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Tales of Glory from Old Belgium

This was originally written and published in October, 2000.

The Journey Begins: October 13, 2000

This is my second day in Belgium and I’ve yet to leave the Airport Holiday Inn much less sample the culinary delights from any of the finer establishments in perhaps the most gastronomically self aware country in the world.  All of this will be rectified tomorrow as I journey to points as yet unknown in the company of a Hertz car.

Today your occasionally humble scribe, his partner Bobby, and our noble sidekick Chris delivered a workshop to the assembled European management team of one of our very favorite clients.  This continental throng was brought to the battlegrounds of Europe to hear the good news that as a result of the purchase of one company by another, some of them would be losing their jobs, and all of them could now look forward to new job descriptions, changes in their power base, and a general great upheaval in their professional lives.  It was with that as a backdrop that your intrepid crew sallied forth to serve as canny guides through a thoughtful examination of possible go-to-market strategies.

Never one to leave the obvious unexplored, I started the proceedings with greetings from California—the state in which I pay taxes—and a brief list of what I regarded as our great state’s most significant contributions to global culture: Levi’s, wine in boxes, Rambo movies, and the universally applicable “duuude.”  I am grateful to report that the locals found this little attempt at humor worth a chuckle and we were off to the races.

To those unfamiliar with the work I do, this particular workshop is built on a session and method devoted to working senior managers through the contemplation of no less than four possible go-to-market strategies.  The intent is to spur deep thinking and conversation about competitive advantage, as well as ultimately require the group to make singular decisions about how to go-to-market for each of their significant revenue streams.

Truth be told, it had been some time since I’d led a workshop over there. In this particular case, we were also premiering a new method and framework. There was the part about not speaking the native tongues and being from you know where.  Oh yeah, and that reorganization and “fallen comrades” part.

But into the maw we strove and low and behold, with only the occasional tap dance, we managed to cover ourselves in glory as the group spent the better part of six hours working through strategies and implications.  The participants did some really good thinking and in the end arrived at some important decisions that we’re looking forward to helping them implement.  Our sponsor was thrilled as he could possibly be, the participants actually seemed to enjoy themselves, our engagement is secure and growing, my partners are on the plane home to the great PX, and all is right with my little corner of the world.

On that later note, I will mention how odd it is to be sitting in a Holiday Inn in Brussels writing this whilst the Middle East has once again erupted into violence and the State Department has issued some sort of travel advisory for this very city.

During my most previous European trip, young Mr. Kennedy managed to cartwheel his plane into the sea, killing himself and two others.  The European trip before that featured the death and funeral of the People’s Princess.  I’m refusing to take blame for any of these untoward events, but you should know that I will be coming back to the continent later this year in case you’re thinking of going long on the market or going for a plane or car ride with a celebrity.

Postcard from Ypres, Bruges, and Brussels: October 14, 2000

Among Belgium’s many virtues, the saddest is that this is apparently a really swell place for a war – particularly if you’re from somewhere else.  Since Caesar, warriors of various nationalities have repaired to these parts to duke it out in the name of empire, king, and country.  Though the average American couldn’t point to in on a map on a bet, it is in these same parts that Wellington roughed up the last French military genius (though the French have probably still not come to that realization).  It is also through Belgium that the Germans twice marched in the last century, and it was for the purpose of investigating some small bit of the Great War that I set myself this morning.

I have read a great deal about the “war to end all wars” (which did nothing of the sort), and I’ve always been keen on walking some part of the trench line that stretched grimly, year after year, from the sea to Switzerland.  Lacking the time or energy that would have required, I instead rented a car and drove most rapidly first north from Brussels to Ghent, and thereafter east to Ypres (now called Ieper) and the heart of “Flanders Fields.”

On the way, I was cheered on by the dulcet tones of Madonna, Whitney, and Cher – who are just as irritating to my ears over here (or over there depending on your point of view).  In between I jumped from station to station, alternatively listening to French (which always sounds like they’re talking about sex), and Dutch (which always sounds like they’re talking about food), the two official languages of this country.

