemorates that action. Another legend claims that a man lost his son in the city and after searching high and low, found the little boy peeing in a garden, because that is what children do when they are lost: they strip naked and urinate on the petunias. Or at least they do in Brussels.

In case your familiarity with favored treasures is limited to those you can see from miles around like New York City’s Empire State Building, Paris’ Eiffel Tower or Rome’s Colosseum, disavow yourself of a grand entrance in Brussels. In fact think out of the way.

Manneken Pis is found in a narrow pedestrian street in Brussels between tourist shops and a waffle stand. If you didn’t know what you were looking for you would walk right by his statue. More correctly, you never would have walked down that street in the first place. Today little Manneken Pis is perched on a corner of two cobblestone streets and if you are not standing directly in front of the peeing boy, you just won’t see him. Subtle and not-in-your face, that’s how they do things in Brussels.

In case your idea of grand art means showing the human form it its pure, naked state, like Klimt’s Hope II in New York City, Ingres’ Odalisque in Paris or Michelangelo’s mighty David in Rome, forget naked in Brussels. Think clothes.

The statue of Manneken Pis depicts a naked boy peeing but it’s rare to see the statue naked because he is usually dressed in one of his 700 outfits. Popular costumes include an Elvis Presley white jumpsuit, a deep-sea diver’s wetsuit, a Santa Claus suit and on July 21—the Belgian National holiday—an outfit in the colors of the Belgian flag—red, yellow, black. 

Speaking from personal experience, the mere thought of dressing Michelangelo’s David in anything is ludicrous and conversely seeing Manneken Pis dressed in any of his countless outfits is hilarious. 

When I arrived in Belgium I did what everyone told me to do: I went to Brussels to see the statue of Mannekin Pis. On that day he was dressed in the soccer uniform of Belgium’s national team, the Red Devils. On a busy pedestrian street I saw a small statue; I smelled the fresh waffles being made at the waffle stand; and I witnessed the hordes of people who had come to see Manneken Pis. I heard them laughing at his costume, at the small size of this silly statue and I was impressed at its ability to make complete strangers laugh together. I was won over by the charm, the power of Manneken Pis. Dressing well, not taking themselves too seriously and rolling out the red carpet for tourists, that’s how they do it in Brussels.

L is for the Low Countries

Answer: They’re north of Paris and high on the European map but they’re close to sea level. 
Question: What is The Low Countries?

If I were a contestant on Jeopardy!, I would know the question to that answer. I also would know that the “Low Countries” is a collective name for Belgium, the Netherlands and sometimes, but not always, Luxembourg referring to the fact that many of the lands are at or below sea level. I would also know that in Dutch “the Netherlands” literally means “the Low Lands” and in French the name for the Netherlands is “le Pays Bas”, which means “the Low Country.” And I know— but now I’m just beating a dead horse.

In the 21st century everyone is looking to China as the hub of fashion manufacturing and trade. But in the 14th-16th centuries the hub was found in the Low Countries, specifically, Flanders (in modern-day Belgium). The busy port cities of Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp traded in the textile industry turning the wool of English sheep into clothing, fabrics and rugs to be sold to the rest of the known world. This trade brought great wealth to the region and made Flanders a desirable region. Sort of like Shanghai, without the smog.

A merchant-based middle-class arose in these areas and like good middle-class people, the merchants of the Low Countries wanted beautiful homes, fashionable clothes and great food. Some of them even wanted awesome art collections and privately assembled the finest paintings, sculptures and artistic what-not available in the Low Countries and beyond.

Answer: They controlled the Low Countries for 100 years and liked good food and wine. 
Question: Who are the Dukes of Burgundy?

Through the convoluted system of acquiring sovereign territories by the method of certain royals marrying other certain royals, Flanders and the rest of the Low Countries passed from some Frankish and Lotharingian rulers to the wealthy Dukes of Burgundy. Living in a region famous for wine grape growing and Bresse chickens, the Burgundian Dukes of Valois-Burgundy used the wealth of the Low Countries to pay for their lifestyles complete with good food, good drink and great art. In exchange, the Flemish merchants and other residents of the Low Countries were introduced to Burgundy’s fine food, drink and art and were inspired to adopt this lifestyle. In short order, the wealthy merchants were regularly enjoying the food, drink and art collecting lifestyles of the Burgundian Dukes. The merchants and the aristocracy lived life equally well. Sort of like China without the aristocracy.

