June 1994, Part 3: After concluding my commercial copywriting seminar in England for Metro Radio Group, I took my first Sabena Airlines flight, to Brussels, Belgium.
Don’t rush off to book your flight; that airline since has gone out of business.
My host was BRTN, Belgium’s national broadcasting company. Bob De Groof had arranged — on rather short notice, once he learned I was to be in England that month — for me to conduct two days of air talent seminars. The first was in Antwerp, for BRTN’s newest station, “DONNA.”
(That’s it; just “DONNA.” Not even “Radio Donna.” A very distinctive personality for a young, aggressive radio station quite unlike the typical government-run station.)
As you probably know, Belgium is a small country, and I was given the choice of flying into either Brussels or Antwerp, about 40 kilometers apart. I also was given the choice of being housed in either city. This choice served to consume a couple of days for me when planning the trip: Brussels or Antwerp? Never having been in Belgium, I was at a loss to choose. And I couldn’t think of any friends who had been there to advise me.
So I made two calls, seeking advice. The first was to Sabena Airlines, then the national airline of Belgium. The reservations agent I spoke with was a New Yorker who had been to both cities. “Definitely Brussels,” she said. “Antwerp is very dirty and very American; Brussels is much more European.”
My second call was to Napah Phyakul Quach of the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles, which occasionally has asked me to speak to groups of visiting radio professionals from around the world. Napah had not been to Belgium, but she asked a colleague who replied, “Definitely Brussels.”
So I dutifully faxed my choice (Brussels) to the kind person at BRTN who was handling the arrangements for me. “Brussels?” she replied. “You’ll miss the wonderful personality of Antwerp, which is a much more charming city!”
Bob reacted with even more disdain for my choice: “Very well,” he faxed me. “After you have settled into your hotel in Brussels, I shall meet you for dinner at some stuffy, pretentious restaurant crowded with boring diplomats. And then I shall drive home to Antwerp, where I shall stop off for coffee at a charming, intimate café filled with warm, interesting people!”
Well, due to the airline schedules, ultimately I concluded that Brussels would be much more convenient.
Upon reaching Belgium, I learned that Antwerp is supposed to be a wonderful old city to walk around in. Here’s an exaggerated way of comparing the two cities: Antwerp is for backpacking tourists, Brussels is for diplomats and wealthy tourists. Because I prefer to walk around and explore very informally, I resolved to spend my free half-day in Antwerp.
After all of my angst at choosing where to stay and where to explore, I never did get to spend any free time in Antwerp. The DONNA seminar was at Antwerp University, which was the only part of the city I saw.
As an American to whom an “old” institution has existed for 60 years, it was remarkable for me to look down at the students hurrying through the courtyard….as students have done in that very spot since the 1800’s. For mundane reasons having to do with bus & train schedules, I spent Saturday afternoon in Brussels.
Bob took me for “mussels & chips” at Chez Leon.
“Mussels & chips” is a dish for which Brussels is famous, and Chez Leon is the restaurant most famous for it.
(An aside here: All the guidebooks — as well as that Sabena Airlines New Yorker I spoke with — said I must try the Belgian chips. It took me quite a while to understand that they weren’t referring to potato chips; they were talking about what North Americans call french fries.)
Bob warned me that mussels were not really in season yet, but we sat at an outside table (on a narrow street with lots of foot traffic) and ate. Rarely having had mussels, I was not able to judge their quality. As for the chips? A disappointment. Not that they were bad; they were good. But I had been led to expect an experience completely removed from “french fries.” To my naive palate, these definitely were just french fries — good, not great.
On my free afternoon, I bought a waffle from a sidewalk stand. Despite the American idea of “Belgian waffles,” this was not covered with strawberries & whipped cream. But it was quite delicious, with sugar sprinkled on it — definitely as tasty as the guidebooks said.
My stroll around Brussels took me to the St. Hubert Gallery — which some claim is the world’s first indoor shopping mall, going back to the early 19th Century.
(At first, I didn’t even realize there was a roof, which is a very high skylight.)
I had dinner at an Indian restaurant, quite close to Waterloo. The food was very good, but the restaurant was empty. The owner explained that Belgians assume all Indian food is very hot (spicy), and they’re afraid to try it. What a perfect opportunity for radio! I told the owner that he should get together with the other Indian restaurants in Brussels and launch a radio commercial campaign centered on the theme:
“Indian food — incredibly delicious…and it’s NOT too spicy!”
They could offer a money-back guarantee:
“Come to any of these participating restaurants this week; if you don’t love our food, you don’t pay!”
Next Week: Flights to Virginia and to Ohio lead me to formulate new Rules For Airline Passengers.