So I’m driving on the Autobahn from Frankfurt, Germany to Goze, Belgium on zero sleep for about 36 hours, which is not the wisest thing in the world when you’re going 160 kilometers per hour, seeing how closing your eyes and napping for half a second will be fatal.
But I do not nap, and the Citroen of Itty Bittiness does not slam into the guardrail and burst into flames.
Frankfurt is a big city full of skyscrapers, the Manhattan of Germany, and this is because after World War II, cities razed by bombs had citizens vote: (a) bulldoze the rubble and start over or (b) rebuild on the ancient, narrow cobblestone streets and painstakingly restore all that was destroyed.
The people of Frankfurt picked “start over.” And you can tell, with just a glance, how any random city in Germany voted after the war.
Goze, Belgium was not bombed to rubble during the war. It’s a tiny little town full of brick homes and brick business and stone churches.
If you’re not familiar with Belgium, let me give you a primer:
- The Netherlands (Holland) is to the north, Germany to the east, France to the south and Luxemburg also hidden nearby, so people in the north speak Dutch / Flemish and those in the south speak French, though nobody really speaks German
- Belgium is home to European parliament, NATO headquarters and 72 other important things, maybe because Belgium is friendly and has the best chocolate and beer IN THE WORLD
- They are NOT French fries, but Belgium fries, invented right here, and the one thing that will make Belgium peoples unfriendly is to repeatedly ask for “French fries,” which I do not do
Just like three years ago, we stayed with my wife’s host family from when she lived here as an exchange student. I lived in Holland and Germany as a kid, so this whole area feels like home.
Battle of the beer: Germany versus Belgium
There’s a huge difference between Germany and Belgium when it comes to beer.
Back in 1516, a German king got tired of people going blind, getting sick or dying from moonshine and bad beer.
This king wrote the Reinheitsgebot (food purity laws), which said the only ingredients allowed for beer were water, barley and hops. He also set the price of beer and standardized things. Today, you can also use yeast, which is quite important, though they didn’t know about yeast back in 1516. Also: wheat malt and cane sugar. But you can’t use unmated barley anymore. NOBODY KNOWS WHY.
The Germans do a lot with those few ingredients. I drank many beers in many towns. Despite the lack of variety, they were all smooth and good.
HOWEVER: Belgium crushes Germany into powder when it comes to beer, because they have 250 different beers that are all excellent. Want a chocolate beer? Done. An IPA with hot chile peppers? They probably have it.
Belgium also has trappist ales — beer made by monks — with many recipes unchanged for almost 1000 years, which is longer than Joan Rivers has been alive. Chimay is probably the most famous. If you haven’t tried Chimay, hit Trader Joe’s and buy some. The stuff is as smooth as silk. If your lips ever touch a can of Budweiser again, you’ll spit it out and say, “Put it back in the horse.”
Things to do in Belgium
The country is small, flat and pretty, with all kinds of beautiful old villages and green fields. Do you like riding bicycles? Ride all over the place with a camera and a picnic basket. Go crazy.
It’s one of the friendliest places, too. People greet you with three kisses (right cheek, left cheek, right cheek) when they first meet you and one kiss whenever you see them again or say goodbye. This is much, much better than standing around or an awkward handshake. Everybody does it, and this breaks the ice.
Also helpful: everybody is handing out beer and wine like it’s going out of style, though they don’t binge. I never saw anybody staggering around, drunk out of their mind. They are professionals with the alcohol, and drink slowly and steadily rather than breaking out beer bongs and losing their heads like a college freshman who’s just discovered Bud Light comes in keg size.
So: ride around the countryside, meet people – and have dinner, which is not 20 minutes at the dining room table while people play with their iPhones. Dinner is a big social event that takes hours. Breakfast is a social event. Also, lunch.
Basically, people in Belgium prefer the company of OTHER PEOPLE rather than televisions, iPhones and romance novels involving men in kilts.
This is refreshing and fun, despite the fact that I don’t speak a lick of French — because the secret is to listen rather than talk. In Iceland, Sweden, Belgium, France, Germany and elsewhere, people tended to talk to me in Icelandic, Swedish, French or German, as long as I (a) walked around like I knew what I was doing and (b) didn’t say anything.
This came naturally from being a kid in Germany and Holland, and from not speaking at all except to my sister for many years. She was my diplomat: “Guy is hungry for breakfast” and “Guy wonders if we can paint the dog white” and “Guy has just declared war on Syria.”
Over in Europe, I walked around not saying anything, pointing at stuff I wanted to buy and handing over monies. This works great. Try it sometime. If they ask, tell them Guy sent you, and that in solidarity, you also are cutting off diplomatic relations with Syria.
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.