We went to Brussels for the weekend recently, but I only got as far as Saturday lunchtime in part 1.
The Atomium was the main pavilion of the Brussels World Fair of 1958 up on the Heysel plateau, a space-age icon that outlasted everything else. I’d been to it before, on one or other of my two previous visits to Brussels; I just hadn’t gone into it. Or had I? I couldn’t remember. You wouldn’t think you’d forget something like that, but that’s what happens as you get older and accumulate more and more experiences, and it’s shocking. I mean, how many crystals of iron had I seen enlarged 165 billion times, never mind actually been in? (As an aside, the word ‘atomium’ itself comes from ‘atom’ + ‘aluminium’, the metal they switched to mid-construction.)
As we approached it on Saturday lunchtime and queued up to go in I was still scratching my head. You get the lift to the topmost sphere, as the giant points in the lattice are called, have a look around, maybe go to the restaurant (we didn’t), get a commemorative coin pressed (ditto), and take a few photos of Mini-Europe, the theme park below, and Brussels itself in the distance. In a very fast lift you get whisked back down, from where you can work your way back up again to the lesser spheres, this time on foot. It all feels quite Robbie the Robot inside, a vision of what the future was going to look like 60 years ago. The only thing missing is jetpacks. However dated it all seemed though, this thing must have been mind-blowing when it first appeared up here for that ’58 Expo. If ‘Brussels is the new Paris’, which it isn’t, but if it was, then this, surely, is its Eiffel Tower.
Speaking of French things, the verb flâner means to walk around with no fixed goal, opportunistically taking the most promising-looking path at each fork in the road. Ambling around with no particular goal in mind. And someone who does that is a flâneur. Well, we flânned the afternoon away pleasantly in the touristy streets around the famous Mannekin Pis statue, orbiting in a circle of ever-tightening radius until, like a furiously swirling eddy of flushed water, we merged with a noisy, excited crowd at the crossroads where the diminutive – in stature but not pulling power – statue, clad all in green for some reason, pisses eternal. It’s funny: there are attractions, symbols of Brussels, or anywhere, that you’d want to see because of their intrinsic grandeur, buildings like the Atomium or the Grand Place, and then there are sights like the Mannekin Pis, which just to reach mean walking past plenty of worthy, spectacular things you barely glance at. And I can’t blame this on the kids: I’ve been here before too. I made this pointless pilgrimage once before, and must have been just as unimpressed. Why? Because that’s what you do here.
Then you go for a pizza in a Sicilian place nearby, with one of those smooth bastards outside, who, once you’re inside, praises your every choice of wine and salad as excellent. It was great pizza. But as we ate, whiny nu-rock and weak-ass r’n’b played in the background. It made me realise that the traditional Greek cantades, or even the more modern power ballads – still Greek – we used to hear in practically every place when we were in Greece was them being classy, not lacking imagination, which is how I used to see it.
Stuffed like olives, we crossed the packed city centre streets, just making it back to Sainte Catherine’s in time for our four o’clock rendez-vous with Ruben. Yes, we’re tourists, but hey – we have a friend here. A local, to boot. He said this morning he’d meet us for a drink and do the markets if he got his studying done. Ah, there he is. “Bonjour! Ca va?” Y’see, this is why we do more and more couchsurfing, less and less airbnbing, and as little bnbing and hotelling as we can get away with.
In a beer hall called Les Halles de Saint-Géry, which used to be a meat market, he told us that if it seemed busy to us outside (it did), well, we should have seen it last year. Numbers were down. It was terrible what happened in Paris, and shocking to have read about Brussels being shut down as the hysteria about Molenbeek caused such panic. But it was hard to think of all that sitting there in Les Halles, sipping the first of the day and chatting to Ruben. I asked him why he hosted people.
He said he loved hiking, which obviously involves travel (he’d been to Dublin and done most of the Wicklow Way), and had himself benefited from the couchsurfing ethos while on the road. Generally, people who avail of others’ help when they travel are the sort of people who help others. He’d also been heavily involved in the scouting movement for years, and indeed was head of the nationwide scouting movement until a couple of years ago. Nowadays he’s involved in a program where adults spend time with Afghan kids who have arrived in Belgium with no parents. In fact, he’d be leaving the house early tomorrow morning to help one of his friends take a bunch of kids out to the country. “Some of these kids live in Molenbeek, they’re not well off, they live in small flats, and they don’t get a chance to play. It’s funny, but often when we take them to the countryside it’s the first time they’ve been outside Brussels; the first time they’ve seen a cow.”
“Alors, on va aux marchés?”
“Huh?” I swear, Tina and the kids really have to learn French if they’re to become proper Europeans.
“It’s time to hit the markets.”
