Photo by Jeremy D. Larson
As you do when you break free from the tethers of email, I left an auto-away message on my Gmail that read, “I am in Belgium of all places.” When I arrived in Belgium, I met with Tom Pieters who was organizing my stay through Tourism Flanders. “I noticed your auto-reply message. Why did you say ‘of all places’?” It was hard to convey to him what was both a little joke and my thoughts on Belgium pre-visit.
As I type this, I’m on a train back from Bruges, passing through farm fields with scattered cows and small brick cottages with stucco roofing. Since I first arrived in Belgium, I’ve felt the country and my home state of Wisconsin have a lot in common; they’re both most stereotypically known for beer and food that’s horrible for you (cheese and waffles, respectively). And while I begrudgingly take pride in my squeaky-ass cheese curds, there’s always a sense of “Hey there’s more to Wisco than cheese.” In my time here, that’s generally the subtext of Belgium and I suppose anywhere you travel: look beyond the brochure.
Another reason I’m here is to experience Flanders (the Northern part of Belgium that contains Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, and Leuven) as a Festival. Just the northern part of Belgium plays host to more than 280 festivals throughout the summer. Some are smaller, local festivals in small towns, while others include Rock Werchter drawing over 85,000 people a day. After almost a week here, walking around by myself, drinking some of the best beers I’ve ever had, talking to some mall punks while Rise Against is playing, being in the middle of a Skrillex pit, watching Patti Smith at an amphitheater in the woods, I haven’t seen a brochure that accurately captures the quiet and the loud of Flanders (it’s like a Pixies song!). Even if this little recap of my time serves as a new brochure, look beyond and go and see for yourself.
–Jeremy D. Larson
Wednesday, June 27th
10:45 a.m. – On the train from Brussels airport to Leuven, the hills roll like they do in Wisconsin. I don’t know if you can define “quaint” as the opposite of urbane, but it struck me here for the first time as an optimistic word. Far away places are always filled with wonder and awe, just a sign in a different language can leave you agog as you try to synthesize its definition in your own tongue, but there’s always something vaguely familiar about every foreign place you go. The more places you travel, the more ties you make to other places you’ve been. It’s like listening to the band Girls, having remembered that you used to listen to The Everly Brothers.
One thing about Leuven as I walk through it in a fog of residual Tylenol PM is there’s bustle with no hustle – static energy. Also, there’s no music blaring from any store or on any street corner. It’s a quiet day, I suppose.
I’m trying to think of something funny or “WTF Belgium?” about Leuven but nothing really strikes me like here. It’s a small city with a university and bars every 50 ft.
2:30 p.m. – And there are 778 bars (or cafes) in Leuven. They definitely roll like they do in Wisconsin.
Micro brew in Leuven
3:00 p.m. – I come to find that Leuven, home of the Stella Brewing Co., is angling to be the Beer City of Europe, much to the chagrin of its bigger brother Brussels. Leuven was built on beer, it ran on beer, it lives and dies by beer, and the beer is really, really good so it gets my vote.
8:45 p.m. – The only music happening on this Wednesday is a Flemmish High School choir doing a cappella renditions of Queen, Lady Gaga, Isley Brothers, etc. They did this with impeccable American accents, even though all the interstitial crowd goading and joking was in Dutch.
11:30 p.m. – Spain won the semi-final because there are about 500 people gathered in the Market Square screaming and watching 36” flat screen TVs jerry-rigged out in the front of the bars. My fair-weather love of soccer is in complete dissonance with the rapt audience so I went to the silent square and took this picture and went to bed.
Leuven City Hall at night.