Thought a lot about how to write this, and ultimately decided that “thematically” would probably be the easiest idea. I can’t possibly think of a single person, including my wife and parents, who would really want to see a detailed itinerary of what I did hour-to-hour while over there (eventually, that would become extremely tedious to read and for me to think my life is even remotely that interesting is the definition of “you’re an asshole”). Instead, I’ll group this all together by things I saw and learned about. Some will be extremely trite, because in terms of international travel, a good word for me would be “noob.” Some might be more relevant. Some might be funny, and most won’t be. At the end, there’s a TL:DR section if you don’t feel like reading through the sections. Enough caveats, eh? Let’s go.
This seems like a fair place to start discussing Belgium. I was there on a work trip, so I wasn’t necessarily drinking every second or anything (bad look), but I can offer a few pointers here. Westmalle Dubbel is pretty amazing (darker), and available at a lot of places. Belgium isn’t really a big IPA country — if you ask for something “like an IPA,” bartenders will say “Ee-pa?” (say it phonetically). But Duvel has a Tripel Hop that I tried; it’s fairly good as well. I drank a few Trappist beers (here’s a list of the legitimately authentic ones) and it’s hard to go wrong with those. La Trappe Quadrupel is awesome, but be careful there — it’s 10.3 percent. Most Americans can’t handle that, at least beyond 1-2. I didn’t love Isid’or as much, but much of beer is your personal taste. I didn’t get the “rare beer that the monks sold to pay for their roof” a few years ago (it’s called St. Sixtus), but everyone in Belgium talks about it. (You can get it, it’s just a very long process.)
Most beers in Belgium are about 3 Euros — sometimes even 2.20. That’s about $3.81 U.S. for a really good, 8-10 percent beer. In New York City, you’d pay about $10-$12 for one of those. I’m not necessarily trying to equate NYC and some city in Belgium, but think about that for a second. Pretty nuts, right?
There are lots of good bars in Belgium in the different cities — I went to Ghent, Bruge, Ieper, Brussels, and Antwerp — but Kulminator, in Antwerp, is considered a world-class beer bar. More on how I got there a little bit later. (The bar across from Manneken Pis, a famous statue in Brussels, is pretty good too. More on that later as well.)
I didn’t do a ton with chocolate. You can see a picture in this post of when I went to a chocolate-making class. Cool story: that guy spreading the chocolate is Tunisia, then moved to Norway, then went to Belgium. Belgium apparently has fairly liberal immigration policies. I had no idea about that before I went.
Pretty much every two blocks in every major part of Belgium, there’s a chocolate store or chocolatier of some kind. At times, it can feel very Times Square-ish. You need to be able to separate the good and the bad, which I didn’t really have enough context to do, even with a variety of walking tours and guides throughout the different days of my stay. I haven’t yet eaten the chocolate I made. I dumped a ton of nuts and whatnot on it, so I assume it’s going to be either (a) very crunchy, (b) very bad, or (c) both. I oftentimes have literally no idea what I’m doing.
Here’s a little more context on chocolates, and here’s a bit on Dominique Persoone, probably the most famous Belgian chocolatier of the present. I stopped in a shop in Antwerp he’s associated with and took a picture of that frog you see. That frog is full chocolate, yo.
World War 1 and Hitler as a marketer
This might get trite. Apologies in advance. We spent one day in Ieper. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry — very few Americans actually go there. It’s essentially the area (and biggest city) around Flanders Fields, which you might know for this poem and for World War I. (The Second Battle of Ypres — another way to spell Ieper — is the first time Germany used poison gas en masse.)
We went to a couple of different cemeteries in the area — one of the ladies I was with, a newfound friend, later told me about the day “We basically saw 50K dead people” — including Langemark and Tyne Cot.
Interesting thing here: Hitler actually fought at Langemark in WW1, then returned there as a leader in WW2.
The tour guide explained to us that, in WW1, Hitler was basically a mid-level logistics guy (this claims he was a corporal). I thought that was super-interesting, so I asked the guy (I didn’t pay a lot of attention in school, apparently): How do you think Hitler was able to move from that to what he was in WW2?
Guide says back: “In a word? Marketing.”
I had never thought about it like that, but it makes a lot of sense. Did some Googling, and Esquire once ran a post called “Adolf Hitler was a marketing genius.” Here’s a less-stable post called “Hitler created modern marketing.” Basically the idea is: find an issue that people are upset about or can get behind, learn how to speak well on the topic, and you can inspire others (for good or bad). People do that in business today left, right, and center. I’m not saying it’s to the extreme of Hitler, but still.
Tyne Cot is a pretty emotional place. There are basically graves everywhere. While we were there, some Irish schoolchildren showed up and started playing music. I recorded it (not the best quality):
When I was walking around Tyne Cot, I ran into a British couple. Death records from WW1 aren’t great, and they had been looking for a family member for a couple of years, visiting different cemeteries. They finally got a lead and located him at Tyne Cot. The wife basically fell down crying. I started crying a little bit too. I don’t think about WW1 ever because I was born in 1980, and the human brain really isn’t wired to think like that. But … when you see a lady basically burst into tears over finding a long-lost relative’s grave, and you realize that a lot of these graves have some contextual tie back to the broad idea of “freedom,” it can be pretty emotional.
I’m a super newbie with traveling to Europe. To date, I’ve been to Spain (2009), Ireland (2011), and now this. Nothing I say here is likely that relevant, but I’ll still go right ahead and say it (because I’m an American, goddamn it!).
First of all, you can almost always tell an American in Europe (myself included). They typically wear baseball hats and sweatshirts at least one of the days, which you don’t often see from locals. Obviously they speak English predominantly, although that’s common in some parts of Europe regardless (I think). But they do typically say stuff that automatically earmarks them as an American. For example?
