"I like to say that while antimatter may seem strange, it is strange in the sense that Belgians are strange. They are not really strange; it is just that one rarely meets them," wrote the renowned scientist Lawrence Krauss. When a theoretical physicist specializing in multiple dimensions and dark matter refers to something as "strange," well…
The tiny nation of Belgium, wedged in uneasily as it is on Europe’s Atlantic Coast by France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Luxembourg (also a "strange" place, but one we’ll visit another day), is somewhat unusual. Its landmass rivals Maryland’s, its population rivals Ohio’s, but there are more than 2,000 chocolate shops within its borders. A quick note on what’s up with that: Chocolate gained mass popularity in Belgium in the second half of the 19th century, when Belgian King Leopold II colonized the Congo and cocoa cultivation began to shift from the Americas to West Africa, which provided an ideal environment, as well as plentiful slave labor, for cocoa production. Since then, Belgium has had a reputation for especially smooth, velvety chocolate made with the best ingredients; today, the Brussels national airport sells more chocolate than other place in the world. More about this soon, I promise.
Belgium was established during the Holy Roman Empire and its land mass has been ruled by virtually every dominant world power subsequently, and yet it’s technically a young country: Belgium’s official constitution was drafted in 1830 but, due to the amendments proposed by various German, Flemish, Dutch, and French factions, was not fully adopted until 1993. And it has three regions, Wallonia, which is primarily French; Flanders, which is primarily Dutch; and Brussels, which as the capital stands alone (and where, by law, all signs and all street names must be written in both French and Dutch, which makes getting around both easier and, um, stranger than you’re probably used to in an English-speaking European country). It is the birthplace of Tintin and the Smurfs, more than 650 kinds of beer, and boasts one of the lowest proportions of McDonald’s restaurants per inhabitant in the developed world. Euthanasia and gay marriage and marijuana possession are legal and chocolate consumption is strongly encouraged.
What do most Americans outside the Jean-Claude Van Damme fan club know about Belgium? Beyond waffles, beer, and chocolate, you mean? Probably that it’s the headquarters of the European Union, and maybe that it has what is arguably the single most beautiful town in all of Europe within its borders: Bruges.