AarschotOctober 11, 2017 in Belgium
We wanted to get near Brussels for when Beth and Richard arrived in a few days time, so we travelled quite a long way in a north westerly direction today. The motorway cut through expanses of forest and its viaducts gave us a bird's eye view of the milticoloured tree tops far below.
After a while the woodland was replaced by a string of towns and industrial complexes. Quite suddenly the language of signs changed from French to Dutch. We'd read that unlike in easy going multilingual Luxembourg, we needed to be careful what language we used in Belgium. Wallonia, the region we first entered speaks French, Flanders in the North speaks Flemish, there are enclaves in the East that speak German and Brussels speaks a mix of Dutch and French. According to the guidebook, what language a Belgian speaks is strongly linked to their cultural identity and it would be considered insensitive to try to talk to someone from Flanders in French. Apparently English is widley spoken and considered quite neautral.
As we travelled through a suburb of the sprawling metropolis of St Truidans we entered a highstreet that will be remembered as the highstreet from hell. The windows of a number of shops were bare apart from a chair or two. These shops displayed a sign that translated as 'Service on Demand'. We passed another similar window with a mannequin wearing a short two tone leather dress and appeared to be reading something on a high round table. It is curious how our minds try to normalise what we see. It was only when we passed another and saw a woman in just her bra and knickers that the penny dropped. There were no mannequins. The shops were selling the women. There were literally dozens of windows lining this otherwise normal highstreet, where one or two women sat or stood in skimpy dresses or underwear, advertising themselves. It shocked and upset us. Organised prostitution is illegal in Belgium but according to Wikipedia, there are some areas in which it is tolerated. We have heard the arguements about women being free to do what they want with their bodies and that prostitution out in the open is a lot safer than when it is driven underground. We just couldn't get away from our emotional reaction that these women were being taken advantage of, objectified in the worst possible way, reduced to the number of euros someone would pay for them, perhaps being forced into it by sick minded criminals who held some threat over them. When you can go shopping for women, it changes the way women are viewed and therefore their potential as individuals. Feeling powerless to do anything about it, we just wanted to get away from there as quickly as we could.
We continued with other stressed drivers, along run-down urban corridors, past casinos and seemingly relentless advertising billboards. Needing food, we pulled up at a supermarket. It looked like a warehouse from the outside and was disconcerting when we entered because it was layed out more like a Booker or Macro wholesalers than a conventional supermarket. It had a dingy air and sets of plastic steps were scattered here and there for you to access the items on the high shelves. The prostitute shops had cast a dark cloud over us and Vicky's anxiety was running high. She returned to the van but was soon followed by Will who had got to the checkout and noticed he didn't have his wallet. After a highly stressed 5 minutes of searching and thinking he'd dropped it in the shop, Vicky found that Poppy was hiding the missing wallet underneath her. It must have slipped between the front seats when Will was trying to put it in his bag. Oh the relief!
On the bright side the shop had an excellent range of quality products and the cashier spoke good English. On the down side the machine didn't accept Will's credit card. Luckily we were able to pay with cash and get on with trying to find somewhere to stay. We'd seen loads of fritteries and frituurs since arriving in Belgium but the ones we'd been able to access had all been closed. Will was gasping for a taste of this famous Belgian food so when we saw a shop with nearby parking we pulled over and he had his fill of takeaway frites, exclaiming they were the best he'd ever tasted!
We think wildcamping is allowed in Belgium but aren't yet sure so we stuck to the safe side and stayed at an official Aire in Aarschot at one end of an 800 place car park. It wasn't a scenic spot, looking onto a brick built swimming pool and near a busy highway, but it was free, had emptying facilities, free electricity. There was grass around it and it backed on to a riverside walk.
The town centre wasn't far away and Will went to explore that afternoon, finding a number of useful shops and a Pop-up FairTrade café. In the morning Vicky walked along the bank of the slow moving river at sunrise. Thankfully on the opposite side to the large school into which hundreds of bicycles amd scooters were zipping. Later, we discovered not one, but two large markets in town, selling a whole range of delectable foods that the stall holders were happy for us to try. We filled our bag with olives, crystalised ginger, camomile and ewe's cheese. Many stalls sold non food items too and Vicky picked up some golden yarn she'd been looking out for, in preparation for Christmas.
Later Will took the tandem along the river towpath and Vicky caught up with her 'to do' list. Thanks to the facility to get away along the waterside and the friendly market buzz we were feeling altogether a lot better about our stay in Belgium than had done when we arrived.Read more