(This was published in November 2015. I thought it was worth revisiting in view of the last few day’s events. I love Belgium and wish I were there right now. So sad.)
As the days grow shorter and the nights longer, and we snuggle beside our cozy home fires behind the Redwood Curtain, it’s apparent that the world is at war again, maybe for the rest of my lifetime. Everyone is mourning what has happened in Paris. I’ve been there, too, but my connection is to Belgium and I hate watching the news these days.
In 1994 I spent a couple of weeks in Belgium, a country which a lot of Americans miss when they visit Europe. Their loss. You cannot find a greater concentration of history, culture, museums, art, belfries, windmills, canals and just overall loveliness, keeping in mind that it’s a small country and Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp and Bruges are separated by only a short train ride. And the food! All this in a country where practically everyone speaks English.
It’s puzzling to me that more Americans haven’t visited Belgium. Brussels is the capital of Europe, of NATO of course, and the European Community or Union or whatever they’re calling it these days. The hotels are full of diplomats who make charming breakfast companions even if they can’t resist making a point or two about the textile tariffs they were sent there to discuss. But Belgium is also a tortured country, cobbled together in the post-Napoleonic era with an existential split between the French-speaking Walloons in the south and the Flemish population in the North. Brussels is the capital of everything bad in Europe – arms dealing, drugs, pornography. It’s all there.
Even in 1994 there were millions of Muslims in Belgium. I stopped in at a little cafeteria in Antwerp and when the proprietors learned I was American, they practically jumped over the counter. “WE are Kurds! We LOFF America! We LOFF George BOOSH!” they told me over and over, referring to the complexities of the Kurdish situation as summarized HERE. I stayed a couple of hours while they had me try everything on their menu. I made a halfhearted attempt to tell them that not everyone in America loved George Bush but I didn’t make much headway. They wanted me to go home with them to drink coffee. I’m sorry I didn’t go. It would be great to have their perspective on what’s happening now.
I saw a lot of Muslims on that trip. The neighborhood in Oslo where the Munch “Scream” was stolen from its museum- once, or was it twice?- is a Muslim enclave, large and dreary and gray. My companions on the train to Stockholm were Iranians, and great company.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to Belgium but I’m missing it terribly as I write this. And I never even got to Waterloo! May the New Year bring us sufficient peace on earth to allow us to travel safely again.