Vaarwel, Amerika!

Rebonjour! You might notice the two different languages in the title and opening sentence, and you’ll soon find out why. One of the best things about visiting somewhere new is learning a little bit about it. So, I’ll dive into some interesting tidbits about a few of the countries that we might visit in our upcoming trip to Europe. Our next destination in beautiful Belgium. This tiny kingdom in Western Europe has seen political strife, foodstuffs inappropriately named, beermaking turned into an art, and a multimillion dollar gem heist.

Fleming and Walloon

A cultural and linguistic divide defines much of Belgium’s current affairs. The French-speaking Walloons and the Belgian Dutch that call themselves Flemish comprise the majority populace (with a small region defined for Germany-speaking folk in the east). Officially, Belgium has adopted these three languages as the state’s languages. But besides conversational issues, the differences that distinguish these peoples have led to a downward spiraling of turbulent political plight toward a drain of anarchy.

Okay, so that last part might be a little sensationalism, but in 2010, the prime minister of Belgium resigned, leading to a Belgium without a government. With no majority in parliament, efforts to establish a new government were unsuccessful. Remember the one month of government shutdown that happened in the United States last year? Belgium’s governmental woes lasted for 20 months. Unlike the US shutdown though, the prior government still had power as “caretakers”, and so the results were not catastrophic. Still, it’ll be interesting to see the mixed capital of Brussels, which Walloons from the north and Flemish from the south call home.

French Fries?

Without question, French fries are French. It’s in the name…right? Well, some Belgians might actually tell you otherwise. If you visit the Frietmuseum (that’s Museum of Fries) in Bruges, you might see a sign that says this: “Fries are of Belgian origin. There is no scientific or historical proof relating to the origin of the fries.” At least they’re being honest. It’s said that in the late 1600s, some hungry fishermen found the rivers frozen. Craving something fried and fish-sized, they cut a couple of potatoes into the shape of tiny fish and soaked them in hot oil. This is all just hearsay, and on the southern border, the French claim that they were frying potatoes in giant kettles 30 years before any Belgians had the idea.

To be on the safe side, I’ll stick to Belgian waffles, which must be indubitably Belgian. No wait, Belgian waffles are an American take on the different styles of waffles made in Belgium. Confusing stuff. Brussel sprouts? Okay, now here’s a food that’s definitely Belgian – maybe not as delicious as the other two examples though.

Trappist Beers

It’s said that Belgium breweries treat their beer like the French treat their wines – only the finest ingredients are added by the brewmasters-turned-artists and imbibers must not only taste and gulp but appreciate and discuss. The monks of Trappist monasteries, which are those who follow the Rule of St. Benedict (by taking vows of stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience but not a vow of silence, which is often misreported), are well-known for their various goods that are sold to generate income for the monastery, but they are most renowned for their Trappist beers, praised for high quality and delicious flavor.

Only ten monastaries brew authentic Trappist beer, six of them in Belgium. Like how champagne often only refers to sparkling wine with grapes grown in the Champagne region of France, Trappist beers are only Authentic Trappist Product when brewed by a Trappist monastery. Trappist monks in the early 1960s sued an independent brewery that attempted to label their beer as “Trappist”. Trappist beers are often described as having a fruity taste with spicy aromas. They’re often high in alcohol content (up to 12%, double most light beers). I think while in Belgium we will skip the Stella Artois and try some genuine Trappist beers.

$600,000,000-Per-Hour Job

Less than a year ago, eight masked men wearing camouflage and police uniform, armed to the teeth with sub-machine guns, hopped out of a black Mercedes van and black Audi sports car and trained their weapons at security officials and a pilot at Brussels airport. It took the men less than two minutes to cut the fence at the airport so that they could drive onto the runway and barely another three minutes to pry open the plane’s cargo hatch and steal about 120 cases of uncut diamonds. Their total take was about $50,000,000, and it took less than five minutes.

The men only had about a 15 minute window to force their way onto the tarmac and catch the plane before it was cleared for take-off. A Brinks security van had just finished loading the loot onto the plane, and the aircraft was about to turn its nose toward the skies. The plan was executed with such military precision that nearby pedestrians were clueless; any potential witnesses had no idea that a robbery had taken place. The swiftness and precision also has some security experts speculating that the heist was an inside job, one that was so well-organized that the thieves might have even known the airport employees by name.

Besides a few scattered gems near the original crime scene, only one piece of evidence was ever recovered and made public: the black van was found nearby gutted and torched. Still, in early May 2013, authorities arrested 31 people thought to be involved in the crime and managed to recover some of the diamonds in the raid. Interestingly, just ten years earlier, thieves made off with more than $100 million in gold, diamonds, and other jewelry in what was the largest diamond heist ever. The ring leader of this robbery was also caught and found guilty.

Belgian Faux Pas

Again, I’ll try to find out some things that Kierstin and I shouldn’t do while visiting another country. For these, it looks like my other trivia topics were on the right track as some individuals suggest not assuming everyone speaks French (the Flemish and small German population would take offense) while others emphasize choosing the right beer. Still another has suggested to avoid talking about “French fries” while in Belgium. Here are a few more:

  • Again, tipping is not required nor expected. A tip can be given if the service is above and beyond the norm
  • Apparently the Belgians do not want to give free water. Legally, the waitstaff must provide tap water if it is asked for, but typically it is seen as rude, especially in a restaurant. Still, if you insist, you’ll probably get it.
  • White socks are not okay in Belgium unless you are playing sports. Dress socks are preferred, it seems. This actually appears to be true in many European countries.
  • In Belgium, if you inadvertently brush your fingernails under your chin, you might have just accidentally insulted someone. Now, if someone makes this motion to you, you probably did something wrong. The Chin Flick is an non-verbal insult usually reserved only for the most heated arguments.
  • It’s generally considered irritating for Belgians to be around people who are drunk. Typically, Belgians drink for the taste, not for inebriation. I saw this one listed twice, but I also saw some internet commenters claim it’s not true. To be on the safe side, I’ll probably just slowly sip my beers while visiting a strange country.
  • If the sidewalk is two different colors, one of the areas is paved for cyclists. Be careful where you are walking!

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