Monday, July 26, 2010

Greetings from: the Eurostar from LONDON to BRUSSELS

A cabal of four Australian young men sits across from us, fully iPodded, all legs and earpieces, feeling the full vigor of their youth. The South Asian, nearest to the aisle and directly across from me, reads from a large paperback, The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. Another, a gangly, brown-haired man who seems too young to be going bald so quickly, records the world passing outside the window with his camera, as if this were the only way to keep the world from passing through his fingers entirely.

My ears fill and pop—the compression and decompression as we pass in and out of tunnels. The English countryside rocks back and forth.


Belgium has always been the butt of jokes. When I went on my European tour with my parents oh-so-many years ago, a Frenchman (of course) told me this joke:

Why does Belgium have so few birds?

Because they can’t fly like this. (He flaps one arm and holds his nose with his other.)

On that tour, the tour bus drove through Belgium, but didn’t stop. So now, 25 years later, I finally get to experience Brussels. My judgment: why must everyone pick on poor Brussels? The old city center is cute—touristy, yes, but you could say the same about St. Mark’s Square in Venice. And in St. Mark’s, you don’t get a gaggle of male Australian tourists, one dressed in an USA-themed Morphsuit (though that’s something I’d like to see).

Plus, it’s difficult to bad-mouth a city that has a chocolate shop on every street corner. Maybe outside of the historic center you begin to see fewer murals and more graffiti, but from my brief exposure so far, I’d have to say that I feel about Brussels the way I felt about Brussels sprouts: people keep telling me how awful they are, but until you try it for yourself, you never know how you’ll feel about it.


Brussels, at night, takes on a different character, as all cities do. The Foire has just started: a mile-long carnival along the Rue du Midi, which smells of fried food. You can hear screams synchronize with the lights of the rides spinning them into disorientation. This is the first shift of the night: the bar-goers, the club-goers. The young sit outside, chat and smoke, and families make their way back home, pushing strollers, herding along children who, they hope, will fall asleep immediately.

The second shift of the night comes when the bars have closed, and the darkness masks the motives of those still moving about. The full moon peeks in and out from behind clouds. There are still groups of young men roaming, and sometimes they break into song, thinking the night will swallow their voices, when it amplifies them. As you walk, you don’t feel unsafe, but you don’t let down your guard, either. Daytime tourists visit the Mannekin Pis and Jeanneke Pis, but nighttime tourists can smell the actual piss -- or see it produced.

No matter: by morning, Brussels will wipe itself clean. The shadows cast by street lamps will peel off the Palais and the Grand Place, making them clean and white again, and the man-shaped mirrors in the shop of the Magritte Museum will reflect something other than the faces of the night-dwellers who pass by, wondering how they ended up here.

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