The Metro in Brussels felt like any other that we had already been on. Sure, it was a little more crowded than Zurich’s trams and a little more rickety than Paris’s underground, but the train was crowded with shoppers and commuters and tourists like ourselves; the seats were hard and plastic with a minimal, gaudy cushion; the pungent smells of perfumes masking fouler stenches from train passengers filled the air; the sounds of hawking and sharp exhaling of the Dutch and French languages swirled around us; all of this was very familiar by now, despite the strangeness of being in a foreign country. Still, it seemed like more of the same; nice public transportation in a nice European city. As not-so-well-traveled, suburban kids who grew up with a pretty Nerf football kind of life though, we were shocked when we walked into the stairwell at our exit on that dark and cold Brussels night and nearly stumbled over two men – one holding a plastic container, stirring specks of white into a clear liquid, and the other with syringe in hand, ready to pull a dose. As we later learned, our Belgium apartment was on the outskirts of the Red Light District; prostitutes stood on the corner just a few blocks away from where we slept.
Now, I believe that the drugs-in-the-subway incident could have happened anywhere – in an American city, in a French city, in a Belgium city. We just happened upon it. Our living arrangements were more avoidable; a quick look on the map before I booked the placed could have told me that the area was a little more seedy than Kierstin and I are used to. Still, we made the most of our trip in Brussels (playing it safe by avoiding our neighborhood at night) and really made it one of the best locations of our trip. That first night, hungry and seeking adventure, we found an Ethiopian restaurant. While living in Sacramento, I had heard good things about an Ethiopian place in the city; platters of different stewed meats and no utensils – food is handled and eaten with a thin-flatbread. Now in an unlikely place, over 5000 miles away from the capital of California, we were finally going to experience Ethiopian dining. Toukoul had a great atmosphere on its own. Tall, light-colored wooden planks decorated the walls. Tanned hides, handmade serving utensils, and woven articles hung from the ceiling. Soft light wrapped around the restaurant, shining upon smiling diners and friendly waiters. Drinking glasses clattered and chairs grunted against the concrete floor as guests chattered loudly and shared food. After overcoming a slight challenge with the language barrier, we figured out that they could seat us immediately in the busy restaurant as long as we left before the live band (and the busy dinner crowd that accompanied them) showed up.
Ninety minutes was enough time for us to split a massive platter of mostly mysterious cooked meats and vegetables, handled with injera, the spongy flatbread that looked like a thin pancake but tasted more like sourdough. A mossy green mush, we surmised, was cooked spinach covering grilled chicken. A spicy beef dish, soft, white cheese, stewed cabbage, and a few other flavorful helpings were spokes on the giant wheel that was our dinner plate. Our first bites were swapped, as we were told is tradition; Kierstin ate out of my hand, and I ate out of hers, which signifies loyalty, family, and friendship. We ate our fill, gulped down white Belgian beers, and started to walk home as a cold, white powder began to fall from the sky. For the first time since we had arrived, it was snowing! The cold winter Belgian night was quiet as we rushed home past street workers, a strange tension of feelings, one side pulling toward wonderment and peace clashing with the other side pulling toward uneasiness and unfamiliarity. By the next morning, it was only giddiness that filled these snow-deprived, beach-familiar travelers; the light dusting had concealed cars and covered the cobbled streets, a smooth white cotton blanket that is a rarity in our own lives.
I think a highlight of our adventure in Brussels was the Christmas market. A ten-minute walk from our apartment led us to a grey Gothic cathedral, open cabins erected in the cobblestone courtyard for street vendors. This was one of many European Christmas markets that we had visited, but it was by far my favorite. It seemed like the Brussels Christmas market was just so authentic. In Paris, there was no shortage of delicious food and warm drinks, but besides that, vendors sold cheap toys and touristy gifts. In Brussels, handmade pottery, reindeer fur rugs, and carved wooden toys were just a small selection of the homegrown offerings of the market. Rather than just a small selection of local art, the entire market seemed to focus on Brussels culture. They party a little harder in Brussels, too; besides just hot wine and hot cocoa, shots of hard alcohol – amaretto, schnapps of all flavors, tequila, gin, whiskey, vodka, anything – were for sale in the market. Discounts were offered if you bought 10 or more (a deal we chose to pass on).
As we walked through the market that cold morning, the smells of fried dough lifted us toward a booth selling croustillons (Dutch doughnuts) and a cultural treasure of Belgium: gaufres Bruxelles (Brussels waffle). The croustillons were deep fried to a dark brown and covered in powdered sugar, a sweet touch to the crispy outside and bready inside ball of deliciousness. Our gaufre was a slightly different sort of goodness, a doughy and sweet delicacy, again dusted with powdered sugar, that we devoured bite-by-bite with our fingers. We grabbed a hot cup of cocoa and enjoyed the creamier taste of Belgium’s hot chocolate compared to the Parisian cup that we had a few days earlier. The rest of our day was spent milling around the market. Kierstin suggested that we ride the Ferris wheel, a thought that hadn’t even crossed my mind. The entire city came into view as we slowly rotated and rocked toward the top of the wheel.
