Benelux Lockdown

My cousin recently approached me asking about where I’d recommend he spend a year living in South America. Since I’m a “fast traveler,” I wasn’t really in a position to advise him about where to spend such a long time. So I asked for some clarification. “What are you looking for in a destination?”

“A low murder to money ratio.”

That took me back to my recent visit to the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg).

Benelux

The first thing I heard after landing at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport was

“You look like an IS Warrior with that beard.”

Fortunately, it was not a Customs officer who issued the observation. Instead, it was my colleague, Jered, who quickly added,

“Welcome to Holland, buddy.”

I’ve known Jered for three years now. He’s a wonderful man with many great qualities. The best of which is his inability to be offended. In other words, nothing is off limits.

The Kingdom of The Netherlands (a/k/a Holland a/k/a The Land of The Dutch)

Many of you may not know what I do for a living. To make a long story, very short. I’m in the training business. A large part of our work involves – for lack of a better term – psychological assessments. Which is why I found myself in Appledoorn (literally apple thorn) in Holland last week. I was presenting at a conference. Following a stimulating dinnertime conversation about the nature of freewill and choice in the lives of everyday people and terrorists, my seatmate said,

“You’re not the typical American.”

“How would you describe a ‘typical American’,” I asked.

“Well, he has a gun. And two cars – one of which is certainly a Hummer. He’s rude and loud. Oh! And you’re not overweight like them.”

Jered quickly added, “Well, he’s not exactly underweight, either.”

Thinking this was hilarious, I told the story as the introduction to my keynote address. The Dutch attendees also thought it was mildly funny.

And, this would be the man who would take me to two new countries in the coming days. Jered is a business guy of the first order. A natural-born salesperson whose charm is surpassed only by the speed with which he operates.

Once work was done, we chased borders. So, with the Netherlands checked off my list, we headed out to the Be-lux of the Benelux: Belgium and Luxembourg. First, Belgium.

Belgium

Belgium is packed with windmills. Not all of them look like the old school versions.

Belgium is packed with windmills. Not all of them look like the old school versions.

In the States, we often have rivalries with neighboring towns. In Europe, many simply despise their neighboring nations. Well, Jered certainly has (shall we say) strong feelings about Belgium.

“Ash soon ash we crosh the border, you’ll hear it. De roads are like crap and do how do you call it? De guardrails are rushted.”

I laughed at his anti-Belgian sentiment. Until I couldn’t hear myself laugh anymore. Which occurred as soon as we crossed the border. He was right. It was loud. I mean really loud. The potholes were more prevalent than the asphalt. I think the roads were put in just after the Second World War and have remained untouched ever since.

When I was young, my father would see someone who looked vaguely like a famous celebrity. He’d start laughing and say, “That looks like a poor man’s Andy Griffith. Ha ha ha!” Belgium, as far as I can tell, is like a poor man’s Holland.

“Antwerp for breakfasht and Brushels for Lunch! Dish will be a great day!”

According to Jered, Antwerp is known for two things: Breakfast and Diamonds. We only procured one: A carbohydrate-rich breakfast of bread, bread, bread, and a croissant for dessert.

The ceiling of the Antwerp Train Station was stunning.

The ceiling of the Antwerp Train Station was stunning.

We walked through Antwerp long enough to see a train station and a lot of members of the Belgian Armed Forces milling about.

I wanted to see Brussels because I wanted to get to the European Parliament. We opted not to take a tour, but I just bought t-shirt, which Jered explained, meant I lost my "not the typical American" status.

I wanted to see Brussels because I wanted to get to the European Parliament. We opted not to take a tour, but I just bought t-shirt, which Jered explained, meant I lost my “not the typical American” status.

Once we arrived in Brussels, something changed. If we saw a lot of Belgian Police and Infantry in Antwerp, there were three times the number in the capital city. Of course, most of them appeared to be pretty lazy. You see, as a result of security threats, Brussels was on high alert – Yellow – according to the news. Because of that, there were “military guys” and police everywhere. They didn’t appear to be as concerned as the people on the news. I could tell because they were more focused on their cigarettes than on me (or any of the myriad people speaking Arabic). In fact, I even saw one officer with his eyes closed as he leaned against a column at the European Parliament. Not a big deal, except for the fact that he was holding a machine gun.

As the sun set, the northern sky turned a deep blue. These buildings have been here since the mid 17th Century.

As the sun set, the northern sky turned a deep blue. These buildings have been here since the mid 17th Century.

When faced with severe security threats, Jered and I did what any sane people should: We headed to the bar. Jered had us snaking through old alleyways and darkened streets. We passed bar after bar. Restaurant after restaurant. I’d say, “there’s one.” He’d say, “Nope.” Until finally, there it was, bathed in soft Belgian light:

The Delirium Tremens bar. It’s an outpost of the Huyghe Brewery, which has been in operation since 1654 and has produced beers often ranked as the best in world. It was pretty cool. Until we started talking to this group of British people. They appeared to be responding to the security threats by getting rip-roaring drunk. We could tell because they kept spilling beer on everyone around them. Finally, one guy – the self-proclaimed “greatest salesman in England” turned Motocross announcer – accidentally poured some of Jered’s beer on Jered. He offered some coins as a reparation. Jered refused. And we decided to move on. It was time for dinner at a place recommended by Yelp: Chez Willy.

The croquettes (fried mashed potatoes and meat) were quite good.

The croquettes (fried mashed potatoes and meat) were quite good.

We woke up early on Saturday morning and were ready to head to Luxembourg when our phones exploded with alerts.

IMG_9062

Brussels was shut down: They were closing public places, shops, the Metro, and even the schools. We high tailed it out of there.

Luxembourg

Today, Luxembourg is a logistics capital with tons of goods flowing through its tax favored borders.

Today, Luxembourg is a logistics capital with tons of goods flowing through its tax favored borders.

We thought it would be hilarious to walk into a restaurant and order Luxemburgers. I’m sure we’re not the first to come up with the idea. But we embraced it. It takes a few hours to get from Brussels to Luxembourg so by the time we finally found a suitable restaurant, we were starving.

“I really like a lot of meat – so I’ll have a double — but what’s the unhealthiest stuff you can put on it,” said Jered enthusiastically.

“Ummm. Sir. This is a vegan restaurant. There is no meat.”

Jered and I looked at each other and realized we faced an important decision. Do we push our hunger to the limit by leaving and searching for another place to eat or do we risk consuming repulsive unmeat? Jered was familiar with my habit of eating unusual things on the road so he decided to do the same. While a veggie burger isn’t guinea pig or rocky mountain oysters, it was still a risk. We didn’t have doubles.

"Where's the beef!"

“Where’s the beef!”

Surprisingly, the food was more than tolerable. It was good! At least it was at first…we later learned that unmeat can lead to nausea. We spent the ride back to Holland fighting the return of the veggie burgers.

Not a bad city.

Not a bad city.

Tired from a long week of work and travel, we decided to turn our backs to Luxembourg and head home, across Belgium, through a snow storm, and on to Jered’s home in Utrecht.

Nearly five hours later, we finally walked into Jered’s house when one of his four sons asked, “Is the Moroccan guy still here?”

Apparently, in Dutch, not only do “American” and “Morroccan” sound the same, but my beard really threw him. After a quick sleep, he was relieved to have his bed back and the bearded stranger out of his house.

All told, it was a pleasant journey with a helpful host. I look forward to seeing my friend Jered again and would visit Luxembourg and Holland again. Belgium? Well, I could do without it.

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