There are some places that seem to ooze character the moment you arrive. Landlocked in a sea of rolling green pastures, Brussels was like the Flying Dutchman with Marie Antoinette at the helm. It’s the epitome of a beautiful European city. We found ourselves in Grand Place, sandwiched between the Guild House and City Hall. We fought past the crowd into City Hall to conquer the spire, but the monsieur behind the counter told me it was impossible. Back out in the square, I overheard a man say, “this is one of the prettiest squares in Europe.” It’s funny, but throughout the trip, those words stuck in my head. Though it isn’t the biggest square in Europe, it was a place we’d return to many times.
We followed the signs to Manneken Pis, the small bronze statue of a boy, well, pissing. As one of the stories go, (and there are a few) some troops put a two-year-old lord in a basket and hung it in a tree to encourage opposing troops. The boy urinated on the opposing troops, who, instead of kidnapping the baby and holding it for ransom, lost the battle. We strolled until we spotted a gathering at a seemingly uneventful street corner.
They don’t tell you how trivial the statue seems out there in the real world, or that there are hundreds more on display in the Maison du Roi. The little guys are decked out in traditional, pint-sized outfits from all over the world: Japanese samurai, Elvis, Vatican choir boy, even a US Union soldier from the Civil War. Sometimes they dress up the one on the street, but he was naked while we were there. Everyone just took their picture with the small bronze boy, pissing away.
Ma fleur de pantalon à la tirette, was one of the phrases I had written in my notepad. [My pants bloom at the zipper.] Considering the outfits, I found it surprisingly relevant.
Part of a country’s job is to pick a handful of indigenous items, build them up to mythical proportions, and exploit them for economic gain. In China, for instance, Chinese food has become so popular, that it is just called ‘food.’ It’s the same with Belgians and the waffle, or gaufre. After biting into one of these bad boys, you’ll never look at an Eggo the same way again. We stumbled across a van sitting outside the Magritte museum: Banana yellow, with hand-painted ducks on the side panel, the thing looked like it had rolled out from 1970. I was instantly drawn to it.
There was a man standing inside, jiggling a waffle maker. Vanilla scented smoke wafted out, and then the jaws swung open like the cover of an old book. The waffle was an inch thick, and caramelized by the searing metal. He wedged it between a piece of paper and handed it to me: Crunchy on the outside, and slightly undercooked inside. As they say in the waffle biz, it’s the best of both worlds: A little slab of heaven. I took mine straight up, not wanting to ruin it with a topping. A-Team fans may disagree, but this was the best thing that ever came out of a van.
We had been in town a few days when New Years Eve rolled around. Folks gathered at the Museumplein for the countdown. When we arrived at eleven, an odd video was being projected onto the wall of a museum. It was grainy footage of Russian soldiers stringing barbed wire in, what looked like, the prelude to the Berlin wall. Defectors walked with their fingers locked overhead as armed men urged them along with rifle barrels. We had only brought one can of beer apiece to the square.
I wasn’t prepared for this shit. And worse, the crowd was too thick to head back for more beer. Kids threw confetti and blew horns. Just before the fireworks display, a few guys climbed up onto the base of a stature and danced for everyone in the square. Throughout it all, thirty foot soldiers rolled barbed wire barriers, incorporating a bleak element to the festivities.
Takayo and I wandered the streets, dodging people and exploding fire crackers until we found the Delirium Café. There was a barricade holding people back in the alleyway. We nudged past the crowd to see what the hold up was. When I reached the opening, I decided to just keep walking. A security guard threw his hands up.
“I don’t speak French,” I said in English.
“Do you have a girl with you,” he asked.
“Of course I do.”
He saw Takayo and let us pass. That seemed to be the only prerequisite for defeating the road block.
