At about a quarter passed six on the evening of July 5th, Thalys high speed train number 9365 slowed to a stop at the Brussels MIDI station. The platform was lined with a welcome party of about a dozen military servicemen wearing full fatigues and body armour, each carrying a heavy assault rifle. It was an appropriate show of force in the wake of the horrific airport bombing less than 4 months prior.
(Bienvenue à Bruxelles/Welkom bij Brussels)
I don’t know what we expected of Belgium other than a diverse population, old buildings, amazing chocolate, delicious mussels, and, of course, beer. I’m not going to lie, the following vision played through my head more than once before we arrived…
(Expectations of Belgium. For Simpson’s fanatics, I realize this scene was referring to Germany. Humour me.)
While in Paris, my good friend, Bhupinder, made the ominous comment, “I’ll feel better when you’re out of Brussels.” I couldn’t help but think of his looming concern as our train pulled in beside all those armed guards. On the other hand, police and military presence gives the reassuring impression of security and control, at least in civilized countries. Surely, that is the intent. This was the case when I was with Bhupinder in Israel years ago, and it quickly became the case as we arrived in Brussels central train station. Our impressions of Belgium were slowly taking shape.
The heavy foot traffic within and outside the train station confirmed the expectation of diversity. It was noticeably heterogeneous. Not in a negative or imposing way, but an apparent contrast to the diversity of Canadian cities, Paris, and London (maybe with the exception of Heathrow Airport). It was a first impression that was difficult to articulate.
We walked about 10-15 minutes to our apartment in St. Gilles, a pleasant neighbourhood just south of the old city centre. Everywhere, the streets were lined with elegant six to eight story buildings, as it was in Paris. It was quiet yet lively at the same time with people walking and cycling home from work or out to the restaurants and bars. Old men sat on benches watching the pedestrians. The sun was bright and hot, but it was refreshingly cool in the shade as we walked with our heavy back packs.
Our host, Jonathan, buzzed us in and advised us to take the elevator straight ahead. We squeezed into the old brass and iron contraption, which we would later learn was installed in 1907. It still worked smoothly, likely as well as it did over a hundred years earlier.
(Antiquated but reliable lift)
Jonathan welcomed us to his deceptively big apartment with high ceilings, crown mouldings and frosted glass paneled doors. Such a welcome upgrade from our Paris accommodation.
(Home away from home)
(A room with a view)
After our tour, Jonathan gave us an overview of Brussels on a large coffee coloured map hanging in the hallway. It was very old, but we were mainly concerned with the old town, for which it was still perfectly accurate. He gave us some recommendations and had to run to meet his father for dinner. We freshened up and did laundry. Ahhh, a proper shower! No need to squat in a shoe box tub! Heaven!
We wandered around the corner in search of the recommended restaurant, Brasserie de L’Union, for dinner. The quiet neighbourhood opened up to a wide street of restaurants, bars, and a sea of outdoor tables garrisoned by thirsty Belgians. It was dusk and a chilly breeze blew between the buildings so we opted for a table inside. The beer list was enormous. I had a Brugs Witbiere, and Rachel had a Kriek Boon, a cherry beer. Both were great, although fruity beers are too sweet for me. My white beer was nice and refreshing.
(Rachel’s Cherry Beer)
(My White Beer)
The food menu was less extensive. I had a hamburger, interested mainly in the french fries dressed in mayonnaise. Rachel had pasta in a cream sauce with ham and cheese…a lot of cheese. The fries were much better than the burger, especially with the mayo. The pasta was quite tasty too, surprisingly lighter than it looked.
(My first Belgian dinner, pre-mayo.)
(Rachel’s light dinner)
The table of 4 girls sitting next to us took interest in us, inferring that we were Canadian. One of them had recently moved to Vancouver and was just home for a visit. The rest were locals. We talked about many things as we ate and drank our beer.
They confirmed the heavy security presence had followed the airport attack, noting that the state of emergency had been lifted only recently. One of the girls was particularly vocal on the subject. She was a social worker in Brussels, primarily dealing with migrants. Her perspective was intriguing so I’ll try to convey it here.
