Christmas in Belgium

A little more than 24 hours ago, I was hanging out here, the Grand Place in Brussels:

Nice, eh? The Grand Place lives up to it’s name for it is both grand and truly the place to be, even when it’s about 30 degrees out. Hard to transition from that to New Jersey, but that’s where long, stuffy plane rides help out.

To begin at the beginning, we arrived in Brussels and took a train out to Bruges. Belgium is like New York in that it takes about an hour to get everywhere. Except instead of taking an hour to get from New Jersey to Brooklyn, where you go through tunnels, past Broadway billboards, and can’t distinguish one apartment building from another, a Belgium hour takes you past sheep, 800-year-old churches, and rolling countryside.

And 60 minutes later, et voila, you’re in the charming, laid-back medieval city of Bruges…

…where the Westvletern flows, sweets are stacked, and cones of french fries abound.

Which brings me to one of the highlights of the trip–the Friet Museum–a centuries-old church converted into a museum that is the ultimate ode to the french fry. The origins of the french fry are difficult to trace. Everyone claims to be the first to take a potato and throw it in hot oil. However, Belgium can lay claim to consuming the highest amount of french fries per capita. That’s pretty impressive considering Belgium is a small country filled with skinny people. The Friet Museum is both a love letter to the french fry and a love letter to the people of Belgium. This was the quirkiest, incredibly informative, most charming museum I have ever visited–an unusual hybrid of modern kitsch, archeology, and anthropology. Mike said I was beaming the whole time.

Suspended from the ceiling were strings of various potatoes–like an exhibit in a planetarium. This display could have been a traditional glass case of plastic Russets and Yukon Golds, but no–a couple of people in Belgium lovingly strung several dozen potato models and placed them in soft light in the center of a dark room so that your eye would be immediately drawn to them. That’s devotion. There were also detailed explanations on the etymology of ketchup and why we dump mustard and mayonnaise on everything. The tour ended with a cone of french fries served in a pink and green room.

The Friet Museum was followed by the chocolate museum, which wasn’t kitschy or charming, but a very serious explanation about the origins, development, and exploitation of chocolate. In other words, it’s the story of Western colonization, so it’s a downer.

The real chocolate tour is through the streets of any town in Belgium. From Bruges to Brussels, the chocolate shops were packaged to please the eye and the soul. How can you walk into a chocolate shop and not feel instantly happy?

If the chocolate shop doesn’t quell the cravings, you can always get chocolate poured on to your waffle and then dribble it all over your face–a true sign of a tourist–the inability to gracefully eat a chocolate-covered waffle while on the go.

The whole purpose of going to Belgium was to eat and be charmed. We had been talking about this trip for about two years. We talked about Belgium when we were in Jamaica. During our visit to Belgium, I talked about Poland and Greece.

While we mapped out our globe-trotting to-do list, Mike sucked down varities of beer, Anna sampled french fries on every corner, I got hooked on steaming cups of Belgian hot chocolate (how can you go back to Swiss Miss after that???), and no one ate the steaming pots of mussels that were on every single table at every restaurant we went to. But we did try Belgian stew.

Interestingly, lasagne was offered everywhere. Anna is not a lasagne eater, but she did eat a bowl of spaghetti our first night in Bruges. We dined at this charming pub overlooking the Christmas market and the bell tower–the famous Belfort–in downtown Bruges. We sat on the second floor by the window, watching Bruges get ready for Christmas and Anna attempt to eat spaghetti. It was the perfect way to start our week–surrounded by twinkling colored lights and the buzz of holiday shoppers punctuated by the clip clop of the horses pulling tourists around in carriages while a little girl wrestled a strand of pasta.

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