September 19th-21st, 2014
To get to Brussels, we took the Eurostar train through the Chunnel, so we arrived early to St. Pancras, went through security (a train that has security? I know!) and had our passports inspected and stamped by the French Border Patrol. We had heard that the metal detectors could get very backed up, so we arrived early to beat the rush, but we ended up having a lot of time to spare. There really isn’t too much to do in the Eurostar waiting area, which is separated from the rest of the amazing, marvelous St. Pancras, which has a Peyton & Byrne, Jo Malone, AND Fortnum & Mason.—its like a London’s Best Hits. We ended up just getting some coffee at Caffè Nero and reading the paper. Let me take this moment to say how much we LOVE Caffè Nero, this Italian coffee chain that is everywhere. It is just as prevalent as Starbucks, but really good. When we first arrived, we missed filter, drip coffee so much and would hunt for it everywhere, but now we drink Americanos (Americani?) like espresso is going out of style. We still can’t get behind instant coffee. There are limits.
Stephen, who can never speak about the Chunnel without also using words like “marvel” and “feat” was particularly excited about the trip. I didn’t love the idea of traveling at high speeds in a big tube under the sea, but the Chunnel is supposedly one of the modern wonders of the world, so it was definitely something we needed to experience. Well, let me tell you, folks: it might be the culmination of centuries of dreaming, problem-solving, and technological advances, but it is just a train, and not even a very nice one at that. The train and the journey were completely and utterly normal to the point of boring, if you are the average first-worlder like me who is lucky and spoiled enough to expect rather than appreciate easy, reliable, and fast transportation. The only real clue that we were descending underwater was the pressure in our ears. Pretty soon, we were in France, and then in Belgium at Brussels Midi.
As soon as we got off the train, I realized I had to go to the bathroom, which is a common theme in our travels. As soon as we leave a restaurant, a train, or our hotel, I immediately have to use the bathroom. I never have to use it when the toilet is within easy access, only when there is no convenient way to reach one. So as soon as we left the platform, I had to go. The problem was that all of the toilets in the station cost €0.50, and we only had British pounds. We went in search of an ATM, wandered around for 20 minutes, finally found one, and it broke when we were next in line. We then proceeded to stumble upon two more, also broken, and it had been over half an hour since we disembarked. By this time, I really have to go, and Stephen almost had smoke coming out of his ears. We finally found a fourth ATM, which was also broken, but a man was poking around inside of it. We decided to wait in the hopes that he would fix it since we were almost positive that we had been to every other machine in the station. 45 minutes after arriving, we had €39 Euro, blessedly empty bladders, and a vague idea of how to get to our hotel.
The rest of the day was a breeze. An hour and half after arriving in Brussels, we finally checked into our hotel and were eating delicious Belgian waffles, both accomplished without knowing any French beyond two or three phrases. This was to be a common theme during our weekend. Even when we tried to speak (mispronounced, ungrammatical, and heavily-accented) French, most people just smirked a little and switched to English, guessing (rightly!) that their English was light years ahead of our French. Some waiters would even speak French to the people in front of us, and then immediately switch to English with us, despite us never having opened out mouths. Maybe we just looked like we were clueless.
After eating our waffles, we walked around the Grand Place and explored some of its side streets and window shopped until we came upon Mannekin Pis. Now, for those of you who don’t know, this is a famous fountain of a naked little boy who is peeing. Well, the statue depicts a naked boy, but I am not sure he ever is actually naked. A few times a week, someone comes and dresses him in a new—and rather fabulous—outfit. There are all sorts of legends as to why and on what he is peeing, but no one really knows. Some legends even say he was putting out a fire. It’s a mystery, I suppose, but either way, he has a constant crowd of people around him vying for a photo.
