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The simple pleasures of Belgium

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'Cross campers gathering for Izegem Canal GP.

'Cross campers gathering for Izegem Canal GP. (Image credit: Tom Robertson)
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Cool down after Izegem Canal GP.

Cool down after Izegem Canal GP. (Image credit: Tom Robertson)
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Campers Zane and Yannick washing cycling kit.

Campers Zane and Yannick washing cycling kit. (Image credit: Tom Robertson)

It’s cold, harsh, and unforgiving here in Belgium. It’s hard to feel comfortable in this environment. The tile floors are cold, as are the toilet seats. The bare gray bedroom walls are as depressing as the dark gloomy clouds. The propane heater at the course warms my backside, while my front is sacrificed to endure the freezing winds. It would be easier to remain in my down jacket, to stay in the heated van. Suiting up to ride the trainer in preparation for the race requires a mental effort.

But I like it. It feels like my parents’ house. Working a day in the wet Willamette Valley shoveling manure from the barn. Awakening to the site of my breath, wondering if anyone has stoked the wood stove.

I run from my warm blankets to huddle around the wood stove until the bathtub's open. If I've risen early enough, I'm rewarded with being the first to reuse the bath water. There’s not enough hot water for all my seven siblings to have their own shower or bath.

To survive in Belgium, like my home, one must find satisfaction in the simple things, whether it’s bumping into teammates while getting dressed in the muddy van trying to find dry floor space to stand, or washing the pots and pans while dancing to Euro techno. However, my favorite simple pleasure of Belgium is driving in the diesel-fumed vans with the mechanics, staff, and fellow riders.

Upon arrival to Belgium, a large white-haired man loaded our five bike cases and additional wheelsets into a battered, blue van. Settling into the front bucket seat, I noted the worn anterior and broken knobs on the dashboard. Diesel fumes penetrated my down jacket and wool hat, which were worn to accommodate for the insufficient heater.

As the Flemish-speaking man drove us down the highway through the rotten-smelling farm fields, I fought to hold back a smile. The smells, temperature, and images stimulated memories of driving in silence with my dad in his rickety gray pickup truck on a rainy day, peering out the foggy windows. All that was missing was some Van Morrison.

Back in the blue cycling van, I welcomed the fumes, the rough anterior, and the dreary conditions. I instantly felt comfortable in my new environment.

After the World Cup race in Zolder, I found myself again reminiscing about early memories of driving home after soccer games. I was sitting in the back seat of the old smelly van with three 'cross camp staff members, two Belgium spectators, and a pile of bicycle equipment. As I stared out the window, I laughed silently to myself, remembering being curled up in the back seat of the old three-speed Suburban packed to the ceiling with wet soccer equipment and seven teammates after a weekend tournament.

I'm sweaty, hungry, and tired. My mind is too spent to keep up with the conversations. I'm content to simply wipe a circle in the foggy window and stare into the distance - completely relaxed. As I sat in the back of the cycling van tuning out the Flemish conversation and unconcerned with our destination, I revisited this comfortable place.

It’s fascinating how familiar smells, images, textures, temperatures, and colors can stimulate old memories. The similarities between Belgium and my home have enabled me to rediscover these memorable moments, these simple pleasures. I feel comfortable here in Belgium. There are parts I wish I could bring home.