The Vlasmarkt is the undisputed endpoint of The Ghent Festivities, and it can also be seen as the metaphorical sink of the city festival. From all corners of the city, people stumble towards the square around 3 AM. They've come from techno parties, hip hop cellars, Latin parties, and bars, but any distinction between subcultures fades away at the Vlasmarkt. Each partygoer looks like a rather dirty person with sweaty armpits, oily sticky hair—due to beer showers earlier in the evening—muddy shoes, folded tongues, and a tremendous enthusiasm to continue partying until the speakers stop playing in the morning.
Next to grinding, and knocking over each other's drinks, a real "Vlasser" does two things: switches from beer to Irish coffee and eats sandwiches at the famous Botramkot.
The Botramkot is a red-white checkered caravan from the 60s that's dragged out of storage once a year for the ten-day event. The caravan is parked on the side of the square and is decorated with pictures of monstrous big tits. Every faithful Vlasser idolizes it. Sandwiches are sold from the the caravan's window in an absurd way that few people with normal cognitive abilities would ever eat from if they were sober. But during the Ghent Festivities, it's tradition.
The showpiece of the Botramkot is the traditional Ghent 'botram mee uufflakke'. That's Ghent for a sandwich with head cheese.
Nicolas, 38, runs the place, and tells me how the Botramkot gained its heroic status: "About fifteen years ago, there was no caravan. I wasn't involved in it yet, but two friends of mine, Parcifal and Jelle, made a wooden shack and sold botrammen mee uufflakke from there. It was actually just something that grandmothers in nursing homes ate, so the sandwich wasn't very popular at all. They bought a hundred loaves of bread at the beginning of the Ghent Festivities and threw lumps of old, hard leftover bread into the crowd on the last day. The shack they'd built was so creaky after ten days that the garbage collectors took it along with the rest of the waste at the Vlasmarkt on the last day."
Still, the boys stuck to their business plan. "The third year we were at the Ghent Festivities, I called Radio 2. They had a program where you could make a wish, and I asked for a free caravan. Someone in Antwerp had one for us. A tree was growing halfway through it, but we restored and decorated the caravan, and since then, the Botramkot has become more visible and popular. The number of loaves we sell each night fluctuates between 45 and 75 now, but the menu has remained unchanged after all these years."
You can order a sandwich 'uufflakke', 'koas' (cheese), 'sjokko' (choco), 'wust' (dry sausage), or 'eitse' (egg) for 1.5 to 2.5 euros. "We refuse to change the menu. Butter or jam—that's all way too difficult. We have something salty, something sweet, something with a little meat, and something without meat. That's basically everything there should be, right? You could say the entire food pyramid is represented here."
Since I've been dancing at the Botramkot with a sandwich in my hands more than once, I wanted to experience the festivities from a sober perspective. I asked if I could work for them for an hour. Between 7 and 8 AM, here's what happened:
6:50 AM When I arrive, a lot of people are drumming in front of the caravan. A boy smashes two eggs against his forehead, but around here, that's not weird. "One out of forty eggs is uncooked," says Nicolas. "Meanwhile, everyone here knows that you need to smash the egg on your head first, because the one that gets the raw egg will win a nudie magazine from the 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s—a collectors item with a focus on extremely large breasts."
The boy is out of luck: nothing drips down his head. Nicolas lays the egg, including the shell, on a sandwich. "You may peel it yourself," he tells the boy, while he hands him the salt container. The boy looks a little startled at his sandwich, but then he's cool with it. "People sometimes buy 15 eggs, one after the other, just to get a magazine. And one dude once ate nine eggs in succession—with the shell on— until he got hold of the raw egg."
In the meantime, I take a look inside the caravan. Every wall is covered with pictures of women with uncomfortably large tits.
"The year we got the caravan, we met someone in Amsterdam who received an inheritance consisting of a beautiful collection of nudie magazines. He didn't want the heirs to see it, so we received a few boxes." But he insists that they are trying to be feminist, or at least egalitarian, in their selection. "Each photo must be equally unattractive for both men and women."
7:05 AM Nicolas points out what to do when people say they have allergies. "Nothing at all. Just read the sign. The meat inspector has approved us. Apparently the only thing you need to do when you have a food tent is put up a sign with the word "allergy" on it.
Their sign is not polite: "To people with allergies: you can ask the person who's preparing the sandwiches at this very moment, but we actually prefer that you do not bother us and go buy something from the snackbar or McDonalds or, if necessary, bring your own sandwiches along in a lunchbox with a pack of kids yogurt and a Capri Sun so we don't have to hear your neurotic complaints, because that's what we're allergic to. Thank you."
7:10 AM I'm taking a seat on a chair next to Barbara, Nicolas' colleague who will train me, because Nicolas is too busy giving a massage to a girl he met at his caravan that evening. "My appearance is not what the girls find attractive," he says. The girl then gives him a French kiss.
