Wednesday, September 04, 2013


I awoke on monday to my new Belgian environs.  Belgium sits so precariously on the border of Latin Europe (French-speaking Wallonia) and Germanic Europe (Dutch-speaking Flanders).

Brussels is not Paris, nor does it want to be.  Apparently the word "branché" (trendy) is used derisively.  If Paris is chic, Beussels is the easy-going Austin equivalent ("Keep Brussels Weird").

I got up around 8:15, and had some time to kill before the free walking tour at 10:30am.  I wandered into the city center to grab some breakfast and snap some photos of the central square bathed in the morning light.  I grabbed a croissant at a bakery, and quickly realized I was not in Paris anymore.  I almost threw the croissant on the ground in disgust—such are my snooty Paris gastrodiplomacy sensibilities.  But I refrained, and ate the rubber roll.  I got some good pics of the square in the soft morning light.

I returned, and just missed the walking tour but just by a few minutes and it was not hard to catch up with the group.  We walked back into the central square and met groups from other hostels and hotels.  The walking tour is run by Sandeman's tours, which runs an interesting business model.  The offer free tours at various European cities; the tour guides make their money on tips alone.  I will discuss more on this, as I chatted with a few of the guides on how it all works.

Anyway, we divided up into smaller groups of about 30 or so per group.  Our guide Senna was a cheerful and fun fellow.  He told us about the history of the square- about the gothic-style Hotel De Ville (City Hall) and the Maison de La Roi, and all of the gilded charm surrounding us.  He explained that most of the buildings used to be guild halls for the various craft guilds.  Only one remained a guild hall- the Order of Brewers.  Such is Belgian life.

We heard all about the history of the Belgae tribe that battled Julius Caesar to Gallia Belgica, and on through the medieval days of Brussels- the fort on the swamp.  I learned that a mocking term for a Brusselian is a chickeneater (kiekenfretter) after the city folk plundered (in just revenge after a cowardly attack on local hero T'Serclaes) the nearby fort , and while sacking the fort, they made it a point to eat all of the city’s chickens.

We meandered on to the famous mannekin pis- a statue of a wee lad in midstream.  Legend is that it is to honor a little boy who peed out a canon fuse, but the real story is thought to be to show where young kids could sell their urine to the tanners who would use it to treat hides. The statute is an iconic landmark of Brussels, and as such, has been pilfered many times.  We heard about how, during a certain period where there were French soldiers in the city- perhaps during WWI or WWII, some drunk French soldiers stole the statue.  The mayor (perhaps) asked the commanding general to have it returned.  He made sure it was, and also made the state an officer- Officer Mannekenpis, so whenever any French soldiers passed, they had to salute the whizzing lil boy.  We also heard about Friends of Mannekin pis, who dress the little statue up in various uniforms(cosmonaut, Lawrence of Arabia, etc).

We headed over to La Monnaie, the famous theater named after the mint that used to be there.  It was from this theater, Belgium was born.  Following the Congress of Vienna, where the likes of Metternich and others tried to put the Napoleonic genie back in the bottle, the regions of Flanders and Walloon where attached to the Netherlands to form the United Kingdom of the Netherlands as a buffer against France.  Only one problem: the Netherlands is primarily Protestant, while Flanders and Walloon were primarily Catholic.  Rising discontent was starting to bubble over, when King William II banned the the opera La Muette de Portici by Daniel Auber.  When the show did go on (Aug 25, 1830), it riled up the audience so much that they poured out into the streets to riot.  From this, the Belgian Revolution was born, and the Kingdom of Belgium came into being.  I love it that Belgium was born from an opera- such is the power of music.

From there, we headed through the Konnigne Galeri, a beautiful enclosed cafe and shopping area, before heading around the corner for a discussion on Belgian cuisine.  The guide Senna discussed the basics of Belgian cuisine that are already so tied to its edible nationbrand (Chocolate, Frites, Waffles and Beer).

I learned that there are actually two types, Brussels waffles and Liege waffles.  Brussels waffles are the rectangular kind that I had the day before covered in whip cream and caramel.  This particular batter does not have sugar in it, and is covered with sugar and other toppings.  The other, the rounded Liege waffles, has sugar in the batter, and is eaten plain and a lil sticky.

We also learned about the frites- fries.  Apparently, it was GIs in WWII, who saw people eating the frites, and speaking French so they assumed they were French and called them French Fries.  On the scale of fries, matchstick on one end-steak fry on the other, the belgian frite is somewhere in the middle.  It is double fried to give a crisp golden brown outside, while keeping the middle soft. Delish.  Apparently, rumor has it that one of the questions for the Belgian citizenship exam is about how to make proper frites.

