Notes and observations of Belgium, Part 1

On a wonderful Sunday afternoon in March, I found myself sitting back in a chair in a fourth floor walk-up apartment in a small town in Belgium, watching episodic rain showers through the sliding glass door, listening to the susurrations of Dutch on the radio, and eating a midday snack of dark brown bread from the neighborhood bakery (one does not buy bread in the grocery stores here, but can get it from bread vending machines that are stocked by the bakeries every morning), nettle cheese from the farmer’s market in Heist-op-den-Berg, and blue grapes, each grape a struggle between fleshy fruit sweetness and the bitterness of the several crunchy seeds.

My cup of tea was vanilla almond, made from a bag taken from the ruptured metal canister that I pulled from my obviously mistreated backpack.  (I can see why baggage handlers are dubbed “throwers”.  My bathroom bag was blasted to shreds, shattered bottles of sample shampoo leaving everything coated a greasy white, which, though I haven’t taken that bag near a beach in months, somehow picked up a fair amount of sand.)

Spring was coming in the door when I left Portland, Oregon a week ago, but though only five latitude to the north, Winter still holds sway here.  But the cold is only brisk, not biting, and feels good your skin in the morning.  The trees are mostly bare, and when the rain falls it is colder than my beloved Oregon precipitation, but the snow is over.  The sun outside is still chilly, but when it comes through a window onto you, it is easy to feel the warmth of the season’s change.

Today I rode my borrowed bicycle along small country lanes through the towns of Booischot, Hulshout, and Morkhoven to the larger town of Herentals.  If I took a more circuitous route, I could pass through Haacht, Zandhoven, Grobbendonk, Zoersel, Begijnendijk, Scherpenheuvel, Boortmeerbeek, or Aarschot.  That last one would translate literally to “Butt-boom.”

The tidy country lanes of my bicycle ride to Herentals sketched a defiantly irregular grid through land that has known dense human habitation for far longer than my North American homeland.  The towns are small, we in the Belgian countryside, but the saturation of centuries of human experience means man’s presence has completely diffused throughout the space.  There are urban streets interspersed with pastureland and fields, with little or no buffer in between.  Coming out of a supermarket you can smell the must of farmyard dung and newly turned earth.  Walking among clods of dirt on the edge of a horse pasture you might hear the music from a downtown pub.

The country is a progressive, thoughtful, and eco-conscious one, and bicycle routes are impressively developed, clearly labeled, and well used.  It is not uncommon for employers to offer bonuses for staff who pedal to work, and all government positions have this option.  People of all ages ride bikes, stern middle-aged faces and softer elderly ones hovering among the flocks of adolescents coming to or from school.  The mailman rides a bike when weather permits.  No one wears helmets except the dedicated cyclists in full spandex gear, smothered in advertisements, just like the pros.  The bicycles themselves are simple and sturdy, without any frills or features like lightweight frames or shocks.  They rattle over the cobblestones and could quite plausibly be inter-generational hand-me-downs.

People have to pay to recycle, but nearly everyone seems to participate, and of the houses that have yards, many have compost bins in them.  The streets are clean, and graffiti relatively uncommon, though of course, the sides of paths through the woods are littered with empty beer cans, paper, and unidentifiable bits of odd plastic, just like everywhere else in the world.