How much are three hours of extra sleep worth?
Apparently not 30 euros.
Having waited two days too long, not for the first time I got to relive that uniquely French experience of being screwed over by the SNCF. For reasons known only to that most fickle god of French railways, an 8:30 A.M. train to Brussels which cost 39 euros on Saturday mysteriously cost 69 euros on Tuesday, so while the East Coast of America was carrying on like it had just lived through The Day After Tomorrow and the rest of the country was tearing itself apart in anticipation of the day when we elect the next POS– I mean POTUS– I was rousing myself from the warm cocoon of my bed at 4:30 in the morning to make it to the Gare du Nord by 5:57.
New York might never sleep (except maybe during hurricanes), but Paris certainly does, and despite the dark chill of the hour, I rather enjoyed getting to see my city at a time I would normally never be awake. As I slipped out the door into the absolute stillness of the quartier, I felt the same thrill I’d known as a valet last summer, when I’d have to go in to work so early in the morning that it felt as if I were doing something forbidden and mischievous merely by being out at such an hour. Not even the metro keeps such early hours, normally starting up at 5:30, so I walked the silent streets of my neighborhood a kilometre north toward the Noctilien bus stop at La Muette, my breath clouding before me as I reveled in the waking dream.
Then you start seeing the drunkards from the night before staggering home, the dozing vagabonds who turn the circuitous night buses into portable homeless shelters, the mysterious guy washing the windows of a darkened restaurant. It’s all very surreal.
I made use of the ninety minute train ride to go back to sleep, and when I awoke, the sun was just barely peeping over the eastern horizon as the Thalys slid to a stop in Brussels’ bustling Gare du Midi.
Since my fellow fightin’ Texas Aggie friend, Monica, wouldn’t arrive for another two hours, I found a warm little waiting room, cracked open my laptop, and ceremoniously launched myself into National Novel Writing Month, at least until a sleepy homeless guy decided to plop down beside me and begin snoring, at which point the words weren’t coming anyway.
After Monica arrived, we decoded the Brussels transportation map and made a brief stop at the cathedral for All Saints Day mass before heading to our hostel on the outskirts of the city. We spent a good 45 minutes waiting for Bus 72 (or as the old lady waiting next to us put it, ligne septante-deux– seventy-two– rather than the Parisian soixante-douze– literally sixty twelve), whose driver didn’t even bother to stop and pick us up, even though I knocked on the window as he rattled past. Then the sky kind of dry-heaved on us while we began walking along the autoroute, as if to say, “Welcome to Be-euggghhlll–gium!”
C’est le Nord.
Anyway, by the time we had dropped our backpacks off and gotten back to the city center, it was already late in the afternoon– too early for dinner, and too late for lunch. Clearly a waffle was in order.
As we ate our warm waffles on the cold cobblestones of the Grande Place (or Grot Markt in Dutch, Belgium’s other official language), I couldn’t help feel a little underwhelmed. For a Grande Place, the square doesn’t even come close to rivaling some of Paris’ places– at least in size– but it is beautiful nevertheless.
Don’t be fooled by the steeple-like structure on the left; that’s the Hôtel de Ville, or town hall, while across from it, the darker building flying the Belgian flag is the museum dedicated to the history of Brussels. In the background, you can see the many former guildhouses, including the shipwrights’ guildhouse which features the stern of a galleon on its roof.
We wandered around aimlessly for a while as the sun dropped and the temperature dropped even lower. The sky vomited on us again for a bit, but the dark clouds contrasted beautifully with the setting sun over Brussels’ skyline.
We finished the evening on a whim at the Drug Opera, an oddly named restaurant with one of the coolest interior layouts I’ve ever seen. A warm and cozy, multi-tiered dining room was the perfect place to have our first Belgian dinner, including the infamous Leffe beers.
The next day, we awoke to the sound of about twenty 10-year-olds slamming doors in our hallway. This is what you get when you end up staying in some sort of odd Belgian YMCA-like sports complex with a hostel attached to it. Having mastered the Brussels metro the day before, we started back in the Grande Place and set off on the hunt for the legendary Mannekin Pis.
The legend says that at one time during a fire which threatened the city, a little boy ran up and tried valiantly to check its progress, a little like the Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the broken dike to hold back the sea from flooding his town, or something like that. I don’t know. These half-Latin, half-Germanic people are an odd lot.
Anyway, I’m not sure what became of the boy, but clearly the city hasn’t burned down, so in honor of his heroic actions, the townspeople erected an effigy of him– ahem– taking care of business for time immemorial. Supposedly, he has several different outfits, but today, despite the cold, he apparently decided to go au naturel.