Answer: After the Burgundian Dukes, they controlled the Low Countries.
Question: Who are the Hapsburgs, Spanish, French and Dutch?

After the Duchy of Burgundy ran out of ruling Dukes, the Low Countries were passed like a wealthy hot potato between the various kings of the Hapsburg Empire, Spain, France and the Netherlands, eventually gaining independence in 1815 (the Netherlands) and 1830 (Belgium).

Although the Burgundian Dukes have not controlled the Low Countries for over 600 years, their legacy of eating and drinking well remains in the area, especially Flanders whose residents still pride themselves on being “Burgundians”. Which is nothing like China.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

K is for Kaas ("cheese")

Gouda, Edam, Leiden cheeses!
Everyone loves cheese! 
Uh... Except vegans, the lactose intolerant and those with life-threatening cheese allergies.

Every European country makes its own types of cheese. The French have over 400 varieties, the Belgians 250 and the Dutch about a dozen. Although they don’t make a wide range of cheeses, the Dutch do make large quantities of what they do have. In the Netherlands the most popular cheese for export and domestic consumption is Gouda cheese, which is why Gouda comprises 60% of all cheese produced in the Netherlands. Gouda is wow-da. Gouda is good.

Gouda cheese is named after the town near Rotterdam which makes this young cow’s milk cheese. Likewise, Edam cheese is named after the town where that semi-hard, yellow cow’s milk cheese is made. And Leiden, a city famous for having the oldest university in the Netherlands and for being the alma mater of the current Dutch King, is even more famous for its Leiden buttermilk cheese with cumin seeds. Cumin in cheese? You have to try it on your next sandwich! 

Speaking of eating, the Dutch will eat Gouda on bread for breakfast, Gouda on a baguette for lunch and Gouda on anything for dinner. As a bedtime snack, children often drink glass of milk with a wedge of Gouda because: Gouda is good.

Forget Green Bay Packer fans and every Wisconsinite, the Dutch are the original cheeseheads. Their affinity for cheese is not new. Cows have grazed Dutch pastures for centuries producing quality milk for quality cheeses. When the Dutch moved to America and established New Amsterdam in current Manhattan, they brought this passion for cheese with them. 

In fact Dutch cheese is the reason we have Yankees in the Empire State. After establishing an active colony at New Amsterdam complete with their Dutch farms, Dutch architecture and Dutch cheese, the British took control and renamed the area “New York”. Also the British created a nickname for the male Dutch colony settlers—they called them “Jan Kees”. “Jan” is Dutch for “John” and at the time “kees” was the Dutch spelling of “cheese”. In Dutch “Jan” is pronounced /Yan/ and “kees” is pronounced /keys/. This makes the nickname: /Yan-Kees/. Gradually “Yankee” grew from referring to the original Dutch settlers to New Yorkers, to all people from New York state, and now on the global stage to refer to any American overseas. 

Therefore we have the Dutch and British to thank for giving Americans a national nickname. But we have just the Dutch to thank for Gouda cheese. Gouda is good!

Friday, April 11, 2014

J is for Jacques Brel

“I like the soulfulness of this song,” I said tilting my head toward the car radio.
“It’s ‘Marieke’,” my friend said steering the car. “Ay Marieke, Marieke je t’aimerais tant, Entree les tours de Bruges et Gand—” he sang along with the radio.
“You have a nice voice.”
“It’s nothing compared to Jacques Brel.”
“Jacques who?” My friend hit the brakes. 
“You don’t know Jacques Brel?

