Culture Shock :: Brussels

28 09 2008

Having spent only seven days in a city that definitely deserves more attention, we can’t say that we really got to know the city. In fact, we barely even brushed the surface because two or three days of our time in Belgium were spent on day trips to other cities. However, there were at least two cultural differences that didn’t need a lot of time to rise to the surface, and we would like to share those with you now.

:: Beer Heaven ::

In Brussels beer is not just the man’s drink, it’s not just for watching football games and it’s not just meant to be paired with a freshly grilled burger or steak. This Belgian beverage does not exclude people merely based on their age, gender, or class. No. This beer is an equal opportunity drink with love for all people (and possibly even their pets). In Belgium there is a beer for everyone whatever their tastes may be and the Beerista behind the bar will proudly serve you anything you order – even if it comes in a plastic half-coconut cup. Nobody will make fun of you for ordering that ‘girly fruit beer’ you really want to try, because as long as you’re drinking beer, everyone is happy. In fact, we even heard that they’ll dilute beers so that children can be weaned onto sipping their cultural heritage.

Now, for someone like me who already believed in this ‘beer = nectar of life’ philosophy, all of this just seemed appropriate. I only felt like I had found my people. And I of course already knew that Belgium brews are some of the best in the world, so the quality of beer was just as I expected. What I didn’t know though and was truly shocking to me is the fact that they have some very specific rules about how their beers need to be served. The easy to guess rule is that they take care to serve the beers at the appropriate temperature. But they don’t stop there. The shape and condition of the serving glass is very important as well. Just like the difference in white wine and red wine glasses, beers must come in the correct glass recommended by the brewer. Imagine a bar like the Delirium Cafe in old town Brussels which has over 2,000 different beers – and the appropriate glass for each, most of which are also adorned with the correct brewer’s logo. Each glass must also be dust and oil free, because the slightest grease spot on the glass could ruin the beer. And in most cases the inside of the glass must be rinsed and not dried prior to pouring the beer. The craziest thing about all of this is that you can actually tell the difference between just drinking out of the bottle and drinking it the correct way.

I could go on and on about the different types of beers, the different brewing processes, the fact that most beers are only about two or three Euros at the bar – but I’ll spare you from that lecture. So now, the next time someone tries to serve you a quality beer in an water glass that hasn’t even been pre-rinsed, go ahead and call them an uncultured swine, but drink the beer anyway because it’s still beer – the nectar of life.

Coconut cup?

Check out alll those glasses at the bar...

:: Shockingly Nice People ::

As we’ve traveled around Europe we’ve noticed pretty big differences in the general friendliness of people on the streets. The people in Brussels seemed to always be helpful, happy, friendly, and smiling. In fact, we didn’t once feel like someone could have been nicer. Even in the tourist filled shops around the Grand Place we found smiling, happy employees. Considering the high standards Americans have regarding customer service, this is quite an accomplishment.

For example, when I needed to change some Euro bills for coins so I could buy a metro ticket from the machine. When I went up to a snacks kiosk to ask if they could break the bill they smiled, opened their cash drawer but couldn’t find enough change to help me out so they recommended I ask the metro employees. I automatically assumed that the group of metro employees that were standing in a circle talking to each other would not be pleased to stop their conversation and help some English speaking foreigner. Oh how wrong I was. When I excused myself asked them if they spoke English, they all turned around, smiled at me and said yes, how can we help you. I then asked if they could break my bill for me and one of them replied that of course they could and asked me to follow them to the counter. He led me past the long line of people, opened a cash register, asked how much I needed, changed it for me and then asked if I need anything else – all with a smile.

On another occasion we were standing near a bus stop looking over the schedule. Some guy heard us talking, came up to us and asked if we needed any help figuring out the routes. We showed him where we were going and he told us that we can take the same bus he’s taking and just get off one stop after him. He even came up to us later on the bus to tell that he’s getting off and to hop off on the next stop. We have many stories like this, full of people going above and beyond to help us, even doing so happily. It must be because they all drink great beer, eat excellent chocolate and snack on the world’s best waffles.

Trying the beer without the glass...

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One response

30 09 2008
Shannon

Jen, that is the best reasoning I have heard all day. I am going to start eating more waffles

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