Thursday, September 27, 2007

There are Nine Million Bicycles in Belgium

One of the reasons I love living in Belgium is the cycling. Apparently there are just over 10 million people and, as the song goes "There are 9 million bicycles in Beijing…", last Sunday it seemed like Brussels had at least that number. Sunday was 'Car Free Sunday', part of European Mobility Week.

"All 19 Brussels municipalities took part, with cars, lorries and motorbikes - except those required for professional reasons - banned from the roads. This was a Europe-wide initiative and the EU estimates that around 1,000 cities and municipalities answered the call.

The event was a massive success, a day with very few cars on the roads, instead they were chock-full of cycling, rollers-skating hordes. People were travelling basically on anything on wheels that did not require to be petrol-driven. Entire families cycled past, the very little ones following their parents like obedient ducklings in their yellow safety jackets.

Many districts organised side-events to keep the populace amused. In the Brussels Park, in front of the Royal palace, the countryside came to town, and everybody and his brother was out. Free public transport for the day undoubtedly helped swell the numbers. About half of the street had been laid with grass and picnics were spread out to the sound of wine-bottles popping. If only it could be like this every weekend. But then again there is no guarantee of a strong sun beating down every Sunday."

(Extracted from an article by Paul Morris, Editor, Expatica Belgium
26 September 2007)

Here in Limburg, most of the terrain is pretty flat and we have a cycling network set up with blue signposts telling us the direction of the next post. The map costs €7.50 and it is easy to plan a route, whether through towns or countryside - allowing for pit stops, of course. I even found a website today of Flemish cyclists who plan their routes around stops for Gueuze beer. Drinkers after my own heart!

The children are encouraged to cycle to school and a teacher leads about 30 every day as they cycle home, all wearing safety helmets. They even have cycling tests at school and a large covered area with bicycle stands.

I also find it wonderful to see so many people of retirement age out cycling for exercise and enjoyment, not just popping out for a loaf of bread. I have been invited to join a local women's group who meet every Tuesday to cycle about 35km. Most of the members are much older than me but, as a very rusty cyclist, the most I have cycled recently was 7km so I shall have to practice before I can join the ladies.

Gueuze - Belgian "Champagne"

Actually, Gueuze is a Belgian beer but with a slight fizz and a popping cork, it is often called Belgian Champagne. I enjoy it so much (and so often) that I have dedicated a website to Gueuze:

Click here to visit Gueuze

Whilst looking for more links on Gueuze, I found a website on "Beer and Health" which included an article on Alcohol and cancer,
"For a number of cancers, the risks possibly does increase with moderate drinking. More research is needed to clarify matters here. Up until now most information has been collected on breast cancer, where there is a slightly increased risk for moderate to heavy drinkers.

The influence of alcohol, and beer in particular, on the occurrence of cancer has not been widely researched up until now. Certain trends can indeed be noted. Some studies point to a high alcohol consumption mainly increasing the risk of gastrointestinal tract cancers.

More recent research into other components (ie. not alcohol), including the phyto-oestrogens in beer, point in the direction of a protective effect."


Indoor Ski-ing in Belgium

Last weekend, Snow Valley in Peer, Limburg, Belgium held an open-door weekend when children and adults could enjoy one hour FREE ski-ing including hire of equipment. This was an offer too good to resist.

Apparently the indoor skipiste in Snow Valley, Peer has a piste of 235 m long by 30m wide served by 3 poma style lifts and a kids' piste of 100m with a conveyor belt.

For snowboarders, there are kicks with rails, big air, fun box and quarterpipes.

Visit the site of SnowValley, Belgium

My photos of Snow Valley on Flickr

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

New Belgium Brewing Company Aims for Zero Emissions

This article is not exactly about Belgium but about a type of Belgian beer being produced in the US, inspired by a bike trip in Belgium.

