Farewell to Belgium

Another business trip comes to a close. 10 days of eating, drinking, and talking to excess in the service of my dark corporate overlords. By the time you read this I will be some where over Greenland on my way back to the Front Porch where I belong. Thanks again for pulling up a rocking chair on the porch with me here at 20 Prospect. Your company is much appreciated.

I will be checking out for the next two days, decompressing, and trying to remind my wife and children what I look like. (Let’s hope they aren’t disappointed) But have no fear. I was busy this past weekend in my hotel room, typing up a looooonnnng post on the Summer of 1987, which I spent working in a games booth at Darien Lake Fun Country amusement park. It should go up on the internets around 7am on Thursday. I think there’s enough words in that post to carry over until early next week. I hope you enjoy it.

Time for one last round from Leuven. I give you Cristal, the beer of Limburg…

One more for the road

One more for the road

Good night! Sleep tight!

Pleasant dreams to you.

Here’s a wish, and prayer, all your dreams come true…

and now, till we meet again…

Adios!

Au Revoir!

Auf Weidersein!

Another sortie into enemy territory

I’m beat tonight. It’s been one week to the day that I landed in England, and I can say I have had enough. Today was a long road trip with sales, up into the Netherlands, over into Dusseldorf, Germany and back. Tomorrow, another one to Bonn, Germany this time. You know you’ve been to Europe too many times when you start giving directions to the locals. Today was the 3rd time this trip that I ended up navigating. I think it’s a sign that its time to put my feet up on the front porch and stay where I belong.

Another sign you’ve had enough is when all of the culinary delights of Leuven are at your disposal, and you decided to pick up a sub sandwich and a can of Jupiler and head back to the hotel room. The fact is I have not been sleeping, and it is wearing me down. Too many places, too many faces, too many stories, I cannot shut my mind down at 10 o’clock and fall asleep.

But enough whining! Boo hoo, my job makes me go to Europe and travel around and eat good food, and drink good beer. My God, how do you all put up with me?

So here’ s some pictures from Sunday, which I spent with a friend of mine. We drove over to Waterloo to do the tourist thing at the battlefield, and then went back to his house for dinner. Enjoy…

The Memorial Mound in Waterloo

The Memorial Mound in Waterloo

La Haie Sainte Farm at the center of the British Line, as seen from the top

La Haie Sainte Farm at the center of the British Line, as seen from the top

The village of Meldert

The village of Meldert

The village Church

The village Church

cows at sunset

cows at sunset

De zon schindt en Leuven

Yes, the sun shines in Leuven. A glorious Saturday, err… Zaterdag, sorry. I slept an incredible 12 hours, and stumbled out of bed at 10 am, amazed by the time. A quick breakfast, and a pot of coffee and I was off and running. Zaterdag is shopping day in Belgium, a country where the shops still keep bankers hours. And I know from experience that the whole of Flanders is awake early, and out shopping for groceries and the weekly essentials. As an American, I am always surprised to learn not everyone believe in 24/7 availiability of all things. In Flanders, only the bars, and perhaps the churches, are open 24/7. Read into that whatever you will.

First stop, the flea market, err.. vlooienmarkt. Where I found a nice Jupiler glass to add to my collection. I have to admit, the Jupiler pinche is nothing special or exotic, but I felt it was missing from the bolleke’s and trapistten that line the top shelf in the kitchen. A “pinche” is a local  word for what I would call a lawnmower beer. Pinche means “pinky” and the pinche is a small 0.25 l glass of whatever basic lager beer the bar has on top. As bars are affiliated with breweries, you get whatever they serve. Stella, Jupiler, Cristal, Primus, Maes, etc… It’s the cheapest way to drink. Step into a crowded bar in Leuven, and all you have to do is catch the eye of the bar tender, and hold up your pinky. Flemish efficiency. When I came here in 2000 to see Paris-Roubaix we hit a bar that was selling them 2 for a dollar. Hard to beat a deal like that.

Zaterdag vlooienmarkt in Leuven

Zaterdag vlooienmarkt in Leuven

From the flea market, I made the rounds of the streets until I found a little comic bookstore, where I picked up a few Tin Tin comics for the kids. I’ve made it a tradition since they were 2-3 years old, and they love reading Tin-Tin. Comics are hugely popluar with adults here in Flanders. And not just the ponytail wearing loser types like on the Simpsons. The only other country I have found as fond of comics is the Japanese.

From there, I picked up a bottle of wine at the Supermarket to bring to dinner, with a collegue who has invited me over to her house tonight. If you like wine, you will be amazed at the prices for French wine here. Even with the ridiculous exhange rates now (about $1.40 to the Euro) it’s still a bargin compared to what we pay. Hard to imagine French and Spanish wine being cheaper than Australian, and American, but there you are.

