A VISIT TO THE BENELUX COUNTRIES NOV 2014

BY RALPH FISHER

 

 

 

As I write this I've just completed a ten day journey through the "Benelux"-the three countries of Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands perched on the north edge of Mainland Europe who have blended their economies and resources to make a prosperous, duty free and customs free economic union within Europe.

 

I flew from Atlanta to Brusselles with Delta on an overnight flight that found me packed into the economy class in a jammed full plane next to two elderly folks from the Carolinas. I tried to sleep but my back ached and I couldn’t stretch out. Whenever my arm fell off my armrest into the isle a beverage cart would slam into it and I finally gave up on sleep for the 8 hour crossing of the Atlantic.

 

By the time I’d walked three miles from the plane to the customs checkpoint for Brusselles airport I was in no mood to wait in line with the huddled masses trying to enter Europe. But wait I did. For the next hour I surveyed the scene: There are two types of customs lines to enter Belgium. One is for European Union members- the EU folks- and there’s another line for the rest of the world, including Americans.

 

As I looked at the crowd of hundreds in the Disney World type winding line before me I was amazed that I was the only blond in the room and I was taller than all but a few of the crowd.

 

Immediately in front of me seemed to be an entire village from India dressed in colorful clothes more appropriate for a street festival than a flight halfway around. They chatted and smiled while their children cried with impatience after a 12 hour flight to a cold new place. Ahead of the Indian village was a giant mass of young Africans. These folks, men and women, looked uncertain and nervous as they held large manila envelopes filled with entry papers, visas and passports. They were quiet and sullen, afraid that their long journey that Belgium would reject their quest for entry into Western Europe.

 

Another tribe included an amazingly large number of elderly Americans from places like Rome, Georgia and Nashville, Tennessee ( I knew where they were from by simply reading their white name tags!) They all wore impossibly ugly white tennis shoes and spoke loudly with broad Southern accents and smiled like they were waiting at a checkout line at a grocery store. I recognized a large group of the Americans wearing name tags. I’d seen them in Atlanta in the waiting area. They had come to Belgium to spread the word of God and distribute bibles to the godless people of the Benelux and I heard them talking excitedly about converting the agnostics of Belgium into good Christians.

 

When it finally came my turn to present my passport the customs official looked at me and started speaking Dutch, a language used by the Flemish people of north Belgium. He proceeded to ask me in Dutch if I was born in Holland! I speak a bit of Dutch and knew what he was asking so I answered, "Nee, ik bin van de V.S."(I'm from the U.S.). I never did figure out why he thought I spoke Dutch but since I answered his question and smiled my ridiculously big American smile, he stamped my passport and waived me into Belgium!

 

The cold outside the terminal was a shock even though I expected it. It's Always colder in Europe that you think it will be, especially in November. My friend Theirry was there outside the baggage claim area waiting for me. And it was with relief that I acknowledged his wave and he escorted me to his car for the hour and a half drive east on the Belgium freeway to Liege, Belgium where he lived with his wife and three wonderful teenage children. Along the way I asked Theirry why I wasn’t seeing any signs along the freeway for Liege. “The signs are everywhere, we just saw one, “ he laughed. “Look ahead, there’s another one.”

 

But it said, “Luik”-not Liege. Why do they spell it Luik and not Liege? “Ralph, you are in the Flemish part of Belgium and they have different names for all the cities. The word for Liege in Dutch is “Luik””. Wow, like calling Tampa, Sticks of Fire in English? This was strange. But it was my first introduction to a strange schizophrenia that pervades this interesting country.

 

The town of Liege has evidence of prior glory: giant steel furnaces still line the Meusse River that runs through the center of Liege. But the town long since lost its industry and settled into a sullen depressed existence once the industry left town. In many way it is a grimy old industrial town, much like the American Midwest industrial belt. But there are spires of new construction that have emerged recently and an information economy is underway in the long considered backwater of eastern Belgium.

 

We enjoyed coffee at this large house on the largest yard I've ever seen at a private home in Northern Europe. I played soccer with his son and reveled in the green lawn covered with a soft grass that would put any golf course in Florida to shame. That evening we enjoyed an exquisite meal at a loud, boisterous Italian eatery in the heart of Liege on a tiny cobblestoned street that screamed culture! City

 

I nodded with an intoxication felt from the glow of jet lag and wine as we drove back to Theirry's house and after we arrived I fell into deep much needed slumber in one of the bedrooms my host's teenage son had graciously given up to their American house-guest. I awoke refreshed and ready for a day of learning French and shopping in the many stores and shops in the main boulevard that runs through Liege. As I shopped I tried my rudimentary Dutch but I found myself having to speak English because although Belgium is both Dutch (Flanders) and French (Wallonia), few French Belgiums are comfortable speaking Dutch. In fact, the tension between the two languages and cultures was evident even on simple things like milk cartons, where both languages proclaim the type of milk is in the cardboard container, but no French speaker (and presumably no Dutch speaker) can tell you with certainty what is being said in the "other" language!

