I stayed on a beautiful farm in a village somewhere between Brussels and Bruges.
The Journey to a New Destination
After spending a week in Barcelona, I took a flight to Brussels, Belgium. Not long before this Donald Trump called Brussels a hellhole so I was feeling thankful I don't come across as distinctly American in my appearance. The flight was an early one, and the additional lack of sleep that I experienced overall was catching up to me, making the first leg of my journey a struggle. The cheap airlines I take do not offer much in terms of comfort, but even with my knees scrunched up against the seat in front of me, and my neck strained to find a surface to rest on, I managed to pass out on the plane long enough to recover my wits on landing. Once again I felt the wonder and excitement of being in a new city, and set out on a vigorous trek to find a place to spend the night.
After a day and a half of exploring Brussels, in search of boots and strolling through parks, it was time to visit my friend in the countryside, the reason I came to Belgium in the first place. I knew the town I needed to find and I had an address, and with it I hoped to navigate the train system and then find his farm on foot. We don't have a proper train system in America, so learning how to read the schedules, buy tickets, and find the right train was a steep learning curve for me, and I made a few mistakes along the way. By the time I arrived to the right station it was late in the afternoon and getting dark fast. I set out on foot. I never found the farm.
Actually, the farm found me. It was blind luck that Joran was outside feeding the dogs when he saw a figure in the distance walking down the road. Although I had found the right road, it was so dark, and the house set far enough back that I had passed it. I would have kept walking, and eventually turned up on a neighbor's farm requesting food, had he not chased me down with the truck. He took me to a local bar with his friends where I celebrated being found with a few rounds of Belgian beer.
Life on the Farm
On the farm, I got to know a generous and hospitable family. Linde introduced me to genuine Belgian cooking. Delicious cheese, with varieties of bread, meats, and potatoes. Fries (frites) were invented in Belgium, and I even got to fry up my own batch one afternoon.
Jan is a prominent researcher in the poultry industry, and as a hobby he raises sheep at home. It is a lot of work to raise sheep, and often in the evening after he came home from work, I would help with some of the work. Many new lambs had been born right before I arrived, so there was some work to be done vaccinating and treating the little ones. To vaccinate them, we herded the lambs into a room separate from their mothers, and then we blocked the exit with wood fence. Then Ewoud and I would run around catching them and carrying them over to the fence where Jan stood on the other side. After administering the shots, we set them down on the other side. We also gave medicine to the mothers one day, and to do this we had to create a makeshift room out of fences outside their normal pen. Once we herded them into this, and closed the exit, we used another long fence to section them into small groups of five or six. We would be in this small area with six sheep, and they were so strong and stubborn. They could easily bull you over if they wanted to, but sheep are not very smart, and if you keep your body pressed up against theirs, it is enough to keep them from escaping. Some of the lambs have trouble learning to milk, but it is critical that they drink enough to build up their immune system. There were two lambs that needed extra attention, and I would go in some mornings to help them. One lamb could never find his mother's teat, so I would lead the lamb to his mother, and with the teat in one hand and the lamb in the other, I would lead the lamb's mouth and help him drink. The other lamb was an orphan and he was paired with another mother to get his milk. She did not like the idea of a stranger drinking from her udder, so I had to grab her by the head and lean my body against her while the lamb milked to prevent her from kicking him away.
I also learned that sheep do not make cute little "baaa" sounds; it's far more terrifying than that. Especially when they are hungry:
Other things I learned on the farm include how to skin a rabbit, and how to navigate Belgian roads with the stick-shift late at night.
Bouncing Around Surrounding Cities
From Anzegem, I was able to visit a few different cities in Belgium and beyond. I spent an afternoon exploring Kortrijk, a day in Amsterdam, a day in Bruges where I helped out at a beer festival for Joran's brewery Brouwers Verzet, and I also went out a couple nights in Ghent.
One of my favorite evenings was when Marthe invited me to go out with her and her friends in Ghent, where they study. Ghent is an old city, and the abundant cobblestone roads and walkways, combined with the tranquil atmosphere, and the unique and historic architecture make it a wonderful place to visit. I felt this way the strongest when at 1am we set out on bicycles to join the nightlife. As we cruised down the center of the roads, crossing over canals, and passing under ancient churches, with not a car or any other sign of life in sight, I thought I must be living in a fantasy or a dream. I experienced an intense feeling of freedom and amazement. And then we were in the bar. The music, the dancing, the drinks; these were all a big contrast to the idyllic world we had just come from, but was its own form of amazing.
Once again, I have been blown away by the things I've seen and experienced. Bruges and Ghent were beautiful. The countryside was beautiful. The weather, although mostly overcast, cold, and windy, felt good on my face and hands as I walked down rural roads and cobblestone walkways in the cities. Train rides, although difficult to figure out at first, became a preferred way to travel, view the landscape, and reflect. On my last day in Belgium, I rode a bicycle along the river, and felt an overwhelming sense of freedom and appreciation; what would have been a routine or tedious bike ride back home, was an unparalleled adventure in a foreign country.
A canal in Amsterdam
Classic Amsterdam pose
I spent an afternoon fixing the posts for one of the fences that had all been blown over after a heavy storm
Pouring a Rebel Local IPA at the Bruges beer festival
An afternoon in Kortrijk
In the evenings if I was home, I would sit on the couch and watch a little Belgian television with Linde and whoever else was home. I could not understand the dialogue, but I enjoyed watching the cooking programs and also found the commercials to be highly entertaining. One of my favorite commercials:
Above all, I was blown away by the generosity of my hosts who went beyond simple hospitality. I enjoyed home-cooked meals every day, was looked after, given advice, and invited to participate in so many fun activities, from farm work to parties. I am learning that an experience is really only as good as the people you share it with, and with that in mind I can say that my experience in Belgium was unforgettable.
Things Learned and Books Read
- Form exit strategies as you go. All too often I would find myself in a foreign city having neglected to plan directions, places to stay, etc. With no service on my phone, I would sometimes have to improvise my way around the city. I learned to always form alternative plans as I went in case my current plan did not work out. For example, in the event that I could not find a hostel that I had seen on the map earlier, I might make a mental note of the hotels I passed, knowing that in the worst case scenario I could always backtrack and try and negotiate a reasonable price for a room to stay.
- Carry more cash. I am not used to carrying a lot of cash, but I've been in a few binds because I ran out of cash. In one day I had to visit an ATM more than once because I failed to pull out enough the first time. It's better to just keep enough on you at all times so you don't have to worry about it.
- I read Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea in one sitting while on the train from Amsterdam to Belgium. A short read, it is a powerful example of courage and endurance in the face of great obstacles.
- I finished Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance in two days. I'm a slow reader but this narrative was so compelling I could not put it down. Vance outlines in impressive detail the ways Tesla and Spacex were created, the struggles they've had along the way, and the unrelenting ambition and incredible long-term vision of the man behind them which continue to propel them to the fore-front of technological creativity and innovation. Absolutely fascinating.
- Jerry Weintraub's autobiography/memoir is an incredible story of a Jewish kid from the Bronx who sets out to conquer the world, and succeeds. Both humbling and inspiring, and unbelievably entertaining.