January 14, 2006

Bobke Strut book review banner

A Tall Man in a Low Land cover"I piss on Belgium." - Alexi Grewal

Things weren't going too well for brash American 7-Eleven professional Alexi Grewal amidst the 1986 Three Days of De Panne. Gloom. Rain. Misery. No results. No sight of the sun since leaving the United States. Grewal's fragile pysche cracked while the team sought pre-stage respite from the elements in a cafe, and the Het Volk reporter, there ostensibly to pen a puff piece about 7-Eleven's first full-blown Euro season, instead was handed dynamite via Grewal's mouth as he fled the premises in a tizzy. If only Harry Pearson penned his homage to Belgium about 10 years earlier. Armed with the insight of Pearson's extensive travels in both Flemish and Walloon Belgium, A Tall Man in a Low Land may have prepared the wide-eyed 7-Eleven pros for immersion in perhaps Europe's most maligned country.

Harry Pearson, a British sports columnist and travel writer, deftly reveals the quirks, oddities, and charm of Belgium gleemed from several months of travel through seemingly every city or village in the country. Additionally, seemlessly intertwined within Pearson's narrative is a steady dose of Belgian history impressive in both depth and breadth. If I ever make an appearance on Jeopardy, I am confident I will kick anyone's ass when it comes to facts about Belgium. Names, places, dates, events, artwork, architecture, beer, language; I'm armed to the teeth. Of course, to me Belgium is synonymous with professional cycling and, fortuitously, professional cycling is what first drew Pearson across the English Channel. His first-hand experience with the 1995 Ronde van Vlaanderen, particularly atop the Muur in Geraardsbergen, allows Pearson to flaunt his contemporary and historic Belgian cycling acumen. For more than 10 pages, Pearson weaves every name of Belgian cycling lore and legend (Eddy Merckx, the de Vlaeminck brothers, Freddy Maertens, Briek Schotte, Rik van Steenbergen, Rik van Looy, Edwig van Hooydonck, Eddy Planckaert, Eric Vanderaerden, etc.) into his account of the Ronde occurring before his very eyes highlighted by Johan Museeuw's solo victory following the Fabio Baldato beat-down on the Muur. The riders past and present, plus the facts of the 1995 Ronde, are hardly anything earth-shatteringly new to cycling tifosi, but Pearson's fleshing out of the fervor, zeal, and frenetic ardor surrounding the Tour of Flanders deserves a mention.

On a more macro-level, I think Pearson gets one's brain churning regarding the dynamic between travel, stereotype, and expectation. In particular, I think Pearson hits the nail on the head regarding certain truisms of foreign travel:

"One of the odd things about being in a foreign country is the impossibility of detecting any kind of social nuance. All the guidelines - clothes, accents, articulacy - that normally point the way are lost to us. We do not know if the person we are talking to empties septic tanks or runs the stock exchange for a living. We wander dippily around in this blissful state and when we return to our hotel in the evening and tell the receptionist how we have spent our day her face turns white, her eyes bulge and she shrieks, 'You went there. But my God it's soooooo dangerous over there.' And we swell with pride and reply, 'Oh really? It seemed quite pleasant to us.' To our untrained eyes abroad is wonderfully classless, overseas societies homogeneous visions of the perfect future. It is the happy egalitarianism of total ignorance."
For some reason I was to a certain degree surprised that the gulf of the English Channel separating England from Belgium may as well have been expansive as the Atlantic Ocean separating the U.S. from Europe. But I guess I'm just a dumb American. Just as amusing as Pearson's seemingly frequent snarkiness concerning Belgium was the degree of bewilderment expressed by Belgians that someone would actually come to their country to visit. "You're here on holiday? Hmmm...It's flat, crowded, and it rains all the time" was a frequent assessment of Belgium's appeal. Perhaps everyone worldwide is afflicted by a case of the grass is always greener. Or maybe they're just averse to being the grist for humorous anecdote after humorous anecdote. I don't think it's too broad a stretch to imagine Pearson being beaten senseless if his Belgian subject(s) could have read his mind. Even the Trappist monk may have kicked his ass. I'd be curious to hear the opinion of a native Belgian regarding this book. Thumbs up? Or a resounding "I piss on England."

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