08 December, 2011

Belgium: Advice to a Tourist

Someday I'm going to write a coherent travel post instead of going the default "post interesting links and comment on them" or even the "write 3000 words on the economic crisis and then realize you still missed one of the big points so you never publish it" route. For now, having come home in a jolly mood from the Marché de Noël à Place Ste. Catherine, I will make a list.

There are already plenty of lists out there informing the novice traveler of "dead-giveaways" to their American nationality. Some of these are good points, but generally speaking, the list will be composed of a series of vile behaviors that characterize only the worst stereotype of "the American" (unfortunately all-too-common a breed in Paris, Rome, and other major tourist destinations, however; the stereotypes have to come from somewhere!). I am not going to make such a list. Rather, I'll note a few things that one learns here. Things that one learns to avoid, and things that one might simply find interesting.

However, allow me to get sidetracked for a moment by a brief observation about one item that invariably appears on the novice-traveler-do-not list. It's the infamous "portion size complaint"; i.e., Americans think European portions are too small and will often betray their nationality by complaining about it. This complaint consistently mystifies me; portion sizes, at least here in Belgium, tend to be substantial. In France too. And certainly in Germany, where you're usually served a sausage bigger than your plate with a mountain of one variety or another of cabbage and another of potato. In fact, I can safely say that I've yet to eat in a European restaurant (remember, this is including France too) without regretting the continent-wide incomprehension of take-home boxes. Since I like my money, I'm not about to just leave the food on the plate. Most certainly not. I'll doggedly finish it, thinking "ah, well, this'll take care of breakfast tomorrow too"; but it takes herculean force of body and will to do so. European portion sizes (restaurant edition, in any case) are not, in general, small. So why the complaints? Because you do hear them.

Hang on a sec; I feel a brilliant theory coming on...maybe...I know what I'm saying is revolutionary and all, but just maybe...if you don't eat on Montmartre or right by the water on the left bank of the Seine or right beside the Trevi fountain...maybe you'll get better food and better portions. I know it's tough to believe that the restaurants abutting the world's most popular tourist destinations would be bad. But. They. Are. Some restaurant owners in Europe have this idiosyncratic weakness for making as much money as possible with as little effort as possible. Owning a restaurant in the right Location can be the financial equivalent of striking oil on a Texas ranch. You, as the owner have very little to do beyond procuring very cheap ingredients and making sure that whatever comes out of the kitchen does not kill the stray dogs begging at the back door. If these tests are passed, you go outside, put chairs near the Seine, write a menu in something that looks like French, and you're set. The money will come pouring in, because you are where the tourists are and tourists eat whatever is There. These are, after all, people who've been traveling, who are looking to "relax", which apparently in some peoples' minds means "not have to walk", and who are Hungry. It's the perfect formula! Once they're lured in by the Location and those enticing menus, all you have to do is take the order and send out a platter of just-unfrozen synthetic material, portioned as though it was being served at the orphanage in Oliver Twist.

The advice, then that my Wellspring of Wisdom offers to the unseasoned tourist is simple: walk a few blocks. Better yet, get some recommendations online (though that can be tricky if you aren't practiced at distinguishing between the "undiscriminating tourist review" and the "seasoned traveler review"). Most websites cheerfully tell you to "ask a local", but, coming from a tourist-region myself, I can assure you that the last thing a "local" wants to spend his day doing is tour-guiding (unless you're an Honored Guest, in which all that changes). Supposing a local even knows what the top restaurants in his area are (often he won't; locals use supermarkets), if he wanted to work in the tourism industry, he'd probably be doing so. 

However, I wasn't planning on writing for the unseasoned tourist. After that lengthy segway, here's my partial list of Items of Useful Knowledge for the visitor to Brussels.

  1. Don't go into a superstore just to "look for something". All-purpose chain stores here put Walmart to shame with the inexpensiveness of merchandise and the poor quality of the same, yet they are major shoplifting targets all the same. To minimize the number of people just walking out with things, these stores have one-way gates at the entrances: you can get in, but you can't just walk back out. To leave, you need to go through the checkout line. All well and good if like everyone else you're buying something. But it looks quite awkward if you decide that the adaptor plug you seek is not there. Then you're stuck either shoving past people to get out, or queuing up quietly yet purposely until the person in front of you has finished checking out. 
  2. Don't be taken aback if one of the first things a person inquires about upon making your acquaintance is the nature of your political opinions. It's not taboo in Europe, and neither is debating about said politics (or debating in general, for that matter). If you're an American, you get the added bonus of a captive audience, fascinated to know whether the "media America" is anything like the real one, and to what extent. Do emergency rooms really turn people away because of a lack of free healthcare? Are radical, fundamentalist preachers from the South really in control of the country? Is everyone in America really rich? Etc. It's amazing to see the effect our news sources and their habit of focusing on the most sensational stories have on European perceptions of America. 
  3. Also on a political note, don't assume everyone is 100% on board with the E.U. Most are fine with it in some form, but not insofar as it threatens to erode their national identities.German national identity, fine, (unless you're talking to a German, I assume), but theirs, no.
  4. You can get anywhere without a car. But don't assume that that will be easy, especially if your destinations of choice are off the beaten track. Missing the last bus out of a tiny town can be a bit of a bother.
  5. When you go into a restaurant or cafe, seat yourself (though it's a good idea to make sure the waiter knows you're there, and maybe to wait around just in case he has a preference regarding where you choose to sit). Even the most basic cafes have waiters, so there's usually no going up to the counter to order. They'll come to you. 
  6. There are exceptions to the above, but they're easy to identify; usually pretty obviously modeled after the American "Starbucks-type-cafe", and prominently advertising their free wifi. This type is usually overrun with students, so you can just do what everyone else is doing.
  7. Also on the subject of cafés, know that a "café" is black, a "lait russe" is coffee with warm milk, a "cappuccino" is a small, strong drink topped with a mountain of whipped cream, and a latte usually comes in a tall, narrow glass that makes the foam look very thick indeed. All such beverages come with a cookie or chocolate.
  8. Different beers have different glasses. If a place serves you a beer in the "wrong type of glass", you've been lured into a tourist trap. Run.
  9. Don't get too excited about Christmas Markets. They're "just" Christmas Markets. Yes, they serve warm spiced wine at almost every stall. Yes, they serve foods like quiche and oysters and tartiflette and sauerkraut, et al. Yes, there's a skating rink and ferris wheel. What's so unusual about all of that?
  10. Thanksgiving is best explained with reference to the romance of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins.
  11. Don't be afraid of your accent. As long as they can understand you, most Europeans apparently find the American accent "adorable". Or at least francophones claim that this is the case. 
  12. Do wear a nice jacket in the winter. Scarves are essential. Hats and gloves recommended. Incidentally, Brussels is filled with hat shops, which make me long for the days when everyone wore them. They really do look nice, and a wool hat on a guy is a sure sign of Excellent Taste.
One of the nice things about living in a place like Brussels is that if you know basically how to dress and how to get around the city, you won't stand out as an outsider at all. It's a very international city, many of whose residents are here only temporarily (E.U., NATO, one of the three American ambassadorial commissions in the city, etc). So you'll almost certainly look like a pro compared to the rest. Way back in September, on my second day here I was already being asked for directions by hapless visitors. Six times that day, if I remember correctly. And when you speak to a francophone Belgian, chances are that if you speak with sufficient confidence he or she will take you for a Belgian from Flanders, since the Dutch and American accents are apparently quite similar. Quelle chance!

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