Saturday in Brussels: Waffles, Tintin, Godot … and Waffles

The city of Brussels takes itself pretty seriously.  It devotes itself to the tricky business of holding together a quarrelsome bilingual country, to projects like the 28-member European Union and to the colossus known as NATO.  The city bristles with all-work, no-play diplomats, soldiers, journalists and lobbyists. Whatever sunshine might be left under such dour overcast is smothered by weather off the North Sea.

But the Bruxellois – bless their plodding, everyday souls! – have come up with clever diversions from adult preoccupations.  Case in point: there is something uplifting – even metaphysical – about waffles. In particular, ‘gaufres’, Belgian waffles. If you have ever been beguiled by the fragrance of Cinnabon in some airport hallway, you can have only the faintest idea of the alluring whiff of a fresh Belgian waffle.  It will cause you to stumble, even fall on your pleading knees in a cobblestone city street. It will render you insouciant to daily trials and oblivious to even rococo monstrosities like the Palais de Justice and the winter chill. Can it be mere chance that the generous proportions of the Flemish Masters’ models came from the land of such street-side delights?

The Belgian waffle, ‘la gaufre’, is typically rectangular, dimpled deeply and crisp from caramelized sugar.  Tradition says it originated in the city of Liege.  photo credit: wikimedia.commons

Or, crack a Tintin comic book, and you’ll be looking straight into the impish face of the humor and errant imagination required to stay alive in a sedate northern capital.  That face would belong to Tintin’s prolific creator, Hergé, whose decades-long string of tales of adventure, mystery, wit and sophisticated sarcasm built a global empire of visual storytelling.

The diminutive ‘Tintin’, sprung from the creative mind of Hergé, leads a retinue of characters on one of his many comic adventures.  photo credit: wikimedia.commons

Such a tale – a riddle, really – befell us one day in the working-class quarter of the Marolles, not far from the Manneken Pis ‘fountain’ and the Grand’ Place.  It had been announced that the religious scholar, Harvey Cox, would deliver a lecture on faith and urban distress, the event to be hosted at the Eglise de Notre Dame de la Chapelle on a winter morning.  A considerable crowd had gathered in the adjoining square including journalists. Upon entering, we met a hubbub not common to worship venues or lecture halls. A number of bodies were sprawled on the flagstones in contorted forms.  The organ began roaring with dissonant music. From the pillars, glaring down upon us were human gargoyles, as other young folk mingled with the crowd passing out communion wafers. Over the high altar floated a balloon-like phallic symbol.  Interlaced in this mayhem were the parishioners of the neighborhood furious that their sacred place was invaded and desecrated by strangers.

At one point, someone hoisted Harvey Cox to shoulder height and he shouted above the din, “This is all very interesting.  Please continue what you are doing.” No sooner was this scant lecture delivered, but the doors to the church were slammed shut, and we could hear timbers outside being nailed across the doors to seal us in.  Panic seized the crowd that had come to hear academic discourse, now imprisoned in bedlam. The stained-glass windows began to look like escape routes.

Police cars siren-ed into the square outside.  Crowbars pried the giant doors open and we gushed out gasping into the winter wind, there to learn that a guerrilla theater troop had hijacked the event.  Their purpose: to say there had been more than enough cogitating and blathering about the poor of the city. It was time to act – and act they did.

Word of mouth informed us that Cox’ lecture would rather be delivered at a nearby Catholic community center.  We sat there cheek-by-jowl waiting – as activists seized the moment and the microphone to explain their social causes.  Hours went by with no sign of the good professor. Finally, a Catholic brother stood to say, ‘This is all powerfully reminiscent of Beckett’s play.  We’re all waiting around for ‘Godot’, for someone to come and tell us what to do. Well, he’s not coming. It’s for us to set out in conscience, faith and calling to give our answer in service to our neighbors.’  And with that we all stumbled out like drunks onto the city cobblestones.

Should such a moment of bewilderment ever overtake you, I can recommend that you find, as we did, a humble café in the Marolles.  Order some ‘moules-frites’ (stewed mussels and fries) with a measure of unhurried quietness. And on the way home at evening, be sure to stop for that metaphysical – but, sweet – waffle.  All will be well.

