ON THE AVENUES: Stuck inside of Nawbany with the Flanders blues again.

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I’ve
never denied the extent to which angst and aimlessness characterized my early
twenties. Somehow I had stumbled through university and emerged with a degree. Beyond
this, my future was a big fat question mark.

At
some point in 1983, I decided the answer was to take a trip to Europe.

It
took almost two years to save enough money to finance this seemingly crackpot solution,
but in 1985 I managed to go and do it. As crazy as it sounds now, those three
months in Europe on less than $25 a day opened my eyes and meant far more to me
than a 
Europhile in the making merely scratching an itch.

Only afterward did I come to understand how planning the trip, working to
finance it, and actually achieving such a goal on my very own time and dime finally
provided a sense of direction utterly missing before. It was a first step in
the process of finding myself.
 

Granted,
I was extremely fortunate to have an opportunity to make these European crusades
the focus of my life for almost a decade. I know it. I’m thankful for it.

But
it’s equally true that once smitten, I worked hard as hell to make my excursions into educational seminars abroad rather than leisurely vacations. For
me, they were the equivalent of graduate school. 

Accordingly, I always tried as best I could to teach, and to pass along to others what I’d learned while roaming
abroad. A few years later when my passion for travel merged with good beer as a
viable career, one might say that the myriad possibilities for a cultural fusion
became clear.
 

I
was alone while traveling in Europe in 1985, apart from a few days with my
cousin. As the years passed, friends and family increasingly became involved. My
affiliation with the Public House began in earnest in 1992, and with it came an
exponential broadening of a circle of friends sharing an interest in beer and
brewing.

By
1995, I was toying with the idea of learning about beer by putting together
little groups of these friends, using public transportation. The first trip came in spring when seven
of us chased beers in Prague and Bavaria. That same year in fall a quartet convened In
Belgium, and in 1997, another itinerary for five took us to Germany and Czech
Republic.

My
confidence steadily grew. European beer industry connections were developing nicely
thanks to the Public House. In 1998 the time was right to push things up a
notch.

I contacted a Belgian mom ‘n’ pop motorcoach company and started making
arrangements for a spring group tour through Netherlands and Belgium, visiting numerous
beer shrines and absorbing much local non-yeast culture along with them. 16
persons signed up, which was enough to make the money work.

Key point: be sure the bus has a toilet. 

Somehow,
most likely via Tim Webb’s Good Beer Guide, a hitherto unknown locale called
Poperinge, tucked obscurely into a corner of Belgium near the French border,
came to my attention. 
I’d almost made it there in 1995 during a daytrip from
Brugge to Ieper (Ypres), the Great War battleground, but there wasn’t enough time. Now, in 1998, Poperinge seemed promising.

Intrigued,
I duly contacted the Poperinge tourist office (was it newfangled e-mail yet, or
the fax of old?) and learned that they were hip to the gradually escalating
possibilities of beer tourism.

A
whole plan of operation had been implemented for tour buses filled with
inebriates just like us, including a local English-speaking guide, a brewery
tour of the Van Eecke brewery in Watou (now called Leroy), beers at a traditional
old-school café and the chance to play old-school tavern games there, and
admission to the Hop Museum in Poperinge.

This
half-day excursion from Ieper seemed perfect for my still cautiously
choreographed organizational baby steps, and so I booked it.

The
Poperinge visit proved to be a great hit with the group, especially the AuNouveau St.-Eloi rural tavern and de facto community center. There had been an
unfortunate fire at the main building just before our arrival, and the whole
operation as moved to an adjacent outbuilding, but it was filled with friendly
people and a good time was had by all.

(The
tavern has since been rebuilt, and the outbuilding is its festival hall.)

Later,
back in Poperinge at the hop museum, a complete stranger sidled up to me and
asked if my name happened to be Roger. I immediately recalled the scene from
the film Top Secret, and the double agent ostensibly selling “souvenirs, novelties
(and) party tricks.”