Brood en Sneetjes Brood

Brood en Sneetjes Brood

Turning brood into sneetjes brood

Turning brood into sneetjes brood

Time for a pinche…

The Beer that made Leuven famous, and lauched a transnational brewing abomination...

The Beer that made Leuven famous, and lauched a transnational brewing abomination...

And from a quick break on the Oude Markt in the noonday sun, I made the rounds of all my favorite haunts.

Another face of the Oude Markt, the noonday grownup crowd enjoying the sun

Another face of the Oude Markt, the noonday grownup crowd enjoying the sun

The Oude Market is still, and will always be, my favorite place in town. It has many faces as the day advances and the clientele shifts. And the architecture is a feast for the eyes. Most of the buildings were put up after the first world war, when the Germans torched a large portion of the town. Hard to fault them for the indifference they show foreigners…

close up of the Flemish architecture

close up of the Flemish architecture

Bikes, err… Fiets, are ubiquitos in Leuven. Being a Flemish city, it is understandably over run with Dutch city bikes. You take your life in your hands walking the streets here, what with all the drunk college students on bikes, and beautiful Godzilla’s. It was however, the first time I saw one of these…

A penny farthing scooter?

A penny farthing scooter?

The Bike Snob would be horrified to learn that schluffing has appeared in Flanders.

And here, is the River Dijle, final resting place for most Leuven bicycles. I have a theory that every 10 years they dredge the river, and put them back on the streets.

The Dijle

The Dijle

All that talk of biking is making me thirsty, time to pop into the Erasmus, for a bolleke of DeKoninck.

The official beer of Antwerp

The official beer of Antwerp

And just since it was a nice day, I paid a visit to the Picasso for an Orval. I hated to think that the all that hard work by the trappist monks would be wasted.

with beer like this, monasteries don't seem so bad

with beer like this, monasteries don't seem so bad

and with that, it’s time to head back to the hotel and get ready for supper. Did I mention that I love this place?

and so ends a lazy Zaterdag in Leuven, tot ziens!

and so ends a lazy Zaterdag in Leuven, tot ziens!

Belgian Beer the best thing since Sneetjes Brood

When I die, they can embalm me with this. Hmm... maybe I already have

When I die, they can embalm me with this. Hmm... maybe I already have

Ahhh… home again in Leuven. Did I mention I love this place? Despite being home to the most indifferent service you will find anywhere in the world. Honestly, the staff in every bar or restaurant looks annoyed to be there, “Sigh… do you want something else??? Jeez, where do these customers get off?”

But it is a beautiful place. I’m staying at the Novotel across from the Stella Artois brewery. Close to the train station, and about a 20 minute walk from the Stadhuis, and the center of it all, but convenient. And the bonus is I can open the window and smell the beer brewing. No better smell in the world, with the possible exceptions of fresh baked bread, and newborn babies. (OK, the babies win hands down)

I got out for a stroll though, and laid in a good supply of Leonidas Pralines. I also took some photos which I will now share. Tomorrow I will go to the flea market in the morning, and shop the vendors for cool beer glasses to add to my collection. Such a decadent life I lead. God Bless.

The Stadhuis again, in a warmer time

The Stadhuis again, in a warmer time

 

The University Library from Herbert Hooverplein

The University Library from Herbert Hooverplein

Another view of the Library

Another view of the Library

The Oude Markt, just getting warmed up

The Oude Markt, just getting warmed up

Le Affair Belgique

The Stadhuis on the Grote Markt in Leuven

The Stadhuis on the Grote Markt in Leuven

This morning I am heading “across the channel” (I always wanted to say that. It sounds so impressive) to Belgium. Leuven Belgium is the European headquarters of my dark corporate overlords. From the control room of their Leuven lair, they pull the strings of our minions across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. In my 12 years under the employ of my liege lords, I have made upwards of 20 trips to Leuven. I have become pretty fond of the place, and know it pretty well by now.

Leuven is the home to the largest University in the low countries (Belgium, Netherlands & Luxembourg). The “Katholieke Universiteit Leuven” was founded in 1425, and now has over 35,000 students spread among the many colleges that make up the University. The town is literally overrun with students. Most of the kids attend school during the week, and live in apartments in town, but head home to their folks on the weekend. In a country as small as Leuven, this just makes sense. So the busiest night in the bars of Leuven is typically Thursday. I have been awoken many Friday mornings at 4 am, by students singing on their way home. All in all, the city is pretty tolerant of them. They have been around for 600 years, so I guess that only makes sense.

