Quirk No 1: The Milk Issue
“I don’t think we’ll be getting any semi-skimmed milk this week.”
I stare at the sales assistant of our local Carrefour supermarket. I am suddenly propelled into a parallel universe of Surrealism where I am struggling to make sense of the information I have just been imparted. The lack of semi-skimmed milk in a refrigerated section otherwise provided with several types of buttermilk, on a weekday morning, feels strange enough but that a large-ish supermarket should not even stock such a simple, everyday product on a daily basis sends my brain into freeze mode.
An Englishwoman we met a few days ago shared my experience and explained that fresh milk – an absolute birthright for us Brits – is not viewed as such by the Belgians, who tend to use the long-life variety.
Given this cultural difference, it is hardly surprising that my requests for goat’s milk, goat’s butter, goat’s yoghurt and goat’s cream – readily available in most London supermarkets – are met with a look of disbelief, as though I were asking for something alien to this planet.
* * *
Quirk No. 2: Cough Sweets
H. and I, suffering from a very tenacious cold, go to the pharmacy in search of cough sweets (you cannot buy any kind of medicine in supermarkets here). The pharmacist informs us that she has run out. My face locks, once again, in an expression of disbelief. She adds, with some impatience, that it’s not her fault, that the supplier has run out. H. drags me out of the pharmacy before my croaky voice can muster enough volume to ask Are you trying to tell me that a pharmacy stocks just ONE brand of cough sweets?!
* * *
Quirk No. 3: Coats in Museum Episode
Still cold-afflicted, we decide to take in the Neo-Impressionist exhibition at the ING Cultural Center. At the ticket desk, we are told to hand in our coats. Once again, my brain cannot process the information. I am not about to go through the metal detector arch of the Eurostar but into a museum, right? “But I’m cold,” I protest.
I am told it’s the museum regulations. “Yes, but regulations have to make sense, don’t they?” I say. “Why do I have to take off my coat?”
The explanation I receive is as follows. It is to avoid the risk of my getting too warm, taking off my coat, carrying it over my arm, and then brushing – and potentially damaging – the paintings with it if I come too close to them. I am then informed that the museum temperature is 20ºC. I don’t care what the temperature is. The air conditioning blows on my legs and I am too cold to appreciate my visit to the museum, but cold enough to leave with a sore throat and in a foul mood.
* * *
Delight No. 1: Gift-Wrapping
We buy a book at a central Brussels bookshop. It is a birthday present and we ask if they sell wrapping paper. They don’t, but offer, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, a free gift-wrapping service. How delightfully civilised. Something you don’t get in London.
* * *
Delight No. 2: No Chains
Yes, there are chains but these are so few and far between that you can easily live in Brussels without ever setting foot in one. Whether you want to go out for coffee, a beer, dinner or to buy books, Brussels has an abundance of individual businesses, each with its own very distinct personality. Each café and bookshop could be a character in a story. Unlike England, where all the High Streets blend into one anonymous row of identical chains, Brussels streets are an adventure, a treasure hunt.
* * *
Delight No. 3: Lait Russe or Kaffee Verkeert
In Italy, they have a wonderful hot drink called latte macchiato. It is for children, the elderly or those, like myself, who love the taste of coffee but cannot tolerate its kick. Basically, it is hot milk with a dash of coffee. In the UK, I am forever asking staff in coffee shop chains to make me a latte with half a shot of coffee. In Belgium, you don’t need to launch into lengthy explanations. They have, depending on whether you order in French or Flemish, lait russe or kaffee verkeert. A tall glass of hot milk with a head of froth and a dash of coffee, just enough to flavour the milk. And it is always served with the Belgian ‘finishing touch’ – a biscuit, a chocolate or a piece of cake reclining on the saucer.