We have, up until 2020, travelled to Europe every two years with another couple to cruise the waterways of some unsuspecting country, sprouting very accented attempts of the local language, while on a drive-yourself canal boat.
This year we are finally doing our 2020 trip in Belgium; land of chocolate, beer and lace – yay. The travel company was very accommodating, especially as we simply weren’t allowed out of Australia for 2 years, and they just kept rolling the booking over (with some additional fees for inflation of course).
The red drink in the picture is a cherry beer. I think they would be better saving the cherries for their lovely pastries.
Anyways, here we finally are in Brussels; Masher and Kathleen are flying in today and we will be picking up our boat tomorrow afternoon. We flew in a day earlier as the trip from Australia is something of a killer (13hr 45mins to Dubai, 3hr layover, 7hr to Brussels). We wanted to make sure we had beaten the jetlag before we picked up the boat. Masher and Kathleen are ‘only’ flying in from India (they work at a mine in the north of the country).
Things I had forgotten about Europe; the smell of cigarette smoke and not terribly well functioning drains, rubbish on the streets and the crush of people.
In fairness it wasn’t that bad; drains that are often centuries old are bound to be whiffy. And Brussels has what appears to be a huge team of street cleaners with all manner of technology, but there just aren’t bins anywhere and businesses have to leave their rubbish bags on the street. And the population of Brussels is relatively small, even with the tourists, so the crush is nothing too excessive. It is the height of the summer holidays here and our taxi driver (a lovely man originally from Rwanda) told us that the traffic would usually be incredibly slow if everyone was back in town – so thankyou school holidays.
View from the window – scooters, bikes, delivery bikes and scooters, and pedestrians who have no regard for vehicular traffic (maybe we are just not used to cars stopping for pedestrians). And then there is this guy with the RV; I wouldn’t have chosen to bring that into the middle of the city.
At the moment, Europe is experiencing a series of heat waves. We are quite comfortable in the 29o today and although the 32s predicted for the weekend will be annoying they shouldn’t be life threatening. But for the poor Europeans it’s a very different story and of course the houses just aren’t set up for hot conditions. We went for a walk up to the Royal Gardens this morning and they are very dry and dusty (we are definitely not seeing them at their best). In Germany the canal freighters are only loading to 30% normal capacity as the rivers aren’t deep enough for safe passage with a full load and in France there are forest fires starting from the ground as the peat soil is too dry to stop smoldering. On the opposite end of the climate scale; my sister in Laos is waiting for the Mekong to flood and Mother-In-Law is considering buying little wellington booties for her cat because it is so cold and wet in southern Australia (I fear Mother Nature is just growing more grass down there ready for the summer bush fire season).
Peter looking for the Mining Engineers amongst the Trade Guild statues around the ‘Square Du Petit Sablon’ in Brussels – he didn’t find them (or the Teachers), but it is quite a lot of fun trying to work out what the various trades were. We walked the city on Sunday morning and unfortunately the park was closed for maintenance so I couldn’t get to the information board.
I had assumed (never a good thing I know) that Belgians spoke French – just like Hercule Poirot. Which they do, but in Brussels and northern Belgium/Flanders where we are touring, there is far more Dutch spoken and German is the third official language. We have a passing familiarity with all those languages from our previous canal boat trips (France 2012, Germany 2014, Netherlands 2016, France/Germany/Luxembourg 2018) – we always choose countries where English is not the official language as it makes it more fun and forces us to do some work. You shouldn’t rely on locals being nice enough to choose to understand English if we aren’t making an effort to at least attempt a ‘Bon jewer’ or a ‘merky boo coo’. I swear that is Peter’s actual pronunciation and after he gives it a go, most locals laugh and choose to understand our English instead. The European way with language always makes me feel very uneducated. Our tour guide yesterday, Jasmine, born and bred in Brussels spoke at least five languages fluently. Not just for the spiel for the tour – she was engaging easily with everyone in the group no matter what they spoke to her. I am working with Duolingo on learning Spanish and find that my brain doesn’t like learning and really doesn’t like learning new languages (I now know what my students meant when they would say that their head hurt and that the maths just didn’t stay in – my head hurts and the words just don’t stay in!). It could be said that it is an area that is lacking in Australian education, but like with so many things in life, the reason for multilingualism in Europe is that they have to use it. In Australia, unless your family speaks a home language in the house, we just don’t get to use anything other than English – and if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Anyways, back to Brussels
I guess if your winters are really dark and cold, you’d celebrate flowers every way you could.
Every alley in central Brussels has a floral theme. This one had bird cages filled with vines. (Incidentally, the Lobster House restaurant shown in the photo, while not cheap, served some of the most perfectly cooked fish of our trip in Belgium).
Brussels is pretty much a city of administration buildings for the European Union and NATO. There are some impressive buildings associated with this (and the Royal family) but the building that we were really impressed with was the Atomium built for the 1958 World Fair (Expo ’58).
Like the Eiffel Tower, it was not intended to be a permanent structure, but is now synonymous with Brussels and Belgium. Also, like the Eiffel Tower, its size makes it difficult to fit into a single photo. It stands at 102m tall and each sphere is 18m across. The spheres house restaurants, galleries and public spaces accessible by elevators and stairs. The nine spheres are arranged to form a crystal of iron ferrite (magnified by 165 million) and were originally coated in aluminium; now stainless steel. The atom structure was built to reflect the enthusiasm for and hope in scientific progress that 1950s people had in the atomic age (which is kind of funny as Ferrite can’t be used as a fuel in nuclear reactions – maybe a uranium atom was just too big). According to our guide, the number of iron atoms chosen was the same as the number of provinces in Belgium at the time. Belgium now has an extra province, so I wonder if they have considered popping another sphere in there – that would mess with the physicists – hehehe).
We were fortunate enough to be here for the annual Flower Carpet display in the Grand Square of Brussels. They haven’t been able to have one for 2 years (because of the Thing) and this year they will be battling the drought, but…
We passed some of the 120 volunteers when they started laying out the design in the morning. And 6 hours later…
there were about 1 million begonias and dahlias looking for all the world like a huge, 77m x 24m, carpet. This year’s design was copied on the original from 1971. Very speccy and it made you feel happy just looking at it. We had a family giggle about how they would clean it all up at the end (they use just flower heads, not pots of plants). I pictured lots of Grannies volunteering with their vacuum cleaners although the family thought a front-end-loader would be more efficient, but I don’t think that would do the cobble stones much good.
And Brussels is a city of cobble stoned roads (they could do with employing my Mother to re-lay some of those stones).
But we weren’t there for the clean-up – We had taken the train to Nieuwpoort to pick up the canal boat.