At New Belgium Brewing Company's Ft. Collins, Colorado plant, you walk past colourful perennial flower beds and well-used bike racks and enter the building through the bustling employee break room, where recycling bins neatly line one wall and employee computers another. On the bulletin board, an announcement explains how to become an "employee owner." One of the employee owners explains that after a year of working at New Belgium, you get a new cruiser bike as a reward. On a typical sunny day, as many as a third of the company's employees ride those bikes to work, often including at least one of the company's founders—Jeff Lebesch or his wife Kim Jordan, who live about a 15-20 minute ride away. "It's a little hard to drop your child off at school on a bicycle," says Kim, "or else we'd probably drive even less than we currently do."

The bike is a symbol for much more than the company's popular Fat Tire beer. It also symbolizes the bike trip Jeff took through Belgium that launched the business. And the commitment he and his wife made to run that business sustainably. Their mission statement is "to operate a profitable company which is socially, ethically and environmentally responsible, that produces high quality beer true to Belgian brewing styles." This company is doing more than riding a yuppie wave of microbrewed beer. It's also helping establish the operating principles of sustainable manufacturing.

Choosing Efficiency and Renewable Energy

At a recent staff meeting of owners and owner-employees, Jeff made a proposal to the group. What did they think of the idea of meeting the facility's entire electrical needs with wind power? He explained that the company would have to pay a premium for the power, and that the expense would come out of the company's profits, possibly affecting employee owner-wages.

"There was stone silence in the group as they thought about it," says Jeff. "But the silence didn't last long. Within a minute or so we had decided as a group to become the world's largest single user of wind power."

New Belgium looks to the highly-efficient German brewing industry for state-of-the-art ideas. Lebesch travels at least once a year to Germany and Belgium, where the costs of variables such as energy and wastewater discharge are much higher. From these and other sources, New Belgium learned about innovations in refrigeration and heat exchange.

The company's emphasis on "open-book" management is another good example of its flexibility and continuous evolution. "We're very eclectic in the approaches we try at New Belgium," Kim explains. "Open book management is one. We didn't invent the idea, we just adapted it from a book called The Great Game of Business. "The way it works here is that each employee knows precisely what it costs to make a barrel of beer, and how much their department contributes to that cost. Since they have a vested interest in the profits, they often meet to set performance targets to bring those costs down. They determine which costs trouble them—keep them up at night—and then they recommend how they can do better. We're proud of the corporate culture we've established here. Our employees care—about the product, about costs, and about each other. It's not unusual for an employee to stay late to help a co-worker get a certain job done."

"This spring, while looking for ideas for our Special Release program, Peter (our brewmaster) and Phil (our R & D wiz) visited a brewery library here in Colorado. They found references indicating that about 445 years ago, a non-stout, non-porter black ale was brewed in Belgium. When they were in Belgium for a trade show, they made a point of finding out more. Blowing the dust off volumes that contained the history of Belgian brewing, they conclusively traced the roots of the black ale, and their research can now be tasted, in our Brussels style ale that we call '1554.'"

David Wann works to present images of a more sustainable American lifestyle in articles, books, and films.
Click here for Full article

Scots Weekend, Alden Biesen

I was astonished that over 20,000 people visited for the 21st annual Scots Weekend (7-9 September 2007) in Alden Biesen, a sort of castle in Limburg, Belgium. Even the lousy weather we are having did not put people off.

We visited on Saturday and heard various pipe bands (bagpipes), shopped for Scottish produce on the market, drank Gordon beer, sampled Scotch whiskies and the children tried their hand at archery before burning off energy on the proverbial bouncy castle.

My photos of the Scots Weekend on Flickr

I met a group of young men in matching T-shirts and kilts, one of whom was dressed up with toy armour. I asked them where they were from and discovered they were Belgians on a stag party weekend. Apparently it is traditional for Belgians to do this! I saw a group of women in matching costume when we were leaving so maybe they were on a hen party.

I was pleased to hear that the Belgian group of monitors at my fitness club, Olympia in Hasselt, won first prize in the Highland Games. The trophy is proudly on display.

