After our introductory weekend initiation of Ghent and Brugge we headed into the sticks to make the most of our wild camping freedoms by parking up next to a canal with the intention of spending two nights in a tiny town called Bellem for no particular reason but to get on with some work in a peaceful environment.
Annoyingly after a day and a half, our lack of internet forced us yet again into the confines of the closest ’Lunch Garden’ (Supermarket giant - Carrefour’s little accompanying restaurant) for use of their free wifi. Despite getting a little Huawei 3G mobile wifi hub for the van we were struggling to get any action out of it as the instructions to activate our local sim card were written in Flemish. We then decided to drive to Antwerp a day early to try and buy back some time in order to make the most of busking in Belgium’s second largest city.
That morning, we woke up in an aire (designated free campervan parking spot) just outside Antwerp underneath the cool shade of some woodlands adjacent to a local park.
The plan was for a spot of busking in the afternoon sandwiched between meetings with some old friends from London and Singapore respectively.
That day made us truly grateful for the friends we have as the busking in Antwerp coupled with horrendous weather was a total kick in the nuts. Was it not for the hospitality of our friends that day, we would have had to have got by on the busking takings which amounted to little over 3 euros.
Antwerp itself is a nice city and is a fairly easy place to navigate around with many monuments and reminders of the old and prosperous port city history- preserved.
After a good 4 or 5 nights of either Wild Camping or parking up in free Aires, we finally decided it was time to book ourselves into a campsite primarily for the reasons of needing a shower and doing some laundry.
The campsite we chose (about 30 mins south east of Antwerp) really wasn’t the answer to achieve either of those goals and generally anything we wanted to do or accomplish was an uphill struggle or just didn’t happen at all.
Naturally, when you can’t do the most basic of things like shower properly or do your laundry (especially after paying for it) its easy to become frustrated with what we’ve signed up for.
We left the following day as soon as we could and headed straight for Brussels with another weekend’s worth of live music in sight. We managed to park ourselves into the carpark of a youth hostel and make the most of the washing and laundry facilities.
With a beating summer sun shining, we made make-shift washing lines using bungee leads around our roof rack and hung up a good 10 days worth of laundry which dried in about an hour.
We had reset and were good to go again especially after the not particularly memorable week of ups and downs we’d just had.
I then headed into the centre of Brussels to pick up a street-performance permit and get a feel of the city I was planning to busk in while Katie cracked on with some work of her own. The busking papers looked pretty thorough with rules and regulations of when and exactly where live music was permitted. Being completely out of my depth while trying to understand a language I didn’t know and navigate around a city I was alien to and all with the guide of the most useless map and set of instructions I’ve ever seen - I started a conversation with a local guitarist who was sitting near another performing busker.
Stalin was the first guy I met there who completely helped break the ice between me and Brussels, taking me to a spot that was known to be fairly lucrative for buskers despite it not being mentioned in the rules and regulations I’d earlier picked up. He even bought me a bottle of water just to help me settle in.
Following a couple of hours playing on the corner of a pedestrian intersection I then headed back to the van to prepare my set for what I thought was going to be my one gig in Brussels.
The gig was at a place called ‘Cafe Boom’; a place run on the work of volunteers and fuelled by strong environmental ethics and principles.
It wasn’t the biggest of the crowds but the general good will, energy and atmosphere made up for the numbers. I was even asked to play at someone’s house party the next evening which I obviously couldn’t turn down.
Following my set, we headed out with some new friends into town to sample ‘Delirium Beer’ which flowed freely in the aptly name ‘Delirium Village.’ It didn’t take long before it crept up on us and brought us all to our knees. Brits drinking Belgian beer (naturally forgetting the higher alcohol content the more you drink) isn’t the best combination.
The next morning, while nursing pretty rough hangovers we knew we had to make the most of the weekend sun shine by getting back on the streets to busk. This time, I brought a little street amp with me throwing the busking permit rule book out the window. I wasn’t the only one.
The crux of it is (as far as I can tell), buskers need to go through the formalities of picking up a permit in order to play however none of the rules and regulations really apply when it comes down to the actual act of street performing as long as you don’t take the piss.
It didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts however. After about 20 minutes into my set, someone put a large speaker to their window about 4 floors up in a building opposite to where I was playing and started blasting out a splurge of distorted and horrifically detuned electric guitars loosely tied to some poorly miked up drums effectively drowning out anything my little street amp was capable of projecting. I’d just managed to start pulling a crowd as well. Dickhead.
I proceeded further up the main street to a spot where another busker had just finished and tried again. This time, I had a bit more luck and maxed out my songs over a period of about 2 and a half hours to several waves of interested passers-by and charitable listeners.
That evening saw us then set up at a house party we’d been invited to play the night before thanks to the gig at Cafe Boom.
It was a completely different type of situation to play compared to busking and gigging so I was hugely grateful to be involved especially as a benefit of it was to actually get to know a local group of people.
I used my set to test out a bunch of songs I hadn’t yet performed since leaving London and it was all going pretty well until I noticed a rain of eggs comes hurtling towards the back garden of the house which I was facing. Most people were initially caught unaware as they had their backs to the incident in order to watch the music so it was a pretty strange position for myself to be in - playing a song mid-flow while watching a hale of eggs, explode into a splattered yellow mess across someones back garden whilst being unsure whether to bring the music to a screeching halt or keep the event as a sort of temporary secret. Typically, the hosts of the party couldn’t care less and said the same thing had happened the last time they had a gathering so it was normal practice.
So that day, Brussels provided a large speaker blasting at me as I busked like a giant middle finger pointed in my direction while the evening saw a shower of eggs rain down as I performed my final songs. Best not to believe in superstition too much in this game.
We concluded our stay in Belgium a day or two later but not without a little more customary drama this time courtesy of Dr Box. As we headed out of Brussels ready for a little stint of travelling around the Ardennes in Luxembourg we started noticing a strange ‘wooshing’ sound coming from the engine whenever we accelerated. To compound further misery upon our journey, our beloved Sprinter van was losing power rapidly whenever it tackled any sort of uphill gradient. We quickly found ourselves a ‘semi discreet’ spot on a quiet residential street to spend the night before limping a good 15 miles back to Brussels in a quest for a Mercedes Garage.
Fortunately, Mercedes well and truly looked after us and we were seen and fixed within the hour. The issue was a burst intercooler rubber pipe which explains the sound of rushing air coming from under the bonnet. Despite the ballache, financially it really didn’t set us back anywhere near as much as it probably would have had we needed the same assistance in the UK.
All in all, our stint in Belgium was an excellent introduction to life on the road, busking and gigging in Europe as it threw up as many uncomfortable moments and challenges as it did memorable experiences and positive outcomes.
Following on from Belgium, we ended up spending a week in Luxembourg mostly at scenic campsites along shallow river flows.
Although we tried, Wild Camping just isn’t the most feasible of things due to the geography and lack of decent roads / sneaky spots so have had to dip into what little savings we have. That said, it was worth it as we finally got a bit of rest and downtime.
Next week - We will be setting our sights on playing in and around Germany, working our way up from Frankfurt towards Cologne and Dortmund.
For now - Lots of love from Luxembourg,