from Sandy Needham

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Belgium Dispatch

Our friends Mieke and Joris live in Natal, Brazil five months of the year with their daughter, Sofie, and her family. They spend the temperate months of Northern Europe in their very lovely and typical row house in Leuven, Belgium.

I was the fortunate recipient of Mieke and Joris' first class hospitality on the first leg of our three-month sojourn in Europe. Newton began in Asia on a business trip and met up with all of us at the end of my stay.

I arrived with a very irritated eye that got worse, so Mieke, or "Mommy," as I often called her, insisted their doctor fit me in right away. The guy was so handsome, I didn't question for a moment using antibiotic eye drops. Mieke kept me on schedule with those drops and the softest old hankie to dab the eye...very welcomed TLC ('tender loving care,' FYI). Thanks to her, I got my eye back.

Of course, the delicate homemade soups full of vegetables and greens were part of the whole pampered gig. Both Mieke and Joris are gourmet cooks who make fresh, incredible food together daily. The breads, cheeses, smoked fish, salami, etc. from shops a short walk away are an entire additional reason to live!

I actually got to witness the arrival of summer. After a chilly Monday evening and Tuesday, summer arrived on Wednesday, all warm and sunny. The collective sense of jubilation was felt all 'round! 

Summer evenings in Leuven are special. The warmth beckoned a crowd just down Mieke and Joris' block for literally a garage band performance. It was fantastic! We dined out on seasonal young herring (with a shot of accompanying gin) or enjoyed the incomparable creations from Mieke and Joris' kitchen - better than any restaurant - in their garden out back. We enjoyed gallons of delectable white wine that neither dehydrated nor inebriated (Europe!). Bring on the quiche, soup, smoked fish, fresh greens, paté, Gouda, Brie and Camembert...and local artisanal chocolates! And what superb conversation to feed my mind, as well, as the last vestiges of day were still peaking through clouds at 11:30pm.

Or we strolled along the plazas full of summer-happy people toasting the long summer light, sampling beer here and there. It was intoxicating in every way! "Capitol Bar" offers 2,000 beers, all of them Belgian. They have an automated wheel that delivers the numbered requests below and then hoists the beers above. Each brand has its own labeled glass or mug...imagine the organization. Here is the floor "window" to the basement:

Then there was the tour-guiding. Leuven is in the northern Flemish region of Belgium, around 100,000 population. I saw structures from the early 1200's, pristine 17th century guild halls and government buildings, then the numerous buildings designated "1914" that had been burned by the Germans and rebuilt after WWI. Plenty of bombings, battles and burnings have occurred over the centuries as warring neighbors traipsed over Belgium. There are many modern structures, of course, blended among the old and the older.

The Dijle River enters, forks into five branches, then unites to exit the city. This provides canal-like waterways that not only enabled commerce historically, but provide beauty and ambiance.

This is the library that was rebuilt after WWII by the USA; we were nicer then:

Leuven's university is the largest in Belgium and is scattered all over the city among buildings from all periods. Students are ubiquitous. Here is the statue honoring this tradition: a book and a beer.

Leuven really functions in such an intelligent way:
-To reduce the noise, pollution, and annoyance of cars, most of the city center has been closed to them. Local residents have remote controls to lower the cylindrical barriers in order to arrive at their homes. The peace and fresh air are a heavenly result.

-Their recycling system for garbage has replaced the garbage collection fee with the requirement of citizens to purchase color-coded garbage bags for the separation of materials. Generate less waste; use fewer bags.

-There is no litter on the streets; how good for my morale, after Natal, along with the generally immaculate maintenance of public spaces and parks.

-Citizens can deduct the cost of having their houses cleaned from their taxes. This encourages employment for low-skilled labor and immigrants.

Mieke's grandparents, parents, she and Joris, and their two daughters all got married at the grand, late 17th century Town Hall:

Here is Mieke having a delicious Rodenbach beer at a bar featuring this adorable, pint-wielding cherub in the murals:

We wandered through this famous beguinage "...a semi-monastic setting where single women could reside for spiritual and material sustenance without retiring from the world." This Unesco World Heritage site dates from the early 13th century; the institution of beguinage ended in 1795. The university now owns the site for married student housing. It is very peaceful; the only sounds we heard were birds singing! Meike's great-grandparents lived here at a previous stage of its history. The site is bordered by two forks of the river.