Antonia Stuart-James is an English Hypnotherapist in Belgium.

Time to Call It a Day

In response to the Economist's suggestion 'Time to call it a day', editor Paul Morris finds a possible answer in Belgium's surrealism.

In last week’s Economist, a point of view article suggested that it was time to 'Time to call it a day' in Belgium (The Economist : Time to call it a day).
When I arrived here in Belgium, elbow to elbow with the euro, there was a charm to the fact that there were two languages, that signposts and street signs in Brussels - the only official bilingual region in the country - had schizophrenia, with French text above and Dutch below. I marvelled at how graphic designers had adapted themselves, using ever more ingenious means to include both languages on posters, business cards and toilet ducks.

Belgium and Brussels in particular is very strong on the visual arts, abounding with painters, sculptors and of course the very bande dessinée out of which Tintin, one of its most famous sons grew. And it is done with great, often black humour. For artists there is a comfort zone in the lingua franca of the comic strip universe, almost as if Belgians soon realised that by taking the words out they could communicate better across the Flemish-Walloon divide.

Now I feel a sense of alienation when I head for the Belgian coast, into Flemish territory, partly because I don’t speak the language - just enough to order a pintje and boterham - but also because over the six years since I moved here, I have begun to sense even more dramatically the divide that exists. The outskirts of Brussels form the linguistic barrier between the Latin and the Germanic countries, but it’s more fundamental of course; disagreement runs deep in the veins of both communities.
Before I got here I fell for the same corny views of Belgium that lie beneath the surface of the Economist piece, I made or laughed at the same jokes the British make about every other country in the World. "If Belgium did not already exist, would anyone nowadays take the trouble to invent it? Such questions could be asked of many countries." I presume that the UK - 2 countries, half a country and a bit of a province - is one of the countries mentioned above, a collection united for now by an almost common language.

I am struggling to think of a country that was not invented for one reason or another and most countries reinvent themselves more often than Madonna. The fact that Belgium managed to stay together for so long should surely be applauded. The unaccredited author of the article surely came here to praise Belgium not to bury her.

Two languages, two cultures, one country. A microcosm of the European union, they say. Belgium’s failure to find a common ground in the current climate reflects badly on a Europe attempting to blend umpteen nationalities into one large if not nation then league of nations. Or perhaps this is the very strength of Europe; separate Flemish and Wallonian states could stand on their own two feet in a wider Europe. It wouldn’t quite open the floodgates for Scotland, Catalonia and others but it would put a crowbar in the gap in case anyone wanted to slip through.

Some suggest this is simply the dissolution of a marriage that was over long ago, that they haven’t shared the same bed for 50 years.
" … and then cleverly secured the headquarters of what is now the European Union." That an area described by Englishman James Howell in 1640 as "the cockpit of Christendom" does not deserve to house the European Quarter smacks of sour grapes, like Germany getting the World Cup ahead of the English bid. Which other country is better placed? Belgium has been invaded by everyone who was within striking distance of it and some who came a long way just to put it on their list of conquered countries. It is geographically strategic and its very cosmopolitan nature was another plus in choosing it as the capital of Europe. Commentators who question Brussels as the location for Europe’s talking-shops rarely come up with a viable alternative.

As for the King, he may well end up King of Brussels as its future is the most intriguing aspect of the whole affair. Will it become a sort of mediaeval Italian City State? Italians form one of the largest communities here so perhaps it would become a northern Milan where Albert and his family would be the Viscontis or a new Venice ruled by the new Medicis. But Bruges is already called the Venice of the North and that would be in an independent Flanders. Will Walloons be heading there on holiday, accepting that it's all water under the bridges or will the Belgae head ever westwards towards the windy French coast and join the Celtic tribes of Brittany?
"Belgians need not feel too sad. Countries come and go." The country may well be a broken packet of biscuits but rather than the crumbs of comfort offered Little Belgium, I believe this part of the World has as much reason to look forward as any other part of Europe, and that if they solve this political crisis they will be the stronger for it.