The next day, we planned to go to the EU Parlamentarium and check out the free exhibit about the history of the European Union. Before we got on the subway, though, I had to get another waffle. We had found a waffle shop right next to Mannekin Pis the day before that had waffles for only €1, so we made our way there. We decided to peek in at the fountain again to see what snazzy outfit he was wearing that day. You can imagine our surprise when we approached and found that the fountain had been hooked up to a keg, and he was peeing beer, with which the locals were happily filling their cups. A festival called Folklorissimo was in full swing, and the Peeing Boy peeing beer was one of the highlights.
The majority of the tents for the festival were set up in St. Catherine Square, which was right outside the front door of our hotel. Tents lined the square, each manned by a different group relevant to Belgium culture. There were breweries, cheesemongers, civic and chivalric groups, a folk band, and massive larger-than-life puppets that danced around. I am not quite sure how the puppets were relevant, but they were certainly a hit. They had these sort of wooden faces and wicker bodies that were funny in the daylight, but I imagine more than one child had nightmares that night.
Even more popular than the puppets was a Mannekin Pis mounted on a trolley, manned by a man with the most spectacular mustache I have ever seen, who went around peeing on people. The Mighty Mustached Man (see three pictures above) must have a bit of a sadistic streak because he was constantly on the lookout for some unsuspecting individual to drench, and he usually didn’t stop when they shrieked, but would rather pursue them down the street, much to the delight of the crowd, dry and out of range.
I wish I could say that a famous statue was the only boy I saw peeing that weekend, but alas, I saw two intoxicated men peeing right in front of me in the middle of the street. I will be honest and say I found this rather shocking, maybe even more than I normally would since Brussels actually has urinals located on the streets. One man I saw relieving himself on a car tire was no more than a 2 minute walk from a street urinal, but I guess desperate times call for desperate measures.
So once we observed the Folklorissimo revelry and ate our morning waffles, we headed to the European Union Parlamentarium. It was one of the best exhibits we have been to, especially given that it was free. We unfortunately didn’t stay as long as we wanted because Stephen had planned for us to go to the Cantillon brewery that day, where we went on a self-guided tour of all of the vats and pipes and machinery and stuff. From my description, I think it is pretty clear that I learned nothing from the tour, but that has more to do with me dodging spider webs than the tour quality. The webs are guarded and even nurtured since the spiders gobble up all of the insects and flies that would otherwise be hovering over everything during the brewing process. After the tour, we had a glass of their famous lambic, which tasted like nothing so much as sour wine. It must be an acquired taste.
Day 3, our last day in Belgium, we went to BELvue museum, which detailed the history of the Belgium state and its monarchs. We kept seeing pictures and statues of a king named Albert who looked just like Queen Victoria’s Albert. Turns out, they were uncle and nephew. That family has some dominant, but very attractive, genes. It never ceases to shock me how all of these European monarchs are related. What must their family reunions be like? It can be hard enough for most families to forgive the little petty insults and slights that are an inevitable part of close relationships, but how do you ever get past your cousin starting a war with you? Not that Belgium and Britain have had that particular problem. They seem to have gotten along quite well. No fists thrown at those weddings.
The best part about Brussels, though, was the food. Without question. Besides the aforementioned waffles, they had delicious mussels cooked with peppers, hot fries being sold out of trucks, chocolatiers on every corner selling a dozen different kinds of truffles and half a dozen varieties of hot chocolate, and a shop that sold the best ice cream either of us has ever had. Now when we pass an ice cream shop, we end up looking at each other wistfully and saying, “Remember that Speculoos ice cream we had in Brussels?” For those of you that are fans of Trader Joe’s Speculoos Cookie Butter or Biscoff Cookie Spread, it was exactly like that, but in ice cream form. It was creamy, delicious, and addictive. We had two cones in 3 days. And 6 waffles, 4 truffles, 1 hot chocolate, and 1 Belgian fry, on top of our other meals. You know, it didn’t feel like that much until I typed it out. Ouch. Brussels is bad on the waistline if you’re anything like us. We could not have stayed there any longer or else I wouldn’t have been able to zip up my jeans. (I almost wrote pants there, but remembered at the last moment that pants means underwear here in the UK. I’m adapting!)
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