Friday, April 23, 2010

Political chaos or just another day here in Brussels

The Antwerp train station. Don't speak French here!

I am not sure why the Belgium's Prime Minister resigned. I think it has something to do with the everyday battle between the Wallonians and Flemish. It is all so confusing. But here is what I know. Brussels which is the capital of the country is officially bilingual, even though most people here speak French than Dutch. The suburbs around Brussels are all Dutch speaking. The French speakers living in these Dutch speaking areas want to be able to communicate with their local government in French. Apparently that is not possible. Since this is just a new grievance to an old argument. I think the Prime Minister just got pissed off and wanted to resign.

Little did I know Belgium is such a fragile country. It could implode any day and would anyone know? The government is in crisis mode and the buses are running on time, garbage gets collected and school are open. Anarchy has not ensued. Life goes on. No one is hoarding food and loading their rifles. I must say I am not worried because I know somehow like hump dee dumpty, Belgium will put itself back together again.

What I don't understand is why both sides can not get together and share a beer and just air their grievances. What beers would I personally recommend? I would any Belgian because its about the company and bridging differences.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Just when I become one of them, the Prime Minister resigns

King Albert eagerly awaits by window for Prime Minister Leterme to show up and give his resignation

Just when I receive my Belgian identity card, the Prime Minister decides to resign! Coincidence? Probably not. Ironic, just a little bit. This is actually a blessing in disguise since it forced me to google and check who the Belgian Prime Minister is (or was). His name is Yves Leterme. This is the first time I heard of his name. So I googled Belgian Prime Minister. I definitely had a little politics lesson today. Apparently, he went to King Albert to give in his resignation and the King refused. While I am not sure why Prime Minister Leterme wants to resign, I am guessing it has to do with the whole Wallonia/Flanders rivalry that rears its ugly head all the time.

Belgium is one of those countries that is divided linguistically and socially. On one side you have the proud French speakers or Wallonians and on the other there are the prouder Dutch speakers or Flemish. Both sides live their lives as if the other does not exist. There are separate governments, villages, news and even cable channels. Go to Antwerp and try and speak French. It won't get you anywhere. While Brussels is supposed to be the bilingual city, finding a Dutch speaker is like finding a needle in a haystack. It won't happen even though everything from street signs to menus are in both languages.

Back to my new card... It was a very exciting day as I became sort of Belgian. To celebrate I bought myself a delicious waffle at Belgafura. The waffle was warm, dense and chewy. It was the perfect way to celebrate my new Belgian identity. Now I just need to wave the flag from my terrace.

With these uncertain political times here in Belgium, sometimes you need a father's guidance to get you through the day. So I am reviewing a trio of beers from Witkap Pater. Just looking at the old wise man on the bottle should comfort anyone who is scared that Belgium will implode. Remember that we have beer to keep us sane and safe!
I discovered these beers at BeerMania, my favorite beer shop a few streets away from my house. I purchased all three at one time because they looked like a nice little family. The Witkap-Pater Dubbel is a dark abbey beer. While I am not a fan of the dark beers, this one had a nice earthy bitter taste. What I thought was interesting about this beer was the color. It was a dark brown beer with a nice reddish hue. The Witkop-Pater Tripel is a blond. The beer has a nice froth and tasted very earthy. The last in the trio the Witkop-Pater Stimulo is a blond abbey beer that tasted also earthy almost reminding me of chamomile. According to my beer bible All Belgian Beers, the Stimulo is one of the few abbey beers that are not pasteurized or re-fermented in the barrel. All three beers tasted delightful and are great served together so you can get the whole Witkop Pater variety effect.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Belgium dresses up its National Symbol today

The Mannequin Pis all dressed up.

Today was one of those days where I just decided to take the baby and walk. I had no idea where I wanted to go but knew that I was in the mood to see something. The baby and I set out from Place Luxembourg and just walked (or rather I pushed the baby in her pram). After reaching the end of Rue Luxembourg, I crossed over and began walking towards the Royal Palace. The Palace is smack in the middle of the city and traffic drives nonchalantly by this big house. The building as you can see is not the prettiest. To me it looks more like a parliamentary building than the King's house. The gardens looked as if they were on the verge of blooming.

The King's house

After the Palace, I made my way down towards the old city. The old city is always a fun place to visit, as it is always filled with tourists and there is a certain vibe that you don't find anywhere else in Brussels. The Grand Place with its big cobble stoned open space surrounded by typical Dutch buildings always seduces tourists. I think this is because it is one of the nicest places in the city to visit. After Grand Place, I decided to visit the Mannequin Pis. It is always fun to watch tourist snap pictures of a little urinating boy. Trust me, I was one of them when I first saw the statue. Now I just chuckle. Today was a lucky day because the statue was all dressed up.