The writer mentions Belgium’s "rapacious" colonisation of Africa. The words ‘Pot‘, ‘Kettle’ and ‘Black‘ spring to mind. Belgium was a rapacious Chihuahua alongside the rabid European dogs that ravaged the world. I do not subscribe to what some misty-eyed Britons believe, that we travelled the world magnanimously dispensing Civilisation in the form of religion, education and healthy games of sports (that we now rarely beat anyone at it).

Some suggest this is simply the dissolution of a marriage that was over long ago, that they haven’t shared the same bed for 50 years. To flog a dead metaphor perhaps the infidelity of both sides - the one to the Netherlands, the other to la belle France - has not helped bind their union, though as with many smaller nations both Flemish and Walloons alike bristle when their larger neighbours are mentioned. Perhaps both parties have endured a long unhappy marriage and simply have a 177 year itch.

When I lived in Brighton on England's south coast, there was a door in a long white garden wall. A note had been written on it: ‘This Is Not A Door‘. It did not stop me trying to open it. One of Belgium’s more famous sons Renée Magritte painted a pipe and called his oeuvre Ceci N’Est Pas Un Pipe: ‘This is not a pipe‘. Perhaps Ceci N’Est Pas Un Pays, not a country after all, simply a product of lowlands surrealist imagination.

Paul Morris, Editor, Expatica Belgium 19 September 2007
(copyright Expatica 2007)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Belgian Schools Scored Highest Worldwide

From 1 September 2007, junior schools in Belgium are to be "kosteloos", ie without costs.

Children receive the following items from the school:
- books, atlases, dictionaries, notebooks, diary
- reading books,picture books
- pencils, ballpoint pens, rubbers (erasers in US)
- paint, art paper
- glue, scissors, ruler
- compasses, set square, protractor, calculator, compass
- photocopies
- balls, rope, tricycles, climbing equipment
- cardboard, wood, tools, building blocks, puzzles
- computers, internet, software
- musical instruments.

What is not free ie for what must parents pay?
- Swimming costs (except first years who receive free lessons, the 6 year olds)
- Trips out such as theatre, walks in the wood, sports activities, school journeys.
- Sport clothing, newspapers (if necessary).
The school may ask a maximum annual contribution of 20€ in nursery and 60€ in the junior school.

The school may also request payment for activities and services outside normal school hours but children are not obliged to take part:
- drinks, midday lunch, surveillance before and after school, bus transport, new year letters, T-shirt and class photos.

Parents must provide:
- books bag, lunch box, pencil case, outdoor clothing, gym shoes.

In the recently published "Pocket World in Figures 2008" recently published by The Economist, Belgium scored the HIGHEST RANKING WORLDWIDE for children's schooling.

I am very happy with the schooling that my boys, aged 6 and 9, receive in the local Flemish school and can compare this with both state and private schools in the UK and Spain.

Antonia Stuart-James is an English Hypnotherapist in Belgium helping people to make positive change.

Pocket World in Figures 2008

This is the new edition of this annual bestseller of fascinating facts and figures about the world we live in. The 2008 edition has been completely updated, revised, refreshed and expanded. It contains rankings on more than 200 topics in subject areas as wide-ranging as geography, population, business, the economy, trade, transport, finance, industry, demographics, the environment, society, culture and crime. This annual bestseller has the answers to all these questions and more. It contains data on 182 countries and profiles of more than 65 of the world's major economies, together with special profiles on the Euro Zone and the World.

The best level of human development and quality of life overall is to be found in:
1. Norway
2. Iceland
3. Australia
4. Ireland
5. Sweden
6. Canada
7. Japan
8. USA
9. Netherlands, Finland & Switzerland
12.BELGIUM & Luxembourg
17. UK
Worst quality of life:
Bottom 5: Niger, Sierra Leone, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau.