She argued that the recent attacks throughout Europe were inevitable and primarily due to the lack of integration of an increasing number of migrants. So many people come to Brussels and other European cities with the promise of opportunity and simply do not find it. Basic services, such as healthcare, are provided, but the government does little to curb discrimination, which is widespread and often blatant. Migrants are regularly at a disadvantage competing for work and peoples’ attitudes discourage assimilation, especially in Brussels. As a result, ethnicities remain largely segregated. Right or wrong, this really aligned with our first impression of the diversity in Brussels…a very apparent lack of assimilation.
She went on to describe how many migrants who are unable to succeed are too proud to reveal their struggles to their families and friends at home. Instead many often boast of newfound success and wealth, propelling the exaggerated perception of opportunity in Europe, and thus motivating more people to come. A vicious cycle.
The frustration with this situation easily turns to anger and despair, leaving weak minded, disillusioned people vulnerable to extremism. She clearly wasn’t absolving the attackers of responsibility, but acknowledged there is a very real problem that is deeper than just a bunch of crazy Muslims. A vulnerability that must be addressed, regardless of who or what group is currently exploiting it. A compelling argument.
We went on to talk about the influence of the European Union being seated in Brussels. Apparently this is mostly a nuisance for the locals as the city essentially shuts down each time the European Parliament is in session. However, they are amused by the common rhetoric from other countries denunciating “the power of Brussels.” This was especially so throughout the Brexit campaigns where politicians railed against the decisions made in Brussels on behalf of the U.K. They joked of the awful burden it is to wield such power over Europe.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom about disenfranchised people, despite how this may sound. It was actually a fun conversation with a lot of laughs. The heavy stuff was just memorable and particularly worthy of sharing.
Full of Belgian beer, pasta and french fries, we said goodbye to our new friends and walked home to find Jonathan had returned. We learned that our host was quite interesting. He is a high school philosophy teacher, Aikido instructor, and magician. Quite a unique set of skills!
(Aikido Master of Brussels)
Jonathan offered to show us an example of his magic. He withdrew two red casino dice from his pocket, apparently ever ready to perform. He began explaining the dice in elaborate detail and thoroughly demonstrated their authenticity. He highlighted that the sum of two opposing sides always equals seven and offered several examples to prove it. However, this rule can be easily broken and any requested number can be made to appear by simply blowing on the dice. He proceeded to do this, quite convincingly transforming the dice at our command. Amazing slight of hand.
He performed several more tricks with the dice, which have since escaped my memory. We continued to chat and made plans for a late dinner the next night before heading to bed.
The next morning we walked into the Old Town and stopped for breakfast at Cafe Chaff, next to the Marolles Flea Market. Bacon and eggs with a lightly dressed salad, warm bread, and freshly squeezed orange juice…a good start to the day. A guitarist strolled by serenading us and the other outdoor diners as we ate. He was in search of tips, which is common in European cities. Although we enjoyed his music, he left disappointed. It’s tempting, but you can’t please everyone so we reserve our tips for the exceptional performers, and those we stop to see.
(Waking up at Cafe Chaff)
(Healthy start to the day)
(If the coffee doesn’t wake you, the stairs to the washroom will.)
We wandered through the flea market hoping to find some buried treasures, but we had no such luck. One man’s garbage is another man’s trash…at least on that particular day.
(Marolles Flea Market)
We explored further, enjoying the buildings, statues, and cobblestone streets. We came to a busy bar and couldn’t resist a stop for a drink at Cafe Leffe. As we sipped our beer, we began to notice the tantalizing baskets of crispy fries on all the tables around us. One of those tables was not like the others, so to fit in we ordered a basket of our own and were soon very glad we did.
(Morning beer at Cafe Leffe)
It turned out that the chocolatier, Frederic Blondeel, which our friends from the night before had unanimously recommended, was just around the corner. We were excited for this. Leading up to this trip, so many people had insisted that we try Belgian chocolate as it is supposedly the best in the world. Our expectations were high. We walked over and browsed the lavish display of truffles, and chocolates and resisted the urge to try them all. We bought a generous sampling and carried on, saving the tasting for later. Prepare to be overwhelmed…
(mmm…the land of chocolate, Frederic Blondeel Chocolatier)
We came to the famous Manneken Pis, peeing boy fountain. It was significantly smaller than expected….the fountain, that is. The area was crawling with tourists and pricey waffles drenched with chocolate sauce and ice cream, which was not particularly appetizing.
