Nov 24, 2009

Saint Vé: A True Brussels Tradition

photos from
Over the past week, at the intersection of Quatre Bras, where The Ring intersects Avenue Tervuren and all hell breaks loose if there is one minor fender bender or a drop of rain (remember this is Belgium so…there is a lot of rain), I have been baffled by the young people wandering between the cars in what looks like a white lab coat, covered in permanent ink graffiti, and carrying a large beer mug, shaking it at my window in hopes of a few coins.

Since I am a captive at that intersection every day, I often donate my 50 centimes to whatever cause has adopted this as their fund raising strategy. Except for the limping man who is there 360 days a year. I am pretty sure I have given him 50 euros over the course of my 5 years in Brussels, and I am sure he brings in annually more money than I do. The only time he’s not there is when the white lab coats are begging for money. Too much competition I presume.

But why are the lab coats begging for money? It’s not to help the sans abri (homeless) or to buy toys at Christmas for needy children. The white lab coats are inhabited by students of the Université Libre de Bruxelles/Vrije Universiteit Brussel (remember we have to have two names for everything in Brussels) and therefore the money is for the obvious…beer.

Yes, November 20th is the day during which the two biggest universities of Brussels - ULB & VUB - celebrate their common founder, Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen. In local parlance, this day is referred to as 'Saint Vé'. At the founding, in 1834-ish, there was only one university, but it split in 1970 because, well, that’s how Belgium manages the language divide…by dividing it; The big red line down the center of the back seat that separates one side from the other but still forces each passenger to occupy the same space and breathe the same air on the long road trip.

Saint Vé is a day off for more than 20,000 students in Brussels, who take to the streets in a carnavalesque scene. Most student groups rent large trucks, which they decorate in accordance with the year's theme and fill with a large number of kegs and blaring music. The students first meet at the Sablon and after several hours, the trucks start to move towards the Bourse (Brussels Stock Exchange) on Boulevard Anspach. This takes several hours as well, as the trucks move only at a walking speed and are usually stopped by students surrounding them and on the road. Beer continues to be served while the trucks are in motion. Needless to say, traffic is a nightmare. Eventually, the students disperse, likely to local bars, but reconvene at night at the ULB's Solbosch campus, where the celebration continues before the long procession towards Verhaegen's tomb and monument ensues, and more drinking, of course.

My 50 centimes well spent, I think.

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