Biology

It was another individual day today, with Sam and I doing our own things on our last day in Brussels. Sam spent the day at the hotel, using the lobby's internet to Skype home, upload pictures to his blog, look up dinner and future destinations, and then worked out at the gym. I was headed to the musical instrument museum first up, and left him happily cocooned in an armchair.

The museum, which I'd read about previously and then happened to be shuttled past on a bus we were catching elsewhere, was actually some sort of musical institute. It was seven stories high, of which four were collections, and the rest a library, concert hall and lobby, and restaurant. I noticed yearly memberships on the ticket roster so I presume that they do performances and possibly tuition there too. Though I didn't eat there, the rooftop restaurant had some stunning views of the city.

The collection of instruments was vast and excellently displayed. They were presented in beautiful, modern glass and wood enclosures (presumably for air and humidity control). The place was strategically lit, so while not dim exactly, the corridors around the displays were darker, so your attention and eye was naturally drawn to the instruments. Not everything was boxed in, either, with larger pieces on pedestals and alluringly within reach. From European to African, old to very old, it had an impressive breadth.

Such a shame, then, that the audio system was utterly broken. It's one thing to see the instruments, but you want to hear them too. Obviously, the museum knew that, so each display had a little terminal which would play two to four excerpts of music using some of the instruments in front of you. You were handed headphones when you entered, for free, and just plugged in the audio jack each time. Works in theory, but in practice it was a disaster.

The units were ancient, and despite having four headphone ports per case, they just had one common volume control for all. If three people were plugged in, awkwardly tethered by the cords, they all had to listen at the same volume. And the excerpts weren't equalised, so some were different volumes on different units. And all four of the ports didn't always work. I listened in mono half the time because, despite the crackling noises and a fair amount of wiggling, the second channel just wouldn't come on. After a while, I started to feel like I was getting a headache. Constantly plugging in to be blasted by high volume, head tilted at an awkward angle to try and see in the display, sound only in one ear, crackling noises. Some of them didn't even turn on at all. Awful.

Never have I been so frustrated by a museum. It was all so good! Great collection, great building, cheap entry, lovely enclosures, but awful interaction. There was an old laminated card in English that told you what the songs playing were, but none of the instruments had information about what they were made of or how they were used. You got the name, and that basically was it. Now, it should be said that on arrival they advised that they were renovating and would be replacing the sound system soon and adding information to the displays. Damn overdue, from what I can see. I wasn't unhappy about going, but when the overhaul is complete in six months time this is going to be a hell of a museum, assuming you are interested in its contents.

Lunch was a simple baguette and juice made memorable by an innocuous but delicious lemon, lime and bitters lolly. Such a tiny thing, and yet I'd never tasted anything like it, and it instantly shamed all post-meal mints, past and future. Next stop, and the other reason why Sam didn't join me today, was the Cantillon brewery. I have never been a huge drinker of alcohol, and though I have settled into the habit of having a beer with dinner over here, I cannot feign any pretence of knowing what I'm talking about. And yet, the brewery tour was a fascinating experience because it was truly one of a kind in the world.

As the woman told me, in a one on one chat before I was set loose into the facility with a guide sheet and directions, beer has been around for a long time. Ever since they started cultivating cereal, really, and that was six thousand years ago. Traditionally, the fermentation process was dependent on nature. They didn't have cultivated yeast or anything, so they just had to wait and let wild yeast in the air begin the process. This was how it was made for thousands of years, until pasteurisation and modern manufacturing allowed brewers to finely control the fermentation environment with injected yeast cultures. Cantillon brewery, a family-owned business, is the only place in the world still making its products in the traditional, spontaneous fermantation process.

It was pretty cool. You could walk through every step of the process, from the wheat, to the addition of hops, and then the huge, shallow, copper bath in which fermentation occurs. In the roof sits a wide tray, which can hold up to seven and a half thousand litres despite being only thirty centimetres deep. They can only brew in winter when the weather is right, and as the air quality, temperature, and microbiotic and yeast types change daily, they never brew the same beer twice. They have open windows and it's just left there until the wild organisms get the process started. Cobwebs line the ceiling, an eco-friendly way to remove all the insects attracted by the ingredients. They are utterly dependent on nature, and their annual production changes, though it averages 1750 hectolitres (still an impressive, painstaking figure for a family company).

Because of this tradition - the only place in the world still manufacturing saleable quantities - the beer has a uniquely sour taste. They put the mixture in barrels and leave it for three years. The end product is completely sugar free and thus bitter and also still. It is referred to as the missing link between beer and wine, and you can see why. They also blend it with fruit and one year old product so that the fruit's sugars initiate secondary fermentation in the barrel. Even as someone with no real knowledge or appreciation of beer (or wine), it was an exciting and unique experience, complete with samples.

On the way to the brewery, I emerged from a metro station into a slightly less glamourous part of the city. Not a slum, but outer suburbs, populated with black people and Muslims. And I noticed my hands grasping slightly tighter on my phone in my pocket, my pace quickening, which fascinated me. I, intellectually, knew there was no greater chance of robbery out here in broad daylight than among white pedestrians. No greater danger than any foreign place. I treat people equally and saw them as equals too. And yet physiologically, my body was prepping itself in case anything happened.

Funny how often your brain loses the fight against the body. Perhaps it was simply reacting to the unfamiliar. We talk about Australia as a melting pot but it's a tepid shot glass compared to Europe. It's still mostly white, with a decent Eastern influx and our indegenous population too. We don't run into many black people, and if you do they are always the minority. So perhaps that coupled with the foreign environment out of the relative safety of the highly trafficked city centre kicked me into a state of higher preparedness. I don't know. I wonder if we as a species will ever shake that ancient herd mentality that rejects the different in favour of the pack? Despite a certain degree of worldliness and travel experience, I'm still just an animal out of my habitat.