Tuesday, January 13, 2015

January 13, 2015 Brussels, Belgium

It's another miserable day in Brussels with chilly temperatures and a steady drizzle of rain. However, I knew before coming here that this was the type of weather I was likely to find at low altitudes in Western Europe in winter, so there was no point in looking out the window and whining at the fact the weather here isn't as pleasant as back home in Phoenix. [I later got an email from my sister telling me that the weather in Phoenix is wet and miserable, too, so now I feel much better.] Therefore, after dallying three hours over breakfast chatting mainly in Spanish with some other foreigners, I set out to see the Atomium, a weird building that I had last visited in the 1960s, when it was still relatively new.

The Atonium was built for the 1958 World's Fair, which Brussels hosted. I remember reading about it as a teenager, probably in Popular Mechanics, which along with Popular Electronics was a magazine that all of we nerd teenage males read. The Atomium is supposed to represent a single cell in the structure of an iron crystal. Here it is silhouetted against the leaden Brussels winter sky. It is fabricated mainly of stainless steel, and as you can see, it is constructed of spheres connected by tubes.

The Atonium on the outskirts of Brussels
I took the subway out to the outskirts of town to visit the Atonium, and for the first time in my life, I sprung for an eight-euro ticket to go inside (senior citizen reduced price). I went inside the base sphere and through a metal detector, which of course went off, because I was carrying all sorts of electronics. Never mind! The metal detector is just there for show, and no one cares if it goes off or not.

First I was directed to an elevator, which took me all the way up the center tube to the top sphere. Some propaganda I was shown said that it is the fastest elevator in Europe. There was a window in the roof of the elevator so I could see us speeding up the tube.

There are a number of exhibits in each of the spheres, and the top sphere also has windows all of the way around that provide a panoramic view of Brussels and its outskirts, Naturally I had to snap a picture.

The view of Brussels from the top sphere of the Atomium
From there, I was directed to take the elevator back to the base sphere from where I ascended and descended a system of escalators and staircases to visit most of the remaining spheres. (Some of them are supposedly reserved for special exhibits and not normally open to the public.)

The publicity posters claimed that two of the escalators are the longest in the world. I can't vouch for that, but below is a photo of an escalator descending through one of the tubes. Judge for yourself.

The escalator's lighting is psychedelic. Different colored lights flash on and off and move up and down the tube in various patterns.
Below are views of Brussels taken from two of the lower-level spheres. If you click on the picture to enlarge it, you should be able to see the raindrops on the window through which the picture was shot.

This photo was taken from the center sphere of the Atomium
Photo take from one of the outer spheres.
After I got back near the hostel after visiting the Atomium, I stopped for a Belgian specialty. No, not beer this time, although Belgian beer is very good. I stopped for French fries! To be frank, the moniker French fries is a misnomer. Frying potatoes this way is a Belgian invention, and the Belgians  still do it best. The fries or frites are served in a large cone, several times the volume of a large order of fries at McDonald's. The customer has a choice of which sauce to order with them, but the traditional way to eat them is with mayonnaise. If you think that mayonnaise is a strange accompaniment to fries, let me assure you that Belgian mayonnaise is not that plastic-tasting stuff that we are used to getting out of a jar in the USA. Belgian mayonnaise has a delicious, creamy taste. The server puts the mayonnaise in a side pocket of the paper cone that holds the fries, and the customer uses a small plastic fork to individually stab each fry and dip it in the mayonnaise before eating it. The fries themselves are crunchy on the outside and soft inside. They are also bursting with an intense flavor that one will never find in the fries of an international fast-food chain.

I'm finding the subject of language in Brussels and Belgium in general very interesting. There is a cultural as well as a linguistic conflict between native French and Dutch speakers. Almost all Dutch speakers are also fluent in English. A minority of the French speakers are. Many of the native Dutch speakers also speak French, although some of them prefer not to. I've run into very few native French speakers who speak Dutch. The compromise seems to be for the two groups to communicate with each other in English. Here in the hostel where I am staying, the staff members come from several different countries, so they almost always speak to each other in English.

Public buildings, streets, etc., almost all have two names, one French and one Dutch. Many businesses and advertising signs solve the language problem by using English, which almost all Belgians can at least read and which most people in Northern Belgium are comfortable speaking.

Some people in the USA worry that English is going to disappear. They shouldn't. English is slowly taking over, and the people who should be worrying about their language disappearing are members of smaller language groups. The German government's international broadcasting arm, Die Deutsche Welle, is considering reducing the number of languages in which it broadcasts. The language that management is considering chopping first? German!

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