Working at an embassy definitely comes with its perks. Before I headed up to Brussels, I had the opportunity to attend the opening evening of the world-renowned Salon du Chocolat, the largest chocolate convention in the world, held annually right here in Paris. Normally, the public has to pay 13 euros to get in to this event, but thanks to my connections at the embassy, my coworker, who has already attended in years past, kindly passed along her invitation to me. I’ve never been surrounded by so much chocolate in my life, and may I just say–
IT WAS GLORIOUS.
There wasn’t quite as much chocolate-tasting as I had hoped, but there was champagne to go with it, so it all worked out. I couldn’t tell you much about the dozens of chocolatiers I visited, as I was more interested in looking and tasting rather than buying chocolate, but they say a picture is worth a thousand words. Now if only we could figure out how to make them worth a thousand tastebuds…
The evening concluded with the much-anticipated chocolate fashion show. Now, I’d never been to a fashion show before this one, much less one featuring clothes made with and inspired by chocolate, but I think it’s best not to think too hard about the fact that people get paid to do this stuff. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “I just wanna eat you up…”
It is 9:30 PM, and I am standing at the agreed upon meeting place in the 15th arrondissement, wondering if I really want to go through with this. It is chilly, and I am loathe to set my backpack on the wet sidewalk as the residents of this inconspicuous neighborhood walk past me on their way home to a cozy apartment and a warm bed. I try not to look threatening and suspicious as I linger in the shadows in front of what I think is the correct apartment, wondering whether I really want to go through with this, when my phone buzzes in my pocket.
“I hadn’t anticipated such a traffic jam, so I don’t think I’m going to make it by 10:00 and probably not by 10:30 either!”
I stare at the screen in disbelief.
It is Perceval, my friend Timothé’s brother whom I have never met before but who is supposed to be taking me and an undisclosed number of other friends from Paris to Delut, where Timothé is waiting for us. When Tim invited me to visit his parents’ house in Lorraine for the weekend, I thought it would be a nice getaway from the city to see another region of France, but considering that I have no idea what is going on and that his brother is already almost two hours behind schedule, I am feeling decidedly annoyed by this turn of events.
I weigh my options. It’s a three-hour drive to Lorraine from Paris, and I’m suddenly very reluctant to stick around for another hour in the dark, but I know that if I go back to my apartment, I won’t leave again.
Well, I’m not very well going to stand here and wait for a fourth text message saying he won’t arrive until 11:00. Clearly, somebody has not planned this well, at all, and I was not planning on leaving Paris at the crack of midnight.
This is awkward, but more to the point, this is irritating.
I summon my resolve and call Timothé explaining that I’m already here, but that I think I’m just going to go home since it doesn’t seem to be working out. Regretfully, of course.
But Timothé sounds disappointed. “Ok, but it’s a chance to see a bit of countryside, so…”
Ugh. I hate having to do this.
But suddenly, he starts proffering more information– it’s about time— explaining that his other brother who lives at the aforementioned apartment should be there.
I hang up, debating how obligated I am to stick this out, now. But then I remember my GISHWHES photo submission with the carpe diem sign, and something tells me to be flexible and carpe the noctem instead. So, I enter the apartment courtyard and walk up the steps, where Tim’s older brother and his wife graciously welcome me into their tiny apartment.
I give them the usual spiel about working at the embassy, and presently, a tall, demure brunette arrives with her own backpack in tow. There is something vaguely familiar about her, and then I remember that I met Maïté at the Louvre a couple of weeks earlier during a group outing with Timothé and some of his friends. She is soon joined by Faustine, a bright little bundle of French politeness.
Not long afterward, Perceval finally arrives, having been delayed during his drive up to Paris from Clermont-Ferrand in the center of France. Slightly younger than Timothé and with a military crew cut, he pauses only briefly to eat a couple bites before we’re all headed out the door into the drizzle. It takes a while to locate the car, which– as is always the case in Paris– is parked a couple of blocks away. Soon enough, we’re on our way out of the capital and onto the dark ribbon of the A4, heading toward eastern France.
By this point, it is about 11:00 P.M., so most of us fall asleep during the uneventful drive, broken only occasionally by the blindingly bright lights of the tollbooths along the autoroute. Eventually, we arrive at a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. I glance at my phone, which cheerily informs me that it is 3:00 in the morning. Fortunately, Timothé is waiting in the warm glow of the open door, and as we head upstairs, I am pleased to find myself appointed with a queen-sized bed in a spacious heated bedroom all to myself, a step up from my cramped, chilly apartment in Paris.
The next morning dawns grey and wet, but in the light of day, I find myself in a charming country house deep in the heart of the Lorraine countryside. The childhood home of Tim’s father, the house served as a vacation home during Tim’s childhood, even though he grew up near Toulouse, far to the southwest.
With its enormous backyard, outer wall, and servants’ quarters, this home feels like a veritable mansion compared to my crowded quarters in Paris. As we explore the pigeonnier (the pigeon house) in the corner of the yard, now empty save for a bit of dilapidated furniture and cobwebs, Timothé explains rather excitedly that the house was built in 1776, the same year as my country’s revolution. Supposedly, there are some WWII-era American rations somewhere in the attic from when our soldiers took refuge in the house during the war, but they’ve been misplaced, much to my chagrin. Returning to the large living room with its roaring fireplace and solid, wooden floor, I can’t help but be reminded of the La Madeleine restaurants I’ve visited back in the States, but this time, it’s for real.