Ypres is an old town, or at least it was prior to the Great War.  In October of 1914, some two months after the German Army stepped off in their great right hook through neutral Belgium, Ypres stood very much in the way of an advance to the channel ports.  For the balance of the war, the British (and colonials) and the Germans faced off in Flanders Fields on a front that twisted back on itself in a confusion of trenches.

There were three major Ypres offensives, and another at Passchendaele, all of which managed to do nothing to advance the front in either direction any meaningful distance, and left behind a lunar landscape and hundreds of thousands dead.  Looking at the pictures from these slaughters, it’s hard to imagine you’re looking at something on this planet so torn up is the countryside.  Even stranger is the constant sensibility that everything you’re looking at used to be nothing but mud and death.

On this day, Flanders was clothed in a ground hugging fog and light drizzle.  I first stopped at Tyne Cot, which is the largest of many British cemeteries.  If you’ve not been to a military cemetery, it’s a sobering experience – particularly if it’s close by the scene of the action (unlike Arlington National Cemetery for example).  I found myself staring at a gravestone marked for some young Tommie who was killed on October 3, 1917, a day I tend to remember fondly as my birthday.

Big pause.

As it happens, all of the men buried in Tyne Cot, from what I can tell, were killed in the first two weeks of October, more or less exactly 83 years ago to the day that I was standing there.

More big pause.

Still, it is now a lovely and peaceful place and it honors the war dead magnificently.  If its intent is to also stir following generations to think about bigger issues, it succeeds at this equally as well.

The area around Ypres is thick with cemeteries and memorials.  A few miles down the road is Sanctuary Wood in which original British trenches are still preserved.  Today, the area around the trenches is grown up with trees so it’s difficult to get a real sense of what it was like.  Still, the trenches were filled with puddles, there are many shell craters, and a couple of blown up trees lashed to metal poles give silent testimony to what went on.

It’s captivating and depressing.

 Hill 62 is home to the largest Canadian war memorial. It was here that the boys from the north swapped lives with Germans who were intent on capturing one of the few elevated positions in this part of Belgium.  In keeping with the spirit of my day, it was quiet, shrouded in fog, and deserted, all of which afforded still more contemplation on my part.

I finished my tour of the Salient with a visit to the Hooge Crater Cemetery, another leftover from the Third Ypres, October 1917.  Once again I was haunted by gravestones bearing my birth date.  Once again I was struck by the simultaneous beauty and horror of what I was looking at, and what it must have looked like, sounded like, and smelled like 83 years ago.

Back in my car and ready for other things, I hammered north to Bruges, which is described by some people as the “Venice of Belgium.”  I’ll give you a moment to reflect on how that should be interpreted, other than the obvious implication that there are canals.  Moment is up.

Bruges is actually lovely.  The part that everyone goes to see is a warren of cobblestone streets and alleys, old buildings (many of which aren’t as old as they look due to the incessant predations of the folks to the east), squares of all sizes, and yes, canals and bridges going every which way.  I happily occupied myself with wandering and photographing, finally stopping at a shop for a piece of quiche (real man that I am) and some especially foul-smelling cheese.

On my way back to my car, I got thoroughly lost and briefly played in my head the calls I would be making, first to Hertz to explain that I’d lost their car, and then to my wife, asking her to call the embassy to come and retrieve me.  Fortunately, our hard working ambassador will be able to sleep well tonight, at least on my account, as I was able to find my car and return it and me back to Brussels airport after a spirited drive down one of Belgium’s splendid and splendidly marked motorways.

There is an end to this chapter and it is here in Brussels.  I’m finally ensconced in the downtown Sheraton, keeping intact my recent string of American badged hotels on foreign shores.  Dinner tonight was at a very presentable establishment on Place St. Catherine, which is home to a many fine fish restaurants.  I supped on mussels and a plate of grilled salmon, sole, lobster tail, and sand dabs that were delicious.  I pigged out on mousse and felt fully justified in doing so given the miles I’d walked and the food I didn’t eat up until then.

Sleeping, Talking, and Walking Around: October 15, 2000

The wear and tear of travel and whatever else finally caught up to me.  I resolved last night to set no alarm and finally swam to the surface around 10:40 AM this morning in anticipation of a business meeting.  My colleague arrived shortly after one and lunch passed agreeably in the hotel restaurant.  I think we both felt we accomplished what we had come for.

