Belgium for Thanksgiving 2012, Part 1.

I think I have lived in America too long. I consider myself an open-minded person, but after a week in Europe I realize that the puritanical values America is famous for have rubbed off on me in a big way. Let me tell you about my first 36 hours in Belgium. Remember a bunch of posts ago when I wrote about Tardar Sauce the Grumpy Cat? While walking around the streets of Belgium, I made a specific Grumpy-Cat face every time I was confronted with a big chunk of political incorrectness, which I will place here periodically for emphasis.

I arrived in Belgium at 9:00 a.m., and as soon as The Moomins and I got off the plane we headed to the major train station so we could go to a city called Tongeren. We went because it’s the oldest city in Belgium, but more importantly it has an enormous antiques market on Sunday. The train station we had to transfer in was beautifully-designed and airy:

While we were there we grabbed some late-ish breakfast (fantastic, the food in Belgium is fantastic, more on that later) where I saw a man have a glass of red wine with his meal. At 10:00. I saw a lot of that. I think they are not as miffed by drinking as we are here. I decided that everyone there would be classified in America as a “functioning alcoholic”. So, so very much beer consumption. Holy crap-badgers.

Moving on. We arrived in Tongeren eventually where I fell asleep for the next fourteen hours. I hadn’t really slept in going on four days and I thought I was going to die. Also, I wanted to be rested for the antiques market the next day. At 7:00 a.m., we woke up and toddled off to look around the city center and the various large open spaces where people had set up booths. At this time I was introduced to Swartepiet.

Brace yourselves.

They don’t have Santa Claus the way we have him. If you have been good, Saint Nick the Bishop comes to your house and gives you gifts. However, if you’ve been bad, a black man names Zwartepiet (Black Peter) comes to your house and whips you. Imagine what it must have been like in, say, the 1910s and 1920s. You’re a black man from the Belgian Congo and you come to Belgium, but everywhere you go children who have never seen a black man freak out and scream as you approach. Sounds delightful, no? Apparently, since travel is so prevalent now and there are black people over here and white people over there and everyone’s mixed together, Zwartepiet’s role has been changed to Saint Nick’s helper. Okay, better. BUT, whenever he is performed by a living breathing human, it is always a white person in blackface. ALWAYS. And it’s EVERYWHERE.

I was APPALLED. I wanted to walk up to everybody and say, “Ummm, you know you’re not allowed to do that?” And there was no escaping it. I kept waiting for Al Jolson to come out singing about Mammy, it was so offensive.

During my unavoidable tour of racist imagery, I was walking in and out of booths people had set up on the street. I ended up buying some art nouveau stuff, it was great. And then there were two or three booths selling… Nazi memorabilia.

Tongeren is on the border with Germany, so it’s pretty easy to come by that stuff. It’s just weird to me to see passports and books and medals and helmets with swastikas and scary black eagles on them all out in the open. There was a second-edition copy of Mein Kampf sitting out there, so I thumbed through it. And I was saddened, but not for the reason you’d think. I realized the entire book, every last word, is written in the Olde Englishe typeface. Who can read that? I found a sample page to show you how difficult it is to read (by the way, I recommend not typing in “Mein Kampf” into Google and hitting images – not good):

How obnoxious would it be if, because I am white, I wrote my whole blog like this?

Or even worst, because I’m an Eastern-European Jew, how about this?

Horrible. I quickly shimmied away from the creepy Nazi stuff and had an amazing lunch and then we went to visit the big church in the middle of town. Cricket asked me later in the week how many museums I had gone to and I said, “None.” He was puzzled and asked what I was doing. I said, “Going to churches.” He said, “Why?” and I said, “Because that’s where they keep the art here.” I went to about seven churches/cathedrals in six days. Here’s the Tongeren church.

We got to the church around 12:30 where… the local nuns were hosting a cocktail party in the aisles. At 12:30 on a Sunday.

I turned to The Moomins and said quietly, “Is everyone in the village getting drunk on nun wine in the middle of the day? Aren’t they supposed to be praying or something?” Call me old-fashioned, but I think Brides of Christ should be tending to the poor or teaching children to read, not getting tipsy and jocular at noon in a House of God, in front of a giant wooden sculpture of Jesus on the cross bleeding.

I took a bunch more pictures of the church (very lovely) and The Moomins and I wandered around the city looking at old ruins. It used to be a Roman garrison and there are still bits of wall left over from when there were Gauls and Huns, marauding hordes, all that good stuff.

Speaking of Huns, in one of their squares they have a giant statue of a Hun and he looks exactly like Thor, with the winged helmet and an axe instead of a hammer. The base had boar’s heads and spears all around, it was terrific.

In another square, however, there was another statue and I could not believe my eyes when I saw it. Could not. It was, and I’m not making any of this up, a fountain slash bronze sculpture of three whores, two of whom are arguing and one who is WASHING HER NO-NO PLACE AND YOU CAN SEE HER LABIA OH MY GOD WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE.

Are there no rules in your country? Is everyone just perpetually drunk and in blackface, proudly displaying their Third Reich trinkets while doing genital ablutions in the town square??? Seriously, Europe, get it together.

Not to imply that Tongeren wasn’t lovely. It was. For example, outside the church was a small metal model of the church with braille so blind people could figure out the layout. That is super-thoughtful.

And the local pastry shop was exquisite. The Moomins and I stood in front of the window and almost wept at the beauty of the baked goods.

And everyone was really nice at the antiques market. Really gracious and pleasant. So please don’t get the wrong idea. As I said at the beginning, I think I have become extremely politically correct against my best intentions, so when I encounter things like this, it throws me a bit.

Coming up next: Brussels and some Antwerp.

2 Responses to “Belgium for Thanksgiving 2012, Part 1.”

  1. Kate says:

    “For example, outside the church was a small metal model of the church with braille so blind people could figure out the layout.” Of course, you are assuming that’s what the braille says. Perhaps it reads: “Join our nuns daily at noon to get drunk and blackface, proud displaying your Third Reich trinkets and then do genital ablutions in the town square.”

  2. Rothbeastie says:

    This, this my friend, is why I love you.

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