from Oktoberfest in Munich to the Trappists in Belgium: the quest for great beer

A friend of mine turned 40 in late September, and late September is when millions of Germans celebrate Oktoberfest for 2 weeks, so I felt compelled to attend my 3rd such festival.  And perhaps even more compelling was the chance to see a new country, Belgium, and to sample the sweet sweet beer there, as is recommended in the 1000 Places to See Before You Die book I consult any time I’m considering going anywhere new (the chocolate and the frites were also recommended).

I flew over alone on a Tuesday evening, as the rest of the group had gone the preceding week while I was training with the Air Force and visiting Papa Hemingway. I landed around 10am Wednesday, went to the hotel to don lederhosen and eat, and we were in the Kafer tent a couple hours later.  Once our time there ended, we went to the Paulaner tent (a much larger one than Kafer).

Last time I was at the ‘fest, I had no trouble finding a group of folks right by the stage, offering to buy them a beer, and joining their group.  This time, I was 0 for at least 5.  So, we found a spot on the floor that was somewhat close to the stage, and by gradually moving up every time someone closer to the stage left to use the restroom, we found ourselves just at the base of the stage in no time (learning to enter “camel mode” at college football games and NASCAR races in undergrad has really served me well in life)!  Servers found us shortly thereafter, so we had pretty much all the benefits of a table.

Once the evening time slot elapsed, we poured out into the streets of Munich, finding a large bar with loud music and lots of people.  It was great, until I realized my hat (a gift from my 2015 trip) was missing and started asking every male in the bar with a black hat (and there were several) if he’d accidentally taken my hat.  Realizing this was an exercise in futility, I pouted a bit and walked back to the room.

The next morning (Thursday), I learned that if you fly from Munich to Brussels and don’t pre-pay for baggage, you’ll wait in a very long line that doesn’t move, unless you beg an agent to let you cut the line to pay for said suitcase so you don’t miss your flight.  That afternoon, we enjoyed the famed frites (and mussels!) in Brussels at Chez Leon.  Then, our “chocolate and beer” tour of Brussels began, which is pretty much how I’ll request to be fed if I ever find myself on Death Row and given the opportunity to choose a last meal.  We went to Chocopolis, Pierre Marcolini, and Frederic Blondeel to consume all the available chocolate.

Then we saw the famous city mascot, the Manneken Pis, which is as it sounds–a peeing mannequin–kinda like the one that came alive in that movie in ’87 that featured Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” only the one in Brussels is a child (and never comes alive).

Then the beer part of the “chocolate and beer” tour began, and a good night turned to great.  We went to Benelux, Estaminet Toone, L’imaige Nostre-Dame, and Au Bon Vieux Temps.  Some of these bars were down narrow alleyways where I was certain I’d never leave again (and wasn’t sure I wanted to), only to end at wooden doors behind which were Trappist beers hundreds of years in the making.

We sampled what’s generally called the “world’s greatest beer” — the Saint Sixtus Abbey’s Westvleteren monks’ beer — at a tiny hidden bar where a Delta pilot and a few locals were gathered to do the same.  I loved it.

After our tour ended, we visited a couple of the places we’d seen yet again (including L’imaige Nostre-Dame, where I provided vocals for “Sweet Home Alabama” before a bar full of Belgians–you can see the video here), hit a club with live music called Delirium Cafe and a place to snack called Le Fiacre before getting to the hotel at 330am. The next day (Friday), we’d head to Bruges via train.

Almost immediately after checking into the hotel in Bruges, we decided having a Belgian waffle was essential, and, now that I have the perspective a month or so of hindsight can provide, it was indeed essential.  Then we toured the Halve Maan brewery and saw the pipeline that carries beer to be bottled many kilometers away, which was interesting.

Then we took a cruise down the river, which took more effort than it sounds like it took, because the ropes were up to indicate the rides were over, but we begged to be put on the last boat anyway, and they felt sorry for us and let us do it.  And we got to see amazing views like this one:

Then we explored the town a bit, having food and drinks at The Habit, ‘t Brugs Beertje, and Le Trappiste, and all the local beers were delicious, and all was well.

