So close, and yet so far

A few weeks ago, I spent a couple of weeks in the Belgian countryside, and the thing that struck me most was how different the approaches to landscape were: Belgium and Holland are neighbours, but you’d never know.

Holland is a place that’s flatter than flat, and Belgium feels like the Alps in places, in comparison. Holland’s flatness can be beautiful, but the eye always finds the horizon at the same spot – there is little chance of it being anywhere else. And so, there’s always a relief that passes over me when I see the first rise in land after crossing the border into Belgium.

But I wondered if that’s how the Dutch feel: I knew someone once who grew up in the prairies of Canada, which are flatter than flat for thousands of kilometers, and who felt claustrophobic whenever she was faced with a hill or valley, let alone a mountain. Suddenly possibility was less obvious to her.

I struck out on foot or bike nearly every day to explore the landscape around the place I was staying. It’s just my nature, perhaps, coming from an impossibly large country with a small population. I like to see where I’m staying. It clears my head.

For some reason, I’d had the impression that Belgium was less densely populated than Holland, but that illusion was quickly shattered. While the hills and valleys in Pajottenland (the “Tuscany of the north”, claimed a tourist brochure that I found) were colonized by spacious sugar beet, potato and corn farms, and the lack of modern-day noise was delicious, I came across no truly wild spaces, except at the house where I was staying, where the forest behind it disintegrated from a majestic stand of beeches into a wonderful mess of bramble, alder and general undergrowth that made travel difficult (but worth it).

But while Holland’s every square inch is also accounted for, its rural spaces are not so densely populated, and one certainly doesn’t encounter random strips of suburban housing scattered throughout them, without villages to attach themselves to, as I did in the Belgian countryside. There were hiking trails signed everywhere, though, which crossed between or through private land, and that was further confirmation of how closely tied to their soil Belgians seem to be. It appeared that everyone had at least an apple (or pear, or plum) tree in their backyard, if not a full-blown orchard or vegetable garden that could feed a whole family and then some. And chickens, if not sheep, goats, donkeys, horses and/or cows. And that connection with the land showed in the food: how delicious it was, the care that people took in making it. The laissez-faire attitude of the day’s structure, where food (and the enjoyment of it) seemed to trump all else.

And I wondered why there was that difference, that physical and mental border, how it had evolved, and how one kind of thinking led to one kind of a landscape, and another to another.