Beer wall

Just a fraction of the Belgian beers and their respective glasses.

Belgium. Home of beer, waffles, beer, chocolate, beer, fries, and beer. Did I mention Flemish? Sorry, beer, I meant, did I mention beer? There’s a bar in Brussels that has over 3,000 beers. And most beers have their own glass with its own little imperfection that’s supposed to best bring out the flavor. Sometimes the difference between one glass and another is just the name on it, but that’s still a remarkable commitment to something I would just as soon drink straight from the bottle. There’s a “lambic” beer in Brussels that is made via “spontaneous fermentation” and the bacteria you can only find floating in the Brussels air. It tasted like vomit but, you know… when in Rome.

Manneken Pis

The illustrious Manneken Pis.

The mascot of Brussels is an utterly unimpressive, 24 inch tall statute of a little boy taking a piss: Manneken Pis. The whole lack of grandeur is kind of the point. There are a number of cute stories as to the statue’s significance: a child prince who rallied his troops by peeing on the enemy; the promise to build a monument showing whatever a noble’s son was doing when they found the lost boy… the truth is more likely that statues like this were used to show poor people where they could sell urine to leather tanners. What makes this one special is that it has stood for hundreds of years, through bombings and occupations and rebuilding as a cheeky sign of the people’s indomitable spirit.

View of Bruges from the Belfry

The view from the iconic Belfry in Bruges.

Bruges, every bit the fairy tale place it’s supposed to be, supposedly has a law that requires at least 58 swans to live inside the “city center” at all times. Not for tourist reasons, but because a former King cursed Bruges as retaliation for killing 58 of soldiers, including his favorite, Pieter Lanchals (“long neck”). Less than 58 swans and the canal water would rise and drown the city. I couldn’t find any evidence of such a law existing (other than this legend of Pieter Lanchals’ death) so be wary of the information you get from free walking tours. I guess they’re a bit like airport restaurants: they can feed you crap and never see you again.

As a side note: the drinking age in Belgium is an ancient 16 years old. Just food for thought if, out of sympathy for a girl whose bike was stolen, you buy her a 1€ beer and discover she’s 17 when she clearly looks at least 21. It happened… to a friend of mine. Just food for thought. Food for thought.

Another side note: French fries are not French. They are Belgian. They are Belgian fries. American soldiers (and British… they were ignorant too) in World War II were served the now-famous fried potato slices and, hearing French, assumed they were in France. Proper Belgian fries are fried once and then a second time once the customer orders. For those taking notes, North of Brussels is the region known as Flanders where Dutch and Flemish is mostly spoken. In Brussels and the region south of it–Wallonia–you are more likely to hear French and the occasional German. And nearly everyone speaks at least rudimentary English. There are a bunch of people walking around here speaking at least English, Dutch, and French like it’s no big deal and I can barely speak English.

A third, more personal side note: As a stunning example of my boundless intelligence, I find that whenever I’m confronted with a French-speaker who doesn’t understand English my instinct is to speak slowly and with a French accent. I’m still speaking English… just… with a French accent. Because that’s how you cross the language barrier. With stupidity. I have thankfully stopped myself before the idea reaches my lips but it’s still my instinct every, single, time. Then I angrily storm off asking myself what the hell is wrong with me. That’s me: showing the world how great American travelers are one person at a time.

Antwerp train station

Bonus: 30 minutes in Antwerp. Voted most beautiful train station in the world (and apparently built with the blood of the Congolese people! Yay!)