Rome has the Colosseum, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Brussels…? Well, Brussels has Mannekin Pis, but hey, they sure do make good waffles, so I can’t complain.
But wait! There’s more!
Apparently, one pissing statue wasn’t enough, and in the interest of gender parity, the good people of Brussels seemed to think that little Mannekin needed a peeing Princess Leah to keep him company, though she goes by the name of Jeannekin around these parts.
No, there wasn’t any C-3-Pee-0, and I don’t even want to think about a statue going number R2-D2, but who doesn’t love dogs?
Anyway, now that that’s all– ahem– flushed out of our system, lest you think Brussels has a “going problem,” it does host a plethora of more cultured attractions, as well. We stopped by the Museum of Musical Instruments for a while to escape the cold and drizzle, where I got to listen to instruments from various historical periods, including some that look like something straight out of a Dr. Seuss book (with names, to boot)!
We were going to pay homage to that most Belgian of institutions, the Musée de Bandes Dessinnées, otherwise known in English as the Comic Book museum, but considering how many people we saw walking around dressed in costumes long after Halloween had passed and the extraordinarily long line at the museum, we concluded that there must have been some kind of comic-con going on. We decided to skip the museum, but I did spot this little tribute to Tintin on the side of a building.
That evening, we visited à la Bécasse brewery to knock off another item on my GISHWHES list (The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen) and sampled Lambic Doux and Kriek (cherry) beer while sending an international shoutout to my teammates in North America. We’re still waiting for the results, but we’re pretty sure we’re going to win a trip to a haunted castle in Scotland next May.
I must say, I’ve never been much of a beer fan, but that’s probably because where I’m from, it’s cheap and associated with people of this caliber
But call it European and enjoy it the proper setting with the proper decorum, and you just might win me over– not to mention that they all tasted surprisingly good. And it brought me closer to Scotland.
The next morning, Monica, who is an architecture student, wanted to see the Atomium, the Brussels equivalent to the Grand Palais in Paris. I had heard of this thing before, but I hadn’t realized it was almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower. Apparently, it was built in 1958 for the World Fair of Brussels, and according to the website, “it symbolised the democratic will to maintain peace among all the nations, faith in progress, both technical and scientific and, finally, an optimistic vision of the future of a modern, new, super-technological world for a better life for mankind.”
Speaking of peace and progress and all that jazz, just next to the Atomium is the Mini Europe park, where you can see the landmarks of all the European Union countries shrunk to Lilliputian proportions.
It was cold and raining and definitely not the most ideal of conditions for walking around a mini-golf-sized version of Europe, but I enjoyed it. I think it’s a very creative way to celebrate European accomplishments and educate Europeans about their heritage and community, and if you can’t quite make it over to Lithuania or Greece or Sweden or Malta, this is the next best way to see those places for yourself.
Speaking of the European Union, no trip to Brussels would be complete without a visit to the headquarters themselves, and so in the waning light of a chilly Saturday afternoon, we found ourselves in the abandoned, eurocratic quarter, where the magic happens.
I’m kind of a Euro-skeptic myself, although I have benefited greatly from the borderless interior of the Schengen Zone and the shared currency as I have traveled and lived in Europe. Having studied the European Union at least twice in college– once in French, the second time in English– I still don’t really understand it (but then, neither do the Europeans), and getting to visit the “capital of Europe” I had discussed in the classroom was a neat way to make it less abstract and more concrete.
I don’t know what the future of the European Union holds, but I think the Union has done a lot of good at staving off intra-European war and fostering neighborliness amongst its members. Still, I’m wary of statism in all its forms, and I understand and sympathise with Europeans who fear losing their sovereignty to the New World Order of the E.U.
Despite all the good that has come from the wreckage of WWII, Europe has many challenges yet. A shared continent does not equal a shared confidence, but I like to think of Europe as one big dysfunctional family– full of the spendthrifts and sluggards, winos and whiners, donnybrooks and imbroglios that you’d find at any big, fat, Greek wedding between Latin and Teuton, Celt and Nord, Saxon and Slav.
They’ll get there.
And speaking of multilingualism and Euro-centrism, sounds about on par with “water is not healthy…”
Then, it was back to Paris for me and Bonn for Monica. I enjoyed Brussels, despite the terrible weather, funny accent, and strange obsession with urination. It might not be Rome or London, but it’s an absurd little crossroads with its own unique charm and certainly worth a visit if you’re ever in Europe.