Friday, 24 August 2012

Belgium, the World's Capital for Indulgence

Part I: Indulgence of the Tongue

We spent about a week in Belgium, splitting time between lively Antwerp, beautiful Brugge, and capital Brussels. This poor inconspicuous little country seems like the underdog for international travel destinations. But maybe they don't mind it that way. They don't need extra fanfare because their cities' narrow cobblestone streets are already swimming with locals and European tourists alike, making for a festive and joyous atmosphere.
Le Tapis de Fleurs, Brussels
Belgium has largely retained its chivalrous charm and at the same time dominated the world's gastronomic stage. On its unspoiled European-esque streets you will find the world's best food and drink. This little nation has a reputation for producing the sweetest chocolates, tastiest beers, yummiest waffles and most finger-licking fries. Your sweet tooth will thank you very much for going. Your scale might not.

I managed to lock lips with several beers including Le Chouffe, Brugse Zot, Kwok, Jupiler, De Koninck, and their national favourite Duvel. Not a bad portfolio, however, I have a ways to go to try all of Belgium's beers as there are thousands of breweries and the selection is endless. Delirium Cafe in Brussels serves 2400 different beers, a Guinness World Record, including the world famous beer named after the bar itself.
Enjoying a Kwok beer, Brugge
Amy meanwhile succumbed to her weakness. However, she wasn't too impressed with the chocolates we tried. Since she has already had Belgium chocolates in Canada, the quality wasn't much better at the source.

Part II: Meeting of Open Minds

One of the highlights of our time in Belgium was meeting some really cool people in Brussels. It was probably just a coincidence that all these meetings occurred in Brussels but the fact that it's one of the capital cities of the European Union suggests a certain kind of mindset that exists there.

The first man is Ata, an old and remarkable Persian man, whose wife passed away and children living overseas. We met him in the morning at the subway station and, by chance, again at night. We had talked a bit the first meeting and by the second meeting, he invited us up to his apartment for snacks and refreshments. He had a very touching story.
Amy and I at Ata's house, Brussels
He worked in Rwanda with his wife while raising their children for 28 years. He worked as a doctor while his wife did humanitarian work empowering women. They also worked with orphans in Bosnia-Herzegovina. His message was strong and heartfelt: everyone is equal, no matter their race or religion, and to help those in need. We ended up coming back for dinner the next day. His message became a bit repetitve but nonetheless we appreciated his passion and conviction, and he enjoyed having our attention and the chance to share his life story.

The second man, who shall remain unnamed, let us stay with him in his squat. Now we weren't even sure at the time what a squat was until we entered our accommodations and, although we were a little turned off, we were simply happy just to have beds (or mattresses on the floor) to sleep in. The squat was an unhomely experience: messy, no hot water, limited appliances and other facilities, overrun by fruit flies.  But it was also very humbling, and for that we were thankful to have stayed. After this, we can sleep anywhere!

The squat dwellers were very warm and friendly. The man who let us stay with him was very pleasant, smiling and interesting. Not only did they not pay rent, but they didn't pay for food either. They declared their squat to be a vegan squat, and regularly went to food markets upon closing and asked for their leftover unsold food which would otherwise be tossed as rubbish. Surprisingly, they are successful at this and the farmers who contribute are happy to, since it meant the extra food didn't go to waste. This is quite a good samaritan way of doing business. I plan on doing this when I come back to Calgary.

Another couple we met at the squat were travelling through Brussels as we were. They were a very interesting British couple, all "hippied out" with dreadlocks and peace signs, driving a charming converted camper van. They were invited to this place by picking up a hitchhiker - one of the squat dwellers. They attend concerts selling their specially made and very tasty ginger beer. They also hadn't bathed in 3 months! But somehow didn't emit any nasally-offensive toxins. I think both of them used to have stable office jobs, and either quit or were laid off.

But they are happier now that they are on the unpredictable open road. They don't regret a thing!

And so far, neither do I.


Sunday, 12 August 2012

Sex, Drugs and... Bikes?

