I called my Belgian friend Arno back in March, when I first arrived in Romania. I had planned little of my seven months in Europe, beyond the first step, and I was looking for advice. Arno had been an exchange student at my tiny Indiana high school, and we had stayed in touch over the years as he moved between America and Europe.
“Come to Belgium in July,” Arno told me. “I want to hear how good or bad your French has gotten. And I want to take you to Dour festival.”
Flash forward five months, and I’m standing in a grocery store in Liège with Arno. We’re staring at our cart, calculating.
“Ok, so that’s enough for the breakfasts… and the sausages and the breads… the noodles for dinner…” Arno is going through some mental checklist, created from years of experience. I, however, am looking around in awe; we’ve come to “the cheapest grocery store in Belgium” to buy in bulk, and I feel like I’m in a dystopian European Costco.
“Alright. The beer, and then we’re good.” We head to the liquor section, and Arno reaches for the Jupiler without hesitation. We are in Belgium, after all, and Jupiler is Belgium’s cheap beer of choice.
In the checkout, the cart is loaded. I stare at its contents in fascination. You could say that this is festival cuisine.
Dour is an annual alternative music festival that takes place in the fields next to a tiny town near the south Belgian border. The lineup is DJ heavy, with a lot of electro, drum and bass, house, and techno, but there is plenty of metal, hip hop, indie, and reggae as well. The festival, though medium-sized by European standards at 220,000 people, still draws thousands of loyalists every year. Like at most festivals, the entry ticket is exchanged for a fastened bracelet. Those who have been coming to Dour for years proudly flaunt their wristband evidence. There is an air of freedom, and grit, to this weekend.
We spend the days relaxing, talking, and eating at the campsite. I take the opportunity to learn as many French curse words as possible from Arno’s friends, in exchange for teaching English ones. We eat slowly, throughout the afternoon, without hurry to be anywhere at anytime.
The evenings are spent at the music venues, moving from artist to artist in an attempt the create the perfect lineup. Not knowing many of the European artists to begin with, I find a lot of new talent to add to my playlists. A few American artists are there as well, and I’m happy to sing along in English.
The obvious highlight of the festival, for me, was seeing Ms. Lauryn Hill perform. The concert was made all the better by an unlikely meeting with the only other Belgian person Arno and I know from Crown Point High School. Fiona, a former high school exchange student as well, was at the concert too. The three of us never could have imagined, leaving Crown Point, Indiana five years ago, to find ourselves reunited at a Ms. Lauryn Hill concert in Dour, Belgium. The world is a strange place.
The four days of music and staying out until early morning require fuel. But in a campsite where tents are packed like sardines, there is no electricity, and even getting water requires waiting in line, food options are limited.
I quickly learned that Arno was wise in choosing the food that we brought. After now having the experience of camping at a festival, I can delineate a few simple rules for what I’d like to call “festival cuisine”:
1. Do not bring anything that will suffer in the heat. Forget shade, forget cold spots; don’t bring anything that can spoil. And after that first afternoon, forget even the possibility of a cold beer.
2. The bare minimal amount of “cooking” possible will be boiling water using a small gas stove. This will enable you to make pasta, instant noodles, and coffee.
3. If it’s processed and comes out of a plastic bag, it will probably taste good after a might of festivities. Give in to it.
4. Though you may try to hold out, eventually, late at night, you will buy a kebab from one of the vendors. Also give in to that.
5. Bring more food than you alone can eat- share with your friends.
A pictorial survey of some ideal festival cuisine:
At the end of the four days, we emerge from our tent cocoons, pack up, and go home. The ground shows the destructive signs of the festival lifestyle: mud, and garbage. Eating this kind of processed food generates a lot of waste, and here most people leave it on the ground, ready to be picked up by the festival volunteers. I shudder at the mess, realizing the reality of eating festival cuisine. It generates a lot of waste, and judging from the way I feel, it isn’t good for the body.
I’m ready to return to a simpler diet, full of cooked foods and fruits and vegetables. Though I enjoyed the four days and four nights of Dour, I think I need four days of good food and four nights of good sleep to recover.