 

Thierry's kids were very comfortable in English however, Matthew had a British accent that shocked his father, ("He hardly speaks English around me and I had no idea", said Theirry) whereas Matthew's sisters, Adriane and Sofie had beautiful lilting French accents when they spoke in English. If only the Dutch side of Belgium would switch to English, all of this divided place's troubles would be over!

 

Finally, this part of my journey through the Benelux ended and Thierry dropped me off at the train station for the journey to Maastricht, Holland, about 25 miles due north where I stepped out and changed platforms to another train that carried me much further north to Utrecht in the center of the Netherlands. As the trains moved, I saw subtle changes in the countryside as the countries, language and customs showed their differences in cars, roads, houses, livestock and the fashions of the folk in the villages and towns along the way.

 

Upon arrival in Utrecht my first impression was a place in a mad dash for development as every building was in a state of being torn down and rebuilt and every person madly dashed about their business in the gigantic "Goog Catherine" shopping center that abuts the Utrecht central train station.  I giant waver of humanity crawled through the place and I was bewildered with trying to learn the system of electronic cards used to travel about. It seems Dutch debit cards have special chips that aren't available in the U.S. that allow purchases via a "chip" system through which purchases of still more electronic cards allow train, bus and subway travel. But absent a special chip, I was helpless to be able to purchase the blue travel card. So I found myself waiting in a long line with the elderly and foreigners to pay for a "top off" on a travel card so I could use the bus.

 

But even then I couldn't figure out the route system and I ended up walking a mile or two into the city to my friend Goof Baker's house where I enjoyed a warm greeting and a cup of coffee followed by a few beers while resting from my long day's journey to my third country in as many days. That afternoon we sat in a Turkish cafe along the main street and watched the students bike by in convoys of thousands of bicycles. In fact, not just students use bicycles in the Netherlands. Every Dutchman owns at least one bike and although cars are plentiful and the country can well afford automobiles, the preferred way of travel within the cities is via bicycle. As a result, we witnessed thousands and thousands of commuters from old ladies to young children traversing the "fiets pot"-bike paths- that parallel every thoroughfare. The Streets have three methods of travel, car, bike and walking and any pedestrian who values his life will never venture into a bike path for fear of hearing the dreaded "ding dong" of a bicyclist moving at 20 miles an hour along the way. I learned early on in my visit to fear that ding dong sound for it meant you were about to be run over by an angry dutchman on his bicycle!

 

That evening Goof and I met up with Tom and the three of us solved most of the world's troubles while eating Indonesian cuisine at a Chinese restaurant. I bought a bottle of excellent French wine and later we walked a few miles in the empty quiet Streets of the old city along the canal and by the famous "Domtoren"- Dom tower in the center of the city. This ancient building rises almost 400 feet up and was built in 1380, over six hundred years ago and is one of the major landmarks of Utrecht.

 

That night I slept well and arose early for the train ride to Amsterdam. On this journey I finally figured out how to recharge and use my  "ov-chipcard" to pay for the train ticket. After an hour I found myself in the cool air in bright sunshine outside the enormous "Centraal Station" of Amsterdam; around me were samples of all of humanity from Amsterdam junkies to fat American tourists with their maps and tour books. Across the way I jumped on the first tram and hoped it would head north along the Rokin Street toward the queen's palace near the wax museum. As luck would have it I arrived within five minutes and after swiping my chipcard on the reader at the exit to the tram I alighted on the street and started walking toward the Ann Frank house where six month before I had put my Amsterdam bike on the street.

 

Bike theft is so bad in Amsterdam and most people don't even bother calling the police when they lose a bike to thieves. And no bike, no matter how securely locked is immune to being pilfered and stripped for bike parts. So I had no expectations regarding me bike.  But I had locked it securely. And I had taken pains to make sure the paint was a horrid bright yellow spray paint. I also had a nasty, oily lock that any prospective thief would recoil at, afraid he'd get some of the grease and grim on himself from my terrible example of a bicycle. So, from a half block away I was amazed and delighted to see my bike!