14 thoughts on “Saturday in Brussels: Waffles, Tintin, Godot … and Waffles

  1. Great stuff to read now as we leave tonight for 3 days in Iceland & then 12 days with a World Wars trip with the Bethel U. History group. From London, Belgium, France & into Germany with emphasis on the 1914 -1945 events of the world! Thanks for the Belgium update, Blessings, Dan & Sherri Johnson


    1. Hello, Dan and Sherri! What stirring stories await you as you crisscross the scene of such dramas! A fellow lodger at our pension in Brussels – Mme Spirlie – was a member of ‘La Resistance’ in Belgium. Her comrades at arms would come on Saturdays to sit at her bedside (she was in poor health) and recall their years in the struggle that so few others understood or acknowledged. So many accounts of cloak and dagger efforts to frustrate their Nazi occupiers. Worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. And then, the camps! Lord have mercy!

      One of our French teachers hearing our complaints of the burden of irregular verbs brought our class to an abrupt halt. Said, ‘For four years we were fugitives in the resistance. To complain of irregular verbs is disgraceful.’ That landscape of memory is every bit as remarkable as the monuments and historical sites. Vaya con Dios! JPL


    1. Hey, James! Yes – dismiss any underage grandchildren who might be looking over your shoulder – it’s a symbol intended to suggest a male sex organ. Hence no illustrating photo! You can imagine why the neighborhood people were so incensed. Isn’t it wonderful that after such things, the sun rises on a new day, and we can draw a line and go forward? Jonathan


  2. Jonathan, Brilliant writing about a city I inhabited at the same time. Ah yes, the waffles! Perhaps not a sufficient reason to enter into Mennonite Central Committee service and be dispatched to Bruxelles to study French, but in any case the finest produce of a beer-loving city.
    For a year I had a young Belgian scientist as a lab colleague. He said that he wanted to develop gauffres for the pleasure of American appetites, but on careful consideration decided that they could not be made and sold at a profit. Our loss !


    1. Hey, there, Tom! Good of you to respond! Rare lab colleague you had. Eyes of the heart awake there. I have an admittedly romantic notion that most every corner of the planet has its ‘gaufres’. Something that quivers with a beauty and life from beyond. And that’s not something that markets very well. But it possesses the heart.


  3. What an extraordinary experience! Did you ever learn whether the interlopers had purposely chosen to perform during a Harvey Cox lecture? And why he decided not to give the lecture after all? Were the “activists” in the community center the same people as the “guerrilla theater troup” in the church? Or were they other people “seizing the day” while waiting to listen to Cox?


    1. Hello, Norm! Yes, the street theater group was targeting the Cox lecture, and the larger conference program. Cox was the ‘celebrity’ speaker. Sure to draw a crowd. Their tactics were polished/effective. Why Cox chose not to come to the alternate venue, I do not know. Perhaps suspected that he might be sabotaged there, too. Access to the alternate venue was tightly controlled by organizers. I was admitted only because I then had a press pass – stringer for something called Religious News Service (NY). I don’t believe the theater group had any interest in what Cox might say. I’m sure they took him to be a ‘class mouthpiece’.


  4. Is there a limit to your absolutely unique, always regaling, experience and story telling? Jon, you are the best, and leave me anticipating the next one, while I regurgitate what you previously shared. Our once planned trip to Belgium was wiped out due to strikes, as so also in Portugal, necessitating a train ride – at extra cost – to Madrid etc. After your Traipse, I am flummoxed as to our being cheated into and out of each – or fortunate for being subjected to but one. At present I am in no rush to find out.


  5. What storytelling! Missed the waffles, but did MK mention to you our actual seeing Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” being performed in another European city on our traipse through those parts in 1965?


    1. Hello, Dorothy! Yes, seems like I’d heard that detail of your itinerary. At another level, that play, in some form is on a loop in small towns, cities, churches, neighborhoods and dining room tables around the globe. JPL


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