The Oude Markt in Leuven in a rare quiet moment

The Oude Markt in Leuven in a rare quiet moment


Leuven is on the Dutch side of the Belgian language divide. Belgium, being a make believe country, is composed of two different cultural and ethnic groups. The Dutch speaking Flemish in the northern half of the country, and the French speaking Walloons in the Southern half. It was carved out of the Netherlands, following the Napoleonic wars, by the British in a classic move of British diplomacy. Create a country out of two disparate ethnic groups who hate each other, and rule them with a dowdy relative of the Queen. In this case, Leopold the First, the Duke of Saxony, uncle of Queen Victoria, and the first King of the Belgians.

Even after almost 200 years of statehood, the country is still on the verge of breaking apart. In fact, the language and culture wars became so bad in the 60’s and 70’s that the Federal government essentially gave each half it’s own government, and split the place down the middle. (The University was split in two as well, with the French speakers moving about 30 miles south and starting their own university, and the Leuven branch becoming a Dutch speaking Institution) Oh, I forgot to mention that Belgium also picked up a piece of Germany after one of the World Wars, so there’s a little sliver of German speakers, also with their own government. Brussels, being the capital, surrounded by Flemish speaking Flanders, was a sticking point for the Walloons. The French speakers being a ruling class minority for over 150 years, they refused to give up the prestige of the capital to the Flemish. So they made the city its own region, officially bi-lingual, and gave it a government of its own. So Belgium has 5 governments. Six if you count the Headquarters of the European Union. Hence the civic booster motto “Welcome to Belgium, the Capital of Europe”. Yes, more government is pretty much the answer to all their problems.

Ask any Belgian though, errr… I mean Flemish or Walloon, and you might get a different opinion. They all chafe at the heavy hand of government. Although, pragmatically, they realize every 10 years or so that all their efforts to break the place up become inextricably mired in quicksand, and then they give in, form a coalition government, and get things back to normal. Sounds like a great place to put a company, a country whose politics are so parochial and convoluted that a majority decision can seldom be reached without someone feeling victimized. Honestly, as many friends as I have here, if it were truly up to me I’d close the damn office and move it to Holland where the only thing anybody cares about is making a buck. The good ol’ Dutch, you have to admire their entrepreneurship.

As for the Belgian’s, the French sum things up in a way that only the French can do. When a problem is intractable the French refer to it as “le affair Belgique” (a Belgian Affair). After twelve years of beating my head against the rock that is Belgium, I could not agree more. The national sport of Belgium is “victimhood”. Seriously, no country on earth can possibly be more passive aggressive than the Belgians. I have a personal theory on this. For centuries, Belgium was the battle ground of Northern Europe. Whenever the French, the Germans, or the Dutch wanted to stir up trouble and strike out at each other, they had to go through Belgium first. Only Poland has probably had more wars fought out on its territory, and been subject to as many different masters as the Belgians. That’s why they are born with a chip on their shoulder. So as much as I work with them, and build relationships, I am always just another foreign carpet bagger, here to exploit them. Sigh… this gets tiresome.

That all said, I love the place. Well, the Flemish part anyway. The disdainful Walloons I could live without 🙂 I’ll stick with the hard working, humorless, beet farming, Flemish peasants. They are more honest about their lack of feeling for you and your kind, which I respect. Is that enough hurtful stereotypes for one post? I hope so. Thankfully, these pains in the arse brew the best beer, and cook the tastiest food in all the world. So that makes up for a lot of the head aches they cause.

See you in Belgium.

Mountain Biking with Friends in the Country

Mountain Biking with Friends in the Country

Cultural Mash-ups, English style

As you know, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. So one of the staples of any good sales meeting is the evening dinner, and entertainment. As you remember, in China this means going out to a seafood restaurant and eating bait. In England it means copious amounts of alcohol. I can attest to the fact that the English really do binge drink as much as the stereotypical 18 year old college student. Yee-gads, it ain’t healthy.

Anyway, this sales meeting has been planned and hosted by our team in Manchester. For the evening entertainment, they planned a Mexican Fiesta. It was oddly surreal to be in an English Countryside hotel, with people from Spain, Belgium, France, Germany, England, Denmark, and the U.S., dressed in Sombrero’s, Pancho’s and fake mustache’s. How is this not offensive to Mexican’s?1ac331_lg

Seriously, though. I cannot imagine doing this with any other culture. Would we dress up as Chinese? Or Africans? Indians? Arabs? Why is it acceptable to dress up in Mexican costumes?

