Back to Belgium

Trip Start Aug 06, 2008
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Trip End Dec 18, 2008


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Flag of Belgium  , The Ardennes,
Friday, September 12, 2008

Liege's newly constructed train station rises from the city's drab industrial neighborhood like an errant flyer saucer, crash landed in mid-galactic flight into the economic heart of francophone Belgium. The network of temporary fences that partition the site from the rest of the city seem to confirm the station's extraterrestrial origins, but the imposing sign immediately to the right of the main staircase describes the far more prosaic story of transport hub. This project partially funded by the European Union I deciphered from the French inscription, verifying that this saucer fell to Liege courtesy of the EU's transportation initiatives budget along with miles of roads we drove on in Ireland and a patchwork of rail and road improvements across the continent.
 
Eli and I navigated our way through a collection of generic warehouses and offices to a park along Liege's equally generic main boulevard where we stopped to admire yet another statue to Charlemagne. This particular stone depiction of the horse-mounted, sword-wielding Frank proudly proclaimed Liege as birthplace of Europe's father, though much debate remains as to Charlemagne's hometown. This statue-and its claim-illustrated much about the Belgian and French obsession with their 9th century leader and their contemporary mindset. Francophone Benelux prides itself as the ambassador of Europe and is quick to draw comparisons between the EU-led integration it hosts today and the unification championed by its native son 1200 years before. Brussels ensures that travelers know its position as the continent's capital with its airport's ubiquitous proclamation: "Welcome to Europe". The region's history of occupation and destruction lends itself to being the home of Europe's peace-ensuring institutions, but I can't help but suggest that an underlying motivation remains an inferiority complex Belgium and Luxembourg retain, as the small fish in the neighborhood of political and economic powerhouses.
 
Twisting along Liege's tree-lined main street we arrived at what we reasonably assumed to be a tourist information office, titled Liege Bureau de Tourisme. The office turned out to be some sort of travel consultancy for businesses based in Belgium and had not interest in assisting foreign tourists. After receiving directions in quick, perturbed French to the proper tourist office, Eli and I stepped back into the hazy, drizzling day and trudged to the central square, Place de Saint Lambert and into a far more receptive information office. Again victims of translation, we were disappointed to discover the beautiful Palais des Princes Eveques served as lawyers' offices not a royal residence and the renowned Musee d'Armee was closed for renovation. So we resigned ourselves to a march the 372 stairs to the top of the Citadel, a former strategic outpost that now boasted a spectacular view of Liege and the surrounding valley.
 
Now fully soaked, we found our way across the city to another tourist office for dry comfort and our snack lunch. After achieving a dryness that remained largely psychological, we pointed ourselves towards the aquarium since both the zoo and mountain top cathedral we had aspired to see were closed. Liege's institute of zoology housed a bizarrely amateur museum and aquarium, with exhibition signage posted in an odd combination of languages.
 
I usually associate tractor parades with county fairs in rural America but Liege boasted quite the fleet of heavy farm equipment, driven by farmers angry at the latest round of CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) discussions. Luckily for them, the obstinate French once again prevented any significant reforms from being seriously considered, let alone enacted. Their rumbling demonstration highlighted our otherwise protest-free stroll back across town to the saucer station, pausing at St. Paul's and St. Jaques towering cathedrals.
 
We were briefly humiliated by two prepubescent Belgian school girls before we completed our trek, however. One of them politely asked my in French the name of the cathedral that Eli and were snapping pictures of. Content with the name I provided them, they then inquired about the adjacent fountain, to which I quickly pulled out my map. Hearing us orient ourselves on the map in English, the two girls interrupted us with, "you both speak English? Allow me to find ourselves on the map....here. This is the feature of the city we're looking for. I'm sorry but our assignment is to practice our French with native speakers, we appreciate your time though. Enjoy your stay in Belgium." The girls' flawless English made us look utterly ridiculous; these twelve year olds wee tidying up their third language while we still wrestled with our first.
 
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