All right, so we have finally given this thing a (working) name. Welcome to the blog 12 Belgian Cities!
What ‘this thing’ is? Glad you ask. It’s a bit of a long background story – and for some reason it involves the number 12 a lot – but bear with me.
I ran into Simon, lover of boardgames and beer, self-made gourmet chef extraordinaire, holder of a degree in Journalism but with a professional experience ranging from cocktail-bartender to website editor, but above all my fellow travel adventurer and author of this blog, about 5 years ago in Madrid. We were both studying abroad under the Erasmus programme, and at the very start of it our local alma mater arranged a one-week Spanish crash course for incoming students, to give us at least a hint of a chance at understanding any of the all-Spanish lectures that were soon to follow. It was also the perfect way to meet new people (I arrived alone like many others), fellow Erasmus students that came in from different countries. Like any foreign student I looked forward to making lots of friends from all over the world, which I eventually did. Funny thing though: it quickly turned out that out of all the nationalities I met, Belgian was the one I got along with the best: in terms of sense of humor, socializing together, fun-loving attitude, a healthy appreciation of the fairer sex and, well, drinking more and later than most other nationalities.
One thing we didn’t have in common was a mother tongue. I’m Flemish, my new-found Belgian friends were from Brussels. Turns out Dutch education in French-speaking Belgium, much to the regret of those taking it is a bit of a joke (though they could all fluently assure me they were vrienden van Piet). And while we quickly concluded that French classes on my side were generally taught better, I’ve always been a science guy and avoided learning it as much as I could.
Would be silly to let such a practicality get in the way of a good night’s fun any day though, so whatever: we ‘los Belgas’ partied speaking English among ourselves at first, and broken Spanish when we got sufficiently well at that later on. Learning we were in fact all from the same country would often puzzle many people from other countries we’d meet (while happily chatting in broken Spanish) troughout our Erasmus.
During our Madrid months we got in a habit of doing short weekend trips to different cities, typically crashing the couch of a local friend we’d met somewhere before, or a friend-of-a-friend of a friend we’d met before. After Erasmus was over, well, we never really stopped doing that. The trips never stopped being memorable either (insofar as the intoxicated mind allows); there is just something extra carefree about having fun and meeting people in a place far from home, and continually speaking another language. Somehow it’s a social free pass similar to a youth movement uniform (if you’ve been in one you’ll know what I mean): sure you are in the same society as everybody else, but you just don’t care so much about what strangers might think of you. Which tend to lead to great fun, meeting lots of new people, and a flavour of going out that is rather different from the regular friday night pub meetup.
So it is during one of these little city excursions that we find ourselves about a month ago, sipping long island ice tea at a grungy place in Barcelona’s bar district. Crashing the couch of Simon’s friend Nico who’s studying there, and accompanied by another friend of Simon, Matthieu (honest is honest: it’s Simon who supplies most of the friends on these trips!) we ponder the exact same feeling described above: the strong effect that another country and another language have on how hard, crazy and socially you party.
At one point it come up that actually it’s a damn shame that that typical care-free atmosphere should be restricted just to travelling abroad. Why shouldn’t it be possible to have that closer at home? (and indeed, many people do, so maybe it’s just me but I swear the different language effect thingie is real)
Also, if it weren’t for Simon I would have barely ever gotten to know Brussels nightlife, and the same goes for him and Ghent. Why limit ourselves to only the cities we live in, when we find time and time again that people from Belgium are Really Fun To Be Around. So let’s go check them out in their own cities then!
After the initial rush of bar enthusiasm (‘best idea in the world!’ however silly or trivial), some thoughts came up: one of the reasons meeting new people when travelling is so easy is that you always have an interesting story: being from the other country, being abroad, just discovered That Great Sight in the city and loved it. So getting truly that fun touristy vibe would require this ‘go on weekend trips to Belgian cities together’ to have some sort of story attached to it.
Also, carreers, hopes and dreams were also discussed at one point at the bar (aren’t they always), and as 2 out of the 3 turned out to be unemployed journalism majors, perhaps writing some stuff down about our experiences would be nice, both to lend it a tangible, credible quality when we explain why we are in their city to people we meet, and to have some nice resume juice as a bonus.
And that’s the point where this whole thing turned from ‘idea at a bar’ into A Project.
We visit a different city each month of the 2012, so that’s 12 of them in total.
We are not just day tripping, we wan’t to go out and sleep somewhere afterwards. So let’s make our trips run from 12AM Saturday to 12AM the next Sunday.
We want to get to know the city trough the people in it: we want to learn from the young (ok ok, or late 20-ish like us) locals what are the nice and none-obvious spots are, and then go check them out, preferably together.
We love good food. So we try to discover what the typical good stuff from the region is, and then find a way to have it at a restaurant or even better: prepare it ourselves (remember Simon’s godlike cooking prowess) for a local and see how we did!
We report back on what we did on this blog.
One particularly hungover sunday afternoon spent at a bar in Ixelles, Brussels after a particularly fun Saturday at the same Ixelles, Brussels had us iron out the final practicalities: we’re going to buy ourselves a decent camera for pictures and videos, we’re going to get ourselves a real tourist guide of Belgium, and eventually blindly pointing a pen on a sheet with the names of 12 interesting Belgian cities scribbled on settled it.
Our first stop is Mons!