Sunday, September 4, 2011

The “Belgium” Waffle Is A Myth

Map picture

Remember how you felt when you learned that there is no Santa Claus. Well, Lisa and I felt the same way today when we learned that there is no such thing as a “Belgium” waffle, per se’. According to our guide, waffles in Belgium are a big deal, but there is no one waffle, in the country, which is known as the “Belgium” waffle, except some “stuff” they sell the tourists. In Belgium, there are two types of waffles: the Brussels waffle and the Liege waffle. So there you have it my friends; yet another myth exposed!

As you may guessed by now, our stop today is at the seaport of Zeebrugge, Belgium, and the main reason for coming here is to visit the nearby town of Bruges. Bruges is a medieval city that is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The city was originally founded as a Roman fortification by the legions of Julius Caesar in the first century BC, and by 856 AD, it was granted a town charter and became an important trading hub during the Middle Ages.

Bruges, Belgium

Now in all truthfulness, before today I had never heard of Bruges, but that was clearly my loss. The city is a fascinating town of narrow cobblestone streets and magnificent churches and cathedrals. It receives over 4 million visitors annually. Remember my discussion about how most medieval cities today exist merely for the visitors. That is not yet the case with Bruges. People live and work in the city, and therefore it is very much alive. In all honesty, it is in transition to a tourist city; with the first floor, on most buildings, a quaint little shop or café. However, just a few blocks off the main square, the city is very much a residential area of carefully preserved homes and buildings.

Bruges, BelgiumIndeed the exterior of all buildings must, by code be maintained in their original state, even if the interiors have been completed and gutted and rebuilt.

We had a private car today which allowed us to quickly drive into the city before the hordes of tourists arrived for the day. On our way there, we made a few stops in some quiet and picturesque little towns, before arriving at Bruges. Once there, our car let us off at a back, and little used entrance into the city, where it was tranquil and very peaceful.

Bruges, Belgium Beautiful white swans adorned the nearby ponds and lakes. We slowly walked along the cobblestone streets in an almost fairytale world. As we approached the center of the city, the traffic began to build, and now there were more and more tourists on the narrow streets. Soon the streets reverberated with the sound of hoofs, as carriage after carriage plied their trade. The many canals were soon filled with small canal boats overflowing with people snapping pictures of everything. Clearly the time had come to get out of town before we could no longer move. We stopped at a chocolate shop to grab some famous Belgium chocolate, and then made our escape.

As we drove from the city back to the ship, the line of cars driving towards the city stretched for well over three miles all crawling along at a snail’s pace. Our driver told that that on weekends and during the summer months, this was a common daily occurrence. We made a few camera stops along the way back to the ship, and then it was over.

On a side note, I have engaged each of our drivers over the last few weeks to a similar discussion about what was happening within their countries, and what each thought about the European Union. Today was no exception, and what struck me is the similarity of what I was hearing from each of them, and the similarity to what we in the US are discussing. Each of the European countries we have visited is engaged in heated debate about how to handle social services in general and for older people in particular. The “baby boomer” phenomena is not confined to the US alone, and in Europe, as the population ages there are fewer workers to support the benefits which have been promised. In Belgium, for example, a worker can retire in their mid-fifties, which to most people is no longer practical, however, there is a political faction that refuses to make changes to the system. In Belgium in particular, the social network is so bizarre, that a young person getting out of school today, can, if they play the system right, retire within six months for life. Our guide was explaining that if a new graduate cannot find employment within six months of graduating, then they receive a pension from the State of around 700 euros per month. He explained that there were ways to increase that over time, and to make it essentially a permanent retirement benefit.

Next, the issue of medical care seems paramount in each country. They each have dealt with the issue a little differently, but in most countries where we have been a person is required to purchase a very modest amount of health insurance. However as people age, the underlying system is beginning to break and everyone agrees it needs to be fixed, but no one seems to know how to fix it.

Finally there is the issue of immigration. Prior to the creation of the EU, countries had very clear guidelines regarding immigration. However, by joining the EU, each country agreed to an “open border” policy. Now all of Europe is being besieged by people from Eastern Europe, who come to places like Belgium and expect to receive benefits and services as with any citizen. These people also bring with them an influx of crime and background that is quite different from the new host country. They do not even speak the local language, but expect to be treated as any other citizen. Each of the countries is now aware of the problem and each is trying to address it, but it is a very contentious issue.

Anyway, I am trying to keep up as best I can. Tomorrow we head to France. With any luck I will get some pictures posted later today.


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