Four years ago Amsterdam amazed me with its open and liberal culture. It was the only city in the world that legalized both prostitution and marijuana. Coming back here, nothing has changed. Well, except that the “conservative” government in power is trying to make it illegal to sell marijuana to tourists and it’s so far worked everywhere except, thankfully, Amsterdam ;)

The liberalism here is off the charts, globally a number one hit. This city has it all: history, architectural beauty, dykes (the ones that prevent half the country from flooding) and an unlimited lifetime supply of what America brags about as their so-called “freedom.” Netherlands makes America look like a fading dystopia. By the way, just to clear the air, the country is called Netherlands; not Holland! Holland forms two provinces, a North and South, where most of the development and population resides.
I AMsterdam
Amy and I did the requisite tourist attractions: Van Gogh Museum, Ann Frank Huis, Artis Zoo and canal cruises. However, those were overshadowed by the unplanned experiences such as interactions with locals, and learning about Dutch life and politics. I learned from a young Australian worker that it's really easy to get a working Visa here. This fact has been shelved for future considerations.

My favourite museum was the Versetz Museum, or Dutch Resistance Museum, detailing the life and times during German occupation in WWII. As luck would have it, the Gay Pride Parade was in town and we checked it out. Amy had previously been to Toronto's version and said it was miniature compared to Amsterdam's. And I'm not talking about their speedos.
Gay pride parade
Our host was amazing and lent us her bikes to ride around the city. I learned a lot about the cycling culture there and want to bike more like the Dutch when I return to Canada. I saw a lot of bikes too; there are over 600,000 of these 2 wheeled beasts in Amsterdam!
Bikes, bikes, bikes!
As wonderful as Amsterdam was, we just had a very memorable time in an inconspicuous place. We just finished out stay with a Dutch family in an old farmhouse situated in inconspicious little Kloosterburen in the northeast part of Netherlands. The family belongs to a Couchsurfer whom I hosted early this year in Calgary. We have indulged in cheese, bread and wine, mingled with good conversation. We have also cycled through farm fields and quaint villages, checked out the main dyke protecting the Netherlands from the North Sea, and even played tennis! The picture below shows the dyke and dry land on both sides. That's because the tide is currently low, allowing for an abundance of vegetation to grow on the seaside. Livestock even crosses over to the seaside to graze!
Dyke protecting Netherlands, from the North Sea 
It was an ideal three day recluse from the whirlwind life of backpacking. But soon enough we shall be hitting the road. Next stop, Antwerp, Belgium!

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The UK in a nutshell.

Greetings from Amsterdam! We have just completed the United Kingdom, having stayed in Glasgow for 3 days, Edinburgh for 2, and London for 6. Everything went smoothly for the most part with just a few setbacks.

London was just plain awesome, and one of the greatest cities in the world. We packed our schedule with museums and iconic landmarks. Being there during the Olympics added electricity to the already charged atmosphere on the streets. Edinburgh was easily one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. My one regret is not going on The Hairy Coo free highlands tour which works on tips only. But at least I did an amazing local hike called Arthur's Seat with amazing views of Edinburgh. I ran from the hostel, through highlands type trails, to the summit in only 40 minutes. Glasgow was a bit underwhelming and overly urbanized compared to the old world charm of the previous city. Despite this, Glasgow has an interesting history lying beneath the urban form.

View from the top of Arthur's Seat towards Edinburgh old towne
Here are some fun tidbits I have picked up from my time in the UK. Some of these are obvious, but hopefully some are not and those that are are fun to recount.

To Let = For Rent
pitta = pita
knackered = tired
no bother = no problem
I'm easy = I'm cool; or whatever goes
Oh, and Irish people do NOT actually say "top o' the mornin' to ya"
Amy and I are now fans of Haggis, Neeps and Tatties! Translated to North American English, this is sheep stomach, mashed carrots and turnips, and mashed potatoes
Ikea brand cider (~4.5% alcohol) is also pretty good
Their electrical plugs have on/off switches
Everyone drinks water straight from the tap
Everything is smaller!
You can drink anywhere in public!
Finally, some stuff can be found really cheap in the UK and especially Scotland, such as food, alcohol and accommodations. Grocery stores have amazing deals. For example, 4 pints or 2.27 L of milk is 1 quid (or pound) or $1.60 CAD. Alcohol is also cheap and is sold in grocery stores, usually one aisle down from the veggies!

I knew this beforehand, but coming back here has reinforced my love for Europeans! They are the most easy-going and happy peoples on Earth. Most importantly, they have learned to share their space with others and to live with less and, thus, value a minimal lifestyle with a focus on experiences.

One day in Amsterdam has been great so far! Blog on that coming soon...