To be honest, I had no idea who the statue was supposed to be. He looked like a bell hop. Readers, do you know who little pee pee is supposed to be? In any case, it was a nice surprise and of course I had to snap some shots.

When I first came to Belgium, I tried a beer called Mannequin Pis. Since I was not keeping the blog or recording my drinking then, I did not take notes but I thought mentioning this brand would be appropriate because of today's entry. Next time I go to my local Delhaize I am going to buy some bottles and review it in honor of the Mannequin Pis being all dressed up.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

If you are still stranded in Brussels, drink this.....

Mother nature has really shown that the even the most efficient itinerary can get thrown off course. People are still stranded in airports all over the world. It is never fun to be stranded in an airport. How many times can you eat those soggy sandwichs and stale pastries. After awhile you are bound to get bored. Luckily, Brussels Airport is very close to the city center and there are four trains an hour that go directly into Brussels. So why not take advantage of this opportunity and come and visit!
Despite all my Brussels bashing, Brussels has really good food. You don't need to spend a lot of money to eat well. Most restaurants or brasseries serve really good food. If you want to soak up some real old world ambiance, head to Rue des Bouchers. This narrow cobblestoned street is strictly pedestrian and one guide book calls it the "belly of Brussels." Here you will find tons of restaurants and cafes serving anything you can imagine. Many establishments have elaborate displays of seafood to tempt patrons. You are guaranteed a filling meal wherever you choose to eat. The only problem is where to eat. Will you choose the Mussels from Brussels? An Omlet or American steak? The choice is up to you.

Of course no meal in Brussels is complete without a glass of some frothy local brew. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, the beer choices are literally endless. If you are going to choose something, make it memorable because how many times does a person get stranded in Brussels?

The Kiezer Karel beer sounds very regal. This brew is a very rich caramel color with a bitter taste. I am not sure a fan of brown beers but I liked this beer because the bitterness was not overwhelming.

Enjoy your layover!

Monday, April 19, 2010

The path of the Volcanic Ash leads John Cleese to Brussels

With Iceland's irate volcano eruption and its serious lingering after effects, everyone in Europe is pretty much stuck (actually the whole world is stranded). Despite all the problems, stranded travelers have encountered during this very trying time many have found creative ways to reach their final destination. People stranded in Europe who want to reach another European country are at an advantage. With some ingenuity, some money, a train, a boat, car, or rickshaw there is a good chance they may make it to their final destination. For example, John Cleese who was stuck in Oslo, (which I hear is a beautiful city), paid a whopping 30 000 Kroner (that is 3 800 Euros) for the scenic ride to Brussels. From there he plans to take the Euro Star to London. Good luck, Mr. Cleese. Unless you have a reservation, I doubt you will get on that highly coveted Brussels-London route. Of course, money talks and I am sure someone would be more than willing to scalp their ticket to John Cleese. I am also confident that the Fish Called Wanda actor has some dollars/Euros to burn. However, it would not be the end of the world if Mr. Cleese was stranded in Brussels for a few days. While many call Brussels more drab than fab, there is plenty of great food, a Grand Place to visit and good beer to keep him occupied.

For all the wise cracks I make about Brussels, I adore Grand Place or Grote Markt. It's the central square in Brussels and one of THE tourist attractions. It's a lovely square with cobbled stones and wonderful houses with gilded gold statues. I love going to the big square and looking up at the little statues that adorn the buildings. Many of the guild buildings were located in the square. Surprisingly this is one area in Brussels that is not rife with graffiti. Throughout the entire square there are restaurants and cafes. While these establishments mainly cater to tourists, since the weather is extremely nice, enjoying a typical Belgian tipple while gazing at the Dutch looking buildings is well worth it.
What would I recommend to John Cleese or anyone else stuck in Brussels and were fortunate enough to experience Grand Place? Maybe a beer that would be hard to come by in England or the USA or whatever is on tap- you are guaranteed something fresh and refreshing.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Back from Vacay

