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Belgium

Like the pearl hidden in an oyster; like a diamond surrounded by gray stone; like that hunk of fudge that nestles in the middle of a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, the country of Belgium lies in the center of Europe, dwarfed and concealed by its larger, more prominent neighbors, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and the titan of the European Union, Luxembourg. The Belgian government's official website claims that travelers pass through Belgium on their way from one neighboring country to another, barely noticing this little whistle-stop country, but then they invariably return, having fallen in love with Belgium's charm and remarkably centralized location. The capital city of Brussels, which is less than 1,000 kilometers from Amsterdam, the Hague, Berlin, Paris, London, or Geneva, has become the headquarters for both the European Union and NATO. Antwerp, the second largest Belgian city, is the diamond trading capital of the world, due perhaps to the former existence of the Belgian Congo, and to Belgium's position as the middle manager of all Europe.

Apart from Belgium's geographical efficiency, it is a fascinating mix of the modern and the archaic. It is assuredly a model of a first-world economy, being reliant on the service industry for over 70% of its gross domestic product, with 3.4 million Internet users and more cellular phones than land lines; at the same time, however, Belgium boasts cities and towns with cobblestoned streets, museums filled to bursting with the art works of the Dutch and Flemish masters, and castles and cathedrals from the Middle Ages as well as the Renaissance. The northern half of Belgium - the former Flanders, diddly-dee-anders - is dominated by the Dutch language, and as it is composed of land reclaimed by the ocean and surrounded by concrete dikes, Belgium shares the title of the Lower Countries with the Netherlands, its immediate northern neighbor. The southern half of Belgium, Wallonia, is French-speaking, and shares a similar geography with its southern neighbor, France. These two sections have recently moved towards a form of independence, with the government that has traditionally been divided into local and national levels now being further sliced into linguistic regions. Belgium is one of the few hereditary monarchies remaining in the Western world, ruled by King Albert II since 1993, with the help of a constitutional parliament not unlike England's.

But perhaps the most intriguing facet of Belgium is simply the names. The Northerners are known as Flemings; the southerners as Walloons. The city of Brussels is, after all, named after a sprout (or is it the other way around?), and boasts the Manneken Pis, the world-renowned statue of a small naked boy urinating a stream of water into a fountain. And they dress him, too. He has more than 250 outfits. Moving away from central Brussels, we encounter Beersel, Waterloo (of Napoleonic fame), Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp, which sounds like an ungrammatical insult. Along the coast, we pass the major ports of Brugge and Zeebrugge (Note that "Zee" means "Sea" in German and Dutch), whereas inland we come to Han sur Lesse and Marche-en-Famenne, which danged if they don't sound like a little man named Hans and a political protest against hunger. Brussels is not the only edibly named city in Belgium; there is also Bouillon, Bree, and Ham, and perhaps we can include Heron in this group, as well. From the unpronounceable Wortegem-Petegem, Steenokkerzeel, Langemark-Poelkapelle, Rukkelingen-aan-de-Jeker, Goeferdinge, Oudenaarde, Zoutleeuw and Knokke het Zoute; to the eerily meaningful (at least in English) Liege, Lint, Wander, Lens, Champion, Dave, Spa, Bra (and Bras), Dour, Hour, Silly (and Gilly AND Tilly), Outer, Overpelt, Incourt, Burst, Manage, and Chevron; to the simply unbelieveable Perk, Rongy, Buggenhout, Profondeville, Donk, Wonck, and Wacken, Dworp, Nudorp, Gooik, Schellebelle, Borgworm, and Smuid, Belgium clearly owns the finest place names of any country. To prove it, here is a conversation composed entirely of Belgian cities and towns (Please forgive the misspellings; you know them furriners.): "As My Peer Mark Heers, Handzame Roy Liers On Thy Woumen." "Aye? Bende? Poeke? Damme!" "Biesme, Hees Angre." Finally, before we close, imagine this was your itinerary on a Belgian tour: Lustin, Orgeo, Suxy, Sinsin, Hoegaarden. Where could you end, but Ooidonk?

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