Trappist beer, anarchic cyclists and a Red Light district prayer hall. Susan Barry talks culture shock, Belgian-style
Upon telling various friends and acquaintances that I would be spending a year of my life in Antwerp, the response was invariably ‘where!?’. This Northern Belgian city certainly flies under the radar back home, but among Europeans it’s zealously noted as one of the mainland’s art and fashion capitals, with a booming diamond trade that attracts from the newly engaged to Russian oligarchs (who didn’t keep their money in the rouble). The early experience of getting lost in the winding backstreets of the fashion district wearing ill-fitting tracksuit bottoms is still very much a recurring nightmare of mine.
Many of the most entertaining and sometimes seeringly awkward moments of my Erasmus experience so have been related to the baffling culture differences between the Irish and the Belgians. Supermarkets frequently close at 12pm. Dogs being walked in prams is ubiquitous. They put chocolate sprinkles on toast. Importantly, ‘smos’ does not mean roll or sandwich. While a logical inference to draw, it in fact means ‘with everything’. I have spent months eating chicken rolls with eggs, pickles and grated carrot thrown in for the good of my health. Also, the cycling rules are utterly incomprehensible. Bikes fill the streets of Antwerp going in every direction, both sides of the path and up and down the roads. A leisurely Sunday spin can become something else entirely when you become enveloped in a peloton and are forced to match their speed lest you cause a pile up. It’s come to the point where I have decided the cycling society here consists of dystopian anarchists with no rules. It’s survival of the fittest approach as far as I can see. So why do they keep ringing their bells at me?
Rainbow flags hang abundantly from apartment windows, my street alone which is part of the historic district has two gay bars, leads onto the Red Light District and features two of what my Dad uncomfortably described as ‘fetish shops’.
One of my favourite things about my random new home, something which presumably comes naturally to a creative student town, is how utterly liberal it is. Rainbow flags hang abundantly from apartment windows, my street alone which is part of the historic district has two gay bars, leads onto the Red Light District and features two of what my Dad uncomfortably described as ‘fetish shops’. One of which borders a prayer hall. A local once nonchalantly explained that living next to a hub of legal prostitution is desirable because it means a constant police presence. They also have a surprisingly good chipper, the name of which I couldn’t possibly print in this respected publication. Just to put it into perspective, Belgium legalised abortion in 1990, at a time when we had yet to decriminalise homosexuality.
I’ve learnt that power walking down the main street simply to reach the other end quicker isn’t always necessary, but will always attract stares
Construction began on Antwerp Central Station in 1895 and it has been voted the most beautiful railway station in the world (or fourth most beautiful depending on who you read). It a hub with connections to all over Europe and to the Eurostar, which allows many Belgians to commute to London and Paris as we would to Galway. Frequency and price is usually excellent, and has enabled me to sound amazingly pretentious when listing off all the places I’ve been able to pop to over the past few months. Venice? Oh yes it looks wonderful off season.
One of Antwerp’s finest sensory delights, after the Christmas market’s spekpatatjes which is so good you will consider dismissing the traditional festive turkey as inferior gobbling mess, is of course the beer. And by beer I’m not referring to that imported pond water, but national brews which tend to hover around 9% ABV and have more often than not been brewed by monks. Our closest Trappist abbey is Westvleterin, a two hour train ride away and then a rocky cycle up to the summit. While you can’t enter the monastery as it’s not open to the public, you can purchase a limited number of bottles on an individual basis from the doors, and then taste what’s described as the world’s rarest beer. Or you can buy it from our local for €13 a pop. Well worth either effort.
Antwerp may not be the biggest city or the most romantic city. It does not have a chipotle and there are no twenty four hour McDonalds. With a culture that has managed to shun a surprising amount of commercialisation, it was initially challenging to understand how it all worked. Let alone where to buy a loaf of bread. As a lecturer explained to me ‘you love Bruges immediately, but Antwerp has to grow on you’, and I couldn’t agree more. An acceptance that life simply moves slower here has been liberating, I’ve learnt that power walking down the main street simply to reach the other end quicker isn’t always necessary, but will always attract stares. And that spending three hours drinking tea is a great use of a day. Especially when you have stroopwafels for dipping. Anyone want to put the kettle on?