This utter tranquility continued at Leuven's beautiful Botanical Garden, established by the university in 1738. Again, the only audial accompaniment to the rarified flora was the sound of birds.

Leuven is a beautiful and vital new favorite of mine.

I got to play Granny - my biggest fantasy - when we visited Mieke and Joris' two-month-old grandson, Landers. Their older daughter, Lisbet, lives in a suburb of Leuven.

The three of us headed for Brussels by 22-minute train. Mieke and Joris used to work in Brussels until their retirements; Mieke as a labor mediator, and Joris as the comptroller for the largest television and radio broadcaster. We passed Mieke's former office and had a 'non-tourist' lunch nearby at a favorite, typical Brussels restaurant, Spinnekopke. We had huge mussels from the North Sea, rabbit and steak tartare, along with Belgium's famous fries and beer from the restaurant's own "brasserie," or brewery.

Brussels has a town hall and guild halls from around the same late seventeenth century era as Leuven; in fact, the two cities competed over the grandness of their structures.

An impressive building in Brussels is the massive Palace of Justice. This was constructed in the 19th century on a scale to proclaim the equal importance of justice to religion and to impress upon the citizenry to behave themselves. I can attest, a cathedral could be installed within these dwarfing walls of marble. The Palace has been under renovation for years, with years to go, but we peeked into a courtroom...justice continues to function. This photo is merely a slice of the enormity.

We saw an exhibit of Belgian fashion through the years at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, called simply "BOZAR." Unusual textiles and fantastical avant-garde creations stole the show.

The Manneken Pis, or as I called him, "The Little Pisser," has been pissing into this fountain since at least the fifteenth century! His costume is frequently changed or omitted and his origins remain somewhat mysterious, but he is eternally popular.

Because the city center was traditionally where laborers and immigrants lived, worked and interbred (the wealthy having settled on the surrounding hills), the moniker for citizens of Brussels became "Zinneke," something like "mutt." Here is another pissing statue, honoring the citizens of Brussels! What would one expect with all these breweries since the middle ages?

Mieke is an accomplished seamstress, and we share a love of fabrics and handiwork. There was much to admire in this Belgian lace shop window:

I left my phone/camera behind and depended on Joris for photos of Brussels; as you can see, he included Meike and me in most!

Joris drove us to the South of Belgium to the Ardennes. A dense forest separates the two regions, where the Flemish language (Dutch) is replaced by French, and rolling hills of farmland produce sugar beets, corn, wheat and legumes. We had lunch by the Meuse River and observed the holiday kayakers struggling amidst the rocks. 

Here is the delicate, slightly peach-colored rosé that accompanied our chevre and croquettes:

On Friday morning we met Newton's flight from Shanghai at the Brussels airport. From there we spirited Newton off to Bruges per his earlier request. Actually, Newton survives jet-lag expertly; he managed lunch, a boat tour and a walk around Bruges:

Swans are all over the place!

This dog observing boat tours from the window is a famous fixture of Bruges!

Newton also managed an evening of plaza-and-pub-hopping back in Leuven before expiring for a long sleep. 

On Saturday we took the solar-powered little train/bus tour of Leuven with Mieke's best friend, Chris, whom I already met last year when she visited Natal.

We then sampled the Domus brewery offerings: 

Joris and Mieke drove us ONE MORE TIME to the Brussels airport to catch our flight to Copenhagen for our very first home exchange.

Thank you, Mieke and Joris, for your friendship and for sharing your home, your city, your country, your talent, your great company and your generosity with us! 



  1. Belgium looks great!

  2. Leuven was of my favorite places to visit in Belgium. While at P&G I did a research agreement with the university there so I got to visit the town many times. You got to see so much more than me, but then I was on my own when there staying in a hotel. I often brought back gifts of lace and chocolate from Brussels as I think they have the best chocolates in Europe. You must have gone to the Grand Place since you were at the statue of the Pissing Boy. I was always amazed at the number of people sitting around the square drinking beer at 10:00 in the morning as if it were their morning coffee. Sounds like the start of a great summer schedule. Where next?


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