If this had been Moscow in 1987, I’d have assumed this mysterious man was about to
solicit my thoughts about a black market currency exchange at the best possible
rate.

However,
the estimable Luc Dequidt was no Soviet-era entrepreneur. Rather, he was chief of
Poperinge’s tourist bureau. Having monitored my communications with his staff, Luc
wanted to convey personal greetings and make sure our tour was going smoothly;
and by the way, was I aware of the next installment of the triennial beer and hop
festival, coming in 1999?

Hmm. 

By sheer coincidence, I’d already started plotting to up the beer tour ante in
1999 and doubling the group size for a more ambitious, wider-ranging itinerary. The festival became a part of the plan

Let
it suffice to say that Luc and I have been friends ever since the hop museum meeting in
1998, and the only beer and hop fest I’ve missed since 1996 was in 2011, when I
was incarcerated at the NABC Bank Street Brewhouse Brewhouse penitentiary, serving
a sentence of my own making.

I could not have foreseen the immense impact on my subsequent European travels of this
fortuitous meeting with Luc. As we’d say in the food and drink business, I quickly
became a regular.

From
1998 through 2008, I turned up in Poperinge under one or another pretext nine
times, missing only 2003 and 2006. Five times there was beercycling involved; motorcoach
beer tours accounted for three; and in 2007 the late Kevin Richards and I
dropped by in late winter for a few days of beer drinking, just for the fun of
it.

The
NABC Bank Street Brewhouse project started in 2009, and my travel life was
altered. For three years, we didn’t go anywhere. Since then, I’ve been to
Poperinge only twice (2014 and 2017), and both stays were nostalgic and
enriching.
 

If
not for the pandemic, we’d have been in Poperinge this weekend (September 18,
19 and 20) for the fest and parade. My fingers are crossed for next year’s postponement dates. COVID-19 obviously far outweighs our travel plans,
but a boy can and must dream.

It’s probably obvious that I spent all week thinking about the many lovely days I’ve had in Poperinge and environs. One
way to approach making sense of them would
be to make lists, like favorite recurring parade floats, the countless wonderful meals and beers at establishments like the Hotel
Palace, Poussecafe, Café de la Paix, and ‘t Hommelhof (in Watou), or those legendary local beers one always returns to.
 

The
problem is that I’ve spent just enough time in Poperinge, and on so many
occasions, as to become slightly confused about what exactly happened, when and why.

There
were city walks and countryside bicycle rides, brass bands and rock concerts, food
and drink, frolics and laughter, and those somber, touching visits to the World
War I cemeteries intermixed with farms all over the countryside when you think
nothing could possibly be funny, ever again.

My
thoughts constantly reference the intrepid traveler’s recurring conundrum. Way
back in 1985, I spent those three inaugural months in a state of perpetual euphoric
motion enabled by a Eurailpass. It was no more than an overview, if a dazed and
exhausted on occasion.

For
the encore in 1987, so much had yet to be explored – but how could I go all the
way to Europe a second time and NOT return to places like Vienna, Munich and Copenhagen, which I adored (and still do)?

But  … what about the other towns, cities, valleys, mountains, rivers and seaside
idylls? Furthermore, why not small areas instead of larger ones? 

And yet, shouldn’t
you spend extra time in the locales that intrigue you most, and get to know
them better?
   

In
the end it all blends together into a pleasing, reaffirming  sensation for me. From the
moment Luc introduced himself at the hop museum 22 years ago, Poperinge has
been welcoming. It’s a part of me now. Going there never seems like a “waste” of time, which might be better spent
elsewhere. To the contrary, the feeling always is is comfortable, and I never fail to
learn something.

To
me, that’s what traveling is all about. Cheers to Poperinge, and another chapter on the way in 2021. 

Recent columns:

September 10: ON THE AVENUES: The Weekly Wad lives on in the minds of malcontents.

September 3: ON THE AVENUES: If you really want to be my friend.

August 27: ON THE AVENUES: Structural racism, white fragility, and my old school.

August 20: ON THE AVENUES: When love and hate collide – or, my father and the governor.

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