At around 7:15, as Laurent Fabius brought down the green-topped gavel at COP21 to announce the historic agreement between the 196 countries after two weeks of negotiations, we hit the Marchés de Noel at Saint Catherine’s. The highlight of our trip was nigh, after all the fine talk about closing the markets, all the stuff in Molenbeek, all the fallout from Paris, all the fear. Granted, there were armed soldiers here and there, but so what? People were having a good time and it wasn’t raining. It wasn’t even particularly cold. We’d had a great day so far, and as we walked between the twin rows of chalets, or barraques, as my French teacher calls them, on the Marché aux Poissons Vismet, over the covered-up pond and silenced fountain, we stopped frequently to get vin chaud, gaufres à la white chocolate (a disgusting combination. Have one or the other, not both: that’s my advice), shots of rakimelo at a euro a pop and going fast at a Greek stand where we chatted to a couple of heads from Crete, chocolate whatnots for my Mum, and finally a selection of spirits on a wooden tray which Ruben scored while the kids queued up to go into the terrible mouth of the ‘ice monster’ to be shat out, exhilarated, five minutes later. Everything was here. One of the barraques was even an Irish Pub.
When we got home, not content with putting us up for the weekend, Ruben got out a board game called Carcassonne and played it with the kids until well past their bedtimes while Tina and I could only marvel that someone else had the patience at that late stage to play with them. There he was, doing what we were supposed to do: playing with the kids, showing them new board games, patiently explaining the rules, having fun. It was a shame that this was the last time we’d be spending time with him.
The morning dawned and walked rain in on Sunday’s carpet. Just in case the kids thought it was all going to be chocolate, board games, and micturating cherubs, the plan this morning was to go to the Quartier Européen and find out how the European Parliament works. Leaving a tidy front room behind us and the keys to the flat on the table, we left Ruben’s and walked through Anderlecht one last time. Fetching up from the metro at Gare Centrale, we walked through the Parc de Bruxelles in the rain, us enjoying the tranquility despite the elements, the kids dragging their heels a little. You’d think there’d be a café around here. But this is the embassy zone: Rues Ducale and de la Loi had nothing going on but the rent. On était dans le dead zone. Suddenly we stumbled upon the biggest bookshop I’ve ever been in, a place called Filigranes, with incredibly narrow passageways, a café, and a guy playing loungey Shins songs on piano. After quiche and Americains, the kids got their new favourite game, Carcassonne, and Tina and I got a couple of books to help with French. Go there, you won’t regret it. Filigranes, Boulevard du Régent, at the Arts-loi metro stop. Heavier in body and baggage now, we pressed on to attend to the main business of the morning.
The Parlamentarium sounds like something Bill Bryson would make fun of, a visitors’ centre explaining the workings of something most people aren’t interested in finding out the workings of. I read his Neither Here nor There recently, and he was kind of harsh on Brussels in it, so there’s no reason to believe he would have spared this place the lash of his pen had it existed when he passed through. But it’s new, so it didn’t. And guess what, we loved it. It was fun. The kids love anything to do with maps, flags, history, nations and their wars (at this stage they’ve been to 10 or 11 European countries) so they took to it quickly. The highlight was probably the auditorium, which puts you in the middle of a wraparound scenario showing a European Parliament voting session. I recognised Guy Verhofstadt, the guy who playfully pistolwhipped Alexis Tsipras last July in a speech which I showed the kids on YouTube at the time. You can ‘meet’ all 751 MEPs, but I elected to have a beer in the café instead and let the kids buy tat from the shop. Stirring stuff, you might think. But it is stirring; moving even, especially the section earlier on laying out the reasons for the formation of the EU, the stuff about WWII, and ultimately the reason our internecine countries all decided to come together and trade their way out of the abyss.
With an hour or two left before we had to leave town for our late afternoon flight, we caught the metro back to the centre, strolling a last time through the crowds in the Grand Place. In the touristy Rue des Bouchers we had the staple tourist fodder of moules-frites in a place called Chez Leon, served by a gruff old-timer with walrus whiskers. I’d been meaning to have moules-frites at some stage this weekend, and this place delivered. Moules-frites is very simple: it’s just mussels and chips, but a bucket of mussels is a wonderfully earthy, rustic addition to the table, and just like a bag of pistachios eating the stuff is the fun. A meal hard to get wrong, especially with a Bière Chez Leon in tow.
The weekend was over, and it was time to get back to Dublin. I had ten or so days to work before finishing up for Christmas. We’re off to Portugal and Spain on the 27th. Extravagant, I know, but we’re back in Europe to see as much as we can before we have to head back to Australia. It had long been our plan to go somewhere on the continent for the Christmas markets, and thanks in part to Ruben’s generosity we achieved that goal and had a brilliant time.