3 January 2008

When I Grow Up I Want to be Belgian!

Now, don't get me wrong, I love being Canadian. But there is a little teeensy, tiny little bit of me that longs to be Belgian?

Darcy and I went to Belgium this past autumn. Belgium was his idea really, wooed as he was by the Belgian reputation for beer. I was wary, thinking like most people, "What the heck is in Belgium?". I thought back to my university art history days and sure enough there is a truly impressive number of Flemish masters, plus Flemish architecture is at the same time charming in its style and stunning in its design. And after seeing it in person, I would have to say that the craftmanship is perhaps second to none.

But these are not the things that make me long to be Belgian. What really won me over was their ability to maintain a simple, good-living lifestyle, while at the same time racing toward their future. These may be the most efficient people in the world. They blend environmentally sound practices with modern advances, and mix commerce with good old-fashioned, small scale production and old-world craftsmanship.

We stayed in the North part of Belgian where the major urban centres are all located. Being 20 minutes from Ghent and 15 minutes from Bruges, we were still smack-dab in the middle of a rural lifestyle. Everywhere we looked people made the most of their small parcels of land. Within walking distance of our rented cottage, every manner of farm animal was to be found, (including deer for venison), as well as fruit trees, kitchen vegetable gardens, or larger scale crops. There seemed to be no wasted space at all. Even right up to the edges of the city, the land was given over to farm land. Here, the land leading up to the edge of the city is razed and covered over with overcrowded subdivisions and sprawling malls.

Another thing that I loved about the country is the strong desire to retain tradition and preserve its heritage within the city centre. There were not many times when we found a view disrupted by a towering parking structure or other urban atrocity. Instead, we discovered that we were able to follow a road into the centre of town, drive down a short ramp and the road and parking garage disappeared underneath the city. Convenient, but more importantly, it really does allow for the possibility of pedestrianized cities.

Once in the cities, you can look around and imagine how the cities must have looked 100 hundred years ago. In fact, if you stop and dwell, you can almost imagine how the city unfolded itself over the millenia. And a perfect example of the commitment to not only retain, but to rebuild their home-land is Ypres. When we drove into the town we were awed by the medieval style buildings and beautiful town square. It was not until later that we realised that it was actually all built within the last century. Actually, I should say, rebuilt. As we all know Ypres was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in World War 1, and again much of Belgium suffered through World War 2. But with the ink on the armistice barely dried, the townspeople started rebuilding. And parts that had been salvaged or saved and hiiden during the war, were re-used. Such care and attention to detail went into rebuilding that the town is almost identical to pre-war photos. Again, I wonder why this interest in preservation is so lacking here? Juxtapose photos of Toronto-then with Toronto-now, and you would not believe that it is the same place. Our quest for the modern leaves our past in rubble piles. And it is truly a shame.

And finally, the true reason that I want to be Belgian. Juliette's Cookie Corner in a winding little street in the centre of Bruges. Walking by this little corner shop, our noses perked up at the wonderfully subtle scent of hot butter and sugar, mixed with just the right blend of spices. Never ones to say no to freshly baked cookies we popped in and treated ourselves to a selection. Speculoos, sables, gingersnaps, etc. Oh it was heaven. In fact, just the scent of the cookies was so transcendental that I kept the little paper bag they were packed in for the duration of the trip so that I could keep crushing it up against my nose while breathing deeply.

Its not just the cookies. Or the chocolates. Or candies. Or waffles. Or the pot of cheese with endive buried deep within it. Or the frites. Although all of these left my pants a little tight by the end of trip, it was the pride, care and attention to detail that seemed to go into everything. As I mentioned earlier in the ramble, it is the small scale production and old world quality of, well, everything it seemed. Where here artisinal quality is a reason to charge double, there it is expected as the norm.

I really do hope deep in my heart that if I can never be Belgian, then at least a little bit of that Belgian attitude will find its way to the rest of the world.

Imagine, we ordered a cup of tea and coffee, and were presented with this tray of various sugars, cakes, jelly candies, and marshmallows, shaped I believe like the Virgin Mary.

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