Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Bumming around Brulgium (part II)

The original reason I chose to go to Brussels was to make use of free lodging: an apartment belonging to a Belgian family of artists that was being rented out for a few months to some American friends of ours. It was an ancient, high-ceiling-ed apartment that had obviously been lovely once upon a time but that had long since fallen into a state of slow dilapidation. There was a slow leak in the gas in the kitchen (warned a message scrawled in chalk on the wall) so we had to remember to close the valve after cooking, as well as periodically empty the pots on the kitchen table strategically positioned to catch the water that streamed from the ceiling whenever the upstairs residents decided to bathe. In our own shower, the pilot light was broken, so you had to remove the metal plate from the gas-powered water heater and experiment with a hand-held lighter if you wanted a hot shower. Our bed completed the adventure: a double air mattress we had hauled with us from Paris after I had gotten it for free from a coworker the week before. The slightly chemical smell of the plastic and its squeaky protests as I struggled to find a comfortable position brought back memories of childhood camping trips. As it turned out, so did the mattress itself. Like the mattress my dad once tore with a sandal buckle, ours became less and less firm as the hours passed, leaving my butt dragging on the floor by about 4am. As I child I remember hazily waking to feel the mattress re-inflating under me, with dad at the pump. Unfortunately, this time around I that had to wake up and fumble for the pump myself, adding enough air to last until the morning.

That said, the apartment made for an interesting base for our explorations. Its current bohemian occupants had furnished the place entirely with eclectic thrift store finds and stashed pack-rat piles of artwork, old records and feminist reading material all around the place, so there was a lot to discover within the apartment itself.

And, to give credit where it's due, Brussels does have a lot going for it. For starters, it's the center of the spacey European Union headquarters:
The Belgians seemed very proud of their relatively recent status as Europe's capital city. Signs everywhere advertised the large range of languages spoken, and the range of cultures represented in the crowds was definitely more impressive than in Paris. Even the graffiti paid homage to the melting pot, as in the case of the EU stars seen here:
Or these segments from the Berlin wall, found right down the street from the EU:
Brussels also wins the prize for most unique landmark, the famous Mannekin Pis statue of a peeing boy.
Monsieur le Manneken was dressed up for the weekend's French heritage festival (which we knew nothing about in advance, oddly enough). Here's a shot from the festival military parade, which was conducted, as you can see, by the Mad Hatter:Another thing Brussels does well is comics, and lots of them. Belgium is the home of many of the world's most popular comic strips (both the artists and the printing houses), and although I wasn't enough of a fan to pay for a trip to their comic museum, I did enjoy the plentiful comic-inspired murals, such as this one of Tintin and Captain Haddock:

The next big thing Brussels had going for it was waffles; waffles that mere words can not hope to describe:
Even Mr. Pis himself enjoys his waffles:
The other major Belgian dishes are fries and mussels, or, together, their national dish: moules frites! True Belgians still deep fry their potatoes in horse fat, then load up the steaming finished product with mayo; the mussels are steamed in a celery parsley broth and then eaten using the first empty shell as a utensil to pinch the meat from the following shells:
Unfortunately, the weather wasn't very cooperative. Every time we managed to find some blue sky, a dark cloud of downpour was looming ominously behind it:
Luckily, the bad weather provided a good excuse to savor Belgian's last and perhaps best known contribution to world cuisine: beer! Cosy pubs with crackling fires abounded--the perfect setting for a glass of cherry-flavored kriek beer or a botttle of trappist ale.
We even visited the Cantillion Brewery: one of the few breweries left that still make authentic lambic and kriek beers from organic ingredients. The fermenting room was packed with casks in various stages of beer-making, and it smelled like old hay and oak and hops all mixed together.
As for the taste, well, I can't honestly say that I was a huge fan. The bitter tang reminded me a little too much of how most beer tastes the second time around (they actually joked about that at the brewery). While I guess there's something to be said for tradition and organic ingredients, I'll take my artificially reddened and sweetened kriek over the legit stuff any time, although the old beer pump in the tasting room did make for a good final photo op.

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