There is nothing like coming back from vacation with mementos to remember the trip. I have one of the best souvenirs- a lower back ache. Aren't vacations supposed to be relaxing? Sometimes you need a vacation to recover from the actual vacation. That is why, I left the baby for longer in creche today. I was hoping to get some of the kinks out of my back but instead just got some more needed sleep. On the bright side, the weather here in Brussels looks brighter than usual. I guess spring really does come to Belgium.
After we checked in our luggage, went through passport control (yeah) and went through four hundred metal detectors, the family was able to enjoy some time at the airport before takeoff. By the way, do you know the name of the largest airport here in Belgium? Brussels Airport! I kid you not. The biggest airport in the country is named after Brussels, the city. I am guessing that Belgians are so proud of Brussels that they want everyone who lands in Belgium to not forget it. I think it is sort of sad. In just Paris alone there is Charles De Gaulle and Orly Airport, New York City has JFK, Newark (in New Jersey) and La Guardia. But to give Belgium some credit, there is an airport in Liege called (surprise surprise) Liege Airport or the more formal name Liege Bierset. Back to hanging out the airport... luckily we had lounge access and decided to hang out in there until departures. As I was canvasing the lounge for coffee, I found the fridge with cold beverages. Along with the typical choices of water, soda and little bottles of vodka, I found the national Belgian drink- beer.
There was Leff Bruin next to tomato juice. While I did not partake in the beer since it was early in the morning, I opted for a coffee au lait, I bet if someone drank a beer at 7:30 AM no one here would give it a second thought. As my sister always says, "it's five o'clock somewhere!"

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Brussels, the country

I was on vacation last week and began speaking to an American I met at the hotel I was staying at. When I told him that I was living in Brussels, his response was, "Brussels, the country?" I kid you not. How do you respond to such a bizarre question? Forced to think on my toes, there were two possible answers. One response could have been, "No. Brussels is a city in Belgium, which by the way is in Europe. Instead I responded ever so tactfully, "yes Brussels, Belgium." I answered this way because I did not want to embarrass the person. So by answering I do live in Brussels but by adding the country, I was hoping to give a little geographical lesson. This brings me to the question, how many people know anything about Belgium aside from its chocolate?

This post is therefore dedicated to facts about Brussels and Belgium. Think of it as an educational lesson.

1. Did you know Belgium is a monarchy? Everyone knows about the British Royals but Belgium has its own little royal family. The current king is King Albert.

2. Belgium actually has some famous people to call its own such as: the lovely Audrey Hepburn, Jean Claude Van Damme, Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, Leo Hendrik Baekeland, the inventor of bakelite, Herge (George Remi), the creator of TinTin and the very stylish Diane von Furstenberg.

3. Despite being a small country and often overshadowed by its neighbor's French cuisine, every unanimously say Belgium has delicious food. The Belgian french fry or frites are world renowned. What makes the Belgian French fry so delectable? According to one of my many Belgium books, the Belgian french fry is so special because the friers use the yellowish Bintje potatoes grown in the muddy fields of Flanders. The secret is also that the fry is actually fried twice. The first dip in oil soften the potato while the second time turns the french fries to a beautiful golden brown. The best way to enjoy these delectable potatoes is with a nice dollop of mayonnaise. I think the fries also taste awesome because they are fried a lot of times in animal fat. Anything fried in fat is bound to taste sublime.

4. Aside from the frites, Belgium is known for its waffles (gaufres), mussels and chocolate.

5. Belgian lace is highly prized and a lost art. If you are to buy lace, make sure it is not made in China. Sort of defeats the purpose of buying Belgian lace.

6. The Smurfs are actually a Belgian invention. I always thought they were invented by a German or Dane. But it turns out that the Smurfs are were created by Pierre Culliford aka Payo.

7. And of course beer.

So you see Belgium is not some dinky country surrounded by Germany, France and Luxembourg but rather for such a tiny little place, it has made major contributions!

Beer to me is one of Belgium's greatest achievements. I never grow tired of the varieties found in restaurants, brasseries or even little dives. The Belgian takes his beer drinking very seriously and you will find at almost any time of day someone nursing a Jupiler from the tap or a Stella Artois from the can. Beer seems to be the alcohol of choice for most Belgians and you are almost always guaranteed to trip over a beer can or bottle on your way to the market to buy your own beer.

Even though Stella Artois is considered the standard beer here, there is something very delectable about drinking Stella from the tap. Beer from the press is always fresher, no preservatives and is at the right temperature (an important element to drinking beer properly). The last time I enjoyed Stella from the tap, I gained a new found appreciation for this ubiquitous beer. The beer was golden, crisp, robust and delightfully refreshing. While it may an ordinary beer to many Belgians it is quality and steadfast.

Bottoms up!