If you want to catch up on this story, read The Hunt: Part 1 first!
Did I say that Songs in A&E was my only quest of this vacation? Did I say that, I don’t remember? Years of self-abuse, a term which I’ll allow you the liberty of making your own jokes, has put my short term memory in a bit of a deficit. For the sake of this, let’s just say that I didn’t specify Songs in A&E was my only quest, because that gives me the flexibility to write the opening paragraphs without the need of revision in addition to not calling my honesty and character into question.Now that is out of the way, we arrived in Antwerp, Belgium with several things on our minds. When I wrote “our minds,” I actually do mean “our collective minds.” Michelle’s and mine. We had the goals, along with seeing and experiencing the culture of course, to:
a) find Songs in A&E
b) find a place that does the Belgium frites
c) find a bar that serves Jupiler
d) luck into some chocolate that she could eat.
Now goals “a” and “c” were shared goals only because she knew that the sooner I accomplished those things, the sooner I’d stop obsessing over them. You see, I was introduced to Jupiler, the Belgian equivalent of wash beer, by a dear friend who also introduced me, among so many other things, to the aforementioned MC Solaar, leeks, parsnips and grotty old record stores that smell of piss. And although beer purists will go to great lengths condemning me for bypassing rare and exotic Trappist ales with all sorts of berries, chocolate and pine bark in them, I like the more honest beers. Simple beers that don’t make me feel as though I just ate my third Thanksgiving dinner of the day. Basically, Jupiler is Belgian Budweiser. But then, since the company, Imbev, who brews Jupiler just bought Anheuser-Busch, I guess that’s a redundant statement.
Goals “b” and “d” were as a result of a trip to Bruges several years before. In regards to “b,” which are the frites just in case you’re completely lost at this point, we fell in love with those greasy, salty, crunchy morsels of heaven to the point where it was just about the only thing we ate for the remainder of our time in Belgium. I once heard a story about how Jesus and Mary Chain’s guitarist (and a music hero of mine), William Reid, almost died because he subsided on nothing but sea salt and vinegar chips, speed and beer for a month. I don’t know if that’s true, but after four days with a similar diet, minus the speed, we realized that we just weren’t cut out to be rock and rollers.
“D,” chocolate, was another story. Now, I like chocolate as much as the next guy, but my wife, like every next woman you’ll ever meet, is obsessed with it. If chocolate existed in the same paucity as import CDs, I’m sure I’d have been dragged from one end of a city to another because she overheard someone say that a certain variety of Swiss milk chocolate was the best thing since Ghirardelli. But, as the fates have a way of screwing with your every dream, Michelle is allergic to cocoa butter, an ingredient that is featured quite prominently in Belgian chocolate. During our time in Bruges, she broke out in hives and stumbled through the city like she was drunk. She told me it was the chocolate and not the fifth glass of Orval she had just polished off, so I’m inclined to believe her. Her quest was to find a chocolatier who specialized in crafting fine, quality chocolates that didn’t use cocoa butter. So, with a map of the city in our hands and big dreams in our heads, we headed out into that rainy morning.
I had a good feeling about the day because we started in an artsy part of the city, far away from the Grote Markt and diamond district. We passed music venues with posters excitedly announcing upcoming shows. Fact: whenever I travel, I have awful luck coinciding my time in a destination with a concert of someone I’d love to see. Case in point, we went to Colorado a few weeks ago and three days prior, Nick Cave played. The night we left, The Black Angels played and two days after that,The Secret Machines had a show. To add that salt to that particular wound, back home in Cincinnati, The National and The Breeders played a free show on Fountain Square a scant few hours after we arrived in Denver.
Back to Antwerp, we also passed a number of record stores, maybe three or four of them. But, I had no luck as Europeans don’t have the decency to open for commercial transactions until some time in the middle of the afternoon. I was being taunted. In one of the windows, I saw the album’s poster with the price, in Euros, handwritten below it. I stuck out my lower lip, kicked the ground and was moments away from a full-blown temper tantrum when Michelle, wisely, pointed out that we could always come back and, in the meantime, why don’t we find a place that serves up some of those tasty frites.
Like the ADD kid I am, my attention was completely diverted and we set off to clog our arteries. Thankfully, we found a place and devoured them like starved pigs, all in the shadow of the Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal. Having reached the point where we were sweating grease and mayonnaise as well as having accomplished goal “b,” we decided that we’d shake the carb coma we were in with the only natural remedy: beer. More specifically, Belgian beer. So, we started walking, our eyes peeled to the signs above the bars looking for the prominent red and white “Jupiler” logo. We found “Maes” signs. We found “Leffe” signs. We found “Duvel,” “De Koninck,” “Stella Artois,” “Hoegaarden,” and “Chimay.” What we didn’t find, after about an hour of walking, was a “Jupiler” sign. During our time in Bruges and Brussels, you couldn’t swing a dead Malinois without hitting an establishment featuring that sign.