 

The tires were low and the front light was rusted but the back light worked and my keys begrudgingly turned the locks and freed my steed from it's parking place. I had a bike in Amsterdam. I walked to a nearby bike shop (there are hundreds of them in Amsterdam) and borrowed a pump and bought a light for the front. I also bought WD-40 and sprayed the chain and key holes. Soon I was gliding around like a local on my A'dam bike headed towards Martin's house, dodging giant trucks, trams, cars, pedestrians and other bikes.

 

Unfortunately, I had I medium sized suitcase on the front handlebars and my hand luggage hung around my neck and shoulder. It was almost impossible at first to even get started with all the extra weight but I found that I could put the suitcase precariously on the handlebars and somehow balance the whole thing while wobbling my way down the fiets pad-bike path- in the general direction of the museum quarter where my friend, Martin and his family lived in a beautiful house that hopefully had a warm shower waiting for me.

 

In general, it is much more dangerous than it feels to bicycle in Amsterdam, and mine was a more than usual danger trying to bike through traffic with luggage hanging off my shoulder and handlebars! But I have to say that there are few things in life make one feel more alive than sitting high up on a Gazelle bike riding through Amsterdam while taking in what sights you can while weaving this way and that.

 

At the house I was greeted warmly by Martin's children, Ana and Marc. Both are in school and speak incredible English. In fact Marc is taking a university course in Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and was writing a paper on audit rotation. My gosh, when he asked for help I thanked my lucky stars that I'd studied most of this stuff when I was studying for the CPA exam. But for an 18 year old Dutch kid to be studying and writing papers about this stuff in English was beyond comprehension for me. I read the final paper days later and was truly impressed and told him so.

 

The next days were spent in a cycle of reading, riding and enjoying the cafe culture of this magnificent city. Though cold, the weather was clear and rain free and when you're on a bike you generate enough heat to ward off the cold. It was only in the night, when the house fell into the mid 50s inside that I was cold. One day I'll convince my Dutch friends to turn on the heat for Florida crackers! 

 

The next day I took my hosts, Martin and Annelies,  out to dinner along with their son, Marc, at a local eatery called De Knijp which prides itself on fast service and good late night food. Man was I impressed. Within minutes of sitting we tucked into splendid salads and a fresh bottle of excellent white wine and table water along with bread and butter. I was happy to just enjoy that but the meal evolved to include incredible fish dishes mixed with meats that I’d never tasted before. When the bill came I was grateful to have that fistful of green hundred euro notes in my back pocket because dinner for four along with wine and a tip was $225! But heck, I was on vacation and tomorrow is my birthday.

 

For that, I decided to follow a well established Dutch custom of having a birthday party for myself.

 

And what a birthday it was. I started out with a long shopping list from the lovely Pelagia De Wild who called me on my European cell phone early and gave me a list of foods to buy along with specific instructions on where to buy wine for my birthday party she and her husband Laurens had generously offered to host that evening.

 

I biked off to the famous Albert Cuyp outdoor market with a large plastic shopping bag Annelies gave me in hand. The Cuyp is a three or four block long market with an incredible assortment of consumer goods for sale in a flea market atmosphere. It has shopkeepers shouting out their sale prices behind giant piles of fruits, vegetables and other goods including fish stalls full of every kind of fish imaginable. I couldn’t help but take photos of the fish offerings as I made purchase after purchase. A hundred or more Euros later I biked to Pelagia’s with my giant bag bulging with food that Laurens would later turn into a gourmet  meal for 10 people hours later.

 

But first I had to get wine. The shop was a small one near the Westerkerk (west chuch) near the Ann Frank house. There the shopkeeper not only showed me special wines to buy, he also opened two bottles and we proceeded to sit together for the next two hours, sipping and watching the masses walk by on their way to the next tourist attraction. Laurens has a theory that all of central Amsterdam has become a big tourist attraction.

 

That evening was filled with revelry and swapping of stories, mostly in Dutch that in my wine induced state I could only partly understand. To my shock, several people actually brought me gifts, something I normally eschew.

 

The next day I awoke early without an alarm knowing that it was to be the longest day of the journey. For today was my flight home. I was so grateful for the  ride to the airport by Martin and almost as grateful for the Privium lounge which offered free coffee. The only trouble was that when I tried to scan my bloodshot eye in the special reader that allows one to avoid customs the machine couldn’t read my eyes! A friendly dutch customs man approached me and looked at my American passport and inquired in Dutch, “Won je in Nederland?” –Do you live in Holland? Again, just as when I entered Brussels eleven days prior I answered in Dutch, “Nee, ik won in Tampa.”-No I live in Tampa. He stamped my passport and said, “Goede riese”- Good trip.

Another whirlwind trip to Europe was now part of history. And after that it was Tampa for me!

 All the best,

Ralph