This is an offshoot of the original Liam & Janet blog. That blog has become overrun by Liam's inability to keep his mouth shut when something annoys him. The serious rants there seemed incongruous with the humor columns. The plan for the humor columns continues to be to post a new one every Friday, plus occasional extras when the mood strikes.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

So THAT'S Why They Call It “The Old Country”

About a month ago, I took my first trip ever off of the North American continent, not including the time when I was six and the undertow of the New Jersey shore pulled me out to sea roughly 75 miles before my Mom got to me and brought me back to shore, having learned three valuable lessons:

1)Undertow can kill you
2)Mom talks really funny when she's panicked
3)Some water isn't worth drinking no matter HOW thirsty you are.

I mention this last point because it will tie in nicely later, and I'm still at that amateur stage of writing where I think my essay is just spiffy if I get to use a “callback” later in the piece.

My trip was a business trip to Europe. Specifically Belgium, although you can't get directly there from here, and so to make the trip requires a car, an airplane, two different trains, a taxi plus assorted moving walkways in the airports. Well, I thought they were moving walkways. Apparently only luggage is supposed to go by that route. On the plus side, though, they were able to give me a clean bill of health, x-ray-wise.

Not being able to get directly from point A to point B turned out to be a major feature of this trip, because it is apparently some sort of condition of joining the European Union that no matter how many times you take a cab from your hotel to your place of business, no two of them may ever take the same route. I was in Belgium for five business days, and by the last day, I'm pretty sure I spotted the Acropolis and the Grand Canyon from my zooming taxicab window.

And by the way, I do mean zooming. As an American citizen, let me tell you, you only THINK you know how to drive. There are several features of Belgian automobile transportation which are fresh and exciting (as measured in heartbeats per minute).

First, the cars are all tiny. The smallest compact car in the U.S. has more space in its trunk than in an entire Belgian vehicle. Really, they talk about how fat Americans have gotten, I just never realized they were talking about the cars.

Second, there does not seem to be any standard speed limit, so everyone zips around at what I can only assume is the top possible speed for a car whose engine compartment can only possibly have room for a tightly wound rubber band driving the wheels.

Third, I'm pretty sure the cars can shrink and expand at will. At least, that's the only way I can explain how we managed to fit into some of the spaces our cab driver neatly squeezed us into. We'd be hurtling along at top speed and we'd come to an intersection with a busier street, where in any sane country there would be a stop sign, and there would be bumper to bumper traffic on the cross street (all traveling mere inches apart at the same too-fast-to-read-the-license-plates speed) and without stopping or even noticeably slowing, the cab driver has neatly turned the corner and inserted the car into a space which, had I been jogging, I would have been concerned about trying to fit my big toe into.

And finally, although the cars are tiny, the streets are tinier. I'm assuming most readers have, at some point, visited a large metropolis. You have thus seen large avenues, small streets and are acquainted with sidewalks. In Belgium, the sidewalks are pretty much part of the street. They have to be, the entire street is less wide than the entire sidewalk on a moderately sized NYC street. Really, we walked around quite a bit in the evenings, finding restaurants to dine in. We'd get directions from the concierge at the hotel and we'd set out walking, and we'd have to backtrack three or four times until we identified that the cross street we were looking for was that gap between the buildings which in any American city would be the space left over when the builders accidentally mis-measured their building materials and didn't quite manage to make two adjacent buildings touch. I've seen rolls of duct tape in the U.S. that were wider than these streets. And with no signage what so ever, I can only assume these are two-way streets, although heaven help the poor pedestrian walking down this tightrope if even one car (to say nothing of two in opposite directions) comes barreling along.

But here's the really odd thing: There aren't many cars with visible damage. I'm not kidding. With all of the close quarters, high speed, no signs and zigging and zagging in places where I would be holding, white knuckled on to my steering wheel and hoping against hope that something I was interested in was straight ahead because there was no way I was ever going to turn my vehicle again, somehow the people manage to stay out of each other's way enough to almost never get into accidents. I don't know how they do it.

So finally, down a long narrow street about the width of an index card, we'd find the restaurant we were looking for, which brings its own adventure. You see, I was rather concerned going on this trip, because I do not speak any languages but English, and I leave it to the reader to determine if I speak even my native tongue passably. However, most Belgians speak English, some with a greater fluency than certain U.S. Presidents I could name, and so it's reasonably easy to get by.

You can almost forget that you're in a foreign country (if you could find anywhere in the U.S. that has an honest to goodness Castle right in the middle of the city, buildings which were apparently built before Columbus even made his journey to America, and co-ed bathrooms (more on them later)) once you get used to everyone else speaking English with an accent, until the restaurant hands you a menu. Belgium still has a king (largely ceremonial, I gather), who has apparently in one of his last actual decrees declared that his people might all speak English, but he was going to be damned if his restaurants were going to spend extra money printing out menus for lazy Americans who don't bother to learn the local language before visiting a place. And amazingly, the wait staff is all in on the joke. A man or woman who could speak nearly flawless English while arranging to seat us all at a table suddenly didn't know any of the right words to translate the menu items, meaning that on the nights that none of our Belgian co-workers dined with us, there was always at least one of us gesturing at the menu and indicating that we'd like the “We Proudly Accept Visa and Mastercard”. And make it snappy.

And here's where we get to water. The tap water in Belgium isn't BAD, per se, but it's also not particularly... pure. Perhaps not Jersey shore Atlantic ocean impure, but bad enough. No one orders tap water to drink; if you want water, you buy water. Bottles of water are about three euros (around $4) and contain plenty of water to refill your glass at least twice... if by glass you mean a decorative crystal thimble you happen to be carrying with you for some completely inexplicable reason. Sodas are not much better, size and cost wise.

And yet beer is cheap. On the first day there, I was told by a co-worker that if I was charged more than about a euro and a half for a beer, I was being ripped off, and that seemed to bear out (the only place I paid more was in the bar at the hotel). And each beer, while perhaps not quite a pint in size, was still plentiful to drink. And what beer. I could write an entire column extolling the virtues of Belgian beer. We have beers as good here in the U.S., but generally they're all imported from Belgium. So yes, I really am saying that some of the best beer I've had in my life was significantly cheaper to consume with meals than water. What a country!

And so of course I had to consume several beers with each meal (by the way, watch out: bottled Belgian water has more alcohol in it than most American beers. The beer could give an equal amount of Jack Daniels a run for its money), and I can report to you that Belgian beer requests exit just as quickly and with the same urgency as its watery American cousin, and boy is it odd to use the rest rooms in Belgium. First off, many of them are co-ed. Each individual toilet (for those whose bathroom business is going to involve creating a lap) has its own little closet room, but the urinals are right out in the middle for people of every conceivable gender to view while washing their hands. But if you think that's bad, they actually have at various places along the streets public urinals, which are about as private as an old American phone booth, if you made it with frosted glass. Not big on body modesty, the Belgians.

There's so much more I could tell you about, like how the average tip at a restaurant is less than you'd leave in America for a waiter who visibly spit in your food as he was delivering it, or how odd it was to realize that many of the buildings (indeed much of the older section of the city) probably looked nearly the same 500 years ago, except with less neon signs. I could tell you how the mind sprains trying to wrap itself around a digital display indicating an ATM in a building which looks like it was constructed around the same time Christianity was splitting off from Judaism. I could tell you how impressive the Castle and the main Cathedral were, when you stopped to think that both buildings were that huge, entirely out of stone, and built at a time when there were no power equipment, trucks or cranes.

I could tell you about all of that, but I need to put my energy into figuring out a callback with which to end this essay.

Copyright © November 8, 2006 by Liam Johnson.


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