I lived in Belgium for about 5 years in my twenties. At 23 years old, I was offered a teaching position at SHAPE American High School in Belgium. SHAPE stands for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and is the military headquarters of NATO. It’s an international base, so it’s made up of a mixture of Americans and Europeans. The High School is run by the U. S. Department of Defense Dependents Schools, so the staff is American. It was a very cool teaching job and lots of fun. I had a great time travelling and hanging out in Europe.
Belgium is a very interesting country. People who are unfamiliar with it basically lump it in there with Germany. Let me be clear, Germany it is not. Belgium is a tiny country. Texas is 22 times as big as Belgium but nowhere near as crazy. This tiny country is divided against itself. The southern region is French-speaking, whereas the northern region is Flemish-speaking. Brussels is its own region unto itself. The northern part has that Dutch feeling of being very orderly and tidy. The southern part, where I lived, is like the Wild West. It has a lawless quality to it that I never imagined to find in Europe.
When I first arrived there in 2003, the concept of a designated driver had recently been introduced. The Belgians thought it hilarious! Most of the year, it’s cold and drizzly and icy and dark. You’d think a person would just go straight home after work. Not if you’re Belgian! Rather than driving straight home, you stop at a bar and drink beer after beer until it is pitch black outside with all kinds of invisible, black ice on the road, then you drive home! Worried about a cop pulling you over? No such thing in Belgium! The concept literally doesn’t exist. There are no police anywhere. Occasionally they set up speed cameras, but as far as traffic stops, that doesn’t happen in Belgium. Don’t even get me started on their traffic laws and signs. They literally have a sign with a symbol on it that indicates there is an unknown danger ahead. The Belgian government didn’t want to spend money on lots of different signs, so they just stick this sign up for you to guess what hazard awaits you. The most Twilight Zone part of it all is that there are rarely any car accidents.
The teachers at SHAPE liked to frequent a bar just off the base. It looks like a farmhouse that got turned into a bar. I have no idea what the name is, because we all called it “Down the Hill” because it was down the hill from the base. The parking lot is a labyrinth of trees, ditches, and sinkholes. You walk in this place, and it’s full of dodgy-looking Belgians and smoke. Everything that enters this establishment leaves reeking of smoke. Your eyes start burning before you even open the door. If too many of us Americans showed up, the Belgians glared at us with thinly-veiled hostility. At least the proprietress was always nice. The bathroom was a nightmare. In America, we’re very standardized in our public bathrooms. There are few surprises. That is not the case in Belgium, and, well, the rest of the world. When you pass through the door into the restroom, you think you’re walking into one of those anterooms that Americans like since it buffers the restroom a bit more from the rest of the establishment. Not at Down the Hill! You walk into a room with a sink and a few urinals. So for a lady to use the restroom, she would first have to pass by the row of urinating Belgian men. My all-time favorite story from Down the Hill happened in the Spring time. We Americans were sitting in what I’d call the backyard of Down the Hill. Sitting outside was highly preferable since you could escape the smoke, but it was rarely possible because of the horrible Belgian weather. So, we’re sitting around a table, chatting with my colleague’s parents who had travelled over for a visit. Out of the blue, a pigeon descends from the sky and lands on my friend’s mother’s head! A fellow teacher forcefully knocked the intrusive bird off of her head, but the bird didn’t go far. He just stood on the ground near our table, looking quite disgusted with us. Just then the proprietress rushes out and scoops up the bird. She informed us that this bird was a homing pigeon that belonged to her friend. The bird had gotten uncalibrated or something, which is why it landed on a lady’s head rather than its intended destination. She sat the bird at the bar on a bar stool and gave it an ashtray full of water to drink while he waited for his owner to come collect him. No kidding, the bird just sat at the bar on his own stool between two Belgians as if it were totally normal for birds to patronize bars. Eventually the bird’s owner arrived and escorted the bird home for reprogramming.
Near SHAPE is this massive park/zoo called Parc Paradisio. Parc Paradisio is acres upon acres of beautiful gardens and quite a joy to frequent in the Spring and Summer. However, it’s also totally insane in there. Many animals are in enclosures, as one would expect from a zoo, yet many animals are on the loose. Kangaroo, deer, pigs, parrots, chickens, goats, peacocks, and more are running loose. Visitors are totally on their own to approach these animals. The barnyard animals are not threatening, but that kangaroo was highly ticked off all the time. The crown jewel of Parc Paradisio is Monkey Island. Monkey Island is surrounded by a man-made moat and entered by bridge. Once you cross the bridge, you are truly at the mercy of hundreds of spider monkeys. These monkeys are just running everywhere, jumping out of trees at you, screaming and all that stuff. It’s full on insane. If you’re wondering if there is some sort of zoo keeper/park employee on hand to keep things under control, the answer is no. It’s just you and the monkeys. I loved going to Parc Paradisio, but I gave Monkey Island a wide berth.
The city where I lived is called Mons, and its yearly festival is the most convoluted hodge podge of any celebration. Mons is built on a hill, with the cathedral at the top of the hill. It’s truly a beautiful Gothic cathedral. All year long, the relics or bones or what have you of Ste. Waudru lay in repose there. Ste. Waudru actually was the wife of the Count of Hainault, the region where Mons is found, back in like 500 AD; however, popular lore states that she saved the town of Mons from the plague or something along those lines. Nonetheless in May or June, depending on when Easter falls, the reliquary of Ste. Waudru is removed from the cathedral in a golden carriage, which then makes a circle around the city. Now, in order to return to the cathedral, the carriage must mount a steep hill. The legend is that if the massive horses do not reach the cathedral in a single running gallop then the city of Mons will be destroyed in the following year. In every sense, there’s a lot riding on those horses. Once Ste. Waudru is safely returned to the cathedral, it all gets even weirder. A green, wooden dragon exits the cathedral and heads downhill to the main square of the city. As it passes through a narrow, steep, cobble stone street, crowds of intoxicated people are going nuts trying to grab the dragon’s tail, which for some reason is made of horse hair, because of course this will be you good luck. When the dragon reaches the square, he is expeditiously slain by some guy dressed up like St. George. Don’t ask me how St. George got mixed up in this. To top the whole thing off, the natives call it DouDou Fest, which for an English speaker sounds awful, because it’s short for Ducasse. Mainly it boils down to a week of nonstop partying. It makes Mardi Gras seem like a reasonable event.
I wouldn’t trade my time in Belgium for anything. I got more or less accustomed to how things worked, or didn’t work, there. I made lots of friends, travelled throughout Europe, and met Noel. It was a great way to spend my twenties. After all, how could you not like a country where it’s illegal to mow your lawn on Sunday?