When you’re vacationing in a foreign country it’s impossible to know everything about that country and if you did know everything about that foreign country, then it wouldn’t be a foreign country, now would it? Traveling overseas introduces one to new foods, new sights and new ways to hide your passport on your person, which are excellent things to learn while visiting an unknown country. But while you’re there—or better yet, before you go—you’d better learn something about their local heroes or else you’ll cause a lot of locals to slam on the brakes and say: “You don’t know Jacques Brel?

Jacques Brel (1939-1978) was a popular Belgian singer of the 20th century, although calling him “popular” is the greatest understatement of the 21st century. The man played Carnegie Hall; toured the world to sold-out concert halls; performed with Charles Aznavour, Serge Gainsbourg and Maurice Chevalier; and was covered by Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, Sting and Nirvana. Gone for over 35 years he is still voted the number 1 all-time singer in Belgium. And in France he frequently ranks as more popular than Edith Piaf. The Edith Piaf.

“Does any of this about Jacques Brel sound familiar?” my friend asked as we sat in the car.
“No,” I shook my head. “But can we go someplace besides sitting here on the side of the road?” He shifted the Peugeot into first gear and we merged with traffic. 

My friend kept talking. He told me that Jacques Brel was born in Schaarbeek in Brussels to a Flemish family that spoke French. A terrible student and untrained singer, Brel taught himself how to play guitar and write songs. Early in his career before playing a gig at a club with his band, the hired singer did not show up and with no time to find a new singer who knew Brel’s songs, Brel decided to sing the songs himself. He never hired another singer again. In total, he wrote and performed 13 studio albums as well as released a couple live albums and box sets. He sang in French and in Dutch, also he acted and directed movies. At the Cannes Film Festival, he won the Palm d’Or—as in, France's Academy Award.

“Ring any bells?” I shook my head.
Pulling a CD from the glove compartment, my friend popped it into the radio and strains of music erupted from the speakers. 

“Madeleine c’est mon espoir, C’est mon Amérique à moi—”
“I like the energy of this one,” I said nodding at the radio.
“He’s saying how he’s waiting with lilacs for Madeleine and how he loves Madeleine,” my friend said. “Even though Madeleine never comes to meet him.” 
“How sad.” The song continued then in an even more upbeat tempo.
“Demain j’attendrai Madeleine, on ira au cinema…”
“Nevertheless, he says that tomorrow he’ll come back with lilacs and will wait for Madeleine again.” 
“Do you recognize this song at all?” 
I shook my head.

My friend stared at me with eyes as big as dinner plates. He ran a hand through his hair and continued the monologue saying that the key to Brel’s success was the passion with which he sang. As an actor, he used his face to reveal the song’s emotions. His face would flash a grin then a grimace, then end with a pout so that even if you didn’t understand all the French or Dutch lyrics, you could understand the emotional truth of the song just by watching him. No wonder Jacques Brel was popular with gazillions of fans.

My friend parked the car and we entered a typical Belgian café complete with potted plants, Leffe and Stella Artois on tap and a jukebox. My friend ordered us two beers and popped a coin in the music machine. The strains of a sad song wafted toward us.

“Ne me quitte pas, ne me quitte pas, ne me… quitte… pas”
 My friend opened his mouth to speak but I cut him off.
“He’s saying ‘don’t leave me, don’t leave me, don’t… leave… me’.”
“Yes,” my friend exhaled a sigh. “He’s begging his love not to leave him. But in the end she, leaves him.” In silence we sat listening to the song play out. Then it ended. We both sipped our beers.  
My friend spoke, “So you know this song?”
I shook my head. “I just understood the lyrics.” His face fell. “But,” I continued “Having heard so much about Jacques Brel today, his memory will stay with me. He won’t leave me and I won’t leave him. And isn’t that what he wanted with his music: Not to be left alone?”

Imagine the writing ability of Bob Dylan, paired with the club performance of Frank Sinatra, matched with the mellifluous vocal range of Elvis and the visual expressiveness of Journey’s Steve Perry and maybe—just maybe—you have something akin to Jacques Brel.

The fact that so many millions of people still treasure Jacques Brel and his music ensures that he will never be left alone. My friend raised his glass to mine and we toasted to Jacques Brel, the hero of Belgian music.