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A Toast to Belgium
One king, two languages, and 500 beers
by Karen Berger

"Sometimes I feel like I'm talking to you across an international border," I tell my husband of 12 years.

This statement does not perturb him. Fact is, I'm right.

Dan is walking on the left side of the country lane, both feet clearly in Belgium. I am on the right side of the road, still firmly in Holland. According to our map, the border runs down the middle.

We have walked seven days to get to this, the first of four international borders we will cross. We are following a European walking route called the GR-5. "GR" stands for Grande Randonnée, which can be loosely translated as "Great Trek." The name is well-earned. The GR-5 runs some 1500 miles from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, passing through six countries — Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, and Italy. (If you cross a bridge over the Our River, which marks the boundary between Luxembourg and Germany, you can add Germany to the list.)

Our plan is to walk 800 miles, from the North Sea to southern Alsace. Already, I have surrendered to the slow pace and the gentle rhythms of foot travel, to the steady routine of waking, walking, breathing, eating. At this pace, roughly two and a half miles an hour, the landscape changes almost imperceptibly. Days melt into each other, merging in a confusion of memories. If you want to know where you were last Saturday you have to count back on your fingers, through "the day we walked through the sand dunes" to "the night we slept in the trailer park."

"What day is it?" I ask.

"Tuesday," says Dan, who at least tries to pay attention to such things as where we are and where we are supposed to be.

"If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium," I quip, and hop onto his side of the road.

But our journey is the antithesis of the kind of slap-dash tourism that crams nine countries, 15 museums, 22 cathedrals, and a massive headache into two weeks. And, while the old cliché refers to the size of Belgium — only slightly larger than the state of Maryland — the truth is, when you're on foot, even a small country looms large. It will take us two and a half weeks to cover the 256 miles through Flanders and Wallonie, and in all that time, the only time we will see a town big enough to be called a city is when we will go off route to visit Liège. We will not enter a museum or a cathedral; we will not shop for lace or for diamonds, we will circle around Antwerp and avoid Brussels altogether.

But there is one thing the Tuesday visitors, I am quite sure, have in common with us walkers: They will indulge in two of Belgium's signature products, its chocolate, and its beer.

"Belgium," says the man at the next table, "has one king, two languages, and 500 beers."

Actually, Belgium has three languages (I can't vouch for the number of beers, though my guidebook claims 200 breweries). Flemish is spoken in prosperous, populous Flanders; in rural Wollonie, the language is French. And in a small pocket known as the Cantons of the East, a German-speaking population gives evidence of the turmoils of Europe's 20th-century; the cantons were a trophy of the First World War.

Tri-lingual it may be, but this isn't Switzerland. The multi-lingual Swiss accommodate each other by switching from language to language, sometimes speaking several simultaneously. But the Flemish don't speak French and the Walloons don't speak Flemish; if they speak to each other at all, they do so in English.

But they do agree about beer. It's a matter of some national pride that Belgium has the highest per capita consumption of beer in Europe.

It is the end of our first day in Belgium, but international border or not, everything looks pretty much the same as it did in Holland. The land is so flat that our map has no contour lines. The language is the same, although on this side of the border, they call it Flemish instead of Dutch. The same tidy towns, the same prosperous suburbs, the same neat farms, the same flawlessly clean windows.

But there is one way to tell we're not in Holland anymore: Just go to the nearest bar. Gone are familiar Heinekens and Amstels. Instead, we are presented with a leather-bound drink menu crammed with a bewildering selection. The wine list takes up less than half a page; as far as I can tell, muddling through the few words of Dutch I've managed to learn, the choices are red or white. The rest of the book is filled with the names of beers — Corsendonk, Westmalle, Tongerlo, every one of them Belgian; every one of them new to us. To make things even more confusing, there are choices within choices. It's not enough, for example, to order an Ename, one of the so-called abbey beers that have been brewed in Belgian monasteries for hundreds of years. You've got to know whether you want it "dubbel", "tripel," or "blond." I know what it's like to be intimidated by a wine list. But, with the exception of a few days in Ashland, Oregon, this is the first time in my life when I've been stymied by ordering a simple beer. (In Ashland, of course, you can always bail out with a Bud.)

The French have a word, depayse, for the befuddlement a traveler feels when the street signs are all the wrong shape and you can't figure out how the toilets flush, how the phones work — or how to ask for a drink in a bar. There are two basic solutions, I've always thought: You can bluff it out and live with the consequences. Or you can ask questions.

Fortunately, the man at the next table is there to lend a hand. He takes his job seriously: First he must quiz us on our preferences. "Dark beer or light beer?" he wants to know. "Strong or not so strong?" "Sweet or full-bodied." We settle on Corsendonk, a dark beer, slightly sweet, and toast ourselves for reaching this milestone in our walk.

The beer is delicious, which raises a dilemma: Do I stick with what I know I like, or try to try as many as possible? I decide to take the adventurous route, although I won't even make a dent in Belgium's breweries' offerings. Figuring a different beer each day — and taking the "500 different beers" figure as the truth — I calculate that by the time we walk across the entire country, we will have had time to sample less than four percent of its brews.

Food and drink figure prominently in travel; even more so if you happen to be traveling in Europe. But if you happen to be traveling on foot in Europe, the question of what and where to eat becomes a delicious obsession.

