AND SOME FREE–ASSOCIATION
By Kelly Sargent
AMAZINGLY, Paul and I crammed all of the seeing and doing I've shared with you over the course of the previous ten posts . . . into a single week. We left on September 13 and flew home from Brussels on the 20th.
This final post is a wrap-up — a mélange of general observations, impressions and other oddments noted as we traveled the northwest quarter of Belgium, known as Flanders, and stuck our toe into the Netherlands.
Before we get to that, let me just say in all sincerity: OH MY GOD! I thought we'd never make it from Bergen op Zoom to the Brussels airport, certainly not in one piece!
The worst traffic ever!
It's not possible to adequately describe the frightening, frustrating journey of a mere 83.5 kilometers (52 miles) from BoZ to Bruxelles-National in such a way that anyone who wasn't along for the ride will get it. It was literally the stuff of nightmares . . . as in Paul had literal nightmares after we were home about making that drive. It was that harrowing, and it took hours!
Narrow, congested streets jammed with bumper to bumper cars, trucks that were entirely too big for the road even if there were no other vehicles, a phalanx of bicyclists, innumerable scooters weaving in and out, and pedestrians.
Do I exaggerate? Au contraire mon ami. Brussels is listed, depending on which survey you consult, as the city possessing either the eighth- or fourth- or second-worst traffic in Europe, and the survey that lists Brussels as number two also lists Antwerp as number four. Remember, we were traveling from Bergen op Zoom through Antwerp to Brussels, and Belgium in general is listed as the country with the worst traffic in all of Europe. Whee!!
In case you're wondering what Europeans think of the United States these days, pretty much to a person they seem to think that America has lost its collective mind. Can't say as I blame them. That's precisely why we had to take a break.
We could tell that our host, Pieter, didn't want to dis the US — wouldn't be a gracious way for a host to make his guests feel welcome — but after he got to know us better, he confided that as insane and frightening a face as the United States presents to the world now, the individual people who come to visit Belgium from the US "aren't like that."
He made an insightful point. Pieter thinks that people who are cosmopolitan and inquisitive enough to spend time and money traveling to other countries, experiencing other cultures, self-select as open-minded, respectful and intelligent, in contrast to the uneducated, nationalistic, ethnocentric saber-rattling buffoon we (didn't) elect.
Pieter is a perfect example of what it means to be a citizen of the world. Whenever someone from the United States is a guest, he gets on the internet and reads all about where they're from. Before we'd even checked into our room, he wanted to know what state and what city we call home and found both on a map. The next time we saw him in his office, he had all sorts of information pulled up about Iowa'stopology, weather, agricultural base and economy, as well as pictures of Des Moines.
Belgium seems to suffer from a bit of an inferiority complex. One of the most surprising things about our time spent there was that pretty much down to a person, local residents who asked us where we were headed were incredulous to learn that we came to Belgium expressly to see Belgium . . . that we hadn't flown into Brussels merely as a jumping off point for somewhere else: London, Paris, Amsterdam, somewhere else, anywhere else . . . and that we had no other reason to have to be there.
I came across this quote in the Lonely Planet about Ghent: “Here hides one of Europe’s finest panoramas of water, spires and centuries-old grand houses. And it seems the Belgians forgot to tell anyone.” I believe that could be said of the whole of the country.
Aside from the traffic, which I may have complained sufficiently about (but maybe not, so don't get me started), Belgium felt surprisingly homelike even with all the unreadable signs and two or three unfamiliar languages being spoken around us. Paul pointed out that part of it is the terrain. Flanders is flat, and farmers there raise many of the same crops we do. The towns and cities felt 'foreign' in that many parts of them are so very old, but the countryside looked like Iowa.
I read an interview with Howard Liebman, Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Belgium. Born in L.A., and raised on Long Island before moving to Belgium 38 years ago, he said that Americans have a mind-set in common with the Flemish which made him feel at home right away. I'd have to agree that there is some sort of intangible shared world-view with America, at least the America Paul and I and our parents grew up in. Can't vouch for it now.
Besides a general like-mindedness, there's a historical basis for Belgians feeling kinship and gratitude toward the United States. During World War I, the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force tipped the balance in favor of the allied forces towards the middle of 1918.
Americans also helped change the course of World War II when our forces came to fight in Europe and in Belgium in particular. There are 13,344 American WW II service members buried in Belgium, compared to 8661 British and 2516 Belgian soldiers.
Almost without exception, people were extremely gracious to us everywhere we went . . . although a bit less so in Bruges. You may recall that Paul and I were not very favorably impressed by Bruges. We found it to be too touristy for our tastes; it was also the only place where shopkeepers and restaurant personnel were somewhat impatient and impersonal. I had the feeling that when they looked at us, they saw dollar signs instead of individuals. The food was extremely overpriced, and the servers blatantly asked for tips.
Paul had done his homework before we left and learned that in Belgium servers are paid respectable wages, so they don't need or expect tips to compensate for, as is the case at home, the below minimum wage that food service workers earn. Restaurant checks and receipts don't even have a 'tip line', and nowhere did anyone try to wangle tips except in Bruges where restaurant personnel bluntly asked for them. I have a strong suspicion that they only 'asked' Americans, who they figured wouldn't know any better.
On our flight from Reykjavik to Brussels I sat next to a lovely and likable young woman named Nora, who was on her way back from a couple of weeks' stay with friends in Canada. She's a college student who plans to go on to law school and afterwards get her dream job . . . working for the European Union. Nora is a passionate, outspoken proponent of the EU.
Although the EU has no official capital, with Brussels' long history of hosting official European Union seats within its European Quarter, it's considered the de facto capital. Just another thing I would never have known if we hadn't traveled to Belgium.
Nora graciously guided us through the labyrinth of restaurants and designer shops that make the Brussels airport as much a high-end shopping mall as an airport. Nora, who is a tall, well-grown, mature-looking young woman, strode with long, confident strides through the the twists and turns of Bruxelles-National, explaining to us that, yes, ever since the 2016 terrorist bombing of the airport, there are always soldiers present armed with machine guns and dogs on leash. When we reached the barricaded area where friends, family and transport drivers await passengers, Nora caught sight of her mother, and her face lit up like a five-years-old's. She shouted "Mama" in full voice, ran to her mother and threw herself in her mom's arms. It was unbelievably adorable.
Below are some of my favorite pictures from our week's trip.
Paul Bridson and Kelly Sargent
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