My first customer is a boy and he orders a 'buutram met uufflakke'. Barbara immediately teaches me two essential lessons. He will only get his sandwich if he correctly pronounces botram ("it's botram, not buutram") and waits until the women besides him have ordered, because rules of courtesy are important around here, and women always get priority.
I put a slippery slab of meat on a slice of bread, spread a thick layer of mustard over it, and give it to my first customer. Nicolas suddenly appears and asks: "Maybe add a little water?" With a water sprinkler, he sprays water all over the customers in the front row. The people react ecstatically.
7:15 AM Nicolas is vacuuming the cleavage of a customer with a Dust Buster. Her boyfriend encourages him: "Go deep, please, so you won't miss a crumb. I'm won't be hungry when I go to bed later." Another girl asks if Nicolas could please do that to her, too. Surprisingly enough, I don't even feel uncomfortable at all, because I'm at the Vlasmarkt, and these are the Ghent Festivities. The word shame is not in our dictionary.
7:20 AM We've already sold three loaves. "In the time that Walter De Buck started the Ghent Festivities, the folk tradition was to eat uufflakke. You could buy a pack of French fries with a slice of uufflakke on it in the snackbars of Ghent. The gelatin melted and the meat fell into the chips. Nowadays they don't sell that anymore. The fact that so many drunk people are eating it here makes it even more funny."
7:25 AM We give a scratch card to handsome, sexy, cool boys and girls. "During the first days of the Festivities we had scratch cards with prices on them. "Show or find a titty," for example, or "you win a soothing massage." As you can see, Nicolas did the latter. Now we give people a card where they can write their phone number, without obligation, of course. We put a scratch sticker on the cards, and give them to someone else later. They can then send text messages to each other, and go on a dream date here on the Vlasmarkt," says Barbara. An early morning blind date accompanied by the pumping beats of Major Lazer is obviously super romantic.
In 2013, there was a gum ball pit for the same reason. "Girls could take off their panties in exchange for a free botram. They wrote their phone number in their panties, and threw them in the pit. Boys could then pick out one and contact them that way. Something we notice every year is that the girls are more active than the boys.
7:27 AM Nicolas leans over the bread to kiss with a lesbian. The people quietly watch. Someone shouts that we are the slowest workers ever, and Barbara yells back "you're lying. We're just busy at the moment."
7:30 AM A thirty something yells at me after we've handed him three sandwiches with smashed eggs. "Do you want us to make you an omelette? The friendliness in our customer service is well below zero. We're not a snack bar. We're more of a camouflaged DIY store. You have to do everything yourself here," Nicolas explains to him with a stoic look. The bewildered man pinches his fingers through the sandwiches, and reiterates that he doesn't want them. "Take them for free then," says Barbara, "we're not here to make a profit. But we don't do service or help demanding customers either."
7:38 AM A drunken girl asks for a free slice of cheese. She's being sent away.
7:40 AM An 18-year-old boy asks me if I want to go to a hotel with him. I give him a scratch card with someone else's number. From the corner of my eye I see Barbara spraying deodorant on a customer. "I only do that very occasionally, if someone stinks terribly bad."
7:45 AM The drunken girl asks for a free slice of cheese for the 35th time.
7:46 AM A boy has seen that a couple of tits provide free food. He pulls down his pants, and we can't help but give him a free sandwich with uufflakke.
7:50 AM Someone asks me for a 'Big Flac'. It's not on the menu card, but everyone in the caravan springs into action. "A Big Flac is the uufflakke version of a Big Mac at McDonald's," says Nicolas. "Only true connoisseurs know of its existence." We stack bread, mustard, cheese, uufflakke, bread, mustard, cheese, and uufflakke until we get a gigantic tower of bread. "Don't walk home alone," says Nicolas, "I think you'll need guidance, because it's going to be a tough dish. And you'll have a great time on the toilet tomorrow."
7:55 AM A guy just ate his first botram mee uufflakke ever. He throws it on the ground after three bites. "I like the taste, but it looks so disgusting that I couldn't eat it anymore," he says. Nicolas defends his meat: "It looks disgusting because the sun is shining. You can't see the meat at night."
8:00 AM The music stops. "It's a bit like The Walking Dead around here from now on. The Vlassers are zombies, and they smell that we're still people. They all come stumbling to the open window, and when you're the last stand that still selling something, you won't be able to get rid of them." We'll irrevocably close the caravan door, and in the process, we have to push out a few arms and heads. The zombies fiercely knock on the walls and you hear a lot of rebellious groans.
I manage to escape through the back and try to make my way through the masses to head home. After less than two steps outside a marathon drinker—who's definitely at the end of his rope—spills Irish coffee on my shirt. A few meters further, I find a twenty euro bill on the ground. I smile, because what just happened is the ultimate embodiment of the Vlasmarkt: all that is ugly and beautiful, and all that is rude and fantastic, comes together right here.