Saturday morning was the actual day of Angela’s 40th birthday, and we had miles of breweries to tour before we sleep, and miles of breweries to tour before we sleep.  Our driver picked us up early, and the first stop was a farm where organic beer is brewed, called Plukker.  Then we had an incredible lunch at Pegasus that seemed like it belonged in an upscale hotel in Paris, not a tiny town in rural Belgium.  Then we hit the Saint Bernardus brewery for a tour and sampling of a beer I already knew I loved, as they served it at Augustine‘s in Atlanta, where I’d go after my improv classes every Tuesday in August and September. Lastly, we went by the Saint Sixtus Abbey at the Wesvleteren brewery, where the world’s best beer (according to many experts) is made.  It’s not open for tours, but we walked around it and got pictures, and after everyone else got in the van to head back to Bruges, I decided to walk around to the back to see what I could see, and there was an old man selling packages of 2 beers with a commemorative glass!  So I grabbed one (I shared this beer with my parents on Thanksgiving!). And I knew it was a good day (especially since I’ve since read that you have to reserve beers for purchase at least 60 days in advance, and that’s if you can get someone to answer the phone…so, I apparently caught a unicorn under a blue moon).

Our driver took us back to Bruges, and we had some dinner at Malpertuus and then returned to Le Trappiste for more local beers.  We met 4 guys from England who’d graduated from college together 20 years ago and were in town.  I played foosball against a couple of them. The rest of our group but one headed back to the hotel, so the English guys and the two of us went to a place called ‘t Poatersgat.

Then the day stopped being good.

I don’t know exactly why this happened, but my next memory is being covered in blood and having the tallest of the guys from England punching my face while I stood dumbfounded.  I remember saying, “I thought we were all friends; why are you doing this to me?”  At some point, an employee wrapped some ice in a washcloth and put it on my head, and I was taken away by ambulance to the ER.  My nose was broken; there were two deep cuts requiring stitches in my forehead. The doctor opined I was hit with a glass before the fists began.  Colleen, whom I hardly knew before that day (she lives in Dallas and flew over for Angela’s birthday) rode along and indicated the guy who attacked me is engaged, and his friend had told her to stay away from him (since he seemed to be talking to her more than the others were), and she had told him she was not interested, as we were just enjoying our last night in town before an early flight home.  Maybe I said something to him too?  I can’t remember.  2-3 hours are completely gone.

I was released from the hospital early the next morning, barely having time to toss my bloody clothes into my suitcase, find a clean shirt, and hop on the shuttle to take us to the airport for our flight back to Atlanta.  Since getting back, I’ve talked to the doctor who stitched me and corresponded with the Bruges police about the incident (they came to the hospital to ask about the incident and try and help find the perpetrator).  I’ve seen 2 plastic surgeons and a neurologist. I had an MRI a couple weeks ago and an EEG test today.  I find out the results of all these next week.  He wants me to talk to a psychologist; I haven’t gotten around to pursuing that.

Other than the early morning hours of Sunday, October 1, this was an awesome trip that I’d love to take again sometime. But I haven’t been the same person since getting back.

I had 3 more trips (all to the beach for legal education conferences) after this one, but I stayed in my hotel at all of them, unwilling to be around people while at West Palm Beach, St Simons Island, or St Petersburg, FL.  I don’t trust people.  I don’t sleep well.  I don’t want to attend parties or consume alcohol any more.

I’m told my head will heal, and I’m seeing evidence that it’s starting to, but patience has never been a strength of mine, and this injury seems like it’ll take lots of it before all is well again. And so, I wait.  I wait to become well again.

3 Comments on “from Oktoberfest in Munich to the Trappists in Belgium: the quest for great beer

  1. There are over 300,000 words in the English language. There has to be a better one for A TUNNEL OF BEER THAT RUNS UNDER THE STREET THAT YOU CAN SEE THROUGH TINY WINDOWS than “interesting.”

    Next time, I get to go!!

  2. OK, so I left that comment before reading to the end. And even though I knew how it went, and what came after, I feel punched in the gut by your last night there. I don’t think about it every day the way you do, and I was all caught up in the fun of the trip, and not the dark turn it took at the end. You’re a hero, always have been. <3

  3. You are an ambassador of goodwill. I hope that sometime soon you are able to heal and don’t let that jackass dictate the way you see the world. Love you, man!

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