We also heard about how the Belgians use beer to cook in their food like the French use wine.  Our guide Senna recommended to try carbonade- a Belgian beer beef stew.

We continued our walk upwards to the Parc de Bruxelles, and heard a lil bit about King Leopold's ghosts.  Let's be honest: the beauty in architecture that I love in Europe is borne out of the open-veins of the riches extracted from the colonies.  We continued on for a stop by the King's Palace (flag up, he is in the country.  no guards, he is not home), and headed down to a park area with a large statue of King Albert I.

King Albert I was a central player in the start of the Great War. As I learned from The Sleepwalkers, the Germans misplayed their march through Belgium quite badly.  It was basically expected that Germany would pass through Belgium on its way to France.  Clark makes the point that if Germany had just gone about doing this, it probably wouldn't have been such a tremendous issue.  But Germany issued a notice to Belgium, declaring their intention to pass through and offering restitution for the damages caused by the infringement of sovereignty.  Sometimes it is better to do, then ask forgiveness later because this act forced the King of Belgium to respond.  As such, he declared " I am the ruler of a country, not a road!" and refused the request.  When the Germans invaded, King Albert took charge as the leader of the Belgian Army, and was right at the front as the tiny Belgian forces held back Germany with great bravery.  But Belgium was decimated in the meantime.  History is always tricky.  The Belgian resistance delayed the Schlieffen Plan, and helped ensure that there was no initial decisive victory by Germany.  Also, the German Army's heavy-handed conduct in Belgium helped shape opinion (and propaganda) against "the Huns." The Allied Forces spun stories of Germans savages bayoneting Belgian babies and raping Belgian nuns to push support for the war effort; a similar falsehood would drive America into the First Gulf War with Nurse Nayirah.

I chatted with guide Senna for a bit after about the Great War and Sleepwalkers, and he gave me a rec to find carbonade (Belgian beer beef stew) at a place called C'est Bon, C'est Belge.  He said they had the best beer beef stew.

I was lost looking for the place.  I stopped to ask directions at a cafe, looking for the road Rue Bon Secours.  There were two fellows having coffee.  I asked in French for directions, and we got to chatting.  One gentleman asked where I was from, Etats Unis.  His companion rolled his eyes, and mutted "Syria" under his breath.  The fellow asked my origin, and I replied Juif.  He wished me a mazal tov for the upcoming Rosh Hashana; his companion rolled his eyes again.  But I knew the dour fellow was Moroccan, so I broke out my Moroccan Arabic.  Rather than rolling his eyes, they lit up.  We chatted for a bit in Moroccan Arabic as his friend looked for directions for me on his phone.  He gave me directions, and they both wished me well on my way, b'slama from the former eye-roller.

But I still got lost.  I was ready to give up and have a kebap, when I spied the little alley Rue de Bon Secours.  Serendipity led me to the restaurant, and I was pleased.  I sat down at the tiny table and ordered the recommended carbonade.

The patron asked if I wanted a beer for a man, or a superman.  I took the Kal-El special.  First came the kryptonite, a Belgian Revolution Triple named Jambe-de-Frois.  I took a few sips of the rich brew, but had to wait for the food to really drink it.

I received a plate of the brown beer beef stew with a side of mashed potatoes.  I cut into the delicious beer-tenderized meat and mixed the rich stew with the soft potato mash.  It was superb, and I was quite glad my search ended as such.

After the late lunch, I headed back to the hostel for a lil nap.  I got up for some work and to meet some friends from the tour earlier in the morning who were doing an evening beer tour from the same company.  We were to meet at 8:30pm at the DTs brewery. I got there a lil after, but didn't see them.  I figured I missed them, so I sat at the bar trying a few of the phenomenal brews.  Probably closer to 9pm, the tour arrived.

I chatted with a few of the guides, and one of them explained the rigorous process required to run a free tour (actually, a tour that the guides had to pay to the org for the right to conduct a program).  It required intensive historical training and practice, and some tough tests, including with local historians, and a skype interview with headquarters.  Fascinating, all this to run a "free tour."  But it works.  The guides were great.  I would guess they probably pulled in upwards of 150 euros (about $200), as most people tipped around 5 euros per person, and some more.

One of the guides introduced me to possibly the best beer i have ever had in my life.  It was a beer from Bruges called Straffe Hendrik (Strong Henry), and it was pure ambrosia.  It was strong, but suave and had no strong aftertaste.  It was perfection in a rounded glass.


John Brown said...

Paul - Great entry. Thank you.

Paul Rockower said...

Merci Monsieur Brun!