Tim wants to show us the countryside, so despite the rain, we pile into the small car and set off along winding country lanes to the various villages in the surrounding area. I can’t help but think that it’s not so different from driving through the Texas countryside on my way to and from college, but everything here is softer and greener, and there are small mountains in the distance. We stop in a tiny village to look at a church built in the thirteenth century before heading on to the forests of Verdun, where you can still see the trenches, command posts, and bomb holes from World War I.
Tim tells me that there are even areas where it is forbidden to walk because there are still unexploded bomb shells in the forest even now, almost a century after the war.
The history in this land is palpable. Not to mention that today is November 11, Armistice Day, the commemoration of the end of hostilities on November 11, 1918. Everywhere I look, there is a cemetery, or a memorial, or the abandoned ruins of a long-destroyed village. As I look at pictures of the horrors of World War I at the Verdun Ossuary, I can’t help but feel grateful that I have not been witness to such a hellish age in person– only across the centuries in photographs. As tranquil and picturesque as this country is today, it is impossible to forget that it is an ancient land marked by violence. Happily, after millennia of fighting in this contested region between France and Germany, the two European nations have achieved a peace long feared impossible. As I look east across the battle-scarred hills, it is hard to imagine our Germanic neighbors of today crossing that border in tanks and bombers. Hopefully, the only thing crossing, unhindered, between France and Germany will be cars and TGVs and ICEs.
The day is coming to a close as we drive back to the house, and all around us, crimson-kissed clouds are drifting like smoke while the setting sun glows like the fire of cannons beyond the hills. Yet there is no thunder, no refugees, no wreckage strewn along the road. Now, all is quiet and still, as the French countryside should be, and I consider myself blessed once again to have visited a new and beautiful part of this country I love.
It is a chilly November morning, and the skies hang heavy and low with clouds. The weather is typical for this time of year in Northern France, but it has not deterred me from making a mini pilgrimage an hour southwest of Paris to the tiny town of Chartres.
As I step out of the train station, the fabled cathedral looms in the distance, its mismatched spires shrouded in mist like two great mountain peaks towering over the town.
Since the 4th century, there has been a church on this site, but the current cathedral is the fifth to be constructed after the previous structures burned down at various times in history. The present church was built between 1194 and 1250 and is considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture due to the remarkably short window of time it took to complete it. Whereas most cathedrals took centuries to erect, Notre Dame de Chartres was finished in a little over fifty years.
Although fire destroyed the former churches, this cathedral narrowly escaped destruction by Allied bombers during World War II. According to Wikipedia:
All the glass from the cathedral was removed in 1939 just before the Germans invaded France, and it was cleaned after the War and re-leaded before replacing.
While the city suffered heavy damage by bombing in the course of World War II, the cathedral was spared by an American Army officer who challenged the order to destroy it.
Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. questioned the strategy of destroying the cathedral and volunteered to go behind enemy lines to find out whether the German Army was occupying the cathedral and using it as an observation post. With a single enlisted soldier to assist, Griffith proceeded to the cathedral and confirmed that the Germans were not using it. After he returned from his reconnaissance, he reported that the cathedral was clear of enemy troops. The order to destroy the cathedral was withdrawn, and the Allies later liberated the area. Griffith was killed in action on 16 August 1944, in the town of Lèves, near Chartres.
A short walk later, and I’m standing in front of the church craning my neck up.
Those towers are 371 ft. and 344 ft., respectively. The bell towers of Notre Dame in Paris (226 ft.) are nothing compared to this giant of a cathedral, and boy, did I feel it as I climbed the spiral staircase inside. I was the only soul in the steeple that day, which was nice when I wanted to catch my breath and chart my progress by peering out the small windows along the way.
When I reached the top, I was slightly terrified to look over the edge. The stone balustrade only came up to my waist, and it would have been all too easy to pitch over the wall in a moment of vertigo. On top of that, it was bitterly cold, and I was afraid my numb fingers were going to drop my umbrella or camera. I slowly made my way around the narrow walkway, hoping that the car-sized bells behind me wouldn’t suddenly ring to life and send me plummeting to my death.
In the distance, I could see the train station, while all around me, the chimeras crawled along the tower, regarding me, a solitary intruder into their cold, stony domain.
As I descended the spiral staircase (much easier than going up!), I poked my head into a few of the open chambers along the way, but they were empty.
Once I was back inside the church, I sat in the dark and prayed for a while before the restoration crews started banging away on their scaffolding which covered the entire transept. I walked around slowly, consulting my Rick Steves book while I pondered the original stained glass windows and the immense choir screen full of statues depicting the life of Mary and the Passion of Christ.
In a quiet corner behind the choir, there is a chapel with the Sancta Camisa— the holy tunic– allegedly worn by the Virgin Mary during Jesus’ nativity. It was the center of pilgrimages to Chartres during the Medieval period, though whether the tunic actually belonged to Mary, much less that she was wearing it on the first Christmas Eve, I’m not entirely sure.
Before leaving the church, I stopped to admire the statue of Our Lady of the Pillar, where this elderly lady was praying. The statue has been venerated since medieval times by pregnant women who seek the intercession of the Blessed Mother for their unborn children.
And finally, before I headed back to Paris, I stopped at the nearby center for the history and heritage of stained glass windows, where I learned how to read medieval church windows. You normally start at the bottom and work your way from left to right up to the top. Here are a couple of famous Bible stories (click for a larger image you can zoom) and some closeups of the life of Joseph.
Here, I have arranged the pictures as if reassembling the window, so scroll down and work your way up to the top to “read” the story of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat the way a medieval peasant would!
I was lucky that I was alone in the church at this time of year, but should you happen to visit Paris, a day trip to Chartres would be well worth your time. I’d love to hear your impressions of the cathedral as well!
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.
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.