The land of beer and chocolate

Contrary to what you commonly hear in Paris and London, I don’t find Brussels a boring city. That’s not to say the people are the most exciting in the world, but at least they show civility and lack arrogance, which is a welcome break for the visitor. Additionally, you can eat and drink very well, though not particularly cheaply.

In the mid 1990’s, the head of a Belgian multinational in Portugal let me know that historically the northern part of Belgium, i.e. the Flemish area, favoured Bordeaux wine: due to the centuries of warfare in the lowlands, wine from Burgundy could not get through, and the naval route supplied Antwerp. The Walloon part, extending to the Liège region in the south, prefers Burgundy, which was transported by road from northern France. This is apparently reflected in the wine lists of Belgian restaurants from the two areas – this could be a promising research topic, and I wonder if it’s true.

I was struck by the similarities between Brussels, which like it or not is the de facto capital of the European Union, and Washington DC. In both, government buildings are overburdened with security, and there is a federal feel about them and what goes on within. I have been involved in some work which brings together all 25 countries that now integrate the Union, and I am amazed to be seeing this in my lifetime. After I spoke, a young lady approached me over coffee and told me how unusual it was to see someone from her country leading a discussion in Brussels. She works for an NGO, lives in Brussels, and told me with a hint of concern that she was a lobbyist. It pains me greatly that delegates from Portugal rarely have anything to say during the decision-making processes that are the building blocks of this 500 million strong experiment, and wonder why we cannot send our best to help shape the decisions that hold the future of our children.

Although I prefer wine, Belgium does have an amazing profusion of beers, including trappist monk offerings that range up to triple strength. Yeast is responsible for the fermentation of sugars into alcohol, and special strains are needed to resist the high strength of alcohol they themselves produce. If ever there was an example of a community drinking itself to death, yeasts are it. And each beer is served in its own unique glass, to highlight character. Monks tended to focus historically on brewing beer and spirits, such as the green liquor Chartreuse.

Nuns, on the other hand, were in medieval times experts at manufacturing sweets, particularly puddings, always with a profusion of eggs – no huge cholesterol concerns. In Portugal, the so called doces conventuais are some of the most delicious desserts in the world.

Travel always adds some strange and puzzling facts to my arsenal. This time I found out about an exclusively Swedish practice called snus – pronounced snooze. Wikipedia states that it is also used in Norway, but I was assured by the Swedish gal who turned me onto it that this is not the case. Snus apparently derives originally from snuff, and I was taught to place a pastille under my upper lip and hold it there. I wasn’t very successful, probably laughing and talking too much at the time, but the pure nicotine the tab contains shoots into the bloodstream straight through the mucus membrane. Reminded me of my first cigarette in my early teens.

This stuff is illegal in the European Union, but apparently Sweden has an exemption. Experienced “snoozers” like my Swedish friend show no external evidence of snoozing – we were playing games trying to find which side of her upper lip she was snoozing on, a bit like the pea and nutshell trick. So they get the nicotine buzz without worrying about the smoking ban. Downside? Someone mentioned mouth cancer at the time. I had a quick surf, and apparently there is potentially an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, but there doesn’t seem to be evidence for other kinds. The lung cancer rate is greatly decreased when compared to smoking, and the net is rife with contradictory analyses between health groups and big tobacco, which seems to see this as a good product alternative to cigarettes – partly I suspect due to the smoking ban. A quick search for snus and USA shows it is on the up. Caveat Emptor.

Another idiosynchrasy in comparison to Portugal is the universal permission to bring pets into restaurants and hotels. Of course many countries allow pets in hotel rooms. That said, I had never seen the picture below. It left me wondering what courses of action the chambermaid might resort to.

Ping! Seatbelt signs are on, and we are approaching the promised land, taxiing in over the great estuary from which Vasco da Gama’s ships sailed to Calicut.

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