I had two complaints about Cologne: that the city wasn’t very pretty, and that all the museums were closed. Fortunately, I headed to Brussels next. Mostly just because it was there—I didn’t really know what to expect. As it turns out, Brussels is gorgeous, with wide avenues, tons of public green spaces, and lots of old buildings. It’s reminiscent of Paris (not coincidentally). Most of the beautification of the city was done in the nineteenth century with money gathered from exploiting the Congo, so it can be a little jarring to think about history and take in the views at the same time. Nonetheless, for the combination of architecture, sights to visit, and food to eat, it’s one of my favorite cities I’ve visited.
My planned host had a conflict arise at the last minute, so Ashley, a fellow Fulbrighter I met in Berlin, agreed to put me up at the last minute. She also took me to an outdoor concert (at the university) on Tuesday night. It was not at all my scene (dubstep music and lots of alcohol, smoking, and weed), but it was interesting to people-watch. The students were surprisingly casually dressed (silly hats and pajamas, in some cases), but this was the French university. Ashley assured me that the Flemish university students dress up. Which brings me to another point: languages. I was ignorant going into Belgium, but it turns out there are three official languages: Flemish, French, and German. Most people in Brussels defaulted to French. Surprisingly, no one switched to English when they heard my execrable French, so I got more practice in my two days there than in my week in Paris! Bonus points for persistence (but also negative points for creepiness) go to the man who tried to pick me up on the street and who listened to me answer his questions in broken French for twenty minutes. (I’m at least perfectly clear on how to say, ‘Je suis désolée, mais non. Je ne te connais pas’ in response to repeated requests for a date, my number, etc.)
Of course, a highlight of Belgium is the food. Restaurants here are expensive, so I’ve mostly been avoiding them. (Exception: At a local guide’s suggestion, I went to Publico one night. The prices were reasonable. The tapas were average, but the waiter and bartender were wonderfully friendly and attentive. Regulars were giving the waiter hugs on the way out. The bartender noticed my slightly dissatisfied expression when I sipped my hot chocolate and came over with a ton more chocolate to melt in. Also, the (Italian) wine was excellent.) I’ve been surviving almost entirely on street food: waffles, fries, ice cream, and chocolate. I have yet to find the perfect fries, but I can confirm that the famous Maison Dandoy is worth the higher prices for perfectly textured waffles. Get a Liege waffle with brown sugar. You won’t regret it. The original praline inventor, Neuhaus, is an excellent choice for boxes of chocolates.
But there are many things to do in Brussels other than eat and look at all the pretty buildings! I visited six different museums while I was there. The Atomium was pricey but fun for its outrageous architecture, good views, and colorful exhibit about the rise of plastic in the 50s as a medium for appliances, clothing, furniture, and art. (The permanent exhibit about the history of the building was less interesting.) I was lucky enough to get the tip that the Royal Greenhouses were open for the week, and they were one of my favorite sights! They were definitely the biggest greenhouse complex I have ever been inside, and the range and presentation of the plants was breathtaking. At the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, I most enjoyed the (temporary) Chagall exhibit. I have always loved Chagall (for me, he strikes the perfect balance between innovative surrealism and comprehensibility), but this gave me a new appreciation for the way his life influenced his art, as well as for his amazing use of color and repeated symbolism. I was less excited by the Magritte museum, but that’s never really been my cup of tea anyway. I raced through and saw my few favorites. History-wise, the Bellevue museum was interestingly laid out, providing a multimedia chronological history of Belgium from 1830 to now. It really helped give me context for my experience of the city. The Museum of Musical Instruments was disappointing: I liked the audio feature that let me hear lots of instruments, but the lack of technical details (e.g., an explanation of the transition between plucked versus hit strings in keyboard instruments) made it hard to appreciate the differences in the sounds. I never felt too let down, though, because most museums in Belgium are outrageously cheap (usually two Euros) for anyone under 26 years old. Can all countries please do this!?
I was a tad worried about continuing my journey because of a transit strike in Belgium. (It made getting around Brussels on Wednesday challenging, too.) Fortunately, it only lasted a day, so on Thursday morning I moved on to medieval Flanders, where I experienced an entirely different style of architecture and even more delicious chocolate. Stay tuned!