But let’s stay in Brussels for a while and explore little bit of Belgium.
How do we judge a country? How do we make of it a definite impression? What is it what comes on our mind when we think of our travels to a particular destination? Architecture? Museums? People?
And how do we remember a country when one happened to spend in it good 6 years in total? Not as a tourist, but as an integrated citizen, as a part of local culture, as a person who fell in love with the local culture totally, absolutely and with no remaining reservations?
What kind of special memories come into the mind?
I went to Brussels when I was 19. An option was presented for me to study in my favourite language, French, and I took it, even if I had everything going on for me in Moscow, my home town.
At that age I was open to different possibilities, for the adventure in life, and since the French language was the love of my life (together with George Michael and Wham), I thought: ‘why not?’ ‘Why not to go and explore?’
Having located Belgium on the map I was also apprehensive of my relocation there. After all I was used to Moscow and its vastness, to big large streets and the openness of the mind and the soul. I was used to long philosophical discussions about everything and nothing, to friends for life, and the stability of the security that only living in the ‘home’ country can bring, when you know the culture, the hidden rules, and how to navigate the local bureaucracy.
Would I ever feel at home, at ease in a different land?
I knew I ended up in a country with humour, as soon as I met my new landlord.
“You know, I had two Russian ladies staying in the room in which you are going to live, right before you,” the landlord was telling me, and I thought that he would comment on their Russianness, on something which would stand out as a cultural characteristic. Instead, he carried on:
“Both were as thin as you when they arrived, but were, how to put it, ladies with curves, when they left,” and he started to laugh, in that deep Belgian mode, when life is good, and is there to enjoy it to the fullest.
I think I also produced a chuckle, not to appear as rude in the camaraderie making, but inside of me, I obviously, dismissed the thought as ridiculous. No way was I putting on any weight, and why should I?
I had no idea at that point that landlord had presented me with the absolute truth of the Belgian nation, one of its basic cores: Belgians and their food, total love for it, unshameful consumption of it as one of the biggest pleasures in life, its presentation in the most tempting mode, the beauty of it as a given, as a must, as part of life if you are in Belgium.
We don’t know about this fact as tourists, do we really? French, the neighbours of Belgians, are, of course, known much more for their food, and are presented to us as connoisseurs, as the masters of that particular domain. Belgians are less known for their food, but I started to suspect while living there, that it isn’t just the humbleness of Belgian nation which is behind, it is also some sort of guarded secret, something about which they don’t shout out in order not to spoil it, to preserve it, to enjoy it among the loved ones, among friends.
The morning after I woke up in my student room I was confronted almost at once with the beauty of local food, with a temptation that I had never experienced before and haven’t seen anywhere else since. You stroll on the street and you see different bakeries, and bakeries are not like anywhere else. They have some mysterious beauty behind each window, the sweetness of presentation that asks you to come in, to buy a cake, return home, realise that it’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten in your entire life, run back, buy more, and then end up buying several cakes at once, as a reserve of a never ending pleasure.
And it isn’t, of course, just the cakes and the bakeries that make the enjoyment of food so amazing in Belgium. It is everywhere, the beauty of food experience, literally on every corner. Even such a simple fact as ordering a sandwich for lunch is never really simple in Belgium. It becomes an art, an art of ordering a sandwich.
I remember how, when I worked in one Belgian company as a recruiter, we would spend at least twenty minutes with colleagues of thinking what we should have for lunch. Sandwiches don’t come up as just sandwiches when your order them from a local deli. They have special fillings. Coronation chicken being the most boring choice. In Belgium they have crevettes, crevettes with tomatoes and special mayo sauce, or chicken in spices coming in home-made sauce, or sandwich filled with something called ‘chicken a la provincale’ and when it comes, and you taste it, it is absolutely delicious and melting in the mouth. And it is all wrapped, of course, in a delicious bread, usually la baguette, always fresh, made in the morning.
Even shopping for groceries becomes a pleasure in Belgium. Nowhere else had I seen such a choice of food. It is tempting, because each shelf has some delicacies on it. Famous Belgian chocolate, waffles in all kinds of shapes and with all kinds of fillings, different breads, the most exotic yogurts. If Danone produces a new coconut yogurt and pulls it out of some markets because of lack of adventure on the part of local population, you can be sure to find this yogurt in Belgian supermarkets. When I go to Brussels, even if I stay in a hotel, I make sure I buy this yogurt and I even took several packages of it back to the UK, where I used to live.
Restaurant experience is indeed an experience in Belgium. It isn’t just going out for a meal, it is a special trip, a well-planned and so much anticipated adventure. Most restaurants are closed on Monday evening, and even Sunday evening, they really need this time off for all the pleasure of gastronomy they offer on other days.
In Belgium they serve the quality of best French (actually better!) cuisine, with much bigger portions and much cheaper! Belgium has some traditional dishes, of course, which hint at the character of the nation. It is warm, with a twist, leaving room for imagination. There is waterzooi, which is either fish or chicken stew, so pleasant to eat on a cold day. There are ‘moules’ (mussels) which come from the North sea, larger and tastier than in any other country.
The Belgian fries are a delicious treat that can be found for a snack at the corner shops, but are also served as a tasty side dish in the poshest restaurants, even though it is hard to describe any restaurant in Brussels as posh! They are all cosy and friendly, where owners stop for a chat with customers, everyone laughs and shares stories among friends. Belgian people are very welcoming and friendly.
Then there is ‘stoemp’, mashed potatoes blended with all kinds of vegetables, it can either be served on its own, or as a side dish, a real treat with a twist when you want something different as accompaniment to the main dish.
Chocolate, the best of it, comes, of course, from Belgium. Leonidas, Godiva, Neuhaus, my first additional five kilos (which started to pile up on the next day of my arrival to the country) came just from chocolate, the delicious Belgian pralines.
Drinks are also made with a twist, it isn’t just cider or prosecco, it comes as ‘kir royale’, some sparkling wine served with a syrup, with a cherry or strawberry on top.
If you are invited to someone’s else house for dinner, you really need to make sure not to eat the whole day in advance, because it is physically hard to leave a table full of food, served with wine, laughter, and that Belgian ‘esprit de bonvivance’ (a spirit of fun, benevolence). Even foreign cuisine has something ‘extra’ in Belgium. The Greek food becomes the best Greek food, German dishes become best German dishes, and even Italians don’t complain about the quality of pizzas in Belgium.
While French keep quiet, and might have many jokes about Belgians, they don’t really comment about Belgian food. They do know that it is their biggest competitor in a battle that if presented to a real judge, might not even lead to a victory! And they can’t compete with the amount of beers which can be found in Belgium, and they can’t compete in the domain of ‘cosiness’. If I am really hungry, I would prefer to end up in a Belgian restaurant, as I am sure that I will get enough food!
After a year of my life in Brussels I was totally and absolutely in love with the city and Belgian way of life. I was also in love with the local food, something which was clearly showing in my extra ten kilos I had managed to gain. I ended up avoiding my landlord all together, to escape his jokes, and at some point I was obliged to go on a diet and learn to adapt. Yes, food is so good in Belgium that one has to learn how to control the craving!
I love Belgian food and I love Belgium.
(me in Brussels when I was 20 years old, with my additional ten kilos)