I was walking in Antwerp, which is considered a fashion center of Europe by many. We were walking through an area I’d classify as kinda-like SoHo for Antwerp, and behind me, this guy is saying to his wife:
“Hoooooneeeeyyyy!!! You said there was a North Face or Eddie Bauer around here!”
I turned around and was like, “Y’all from the States?”
It literally works every time.
Not saying this as a bad thing — I am American, and I love America, and sometimes when you are traveling, it is cool to see someone you can instantly have something with (“Why yes, I have been to Orlando”). But I also heard a stat while traveling that Belgium’s visitors are predominantly from Netherlands, France, Spain, and parts of Asia — U.S. is a little down the list. If you’re choosing between Paris and Brussels, then, I’d consider choosing Brussels as a base (short train ride to Paris, too). You’ll see way less Americans, probably — and that could be a good thing, at least across a couple of days.
Meeting people while traveling
I work in marketing for a travel company right now, and as such, I try to experiment a lot with the idea of “telling the story” of the advantages of traveling. One big thing you hear a lot is “Travel to learn.” I agree with that wholeheartedly. It’s impossible to understand some things — like me and WW1, above — without the personal context. (This is the same reason, to an extent, that people fly 100,000s of miles in a year as opposed to doing meetings on Skype.) Another one you hear is “Travel for experience,” or “Travel for people,” etc. I actually like this last one.
Went to the Bruge Zot Brewery while in Bruge. They offer tours in Dutch, English, French, German. We signed up for a 2pm tour. It started and was clearly “the French tour.” We went back and flipped tickets for 3pm, which we were assured was English. Two other people had ended up making the same mistake. We started talking to them, and they lived in NYC. (I’m from there and used to live there.) We went to a bar with them to kill time, then did the tour, then did a canal tour of Bruge, and then hit some stores. In sum, we were with these two people who we had never met before for about six hours because of a mix-up with brewery tour times. I love that aspect of traveling. In a cubicle, is that happening? Less likely.
Same type story: last night I’m there (Saturday), we’re killing 1 hour before dinner. We hit a store, then a pub (hey: when in Rome…). We meet this guy at the pub — Dutch, but speaks great English — and he tells me Kuminator (the beer bar linked above) is a five-minute walk from where we are. I had no idea. I had read about that bar on BeerAdvocate before, so I wanted to check it out, and I had the time. However, Belgium is not “on a grid” (like NYC or some other American cities), so even when he showed me the map, I had no idea WTF I was doing. (I rarely do.) He offered to walk us over there. So he does, and we get a beer, and then I realize we don’t know how to get from here to the dinner. He walks us to the dinner. This is a Dutch guy I never would have met otherwise, and I end up spending 1 hour with him and talking about American corporate structure, true crime, and literature. I love stuff like that, because this is kind of my life in a nutshell:
“You hate people!”
“But I love gatherings.”
I like both, although the random interactions in a country I have no context for are priceless.
Final one: I met the owner of the bar next to Manneken Pis on Friday night. We talked for a while, with two of the ladies I was traveling with (good friends now). He told me he’s been to the States once, to NYC, and went right into loving it because it’s “on a grid.” He explained, “That’s big for a Brussels boy.” He also told me about ABV percentages, Belgian beer feuds, and socialism vs. capitalism. It was interesting. I have these convos with some of my day-to-day friends, but by no means a high percentage of ’em. So this is cool.
Here’s a trite section again. Apologies.
I land in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon, and I’m sitting next to a guy at the bar waiting for my next flight. He’s fairly sauced. (Airport bars bring out very weird things in people.) He’s to my right, and to his right a Belgian guy rolls up. (He had been on the flight I just deplaned from.) So I start talking to the U.S. guy — he works for Medtronic — and he’s telling me he loves beer, loves Belgium, loves Belgian beer, loves culture and traveling, etc. So I ask him, “When’s the last time you were there?”
“Oh, I’ve never been. I don’t even have a passport.”
I nodded and fiddled with my phone, then he explained a couple of things:
- He doesn’t feel like it’s easy, as an American, to go on vacation — because even when you’re there, you’re still mostly working in some ways. (Wrote about this once.) Americans don’t really “go off the grid” from work entirely.
- He’s worried about the world in terms of violence.
Both are valid in their own right, and then the Belgian guy intervened and we started talking about transportation models and whatnot, and I came up with this theory. I think it’s half-accurate:
In America, when you have free time, you seek to fill it with ways to make you busier. In Europe, you often seek to fill it with things that you actually want to do.
Again, trite. But completely untrue? No.
(To the same point: Saturday afternoon in the town square in Brussels? People sitting around splitting bottles of red wine right on the cobblestone. You’d likely find more people at Target in a given American city for the same time frame, even if CFB is on.)
- Belgium was really cool. Go there. Even if your focus is Paris/London/Amsterdam, go to Brussels or Bruge and use it as your base, then take trains.
- Drink beer, eat chocolate, learn about World War 1 (and somewhat WW2).
- Meet random people, go on canal tours with them, discuss literature and other esoteric nonsense.
- Turn off your Blackberry/iPhone/iPad/whatever and enjoy yourself (this was not completely possible for me as work paid for this, but … you get the idea).
- I really didn’t pay much attention to world history in school.
- Forgot to mention this earlier — if you go, and go to Gent/Ghent, go get some mustard here. It’s basically the most famous mustard in Europe, by some account. It’s very horseradish-y, but it’s so good nonetheless.
- At some point I’ll make a full Flickr/etc. album of this, share it on the blog, and share that to Facebook and assorted channels.
- If you’re ever interested in going to Belgium, definitely shoot me an e-mail.