Between the sleeping, eating and talking, it was four-thirty before I was finally free to contemplate the possibilities of Brussels on a cold, foggy, and drizzly day.  While this sort of weather pretty much kills the fun if you’re hanging around at the beach, I find it does nothing to dampen the appeal of a great city.  Indeed, I think it offers fine opportunities for photography, especially if you fancy black and white, which I do.

One of Europe’s oldest circuses is encamped in an empty lot across the square from my hotel, and it is there that I headed first.  This is an “under the big top” type of circus featuring a large tent set front and center on the lot.  Jammed all around, left, right, and behind, is the armada of caravans, trucks, trailers, and all the rest that the circus requires to house and transport its performers.  Lined up outside were the expected assortment of children and adults waiting to enjoy the thrills and excitement that waited inside.  I’m pleased to report that the pitiful and annoying cry of overwrought children translates well into French or Dutch, and I had little difficulty understanding the gist of either side of the ensuing child/parent interchanges.

Leaving the circus behind, I headed once again in the general direction of the famous Grand Place to seek my photographic fortune.  As you would expect of a part of town that dates to the 16th century (and before if you predate the current buildings), the streets narrow up and weave this way and that.  Closer to the Grand Place, the assorted shops, haberdasheries, chemists, booksellers, and porno palaces gave way to an endless parade of seafood restaurants, each with its sidewalk tables, shellfish displays, awnings, and barkers doing their very best to entice members of the passing mob to favor his establishment.  I suspect that those in fear of crowds or close places would seriously hate the experience.

With a set up like that, you know I had a wonderful time looking and photographing until I finally settled on a place to eat.  Having walked past perhaps 50 or 60 restaurants – they are literally one after the other on both sides of successive alleys – I made my selection based on a clear line of site from my intended table from which I intended to further my photographic interests.  I’m not entirely sure what I ordered, but what arrived was a very serviceable paella which I downed happily whilst surreptitiously firing my camera which was mounted on a tripod beside me.

The Grand Place is the center of the old city and is surrounded four sides with wonderful old guild, government, and private buildings, most of which are now something else.  At the time of my arrival, the day was ending and whatever hubbub and excitement one might normally find on a Sunday afternoon had long since departed.

Soon, the buildings were awash in light (that probably overstates the amount of light; more like drizzling in light I think), which sets the assembled tourists to snapping away.  Imagine their disappointment when they develop their film, only to find that the automatic flash that so harshly lit their smiling mugs had the unpleasant side affect of plunging whatever lay behind them – like the building they were posing before – into total darkness.  Smugly, I took my photos with camera firmly mounted atop a small tripod, counting the seconds for my properly time-exposed pictures.  At least that’s what I told myself I was doing and that is what they would be.

Monday the City Sleeps: October 16, 2000

Darkness comes early to Brussels this time of year, and doesn’t flee until seven or later the next day – particularly when accompanied by fog and rain, which has been the case these last two days.  I’d provide a more precise time but I saw no compelling reason to spring out of bed this morning.  I lolled about until there was precious little left of the morning.  So shoot me.

Like any large city, Brussels is divided into sections.  Paris calls these arrondissements, NY calls them boroughs, and my guess is the locals here have names for them as well.  My map calls out names like Vrije Gemeente, Zavel, and Europese Instellingen, which are presumably Dutch, as well as their French equivalents. My guidebook, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as expansive, admitting only to: The Upper Town, The Lower Town, and Greater Brussels (I’d love to see their interpretation of NYC: Places With Big Buildings; Places To See Shows; Places Wherein They Play Baseball; and Greater NYC including the Palisades, Upstate, and Most of Jersey).  Having walked and sampled the delights of The Lower Town yesterday, I set my sites on, well, The Upper Town.

I’ve not studied these matters closely, but I gather that this upper/lower thing has something to do with a change in elevation, or what the guidebook elegantly describes as an “escarpment.”  In times past, this divide tended to also separate the Flemish merchants (lower) from the French-speaking aristocrats (upper).

