Brussels: Fries, Beers and a Little Anti-Americanism
I arrived in Brussels late Sunday evening. In an effort to keep my costs low, I had turned a one-hour flight from Ljubljana into a seven-hour affair by flying through Istanbul. The one benefit, other than the cheaper airfare, of course, was the fact that Turkish Airlines serves a full meal on every flight, no matter the distance. So it was that I landed in Brussels full on two dinners needing only to find my hotel for the evening.
The hotel I had booked was close to the Brussels North train station (Gare du Nord). This station was only ten minutes from the airport, an optimal location given the fact that I was to meet my good friend, Fred, at the airport at 8:30 the next morning and the clock on my phone already read 10:00 pm. Fred’s wife, Vic, is French and as teachers, they spend part of their summers in France with Vicky’s family. Knowing that we would both be in Europe at the same time, Fred and I, with Vic’s blessing, devised a mini tour of Brussels and Lille, in Northern France, before we would head south to Lyon, France to meet up with Vic, little Romy (Fred & Vic’s one-year-old daughter) and the rest of Vic’s family.
The Brussel’s airport was easy to navigate. I soon had my pack from baggage claim and headed for the train station, which sits directly below the airport. I waited on the platform for twenty minutes till the next scheduled train to Brussels arrived. The train was sparsely populated, no more than ten people per car. I settled in for the short ride to the city and placed my pack in the seat beside me.
Two stops later, I was at Gare du Nord. It was almost eleven. On pulling into the station, I realized why my hotel room had been so cheap. The street facing the tracks was Brussels’ red-light district. A mile long strip of barely-clothed women standing in window sills, the fluorescent red glow of the lights that outlined the window indicating the Establishment was open for service.
I knew my hotel was close to the station and I had the address written down, but I did not know which direction to go. It was late. I was tired. Instead of walking, I headed to the taxi line. I could afford the short taxi ride. I showed the address to the first taxi in sight. Showing no desire to earn a fair, the cabbie told me I was very close, and gave me some general directions. “Go straight, then right until you go under the bridge, then an immediate left.” Ok, I could handle this.
Two minutes later, I was in the middle of the red-light district. During law school, I spent a semester in Amsterdam, I had seen a red-light district before. This was no Amsterdam. There were no endless canals and large open plazas to beautify this district. No, it was a series of old buildings lining an equally old railroad track. The streets weren’t well kept or teaming with tourists, like in Amsterdam. Instead, only a smattering of men between twenty and fifty walked the streets. The area was poorly lit and you had the feeling that you would soon be mugged, offered drugs or find your hotel sitting atop a brothel. Thankfully, none of these was the case. I soon found my hotel on the other side of the red light and after a shower and a shave I was fast asleep.
The next morning was cool and rainy. I met Fred at the airport and we ventured off to find our hotel. This task was more difficult than expected. Neither of us had written down the hotel’s address, or name. This information was in our respective email accounts, but we had no internet access. Thus it was that we spent our first hour in Brussels trudging through the cloudy, cold rainy streets with our big bags in tow searching for an Establishment that would offer us free wifi. This also proved difficult. In the end, we stood outside a hotel and borrowed its free lobby internet to access Fred’s account and get the info we needed.
After checking in, Fred took a quick shower to wake himself up. He had just arrived on a trans-Atlantic flight, his route: drive to Houston from Austin, from Houston, take a flight to Atlanta and then take another flight to Brussels. Instead of sleeping on the plane, Fred devoured three movies. At this point, he hadn’t slept in nearly twenty-four hours. He needed to stay awake to fight the jet lag and get on Europe time.
Back in the streets, the weather was still cold and wet. Not the type of weather in which you spend much time outside. It was almost noon. Fred and I devised a plan–let’s eat and drink Belgian style. We were starving so food was up first. This obviously meant French fries with mayonnaise and other dipping sauces. We checked our map and made our way to the closest fry stand. “One large frites with mayonnaise, ketchup, and let’s try the Americaine sauce.” Delicious. Although the Americaine sauce tasted in no way American and I would venture to claim that indeed no American has ever created a sauce that would taste this way. Nor would one want to.
The rain had not let up. It was time to implement phase two–drinking Belgian style. Fred and I headed to Delirium Cafe, a bar with over 2,000 beers, including every Belgian beer you could imagine. As the rain continued to flow outside, the beer began to flow inside. Fred and I began with the Guize. A very Brussels beer that is extremely sour. Fred loved it. I drank it. We moved onto other Brussels-styled beers. I had a local Delirium brew, Fred had something different. At this point, Fred was getting tired. He had been up for twenty-four hours, it was dreary outside and we were drinking beer. To fight this, Fred made his way outside for the occasional nicotine stimulant. When Fred returned from one of his stimulant runs, we began to contemplate our third drink. It was at this time that Fred and I met Steign.
