Notes and observations of Belgium, Part 3

My girlfriend is a social worker in a neighboring town, and I visited it nearly a year ago, spending a few long-houred days wandering the streets, waiting for her workday to end (sometimes 14 hours on Mondays, for heaven’s sake).  Now as I move around town again, there is a pervasive sense of the foreign, but pieces here and there are familiar.  I don’t know the traffic etiquette (I’m pretty sure I was supposed to yield in at least one instance) but I have a notion of the layout (the library was almost where I expected it to be) and I‘m pretty sure I used that particular ATM before.  I know where to get a sandwich, but can’t read the menu.

It is like an entire town made of 40% déjà vu.

The streets outside the town center run among brick buildings, all connected into long blocks, mostly houses with a few shops or offices sprinkled throughout.  The houses are generally two storeys plus an attic below steeply pitched slate roofs.  Stubby chimneys are on every roof, frequently with three or four lines from the different heated rooms and spaces below.  Big soft-looking pigeons and orange-beaked blackbirds gather around them on cold mornings.

The streets are cobblestone, with their distinctive sound beneath the tires of hurrying cars, and my arms on the handlebars feel massaged and softened by the bouncing while my eardrums occasionally tickle.  I do not miss the greasy grit of asphalt.

I have learned a few more Dutch words since last time, so I can recognize that “fietsers” on a sign means it refers to bicyclists.  Now I just need to find out if “uitgezonderd” means “prohibited” or “allowed.”

I am a member of the town library, which is clean and well-stocked (though I haven‘t found the English section yet).  The clientele are primarily distinguished and elderly, and there is a fancy coffee machine in the corner.  The awkward and rather shameful reality of libraries back home functioning as daytime habitat for the homeless is not at all true here.  The air is fresh and the furniture spotless.  The bathrooms are unlocked and tidy.  In fact, I don’t remember seeing any obviously homeless people at all in these towns.  There are definitely poorer neighborhoods, and a lot of people in need, but the social network is comprehensive enough that I have seen no one sleeping under filthy blankets in alleys, and have not been asked for spare change a single time.

The schoolchildren walking through the streets seem open-faced and genuine, with far less attitude than their American counterparts, though the adolescent search for identity goes on as always.  Early teens often hold cigarettes in still-growing fingers, but dress is sensible (although I have not yet seen the code for warmer weather) and make-up seems rare.

Minorities are few, though this is less the case in the cities, again as usual, though apparently there is a steady flow of asylum seekers coming into the country.

My final observance took a couple days to notice.  There are very few really overweight individuals here, of any age.  That is not to say it is an entire nation of svelte athletes, lord knows they drink far too much beer for that.  But though bellies and hips are often solid and rounded, to my eye there is a conspicuous absence of overweight people, and very few are morbidly obese.

Now I admit that all this is after only a few days here, and I could be completely wrong about all of it, as well as accidentally offensive, but those are my observations thus far.