Chocolate shops and bars bordered the alley on either side. Each shop had its own appeal, and we hopped from one store, drooling over elegant truffles and confectionaries behind glass windows, to another, inhaling the warm, cocoa-scented air. The Grand Place, an ornate central square surrounded on either side by lavish buildings, sat at the end of this chocolatier-lined street. It’s considered one of the most popular tourist destinations in Brussels, and since it was only a fifteen minute walk from our apartment, we just couldn’t avoid visiting. The luxurious edifices epitomize Baroque architecture with gilded wall decorations and elaborate towers and turrets. Before calling it a day, we stopped at a local bar and ordered a couple of beers on tap. I had the “red”, and Kierstin got the “white”. Kierstin’s was a typical white Belgian wheat ale while mine was pink, tasting like very sweet cherries. It was not what I was expecting but still very delicious. Two Trappist beers from the local grocery store down the street accompanied us home that night. We spent the evening in our apartment, sipping our cold beers and trying some of our Belgian chocolate.
The Atomium was the main attraction for our second day in Brussels. For the 1958 World’s Fair, Brussels unveiled the Atomium, a 335 ft soaring atomic structure intending to represent an iron crystal if it were enlarged 165 billion times its actual size. I had briefly read about it before visiting, and given my scientific background, I felt compelled to visit the structure. It was something to marvel at, but we didn’t spend much time underneath the giant metallic spheres and rods. A giant meadow lay nearby, and we found ourselves more entranced by the wintery white blanketing the ground. I started to build the base of a snowman; Kierstin picked a snowball fight. We still hadn’t had breakfast yet, and so we scrounged together the coins in our pockets and found a small street vendor selling food. Belgian fries were all that we could afford with no cash on hand, but the hot and crispy golden potatoes were a perfect complement to the frigid air outside.
Since I had my fun looking at the Atomium, I thought Kierstin should have her turn seeking one of her own interests. She was a history minor in college, and Brussels has a free World War I museum. The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History sounded like an interesting sight, and after walking in circles a few times, we finally found the spot. Unfortunately, for whatever reason – my busy schedule immediately before our trip, our disorientation due to a missed flight, the cold snowy day, Jupiter’s alignment with Mercury – I mixed up the days that the museum was open, and we didn’t get to visit. Luckily, the museum is located right in Brussel’s 50th anniversary park, Parc du Cinquantenaire. The park celebrates Brussel’s independence with a long, stretching greens (covered in snow that day), a wide, murky fountain (partly iced over that day), and a triumphal arch with an enormous Belgian flag fluttering in the wind (unruffled by weather that day). So, our trip to the museum was actually a nice walk through a park, which ended up being a pretty satisfactory save.
It was back to the Christmas market for a late lunch. Before leaving to Europe, my sister insisted that I buy and eat escargot. A small booth in the market had mussels and snails cooking in broth, and so I seized the opportunity to make good on my promise to my sister. I negotiated a price in broken French for just four pieces since I didn’t want all twelve for five euro. The slimy snails were white with a tiny shell still attached and the fleshy, ridged “foot” was just a detailed reminder that what I was about to eat was indeed a slithering, mucous-producing mollusk. The meat was chewy, tasting mostly like the broth it was cooked in but lasting too long in my mouth for my own comfort. I swallowed and imagined the de-shelled creature slithering down my throat. Kierstin was hesitant, and so I snapped a quick picture, threatening to publish her choice. Would she be brave or a coward? She found courage.
For something that we were a little more used to (but if you really think about it, probably just as gross if not arguably more so), we ordered what I referred to as a European hot dog, not quite sure what the real name actually is. A fat brat is grilled and place upon a sliced baguette, topped with greasy grilled onions and sauce andalouse, the Belgian specialty made with mayonnaise, tomato paste, and peppers. A Chimay chalet sold Trappist beers, which sounded like an excellent way to wash down our tasty lunch. We followed the streets toward the Grand Place again, this time spending more time at the bars than the chocolate shops. Another beer each at Bar des Amis (translation: bar of friends) and we were back at the Grand Place, serendipitously greeted by a melodious orchestra and a flashing light show, purple, green, red, blue, and yellow lights dancing in time with the music along the opulent buildings.
Before heading back to our apartment on our last night in Belgium, I remembered that we needed to taste one more Belgian specialty: carbonnade. A beef and onion stew that uses Belgian abbey beers rather than wine (as in beef bourguignon), carbonnade is a classic Flemish dish, often served over fries. We happened to find carbonnade and a glass of hot wine in the Christmas market and couldn’t pass up on it. We were up before sunrise the next morning to catch our train to Amsterdam. When we entered the Metro belowground, we ran into more travel issues. The ticket dispenser was only accepting coins, and we only had cash and a card. This was another chance for me to use my four years of high school French as I asked early-morning commuters if they had change for our bill. Minutes ticked by; passersby gave terse apologies of “désolé”. Finally, one man slowed his gait long enough to actually understand our problem, and while he didn’t have cash, he encouraged us to join the realm of diamond thieves and fraudsters. He swiped his Metro card, and the gates opened, us following closely behind and sneaking into the underground rail. We were now Belgian criminals, but didn’t have much to worry about. As we sat on the train, the sun rose overhead and illuminated medieval Belgian buildings, spires of cathedrals cutting into the early morning sky. We were saying goodbye to this leg of our trip through Europe while eagerly ready to embrace the next destination: Amsterdam.