BRUSSELS WALKS :: ABOUT :: CONTACT
MY SECRET LIFE
My secret life: the perfect coffee
When the owners of Café Greenwich decided it was time to renovate, people worried that it would never be the same again. Some fretted that the fin-de-siècle toilets would be ripped out. Others were afraid that the chess players would not be allowed back inside. My little worry was that the coffee would no longer be served on a silver tray.
One of the things I like about Belgium is the way they serve coffee. You can complain about the eternal grey skies or the insane car drivers, but you cannot possibly fault the way this country presents a cup of coffee.
Here is how it works. You go into a café. It will probably be old-fashioned even if it just opened last week. The style they like in these parts is 1950s modern with a hint of the middle ages. You sit down, smile at the elderly lady at the next table and take care not to step on her little pampered dog. Then the waiter arrives.
You just have to ask for a coffee, and he will nod, disappear behind the bar, and return with a perfect coffee served on a silver tray with a pot of milk and possibly a little Belgian speculoos biscuit on the side.
This is so civilised. It is as if the Hapsburg Empire had never ended. It only needs a string quartet and you could be in Vienna waiting for a carriage to take you to a ball.
It is different in my own country, which in the art of serving coffee as in so many ways has gone the way of America. When I go into a coffee shop in London, I have to stand in line at the counter, since they do not employ waiters. The various types of coffee are listed on a blackboard, so you have to decide what you want. But it is not easy because there is nothing that is simply coffee. You could ask for an espresso, but then you don’t get milk. You could request a latte, but then you get too much milk. You could have coffee with melted marshmallow, but then that is just insane.
I once made the mistake of asking the person behind the counter for a coffee, just that. As one would do in Le Greenwich in the good old days. She looked puzzled. What sort of coffee? She asked.
I had no idea. I consulted the list. There were about eight different types of coffee. I thought macchiato might do.
“A macchiato,” please.
“What size would you like?” she asked.
I had not considered size. One doesn’t in Belgium. But in Britain, there are normally three different sizes of cup. You can have regular, the smallest size, which looks enormous, or large, the middle size, which is gigantic, or giant, the largest size, which is just ridiculous. Most people order giant, but I just wanted a shot of caffeine, not a bucket of milk. So I said regular, please, and smiled.
Back in Belgium, I read in a local newspaper that Greenwich had reopened so I decided to check it out. The interior had been nicely polished up so the woodwork and brass fittings were shining like new. The old chess players had migrated elsewhere but the toilets at least had been left intact.
The waiter arrived to take my order. This would be the big test.
“Un café, s’il vous plait,” I said tentatively.
The waiter gave a little nod and headed off to the bar.
A couple of minutes passed. Then he returned with the coffee. It came on a silver tray with a pot of milk and a little biscuit.
I almost wept.
My secret life
My 4 favourite
Belgian viral videos
01 Somewhere in a little town in Belgium
A Belgian video filmed “on a square where nothing really happens” has become a YouTube sensation. The film – created by the advertising agency Duval-Guillaume – shows local people puzzled by a striped post with a red button on top placed in the middle of a quiet square. An arrow points to the button with the instruction “Push to add drama.”
When one woman plucks up the courage to push the button, all hell breaks loose. An ambulance pulls up, a man on a stretcher falls out of the back and a woman in a red bikini flashes past on a motorbike. The two-minute clip builds up a frenzied pace like a Hollywood action film. “Your daily dose of drama,” reads the message at the end.
The film was created to promote the launch of the digital TV station TNT. It had, at the time of this posting, been downloaded more than 37 million times, and posted on three million Facebook pages, making it the second biggest advertising hit on YouTube. It has also been mentioned in the Financial Times, CNN and the Huffington Post.
So where is the square where nothing really happens? It turns out to be the main square in Aarschot, a small Flemish town east of Brussels where, at last, something exciting has happened.
Watch it now »
One of the greatest flash mob events of all time was staged in the grand entrance hall of Antwerp Centraal Station in 2009. It featured 200 dancers of all ages performing into the hall to the song “Do-Re-Mi” from the 1960s musical “The Sound of Music”. It was produced as a commercial to promote "Op zoek naar Maria," a Belgian TV version of the BBC talent competition program "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" in which hopeful young singers compete for a role in a stage play based on The Sound of Music. The video went viral and has been downloaded at least 6.5 million times. “Screw it,' said one online comment, "I’m moving to Belgium."
Watch it now »
03 Belgian call centre prank
On a cold day in December 2010, the Belgian TV show Basta played an elaborate prank on a mobile telephone company notorious for its call centre. The Basta team left a container at the entrance to the phone compnay's staff car park and then pretended to be the container company's call centre. The video generated 1.3 million downloads.
Watch it here»
04 Clean streets campaign
A woman puts some litter in a rubbish bin and is suddenly serenaded by street sweepers singing a song from La Traviata. This was how the city of Antwerp launched a clean streets campaign in the autumn of 2012. It was filmed at the bus station on Rooseveltplaats, not far from the opera house.
Watch it here »
My 3 favourite
01 I love Belgium »
My secret Brussels has long admired Stijn Verlinden's blog. He writes passionately about everything he comes across in this little land. It could be a new Delvaux handbag or a fashion event in an abandoned warehouse. Essential reading for anyone interested in cool Belgian design.
02 Bruxelles la Belle »
A lively Brussels blog by a young urban rambler who knows all the best places to buy coffee, saucepans and shoes.
03 Best of Brussels »
A smart blog that takes a look at food, street art, exhibitions, bikes, but mainly food.
Another Travel Guide »
A cool site with inspiring ideas for places to go that are far from the
madding crowd. The editors are especially clued up when it comes to the Baltic countries.