Consuming more Belgian culture

It’s hard to be happier than when the words “free” and “sponsored” and “activity” are etched into my weekly planner.

Tuesday was spent on an ISA excursion to Binche, a tiny town in Wallonia and the Carnival capital of Belgium, to celebrate Mardi Gras. We arrived around 2 p.m., just in time to soak in the highlight of Carnival festivities — the multi-hour parade where locals wear enormous hats made of ostrich feathers and pelt oranges at bystanders.

Everyone knows that Belgium is weird, and this parade is surely one of the more strange things I’ve encountered in Europe thus far.

Mardi Gras is the day of the Gilles, the costumed men who roam the streets in wooden clogs. Becoming a Gille is an incredibly high honor, and it’s only possible for native male Binchois. It’s like an elite society, where a feathery hat is the ultimate prize.

During the parade, the Gilles throw hundreds and hundreds of blood oranges into crowds of folks ready and waiting with canvas bags to fill up. Others watch from the safety of their own homes, with all the windows on the parade route barricaded with fishing wire.

We left before the post-parade merriment and firework show began, but it was getting late and we students do need to study sometimes.

On Thursday night, however, I passed time with my nose in beer instead of in books. It was still educational, though — a Beer Tasting Night at Vesalius College.

This was the first night of its kind and it was even more enjoyable than expected. The Dean was noticeably excited, even saying the event was his idea to teach the American study abroads a bit about the liquid they consume so much of.

Sven Gatz, director of the Belgian Brewers Federation, gave a brief lecture on the importance of beer in Belgian culture, the basic types of beer and what goes into brewing them. We tasted six: a sour Gueuze by 3 Fonteinen, a hazy St. Bernardus Wit, two examples of the standard Belgian pale ale with St. Idesbald Blond and Brugse Zot Blond, and two trappist beers, the Rochefort 8 and Orval.

Cheese cubes were circled around as students asked questions and finished off what remained in their sizeable tasting glasses. At the end, the Dean announced that there was still beer leftover. Students, faculty and alum filed out into the school’s kitchen area and revisited their favorite brews. It was joyous, and all the while I marveled at the event’s complete lack of possibility at home.

Not only would said event be expensive (Beer Loves Cheese tasting event at UC Davis was $50) but it would never be conducted with students in mind. At the same time, students in the States would probably be real stupid at such an event — dare I say, pregaming beforehand to maximize the buzz. And here we have a major benefit of such a tiny international college in Europe: age is no factor, with faculty and students always mingling effortlessly, and everyone knows how to drink.

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