Friday, September 23, 2005

Highlights of the 2005 journey to Belgium and the Netherlands.

Surprisingly, even a Heineken from a can tastes fairly good when consumed at 30,000 feet to the accompaniment of John Bonham tearing canyon-sized holes in your skull from the complimentary NWA headset.

Classical music and soft jazz just aren't suited to the bustle and hum of a crowded jetliner cabin, but Slash, AC-DC and Liam Gallagher all work wonders.

While listening, I compiled a list of 2005 trip highlights.

One of the most noteworthy was the meeting of eleven friends from far and wide in Haarlem, and it justifies an entire dispatch, which will be forthcoming as soon as the three-day visit can be remembered coherently.

European Parliament tour, Brussels.

(European Parliament canyonlands)

Believe the nay-saying pundits at your own risk, because although the French and Dutch referendums rejected the proposed European Constitution earlier this year, this fascinating and evolving political and economic market of more than 450 million Europeans isn’t about to wither away.

The home of the European Parliament in Brussels is an immense, blocks-long concrete, glass and steel futurama strategically positioned behind the rump of a 19th-century train station, with frenetic activity radiating in all directions through streets, bus stops and construction zones.

We strolled into the adjacent Luxembourg Square during lunch hour, settled into a modernistic bistro for a bite, and subsequently heard many of the 20 official languages of the European Parliament being spoken over linguine, fruit salad and steak tartare – and wine, lots and lots of wine.

During official business, all 20 of the languages are simultaneously translated from command posts that resemble luxury boxes in a sports stadium. Because of this requirement, and also stemming from a desire to keep affairs on track, representatives in attendance must observe time limitations while speaking. Failure to heed the rules results in their audio feeds being unceremoniously cut.
If only it were so simple during New Albany’s City Council meetings, and it probably would be if Ted Heavrin were in charge of them.

Bicycling in the Netherlands.

(Aboard a pedestrian/bike ferry in the Netherlands)

How does this sound: Your own lanes, your own traffic signals, your own road signs, and automobile drivers who know that if they hit you, they’re at fault, irrespective of the circumstances?

That’s bicycling in the Netherlands, and it’s as good as it gets.

It’s also this way in much of the Flemish-speaking provinces in Belgium, but less so in the French part of the country.

To be sure, cobblestones can be tough on the spine, and rain’s never much fun, and yet now that I’ve completed three trips with my bicycle as a constant companion, it’s hard to imagine traveling any other way.

Belgian beer.

(Faro, a traditional sweetened lambic, in the Becasse cafe, Brussels)

Observers close to the Belgian beer and brewing scene are skeptical about its future in the face of industry consolidations and competition from sodas and alcopop, but to the visiting beer enthusiast, the amazing diversity of choice and the ready accessibility of something decent to drink in all except the tiniest of cafes continues to be a wonder.

It is true that many traditional breweries have closed and numerous brands have disappeared since my first trip to Belgium two decades ago. At the same time, a rising generation of microbrewers and the unexpectedly strong influence of the export market give me hope that there will continue to be great beers in Belgium, in spite of justifiable reasons for doubt.

Triennial Poperinge hop festival and parade.

(Children in costume during the hop parade, with the Hotel Palace behind)

Poperinge’s hop festival is a recurring delight. This small provincial town possesses a self-image second to none, and the three-day event reflects a much appreciated commitment to local values.

Hop-related events and related revelry take place throughout the festival weekend, but the highlight is the Sunday parade through the tidy streets of Poperinge. The parade actually tells a story, with an accompanying libretto of sorts printed in several languages, periodic chapter markers, and a refreshing absence of commercial considerations.

The story concerns the history of brewing, the history of the hop, and its importance to the Poperinge economy. Onlookers meet the enemies of the hop -- for instance, brightly festooned children as beetles -- and the plant’s friends, other whistling children dressed as birds.

This year’s parade highlight came when the uniformed marching band from Wolnzach, Poperinge’s hoppy Bavarian sister city, stopped in front of the Hotel Palace, wheeled to face Guy, the owner, and played “Happy Birthday to You” on the occasion of his 60th.

Marvelous coffee.

(Coffee stop at a cafe in Bruges, Belgium)

Drip coffee is almost unheard of in Belgium and the Netherlands, and thankfully so. To order a coffee in a café, restaurant or bar is to receive a cup made fresh each time with an espresso machine. The amount of water simply is increased for regular coffee, and decreased to make espresso. The result is fresh, good and proper.

Just as beers customarily are served with a portion of peanuts or crispy snacks (on the Belgian Riviera, I received a small bowl of tiny, gray coastal shrimp for this purpose), the coffee is served with a wafer or diminutive chocolate. To replicate all of this in Louisville, go immediately to Caffe Classico on Frankfort Avenue and meet Tommie, the owner.

He understands, and also carries Duvel in case it’s time for such refreshment.

3 comments:

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Sarah said...
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edward parish said...

Last year I finally had to through away my much treasured Becasse cafe t-shirt do in part to falling apart.