I don’t have any answers, and I will be honest. I did not let it prevent me from wearing a sombrero, drinking Corona, and hitting the Pinata. It was not intended to be mean spirited, or disrespectful. Although, I am sure it would have been hurtful to certain people from our team in Mexico, or our financial analyst in Minnesota, who grew up in Aguascalientes. Cultural sensitivity is a slippery thing. It can be a fine line between fun, and disrespectful, so in my opinion it is best to stay clear of it entirely. Of course, this is obviously just an avoidance tactic. The best tactic is to get to know each and every one of us as individuals. But that takes time and effort.

Worsley Park 014

It is always fascinating to me when we get a global team together. Meeting each other, and getting to know each other as individuals can simultaneously reinforce, and contradict the stereotypes we have of other cultures. In this sense, the meeting, and the ridiculous costumes and behavior served to break down the walls between us. That is the real benefit of getting together. So it is not surprising when one of the Flemish production managers turns his fake mustache upside down, making himself look like Kaiser Wilhelm, and pretends to use the maraca as a hand grenade, and lob it towards the German salesman. They know each other, and have established the mutual trust and respect that allows him to lampoon the stereotype.

But I don’t kid myself. The things that make us different, still make us different. Even though we realize how much we share in common, there is much about us that we prize that makes us different. Pretending it doesn’t exist, is just as insensitive. It was an interesting group. The nationalities I mention, are only one label that can be placed on the people in the team. Even more important to each of them, is their cultural identity, which does not always fit the neat lines of national boundaries on a political map. The German is from Westhphalia. The English are from the North of England. The American’s were from the Carolina, and the Upper Midwest. The Belgian’s were both Walloons and Flemish. The Spaniard was a Catalan. The French, from Normandy and Paris. Each one of these cultural identities is important. It says much more to us than our national identity can. And deeper still is the personal history of each one of them. Religion, family, class, it all matters in making us who we are. There is much diversity within each label we place around our neck. The more time we spend in each other’s presence, the more we peel the labels back to see what other labels lie underneath.

I hope we never lose the value of these identities in our rush to globalization. The various combinations of who we are, where we come from, and what we value, are what make us unique. How sad it would be to all be the same. And besides, homogenity is too difficult of a costume to dress up in.

Greetings from the North of England

Hallo Guv’nah,

The meetings have gone well. After much discussion and deliberation among the sales team, we have come to the conclusion that profit is good. We have also agreed that more profit would be even better. Regarding our product design and manufacturing, we have also reached a consensus that quality and service are good things to provide our customers. Whew, that was tiring! Time for some more beer.

Well, not yet. We wrapped up around 5pm so I decided to go for a run and check out the neighborhood. I am in Worsley Park, on the outskirts of Manchester. It is really quite pretty here. The hotel is attached to a Country Club, and surrounded by the golf course. If I were a golfer, this would be heaven. Alas, to me it’s just a pretty park that they won’t let you play in.

Worlsey Park Golf Course

Worlsey Park Golf Course

So instead I went for a run down the road into the village of Worsley. There is a lovely little canal running through it, and the towpath made for a nice run. I did a little research on the history of the canal, and discovered that it is quite historic.

Canal boats on the Bridgewater Canal in Worsley

Canal boats on the Bridgewater Canal in Worsley

In fact, the Bridgewater Canal is the first true canal built in England. It opened in 1761 as a private canal, and is still privately owned. It was built by 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, to help transport coal from his mines in the area to Manchester. Part of the canal even went underground, into the mine. There were 46 miles of underground canal in the mines, which still exist, albeit locked away behind bars. The coal was loaded into narrow boats, and floated through the mines. I’m not sure how they got the boats to the surface, and transfered the coal above ground. Wikipedia is scant on the details.

The Packet House at Worsley

The Packet House at Worsley

As you can see in the pictures, the water in the canal is bright orange, the result of iron oxide leaching out of the old mines. Just another legacy of the environmental damage of the industrial revolution. It is amazing to think of the amount of coal that was pulled out of the ground here, and shipped by barge to fuel the rise of the British Empire in the 1700’s and 1800’s. This coal stained the countryside, and lungs of entire generations in the North of England, and created the fire for the steam engines that fueled the Industrial Revolution. And now it’s a private waterway for rich folks to boat on. Makes me wonder what Minnesota is going to look like in 200 years. What prized cutting edge technology will become a quaint object of leisure for the rich folks of 2209?

Canal at the Golden Hour

Canal at the Golden Hour

OK Class, that’s enough of a history lesson for today. Time to get cleaned up for dinner. And remember, if you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding, if you don’t eat your meat?

Harry? Harry Potter?

Harry? Harry Potter?