Today, this same sensibility is preserved as upper is where one finds the old royal buildings, the local version of the Arc d’Triumph, which in this case celebrates the fiftieth anniversary to Belgian independence, the big museums, and of course all the EU buildings that house all those pesky folks bent on turning all of Europe into a single political, economic, and trading block run by sensible bureaucrats.  Apparently the lessons of the great Soviet adventure have been lost on the nice folks in The Upper Town, but that is another subject altogether.

No trip to a European city would be complete without at least one trip on the Metro.  As my hotel is atop one of the big stations, I started my trip there. I did manage to hand signal my need for directions to the pleasant French-speaking gentleman in the toll cage (yes Madge, this isn’t Paris so there are pleasant French-speaking people) who took my 50 BEF and directed me to the proper line.  Beyond that, I didn’t understand a word he said, though I presume he told me where to get off.  So I rode until I started to get really nervous that I had gone too far at which point I got off – much too soon as it turned out.  More map reading ensued and then I once again did a most un-guy thing: I asked for directions.

Like a conquering army of one, I strode henceforth up Rue do la Loi towards the parc du Cinquantenaire and its towering arc.  If that image sounds improbable, let me rush to assure you that I looked splendid, if hardly threatening, in my Moonstone parka, Levi relaxed fit jeans, and comfy walking shoes.  The rain whipped about in a nasty sort of way while I continuously assured myself that I was having a great adventure and that there would be many fine things to photograph any moment now.  At last, the park and arc lay just before me.  In I strode, the conquering hero, kind of wet and soggy if you want to know the truth, but pleased that I had finally arrived at the seat of Belgian power, art, and antiquities.

There had been some sort of woman’s equality parade on Sunday that had even made it to CNN (at least the version I watched).  I briefly wondered if I might find some sort of museum exhibit celebrating the considerable achievements of the fairer sex, but decided instead to keep the whole Venus/Mars thing properly in balance.

So I went to the Museum of the Army (I’ll spare you the French rendition).  At least that was my intent.  Only then did I discover that Monday meant that Brussels was closed, at least all the parts I wanted to see.  From the dim recesses of my brain I vaguely recalled that this might be the case in other European cities as well, though I fervently doubt that this is the case in REAL CITIES like NY and London where they speak you know what!  So back I went, walking and then metroing, exiting in The Lower Town where everything seemed to be open.

A colleague told me the other day that there are two kinds of restaurants in Brussels: the really expensive kind and the kind that serve chips (French fries to those of you who’ve never had fish and). While I don’t think that’s a technically accurate statement, it does seem to sum up the polarity of choices.  For my mid-day repast, I selected a sandwich dive deep in the Passage du Nord (which may or may not be famous – I’m just reporting what it said on the arch above).  I had a cup of soup and a hot pannini for which I paid 150BEF (about $3.50), for which I failed to get a receipt, and which I mostly certainly plan on expensing.

Walking back, I further dented the daily meal allowance by purchasing $5.00 of Belgian chocolate.  In case you missed the news, the chocolate they make over here is a lot better than the kind we get in the local superette back home.  Even to this culinary cro magnon, the tastes are sensational, yea even overwhelming.  After about three pieces I started to sweat from my eyelids and felt an overpowering need for some bread or water or gum or something.

My day finished with me comfortably ensconced in my hotel room, the sounds of those funny French sirens eeeeoooooing down below, my fingers flying from key to key on my laptop.  Duty called from Texas and California.  Duty met with the usual literary tonnage of Kevinisms duly typed and shipped at 34.4 baud from 3:00 pm, GMT +1, until midnight.  Tomorrow, I have to go back to work (though not back to the states just yet).

The Belgian Bugle: October 17, 2000

What makes a city great I wonder?  Is it size?  Economic might?  Good food?  Culture?  Art?  When I think of great cities, the three that come immediately to mind are London, Paris, and NYC.  I love San Francisco, Sydney and Boston but I’m not sure they are in the same category. Los Angeles is a wasteland in my book. Hong Kong has lots to see and do, but comes up short on my list.

Anyway, this is my list and I’m thinking I might give Brussels temporary residence on it.  It has history, a broad pastiche of architectural styles, the requisite cathedrals and palaces, stately gardens, train stations, grand hotels, and even McDonalds (no Starbucks that I saw).  It doesn’t have all those diamonds – Antwerp does – but it does have legions of Eurocrats driving their government-paid Saabs to and from very important meetings about who knows what.  And you can buy really good chocolate here.