Standard of living
1. Luxembourg
2. Bermuda
3. Norway
4. Iceland
5. Switzerland
6. Ireland

The Economist uses the Human Development Report 2006 that looks beyond GDP to a broader definition of well-being. The HDI provides a composite measure of three dimensions of human development: living a long and healthy life (measured by life expectancy), being educated (measured by adult literacy and enrolment at the primary, secondary and tertiary level) and having a decent standard of living measured by purchasing power parity, PPP, income).

If you want to know:
- the highest mountain or longest river
- where economic growth is fastest or inflation is highest
- who consumes the most energy
- where innovation is highest
- where computer and mobile phone ownership is highest
- which countries have the most asylum seekers
- who spends most, and who the least, on healthcare
- the heaviest drinkers and smokers
- who recycles most
- facts about obesity

Besides quality of life, South Africa has the highest house price inflation and Ecuador the most murders per capita.

Australians drink the most alcohol, Greeks smoke the most cigarettes, Japan reads the most newspapers. Japan also has the world's largest proportion of elderly people with 26% of its population over 60, while European country Luxembourg has the highest GDP per capita - because part of its workforce lives in neighbouring countries.

While the USA and Japan remain the biggest economies, they come in at 8th and 7th respectively on the quality of life stakes. The UK which is the world's fifth biggest economy, has a 17th ranking in the "human development" index.

The United States heads the rankings of the world's biggest producers of carbon emissions with about 4,800 million tonnes, followed by China on 4,140 million. Russia comes in third place on 1,500 million tonnes.

The book, which is put together by the influential British magazine, also reveals a string of interesting facts about lifestyle trends:

* Crime, Ecuador has 18.3 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, followed by Swaziland on 13.6 and Mongolia on 12.8.
* The USA has by far the biggest prison population with 2.2 million behind bars, while China carries out by the far the most executions - 3,400 in 2004.
* BELGIUM scores best for children's schools.

Some of the economic figures could raise eyebrows, especially in the Economist's home country:
* House price inflation is highest in South Africa, where prices rose 351% from 1997-2006, followed by Ireland on 253% and the UK on 191%.

The publication also includes an update of the Economist's so-called Big Mac Index, which attempts to reflect purchasing power by the cost of a McDonald's burger.
* The cheapest BigMac can be found in China at US$1.41, with Hong Kong on US$1.54 and Malaysia on $US1.57, while the most expensive Big Mac in the world is to be found in Iceland, at nearly US$7.5.

Some figures:
Alcohol consumption (litres per head of population per year)
Most: 1. Australia 99.2; 2. Czech Republic 98.2; 3. Germany 96.2; 4. Finland 92; 5 Austria 87.8.

Life expectancy (years)
Highest: Andorra 83.5; Japan 82.6; Hong Kong 82.2; Iceland 81.8; Switzerland 81.7.

Newspaper readership (copies read per thousand of population)
Most: 1. Japan, 546; 2. Norway 514; Sweden 488; Finland 436; Singapore 380.

Music sales (dollars spent per head on music)
Most: UK 36.2; Japan 29; Norway 28.9; Switzerland 28.2; United States 23.5.

No well-informed person can afford to be without it.

Why we left Spain to live in Belgium

I am English and my husband is a Brit from South Africa. We met in England, now have two young boys and lived in Marbella, Andalucia, Southern Spain until Summer 2006 when we chose to leave the blue skies, warm/hot weather and move to cloudy, rainy, boring Belgium. The Belgians ask us in astonishment why we left Spain for Belgium and we reply,

"For the weather". They look blankly so we follow up with,

"Actually, it was for the beers".

The truth is we chose Belgium as a civilised, normal, friendly place to live and bring up children. I lived in the capital, Brussels, for six years from 1981-1987 and often regret leaving. My life would have been very different had I stayed. Life in a quiet country village is very different to the capital as a single girl but we still know that we made the right decision.

I am writing this blog to share with you why we love this country and what life here is really like.

Boring, Belgium certainly is not.