Steign, a local Dutch-Belgian, heard us discussing our drink options and offered his expert advise–the Belgian IPA called the Chouffe. Steign was twenty. He wore his dirty-blond hair should length and unwashed, letting it fall wherever it wanted. He had a round, pale face and wore a black metal band t-shirt. Steign was a regular at Delirium; he knew all the bar tenders by name. While extolling the virtues of the Chouffe, the bartender noticed Steing’s beer was empty and asked if he would like another. Steign declined. He only had 80 euro cents left. As an illustration, Steign pulled the change out of his pockets. The bartender just smiled. Apparently it was not an uncommon occurrence for Steign to run out of money at Delirium. Fred and I ordered three Chouffes and gave one to Steign.
Our conversation with Steign continued over our round of Chouffe. We asked him about Brussels–the relationship between the French and Dutch as well as his thoughts on their government. “The people get along fine. No one cares about the government.” Steign continued to stress the indifference the people felt to their representatives and extolled the fact that Belgium went longer without a government after an election than Iraq did. It was a world record of disfunction and apathy that the Belgians wore with pride. After a bit, the conversation turned to the States. Steign had never been, but he had an opinion. “The U.S. is the most fucked up country in the world.” Whoa, Steign, be careful. When abroad a person’s home country is like their family. I can call my sibling lazy or crazy or whatever I like, yet if someone else calls them that, the situation could get ugly. But Fred and I liked Steign. He was friendly and charismatic, if not the best words-man. After telling him, politely, that we thought his description was inaccurate, we asked him why he thought this. Iraq and Afghanistan. Fred and I both agreed that we, along with millions of other Americans, had serious problems with these wars and U.S. foreign policy in general. Did that, however, make us the most fucked up country in the world? Didn’t all great powers throughout time have suspect, if not oppressive foreign policies? This by no means exonerated U.S. actions, but at least it helped explain them. Steign agreed and admitted that what Belgian did in the Congo was oppressive on the scale of what the U.S. had done historically as well.
The jet lag was getting to Fred again, he needed another stimulant. Steign, a smoker himself, asked if he could join. After rolling their cigarettes at the bar, Steign and Fred went outside for a smoke. When they returned, we finished our beers and Steign had to leave. Fred and I stayed and ordered another round. After Steign left, Fred told me he had talked with Steign about movies and TV shows while they were smoking. Steign was big into Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and many other U.S. shows and movies. Fred thought it was interesting, Steign was openly hostile to the U.S. and yet adopted our culture in many ways. I agreed. This seems often the case around the world. So many foreigners will tell you America is bad or lacks culture, yet they spend their days watching our movies, listening to our music–Johnny Cash was playing constantly in the background–and eating our food (French Fries are an American invention) all while using the internet on their iPad or Macbook.
Fred and I absorbed ourselves in this conversation. America undoubtedly has had the greatest cultural influence of any nation in the world over the past hundred years, regardless of the positive or negative impact of those influences. Fred and I were deep in conversation about American cultural influences so I decided to share with him a related issue that I think is as astonishing as U.S. cultural hegemony: the influence of African American culture on greater U.S. culture and the world as a whole. “Fred, isn’t it amazing that African Americans make up no more than 15 percent of the U.S. population and yet they are responsible for much of main stream music and fashion?” Fred could not agree more. We started listing the influences in music alone–jazz, blues, rock, pop, rap, hip-hop, R&B. The only major genre of music not derived from African-American influences would have to be country music . True, Fed said, but the banjo was actually an African-American instrument modeled after an old African stringed-instrument. Now that was some knowledge I did not know. So when Keith Urban or Mumford & Sons are slamming on their banjos there are still roots in African-American culture. Fascinating. Fred and I continued to speak on culture for hours. Indeed, throughout the rest of our time in Brussels the topic of U.S. culture continually resurfaced.
The rain did not let up that first day. We spent our entire time in Delirium, except for a lunch break at a cheap Chinese restaurant. On our way back to the hotel, around 7:00 pm, we stopped off for more fries–mayonnaise and curry ketchup sauces this time. The curry ketchup made this round even better than the first. Back at the hotel, the day would soon be over. As the clock neared 8:00, Fred gave into the jet lag. He had been awake for thirty-three hours. His body needed to rest.
The next day, the sun was out and the city came to life. The sidewalks were full, the cafes bustled with chatter and the parks and plaza transformed into never ending seas of people. We walked the entire day, eight miles in all, seeing many different parts of the city, including all of its largest parks and EU buildings. And, of course, we had more fries with different dipping sauces and continued our cultural spottings: “Look Fred, a baseball cap, American culture.” “Hey Rad, see that, Nikes. Yep, American culture.”