One of the things that great cities have in common is that they don’t disappear at night.  While the boring parts where people litigate, bank, wheel, deal, and schpiel shut down (thank goodness), the really interesting parts bubble to life.  This is certainly true of the previously chronicled Lower Town, home to winding alleys, a rainbow of lights, shop after shop, and strolling lookers and seers.

During the day, I confess to feeling out of place not having a cell phone glued to my ear.  At night, the air is filled with the obviously cheerful chatter of wandering tourists: German here, American over there, a touch of Aussie in front of me, French to either side.  If you slow yourself down and listen, just listen, it’s almost like walking through a tone poem.

This night has brought out the best in the city and the best in those of us passing through its streets.  Unlike yesterday, today was clear and mostly sunny, ending in the perfectly glorious fading yellow light that’s peculiar to late fall days.  My evening jaunt took me around and about many of the same streets I’ve walked before, but somehow they look and sound different tonight.  Was it the day?  The sunset?  My imagination?  Maybe I just need to go home and see my family before I turn into some sort of dime store Ernest Hemmingway wannabe!

My evening meal was taken mostly while walking.  I’d been past what I judged to be a Turkish restaurant tucked in one of the allies just off the Grand Place on a previous night and it was there that I found myself again tonight.  Actually, I think I was probably compelled by the distant voices of my family warning me that I better return home with some sweets or not at all!

Not just any sweets, though I’m to bring those as well, but Turkish Delight which for some reason is a favorite with certain members of our household.  This is a powdered sugar covered confection that is made up of some sort of jelly.  The last batch we bought was from Fortnum & Mason in London some years ago and I would confess to not having seen any since.  In this case, the confection in question was the real deal – made in Ankara – so I can now be sure that my arrival home will be properly celebrated.

Lest you worry that I’ve not attended to business, today was also the first of two days spent seminar leading at the second annual Pan-European SAMA conference.  Though I’ve seen what SAMA stands for perhaps fifty times, I can’t for the life of me remember for longer than three minutes, but I know it does have something to do with account management and I think the “S” stands for strategic.  One of my colleagues wrangled the opportunity to be a speaker and then skipped for Sydney when other duties called. So I stepped in.

The keynote speaker was Jordan Lewis, who kind of looks like he should be called “Uncle Chuck,” and who is the author of the widely read Connected Corporation, and now a new book called Trusted Partners.  I got some useful ideas but was terribly distracted by the fact that his comments had almost nothing to do with his slides, and his slides had almost nothing to do with his handouts.  He had flown in from the US the night before and was leaving immediately to return to Atlanta for dinner and thereafter on to Seoul.  His lack of engagement with the audience is perhaps understandable given his jet setting ways, but annoying just the same

My workshop, on the other hand, was scintillating, interesting, compelling, energetic, and attended by nine people.  I’m pleased to report that my remarks did track nicely with my slides, which more or less anticipated or followed the pages in my handout, so I succeeded wildly by those modest standards.  And in truth, our small group had a very cheery time, as I made sure they had lots to think about and roundly encouraged them to banter with me and their newfound chums.

Time to Go Home: October 18, 2000

I’ve just turned off CNN.  What a bunch of Dementors (gratuitous reference to Harry Potter).  I’ve just heard about unrest and killings in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Israel, from Amnesty International on the fact that torture is practiced in 150 countries, from World Business to find that global equity markets are in a freefall, and from World Sports to discover that we’ll finally be having a subway World Series after lo these many years.  Is there no good news in the world or is it just Ted Turner’s perverse view of reality?

I bring this up because those of you who’ve traveled overseas know that CNN is the one channel you can be sure to find where English and American are spoken.  Though I don’t watch a lot of TV at home, I find myself drawn like a firefly to the electronic wallpaper from Atlanta whose only other redeeming feature I can see, other than the English part, is that James Earl Jones does the voiceover for the lead ins (This, is CNN).