But, as intrepid as we were, we soldiered on. And, as luck would have it, somewhere between the main shopping district featuring all those tacky souvenir lace shops and the impressive Antwerpen Centraal, we, I mean I, found a record store. While the place was the kind of store I usually love, crowded and barely organized with unusual odors, it was strictly a used place, specializing in jazz. And while I did still manage to justify buying a Krupa/Rich drum battle CD and a Les Sages Poetes de la Rue album, I figured that if I found store, I’d find another.
And with that in mind, we started walking again, further and further away from the city center and deeper into residential neighborhoods. Through parks, flea markets and the Belgian equivalent to a county fair (think Tintin instead of SpongeBob theme mirrors). Occasionally, we’d stop in a bar, glance at the beer menu only to leave because no Jupiler was to be had. At this point, frustration really set in. Frustration borne of being utterly lost, ridiculously thirsty and with a growing paranoia that Belgium’s government had hidden every record store and Jupiler bar from me for past comments where I likened Brussels as Paris’ snotty younger brother.
I grew up in a good American city. Cartographically speaking, American cities are good cities, better than European cities. American cities are structured, orderly. Avenues run north to south, streets east to west. European cities look like my small intestines. I know this because I saw my small intestines when I had that mysterious illness that almost killed me several years ago and got to watch on a TV screen as a radioactive milk shake snaked its way through my digestive system.
When I look at a map of a European city, I see less a series of streets and more a cruel joke designed to make American tourists question whether we are really God’s chosen people as the evangelicals have led me to believe. We were lost, so we’d follow what appeared to be a primary road, only to have it disappear when it met with six-teen of its cousins in an asphalt conflagration that Europeans jokingly refer to as an intersection.
Still, after close to four hours of walking, we only managed to spot three Jupiler signs. Two of those places were closed; one didn’t even have the decency to have it actually serve it. We pressed on.
Somehow, we managed to find the Grote Markt and, more importantly, we found a liquor store where I finally found my Jupiler, albeit in cans. I paid for them and we stopped by a chocolate shop only to have Michelle assured that any good chocolate has the cocoa butter. She was disappointed. Crushed actually. And I’m proud of myself for having taken the time away from staring lovingly at those beautiful red cans to put my arm around her and tell her that, at the very least, she can still eat cheese. We decided to just suck it up and go to the bar across the street just to get something to drink. Anything would work provided it was cold and resembled beer.
Our natural inclination towards drinking establishments is the one that have used Moe’s bar from the Simpsons as a model. Dark, quieter places specializing in dank, where $20 will buy you a couple of beers and maybe a bag of chips for your troubles. At this point, however, we didn’t have any confidence that we’d find one, let alone those record stores we saw earlier in the day, so we took a seat for a croquet madam and a glass or two of some fine local brew.
The bar overlooked the magnificently ornate Grand Place and although it was a bit too hip, a bit too fashionable, and way too loud, we popped in. We sat down, were impressively ignored by the black clothed supermodel waitress who was chatting up the kind of guys who wear sunglasses in the shower. Guys with slicked back hair, loafers with no socks and who smoked ever so dramatically. The kind of guy for whom the term “Eurotrash” was thought up and the kind of guy Interpol long to be. Fortunately, her chatting gave me a bit of time to check out the beer menu.
This break in the action, this act of being ignored, afforded me the time to scan to the very bottom of the menu to where the beers like Keystone Light and Natty Bo are listed on American menus. There, almost all the way at the end, practically the bottom half of the words falling off the edge of the page were the letters J.U.P.I.L.E.R.
Hurray and huzzah. Time slowed to a crawl until that silly supermodel/waitress finally came over and had the audacity to ask if I wanted the small or large glass.
A large glass, a very large glass. Better make it six. And as Michelle ate her croque-monsieur and sipped her Orval, on my empty stomach I drank one after another after another, barely savoring the crisp, clean taste and more plowing through them like a Viking conqueror. Eventually, I did slow down, because I was quickly getting very drunk and because the toilet was at the bottom of a very precarious spiral staircase. Given, I’m the kind of guy who manages to trip when seated, so the more moderate approach seemed like a very good idea. In addition, each beer was also very expensive for what it was, something like five Euro which, at the time and exchange rate, was close to our monthly mortgage payment.
In that noisy and fashionable bar, Michelle and I laughed about the ridiculousness and futility of the day as we clicked through the photographs we had taken along the way. Each passing image was greeted with a smile or a laugh and the feeling like it couldn’t have been possible that we had walked so far, seen so much off the beaten track in one day. Maybe it was being so worn out, maybe it was the Jupiler soothing me, but by the time we found our way back to our room thoughts of unlocated CDs and cocoa butter free chocolates did not enter our thoughts. The day had been good.