day 5: brussels

Brussels Travel Blog

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happy new year!! though it is true i was hoping to be elsewhere for new year's (i.e. paris), our flights and the train schedules would not allow for it, so we ended up in brussels.

we slept in until noon today, which made it really not an option to be anywhere else. but given the schedule we have been on, it was glorious to not be tied to a wake up time--particularly one so early. as a matter of fact, it was the first time i realized i actually had a window in my room because there was light coming through it. each morning it has been the same thing, up before the crack of dawn--or literally the sunrise, and home long after sunset. we half wondered if there was anyone else actually living on julius cesar (julus say zar)or avenue de muguets (avayn ewe de moogay). i provide those pronunciations half jokingly, but you would be amazed how confused a french speaking cab driver can be when you say these names. as far as i could ever tell, we said them the same way they said them, yet time after time, we would have to write it down so they could understand it.

thanks to a brilliant insight by deb, i think i understand a little better. supposedly the belgique french and the parisian french have a very noticeably different accent from one another, but to any of us, we wouldn't have a clue. it's all french to me--i understand none of it equally. likewise, when belgians asked us if we were english (which they did often) we wondered how they could not realize that we were american. but it's probably the same thing. we know the difference between a british accent and an american one--but it's all english to them. even our french is english.

when we finally got up, deb and i learned that erin had developed an eye infection of a sort, and could barely see. she would not be able to come out and play with us. she may have been grateful later on since as it turned out, it rained most of the day. frustratingly enough, i even double checked the weather, and considered bringing my umbrella despite the lack of rain in the forecast. imagine my irritation. at any rate, the rain did not dampen our experience.

we decided to try out a new area of town and got off the metro looking for an area called 'sablon'. but it was past lunchtime and we were hungry, so we stopped in a restaurant near the metro. it was immediately clear that we had left the 'tourist' areas. for one, the food was cheaper. and for two, no one spoke a word of english. ordering from the menu involved pointing and very poor french. but we made it through.

after lunch, we stumbled on an indoor mall, and since our agenda for the day had included shopping, as well as the fact that it was pouring, we decided to check it out. it turned out to be a pretty amazing find. once again we found that there was nothing touristy about this part of town. not a word of english to be found.

in addition to finally feeling like i was getting a truer sense of brussels, i also found some steals. in fact, i had some pretty amazing shopping success. found some gifts for others, found some for me. it all worked out well.

after the mall, we started to head downwards toward grand place. as my favorite rick puts it, 'brussels is a city divided by gravity', and it is divided into upper town in lower town. after spending the early afternoon in upper town, it was time for a jaunt down.

a little after five by this point, we noticed that many of the shops were closed or closing. not sure if this was due to weekend hours or the holiday, we continued towards grand place in the hopes that that more touristy area would still have shops open. we stopped at some street stalls, and the rain finally beat us down. we decided to dry off while having some herbal tea and sweets. i got another waffle, and deb a crepe. after warming up and ringing out, we headed off for more wandering. we wandered through the worlds oldest mall, which for some reason reminds me of caesar's palace, but most of the shops were closed. what ended up being most fun about this stroll was that we had been here on our first day, and had ooohed and ahhhed, but this time it was familiar stomping grounds. we knew where we were, and were in no rush. eventually we decided it was time to head back.

then we met saint jean. saint jean is a nasty little roundabout in brussels, which despite looking at a map several times, will manage to get you incredibly lost. i am half convinced that the streets around this circle move randomly and according to their whim. needless to say, deb and i fell prey. after all of our prior successes, by train, bus, tram, metro, and escalator, it was our feet that betrayed us in the end. it took us about 45 minutes longer than necessary to finally find our way to the metro and return to the apartment, where we hoped to find erin feeling better, and ready to join us later for the new year's celebration.

unfortunately, it was not looking promising. her eyes were still troubling her a great deal, but she allowed for the possibility and we were hopeful. see, new year's is a big deal to deb. it's very very symbolic. for me, after having a couple of really great new year's followed by really crappy years, i'm more of a 'whatever' girl. but it was important to deb to celebrate in style, and she especially hated the idea of erin stuck at home while we were out 'partying'. but erin assured her that it wasn't that big a deal, and that she was concerned about being out in the condition she was. in hindsight, it was probably a good decision, but we would have rather had her with us!

