Flying, especially flying in coach is exhausting enough for short trips. Try flying in cattle class from Atlanta to Brussels, Belgium. Nine hours of uncomfortable seats, bad food, edited movies, and a man who smelled like the inside of a shoe that was used to store rotting fish. I just kept telling myself that the reward would be a vacation of a lifetime, marveling at the sites of Belgium, drinking the beer, eating the food.
Within less than an hour I was indoctrinated into international travel in nearly the worst way possible; a team of pick-pockets stole my wallet. They got my credit cards and about $100. But, the upside is that they did not get my passport. That little blessing saved me what would surely would have have been an excruciating trip to the American Embassy. As it was, the Brussels police were difficult enough to deal with.
When I arrived at the police station, the desk officer just stared at me and, after a few minutes, said, “Je ne parle, Anglase.” This, in French means, “You’re screwed.” OK, really it means, “I do not speak English.” But, what it amounted to was my first translation.
Apparently the Belgian justice system has not caught on to the fact that Great Britain is only a few miles off of their coast. So, while French, Dutch, and German are recognized languages in Belgium, English is not. After waiting for what seemed like hours an officer arrived to take my statement, I was finally taken to the back for interrogation. That is exactly what they called it, too: interrogation. I pictured a smoky back room, lit with only a single, bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, a plain wooden chair in the middle, and devices of medieval torture hanging from the walls. Where he took me was a dingy office with an ancient PC and torn cloth office chairs.
The interrogation consisted of the officer first informing me that the report he will write is unofficial and therefore will most likely not result in a prosecution even if they catch the thieves. Contrary to the desk officer, this one was much friendlier and spoke perfect English. For the next hour I went through the details of the theft.
I was getting onto the Metro train.
A pretty girl stopped short in front of me.
I ran into her.
Her partner – another pretty girl – bumped into me from behind.
Both the girls immediately got off the train.
The doors closed.
I saw them with my wallet.
The world crashed down around me.
I must have told the story three or four times. Finally, after two hours at the lovely Brussels police station, I was released and pointed in the direction of my hotel.
Three hours in Belgium and I still had not had a beer. The world was not right.
I called my credit card company and was informed that they could not get new cards to me for five or six days. This presented a whole new problem since my ATM card had been lifted, with my wallet and all I had was 280 euro to last me nine days. Somehow I did not think that would cut the proverbial mustard. So, pride in my pocket, I called home to Florida, informed my parents of the situation and, like any son in Europe alone for the first time, asked them to wire me money. They did and the weight of the world was lifted to a degree.
For the rest of the day I made it my mission to shake the bad welcome and find some good beer. But, first I had to check in to my hotel. I had booked my stay ahead of time in a small boutique hotel about two blocks from the Metro line. It was situated in a residential area full of four and five story buildings, one right up next to the other with no space in between. This is typical in Europe in the cities. I was pleasantly surprised at its old world charm and cleanliness. At only 43 euro a night, the tiny single room I had was comfortable and functional. Since I only planned on sleeping there, it was all I needed. I showered, shaved and put on clean clothes (after nearly 28 hours of travel, pick-pockets, police, and financial straightening I really needed this).
About 6:00 PM I steeled my nerves and took the Metro again. This time with my money and Passport safely zipped in and inner pocket of my coat. The Metro was full of people leaving work, going to dinner, or heading to the Centrum District to drink. The atmosphere was lively and friendly.
I left the Metro station and walked out into Brussels’ historic city center, the Centrum, and strolled cobblestone streets looking for the right place for my first beer. The smells of sweet waffles filled the air and a cart selling them appeared as I rounded a corner. The line was not long so I joined it and got a hot-off-the-waffle-iron treat. The batter is not the same as we know it in the States. It is much sweeter and the sugar in it is grainy. But, the first bite assured me that this would not be my last Belgian waffle in Belgium.
Hunger satisfied for the moment, I continued my search for a cold Belgian beer. I found it in a place called Madou Lambic. As I walked in I was greeted cheerfully in French, but as soon as the staff understood I was American they effortlessly switched to English. I ordered my first beer, a gueuze (pronounced gooze) from Cantillon Brewery, a local Brussels brewery. Before he poured it, the bartender made sure I understood that it is a very sour beer. I assured him I was aware of this and asked him to pour it anyway.
The beer is a light golden color with good carbonation and a frothy head. I later learned that any Belgian worth his weight in salt will not serve a beer without a head. I watched a bartender later in the week stir a beer with a straw because the head had dissipated too quickly.
The first sip was a shock to the senses, when they say sour they really mean it. But, it wasn’t sour in a bad way. On the contrary it was refreshing like very tart lemonade can be on a hot summer day. I struck up a conversation with another bar patron and soon we were laughing and telling stories. The bar was slow so many of the staff came over and joined us. Several rounds were purchased for me because they wanted me to taste their favorite beers. But, when it was my turn to buy, they would not let me pay. These Belgian people – pick-pockets excepted – are pretty nice folks.
After spending a couple of hours in the bar, the jet lag was catching up to me. It had been nearly 36 hours since I had slept and it was time to remedy that situation. One of the bar staff escorted me to the appropriate Metro station and pointed me in the right direction. Mind you, I was not drunk, they were just being friendly. I found that to be a universal theme while in Belgium, the people truly are helpful and accommodating.
Below are the beers I drank my first day in Brussels Belgium. I kept a list and will add the beers I drank with the appropriate article.
Jupiler, a mild 5.2% ABV lager made with maize (corn). This beer is the working-man’s beer of Belgium and is available everywhere – including vending machines in the train stations.
Chimay Rouge(Red), a flavorful, copper colored brew that weighs in at 7% ABV. Wonderful, tasty, and fruity, this beer reveals a subtle apricot flavor as you sip.
IV Saison, a sweet, frothy brew with a medium head. Lots of fruitiness, particularly pineapple and apricot, pours a cloudy, but bright yellow. Easily drinkable and definitely a beer I would drink again and again. Indeed, I brought a bottle of it home with me.
That brings my first report to an end. There will be much more in the coming days.
Long Live the Brewers!