Walking is exercise. The computer on my treadmill assures me that striding along at a three-mile-an-hour pace burns 246 calories per hour. You can more than double that if you're carrying your belongings on your back, if the weather is cold, or if you trudge up and down hills all day. Serious long-distance walkers burn 3000, 4000 or more calories a day, which means guilt free indulgence. In Flanders, we feast our way through towns with names like Wuustwezel, Grobbendonk, Scherpenheuvel, and Zutendaal. Some of the places we pass — Westmalle, Tongerlo — have the same names as the beers we are drinking. The food is hearty, with a distinct Germanic feel, but as we move south and east, the sauces become finer. Bits and pieces of the French language start appearing on the menu, if not in the streets.

Flanders is unremarkably pretty; we see most of it through a fine mist of light rain and fog. Long straight paths follow canals, then veer off to meander through forests, around farms, and, inevitably, through new housing developments that are turning farmlands into suburbs. Newspaper headlines pose questions like "Where is the sun?" and "When will summer come to Belgium?" but we are not complaining. As a walker, I'll take a wet day over a hot one, especially if I get to sleep in a hotel every night. Walking the GR-5 isn't backpacking American style: Instead of a tent, a package of freeze-dried mystery food, and a canteen of iodine-tinged water, our days end with hotels, four-course meals, and the ubiquitous beer.

The GR-5 enters Wallonie near the city of Maastricht. This is an internal border, so of course, there's no customs station on the bridge across the canal; nonetheless, it has the feel of an international frontier. On one side of the border, Flemish is spoken; on the other, French; the change is sudden, complete, and clear. Later, at a bar, I fall into conversation with a local citizen.

"What," I wonder, "happens when the neighbor on one side of the border is Flemish and the neighbor next door on the other side of the border is French."

"They wouldn't talk to each other," he assures me.

Even the beers change. The name of the Wallonian Jupille is on the umbrellas over the tables in small town cafés, and on the coasters and the glasses, which seem to always match the beer, even in an establishment with a drink menu the size of a telephone book.

But most of all, the landscape changes. Contour lines appear on the maps, and the land folds into hills and valleys. Unused muscles take us up and over hills that are at first low and gentle, but then steeper as we approach the Ardennes, a region of Belgium that will forever be remembered by any American with a sense of history.

It is not always easy to be a traveling citizen of the world's only super-power. America always seems to be doing something that some other country doesn't like. In my travels, I've been challenged to explain everything from capital punishment to education policy to health insurance to banana boycotts.

But in Belgium, the relationship between host and American guest was forged long ago, and the American traveling today is the beneficiary of a goodwill forged on the poppy-covered fields of Flanders and the bloodied snows of the Ardennes.

You cannot walk in Belgium without being reminded that virtually every square yard of this country has at one time or another been a battleground. Every town has monuments to its heroes and its victims. There are too many of both, too many names, sometimes entire families, listed one after the other in village squares and church courtyards. Often there are flowers. In the town of Stavelot, we pass an inscription that reads, "Here the invaders were stopped, Winter 1944," an American tank, and memorials to massacred soldiers and citizens.

Every citizen, it sometimes seems, has a memory or a story, sometimes passed down through generations. When people hear we are Americans, they share them: "My mother remembers the chewing gum." "My father gave blankets to the soldiers." As we trudge through the ankle deep mud of the rain-soaked forest, we think of thigh-deep snow and bone-chilling cold. Our walk is a challenge, yes, but history keeps it in perspective.

Eighteen days after entering Belgium, we finally arrive in the German-speaking village of Ouren, just a kilometer from the borders of Luxembourg and Germany. In town, a festival is underway, complete with an oomp-pah band trumpeting military marches into the air. Glasses sway, voices are raised in song and laughter. I dust off what I optimistically call "my German" (which comprises 10 well-rehearsed sentences and a smile) and order the beer that has become my favorite: a dark abbey-brewed beer called Rochefort, which comes in two strengths, numbers eight and ten. The numbers refer to the minimum alcohol content; what you actually get, another reveler explained to me, could be much more. Choosing a pint of Rochefort 10 is a fair guarantee that you won't be doing much else for the rest of the day.

So crossing the border has to wait till morning.

The next day, we walk Belgium's remaining kilometer along the rushing river Our. The border is noted on our maps as Trois Frontières. One footbridge leads over the Our into Germany; another crosses a small brook into Luxembourg. There is no customs station.

What there is, however, is a monument to a united Europe.

"I'd raise my glass to that," I say, thinking about the history lessons of the last few days. Unfortunately, the monument is nothing more than an isolated tribute to an idea; there is no place to buy beer, no way to complete the toast.

"But a glass of which beer?" muses Dan, looking at the multi-hued flags waving gently in the breeze.

The goal of one Europe seems ever closer. Throughout the continent, even the smallest café prices its wares in both Euros and the local currency. Europe has already collapsed its internal borders. A European Parliament streamlines policy.

But some things, I think, will remain the same. The Spanish will continue to take their afternoon siestas and eat dinner at midnight. Swiss trains will run on time. The French will regulate the production and appellation of their wines. And the Belgians will continue to produce, drink, and discuss 500 (more or less) of the most delicious beers in the world.


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