(Obligatory Mannekin Pis pics)
Then we came to a large square, Grand Place, surrounded by beautiful hotels, museums and other ornate buildings.
(Grand Place, Brussels)
The square led to a labyrinth of narrow streets full of restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops, and art galleries. It was also teeming with tourists but it made for a nice stroll as we walked on toward the Théâtre Des Galeries, covered shops.
(Covered shops at Théâtre Des Galeries)
There we found Mokafé, where we would find the best Belgian waffle in Brussels, according to Jonathon. I don’t know if it’s the best in Brussels, but it was probably the best waffle I’ve ever had. A very thin, crispy outer shell with a soft, fluffy batter inside. Dusted generously with powdered sugar and paired with copious amounts of creamy butter, it was beautiful.
(Mokafe, home of the best waffle in Brussels)
Even better was the little old lady sitting next to us. All alone, she ordered a giant ice cream sundae about the size of her head and slowly devoured it one tiny bite at a time. Although her expression scarcely changed, we could hear her heart singing with joy.
We perused through a couple shops and galleries within the covered shops. One gallery showcased an artist who specializes in photo mosaics, and uses closeup photos of women’s skimpy bikini clad bottoms to compose a larger image of various conservative themes. I studied his work carefully.
Along the way toward the Royal Palace, we came upon a small market, where Rachel bought a dress for her next semester at Hogwartz (actually, quite a nice dress). She also bought a thin brown Moroccan leather belt to complete the ensemble. Funnily though, when we got home later, we realized that the belt actually smelled quite bad. It turns out a common technique to soften leather in Morocco is to soak it in pigeon poop. Evidently, this had been done to her new belt. I don’t know how we missed this in the market, but in any case, the belt found itself in a sealed bag full of baking soda, where it will remain for the next 8 months to hopefully kill the disgusting odour. Leather has since fallen off our list of things to buy when we visit Morocco in October.
Hermione’s Rachel’s new dress)
We walked on under the intense heat of the sun and finally came to the Royal Palace, followed closely by the Law Courts of Brussels, both very impressive buildings.
(Royal Palace of Brussels)
(Law Courts of Brussels)
Next to the Law Courts is a ridge, from which there is a very good view of Brussels as well as a memorial to the unknown soldiers of the World Wars. An elevator called, Ascenseur des Marolles, offers a quick and easy descent down the ridge.
(Memorial to the unknown soldiers of the world wars)
(View from the Ascenseur des Marolles)
We took the elevator down and wandered back in the direction of home. We stopped for my first European haircut, likely the most meticulous buzz cut I’ve ever enjoyed.
(My first European haircut)
It was still too early to go home so we got a drink at the square around the corner from home and tried the first of our chocolates. Simply put, Belgian chocolate deserves its reputation! It was incredible.
(Beer and chocolate – a winning combo)
We went home to freshen up and relax. Jonathan came home shortly after 9pm. He had just finished a magic show for a large group, which he obviously enjoyed immensely. We set out to find a restaurant. Everywhere was packed with people watching the Eurocup semifinals. We settled on a small Moroccan restaurant with no TVs and consequently open tables.
Soon plates and pots of aromatic food began filling the table. Cumin scented carrots with salty olives, one tagine of chicken, dates and cashews, and another of mergez meatballs with mixed vegetables. There was a plate of skewered lamb over fluffy cous cous, and another pot of stewed vegetables. Finally, a basket of crispy flatbread with marinated chick peas and an amazing chili paste. I didn’t want it to end but we filled up quickly, sipping rosé wine and enjoying good conversation.
(Delicious Moroccan dinner with Jonathan)
After the meal we continued drinking our wine and Jonathan shared more magic tricks, this time using a deck of playing cards. Determined to catch his slight of hand, we were startled when the streets suddenly erupted with cheering, banging and the sound of car horns. Portugal had won the semifinals and evidently the neighbourhood was more Portuguese than Welsh.
We settled our bill and wandered home through the ongoing celebrations of the football fans (soccer fans, for those of you in North America). We bid farewell to our new friend since Jonathan was leaving for France early the next morning. We enjoyed our short time with him and wish we could have seen more of his magic skills. Off to bed, we set our alarms so we could catch the relatively early train to Bruges the next day!