Inside Delirium, people were hanging from the rafters. Of course, the place was full of piss-ants and douche bags, but there were plenty of folks that might have looked to me and wondered, “who’s this piss-ant douche bag?” Fishbowl glasses of honey-colored beer sloshed atop every table. Your first instinct might be tourist bar, and it is, but once you get a load of the beers on tap, it becomes apparent: When it comes to beer, this place is dead serious. Far from being a beer geek, I asked the bartender what he recommended. “This one,” he said, yanking back the lever. “Is a good one that I think is completely underrated.”
He chose a blond Belgian ale, brewed by a small local brewery. Since most of the larger brands--Duvel, Leffe, Stella Artois--are exported, small breweries are stepping up to the plate in a big way and producing some damn fine beer. There are around 125 breweries in Belgium, pumping out nearly nine thousand different beers. Some of the finest beers are produced by the Trappist monks.
“For then are they monks in truth, if they live by the work of their hands.”
--From the 48th chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict.
Only seven Trappist monasteries in the world produce beer, six of which are in Belgium. The most popular is Chimay, a top-fermented bottled ale. Authentic Trappist beers are brewed within the walls of a Trappist abbey, and/or under monk control. The proceeds must be directed toward “assistance” and not financial profit. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the name of the beer my beer master chose.
The place was a madhouse. Takayo and I were standing near a U-shaped bench when a group stood up to leave. I saved us a couple of seats on the bench. Takayo went to the restroom. A group of six filled up the remaining seats. They were all twenty-something, but only one of them spoke English. Her name was Natalie, and she translated for her boyfriend, Stefan, who was sitting next to me. They seemed to be having a good time, so I broke out my notepad. “Je ne parle pas François,” I said. “Mais je suis un monstre de mer.” [I can not speak French, but I am a sea monster.] I’m not altogether sure why I wrote that down. However, by the time Takayo returned, everyone was pantomiming and laughing like full-grown lunatics.
One by one, members of Natalie and Stefan's group disappeared like camp counselors in a horror film. We all decided to walk across the alley to a different section of the bar. At one point, I got up to find a restroom. It was the strangest thing, but along the way I became inexplicably lost. The walls began to breath like a sleeping animal, and all the table coasters went cross-eyed. The bar had become a maze. I walked for what seemed like thirty minutes, down rickety stairs, past strange woodland-folk conspiring around tree stump tables. It was the walk of a cold-sweat dream.
A wrong turn dumped me into an alleyway. There was no telling how I got there. I walked up to a window, looked in, and saw the face of Whistler’s mother drenched in yellow candlelight. There was nothing there for me. I continued up the alley like the ghost of Jack the Ripper, balancing on the head of a pin. It was another dimension, and nothing made sense. Suddenly I heard a knock on a window. I looked right and saw Takayo waving. When I found my way inside, there was a glass of absinth sat on the table, burning like a chemistry set. They asked me where I had gone, and I didn’t quite know what to tell them.
I fell ill later that night in our hotel room. It was nearly six o’clock, New Years morning. Unlike those dreams you don’t want to wake up from--finding money, shooting a gun--this was a waking nightmare. The bed sheets--as well as my face--were covered in last night’s spaghetti.
“Call housekeeping,” said Takayo, tossing the linens in the farthest corner.
It seemed like a good idea. Hell, by that point, I would have walked off a cliff. When I pushed 6, a tired sounding woman answered the phone.
“Je ne bu bu…poly vu…” [pause] “I made a mess.”
“Um, housekeeping, I need help.” [pause] “Hello…oui?”
Perhaps I could have explained it differently, but in my state, the words just wouldn’t come. The next thing I heard transcends language in every culture. Click. Housekeeping had hung up on me.
Throughout the day, I opened the window to let fresh air into the room. Aside from those violent bouts of hurling, I heard the words of an Irishman, not a Frenchman, continuously looping in my head.
All is quiet on New Year’s Day / A world in white gets underway.
Although a chorus of truck mufflers were backfiring in my head, the morning light was pale and grey. Snow fell softly upon the rooftops of adjacent buildings, and the world seemed like a peaceful place.