after doing some packing and getting ready, at about 11, we called a cab. the plan was to head to a local club that had received high praise. our cab driver didn't know where it was, so after several minutes of us and him looking it up on the map, finally he found it. as we got closer and closer, he kept telling us--in french--that after midnight it would be 'catasrophe'. we really didn't know what to expect at that point, but were amazed by the sheer mass of people wandering the streets.

finally we found the cafe, which looked closed. there was a sign on it that said it wouldn't be open until 11:30, which made us think that perhaps grand central was the place to be for the midnight countdown, and the 'clubbing' began afterwards.

we decided to go check it out. after being corralled through security check points, we finally made our way inside the square. it was nice because it wasn't overly crowded--you could easily walk around and take in the scenery, and holy cow, the 'scenery' was amazing. it was such an incredible setting that all of my irritation about having to be in brussels was washed away.

what we didn't realize was that there was no official celebration in the square. that (including the fireworks) would be conducted from the palais du justice. and yet there were hundreds and hundreds of people who had come for the 'unofficial' celebration. obviously, given the security presence, it was accounted for, but nothing more.

throughout the evening we noticed that the large majority of people in the square were men. it was quite strange actually, but it was probably a 70% men 30% women situation--and most of the women were clearly 'with' someone. needless to say, deb and i received a lot of attention.

as we neared midnight, the crowd got more and more excited. but there was no countdown, no clock ringing, no nothing. at some point, someone decided to call it good, and all hell broke loose. immediately people in the square began shaking and spraying their gigantic bottles of champagne (my camera now has french mud and belgian champagne on it) and letting off the fireworks they had managed to sneak past the security checkpoint. it was absolutely wonderful chaos. by no means overwhelming, it was simply entertaining in its sheer difference from our own culture.

we enjoyed wandering through the square for quite some time, and continued to receive comments and advances throughout. i got pulled into an open space at one point to dance with a belgian man. and after running away from him, we were approached several more times. i did not know this, but apparently, bonne anee means 'what's your sign?' okay not really, it means happy new year, but since every time we heard it, it was being used as a pickup line, the two are now synonymous to me. as i said to deb at one point, my ego cup is full. there were men trying to hold my hand, to dance with me, to get me in their car, to kiss name it, they tried it.

one of the more unique things about this trip is that we were approached many times by locals who asked for directions or info, having no idea we were tourists. along those lines, it was interesting that we were hit on so often tonight given that they likely did not know we were foreigners. it's one thing if we're the girls with the accent, 'cause accents are always hot, but they had no idea initially, and still, we were very very popular. it makes me think once again how warped our american standard of beuty has (in some cases) become.

although ultimately, what i will remember about the night is that there was a crazy energy, and so much chaos reigning that we often had to pause to just acknowledge where we were, and what a wonderful and unique experience this trip, and this night had been.

at about 1:30 we decided to head back, since deb has to be up particularly early tomorrow for her flight. little did we know what a madhouse that would be. we weren't thinking clearly and by habit, took the metro all the way out to the tram station we usually used. earlier in the night, we had agreed to get a cab from central station, but somehow forgot that. when we got to the tram station, it was all closed off, and it wasn't until then we realized we had totally spaced. so we got back on the metro to go back to central station. once there, we started heading for the taxi stand (you can't just 'hail' taxis here) and there was a large group coming towards us, who gestured and told us not to go that way, that something was happening. we still aren't sure if there was rioting of some sort, or some other scenario, but we were starting to get a little nervous about getting home.

there are advantages and disadvantages of staying in an apartment outside the city center. it does actually feel like a 'home' and not like we are visiting tourists, but it can be difficult to get to--tonight in particular. we had no choice but to eventually get on another train to take us to another large metro/train station in the hopes of catching a cab.

the metros were all packed, and you could never be sure when some sort of confrontation, or bout of singing, or cat calling and whistling would spontaneously occur. but eventually, about an hour after we started our journey home, we finally managed to get a taxi to get us home.

it seems surreal that tomorrow i get on a plane and go back to real life. despite my still strong desire to return to amsterdam, i am grateful for this second day i got to spend in brussels and to really see the city. and boy, what a way to go out!!
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photo by: Vlindeke