My final thoughts bring me full circle to where my thinking about Belgium began.  In planning my journey to Europe’s formerly favorite battleground, I had determined to go have a look at its most famous killing fields.  In so many ways, the previous century was characterized by war and more war, and though most people of our generation have no sense of it, The Great War was arguably the most cataclysmic in history.  The endless mechanized slaughter obliterated the optimism that had been fairly bursting through the Victorian era (at least in Western Europe), not to mention a generation of young men who surely had other plans.

Everything in art, music, literature, politics, and geo-politics took a nasty turn following the crushing loss of faith in modernity as well as mankind’s humanity, producing more and more discord throughout Europe and finally the rest of the world.  It is hardly a stretch to suggest that the events in the Middle East today are nothing more than a continuation of the terrible events of 1914 to 1918 (for those who don’t know, what is now the modern state of Israel first began to emerge under the British in Palestine immediately after The Great War, thank you Lawrence of Arabia, though Israel didn’t become a nation state until later).

After the work stuff that occupied my morning had finally concluded (yes, I spoke to another group, and yes I managed to not embarrass the side), I once again boarded the metro back towards Museum Land, known in my guidebook as The Upper Town.  The twin siren songs of the Auto Museum and The Museum of the Army beckoned as I once again made my way through the park and towards the great Belgian Arc.  Thinking that I should at least try to meditate on something other than The Great War, I headed straight to the Auto Museum where I was lead to expect no fewer than 300 motor vehicles.

Billed as one of the great collections in the world, and dating to the twenties, the selected species are all gathered in a wonderful glass-topped hall that is reminiscent of the Musse d’Orsey in Paris.  I’ve been to more than a few of these sorts of things in both Europe and the US, and it’s always interesting to contemplate what the curator has chosen to assemble (assuming there was even that much thought given), if not wonder why.

Even with 300 vehicles, almost all of which looked like they’d just been driven in and left, this isn’t an especially comprehensive or representative collection (way too much strange European stuff, but then, we’re in Europe Bubba).  Arranged in chronological order were all sorts of makes that I’d only vaguely heard of, a bunch that I know but hadn’t ever seen in person, and a few oddly selected American makes.

Okay, okay, so then I went to the Museum of the Army.  Like the wheeled wonders, this collection is housed in a virtually identical hall on the other side of the courtyard behind the Arc.  I’ll spare you all the fascinating details other than to point out a few observations, the first of which I’ve already made about eleventeen times: they sure have had a lot of wars here.

The great hall is filled with case after case of uniform-clad mannequins dating to the first parts of the nineteenth century.  Another hall covers all the armor and requisite metal things from days of yore, and yet another is chockablock with swords and guns and things.  The walls are up to their very tall ceilings with portraits of folks who were important enough to get their very own paintings done, and the whole sweep of it is very impressive.

There’s no question that officers got much better looking attire and far better hats including, at least for a brief time, some very spiffy tall furry things.  And yes, like the French at the turn of the century, the foot soldiers were cursed to wear those notorious red pantaloons that their Gallic neighbors wore so proudly until the German invaders used them for target practice.  The very large room devoted to The Great War is suitably impressive with a staggering collection of cannons and howitzers.  It’s funny, they don’t look that lethal with their wooden spoke wheels and rivets everywhere, but the pictures of the moonscape that used to be Flanders are all the reminder you need.

In the end, I found the museum, like the cemeteries I visited days before, to be suitably contemplative and up to the purpose of laying out the who, what, where, and how, leaving the visitor to fill in whatever conclusions about the why that he or she deems appropriate.

My journey back to the hotel took me past one of the many fine chocolate stores the locals have so thoughtfully littered about and I did my very best to repatriate my remaining Belgian Francs to the EC.  I trust those waiting for me at home will greet me with extra enthusiasm, as I know they are reading these missives shortly after they’re written.

Even if you don’t share my fascination with YOU KNOW WHAT, a few days spent in Belgium would not be wasted.  The weather is a bit gloomy this time of year, but not to the point where you’d rather stay in and watch CNN all day.  The good food is very good and the sidewalk fair is more than adequate.  The old stuff is suitably old looking so you won’t mistake your surroundings for Minneapolis or Orlando.  The people are just as friendly as they can be (assuming you’re not trying to buy a large media company).  It has been a great place to visit.