Travelicious #3: Fear and Loathing in Brussels

I had the better part of a day to spend in Brussels, so rather than waste it just hanging around the airport, I decided to go into the city proper. The first thing I noticed was that everything in Brussels is in at least three languages. Dutch is almost always first, followed by French, and then either German or English. I think I saw Italian in a few places, too. Seeing the same thing written in a few languages certainly gives you clues as to what it’s saying even if you don’t actually know said languages.

Even so, getting to the city center proved more difficult than anticipated. It wasn’t a matter of logistics–I knew I just needed to take a train–but rather that the way the train schedules were displayed was extremely confusing. At the train terminal below the airport there was a posted list of all the trains, when they departed and from what platform. Many trains go to the city center but most of them don’t stop there, and the digital signs indicate only the train’s final destination. On top of that, the track number specified on the schedule often didn’t match where the train actually appeared. So, does the train to Leuven that leaves at 9:58 from track 2 go to Bruxelles-Midi even though the schedule says that train should be on track 1 a few minutes later? There was no consistency at all. Eventually, I bit the bullet and just jumped on one of the trains going to “Bruxelles-Zuid” (South Brussels) and got off at the central station.

The trains were pretty nice, a bit nicer than the commuter trains you can take in New Jersey. Rather than everyone facing the same direction and packed together as if you’re on an airplane, the standard in Europe appears to be for sets of opposing seats facing each other, sometimes with a small table in between. You can fit fewer people on such a train but it’s certainly more conversational and inviting.

Once I got off at the central station, I walked through the station and looked around a bit. Much of the station is actually underground. It doesn’t look very big from the outside, and is in fact mostly dwarfed by the surrounding buildings. Above the row of ticketing windows is a massive digital schedule, which was quite impressive to see. They had trains going everywhere from Antwerp to Bruges. After getting a feel for the interior of the station, I went out to the street and looked around. Maybe other parts of Brussels are laid out more sensibly, but the area around Brussels-Central is an ungodly maze. I avoided wandering too far afield for fear I wouldn’t be able to make it back to the station in time for my flight.

Despite the somewhat insane street layout, I did find Brussels to be an attractive city. It was busy but not insanely so–certainly no comparison with, say, Manhattan in the morning. During the few hours I spent near the station, I found a nice garden (under renovation but still attractive), an art museum, a water display that had something to do with a salt mine (don’t ask me, I don’t know), a bunch of flags, the remains of a castle butted up against a modern apartment building, some cathedrals, and a lot of stairs and cobblestone roads. For my first taste of Europe, it was visually appealing if not viscerally impressive.

The most negative aspect of my time in Brussels involved a set of young women outside the aforementioned garden. At one end of the garden was a set of steps leading up to another area with a fountain, from which you got a pretty nice view. No doubt it was a tourist trap, and at the first landing on said stairs (quite a large area in itself) there were a handful of women with clipboards, asking people if they spoke English. And if you did, why, it’s your lucky day! They talked about the problem of homelessness in Europe and that if you would just be kind enough to put down your name and hand over 20 Euro, you can help stamp out poverty in the EU. The cynic in me said that this was a scam and I should get away as quickly as possible. The cynic in me won out, yes it did. Maybe they were looking for English speakers because they’ve heard of the famed generosity of Americans–or perhaps they’re familiar with the famed gullibility of Americans, and were looking to take advantage of same. Suffice it to say, I moved on quickly.

Little else tarnished my brief stay in Brussels. After a few hours wandering about and looking at pretty things, I went back to the station and took a train up to the airport. This was substantially less frustrating, since the digital signs would all say “AIRPORT”. While waiting for the train, a couple of German women came up to me and asked if I spoke English. While I could have pretended only to speak Esperanto or somesuch, my wits failed me at that moment and I tried instead to be helpful. They said they were trying to get to Bruges and wondered if I knew what train to take. Oh, of course not. I told them I was also confused by the insanity of the Belgian trains. They wandered off and probably wound up in Amsterdam.

Back at the airport, I finally got hungry. There was a place called “Quality Burger Restaurant.” I do love truth in advertising. I had a “beef andalousse” burger, which cost like 2 Euro and was smaller than the smallest burger they sell at McDonald’s. Oh, what the hell, Europe? They had bigger ones, but my God, they were like 8 Euro a pop! No way, dude. So I got one of those andalousse thingies and a side salad, which was actually very good and not at all like the side salads you get in the US. It had feta cheese and other things in it which I am now forgetting. And balsamic vinaigrette dressing. That was good. I paid 10 Euro for an hour’s worth of Internet access. It was laggy and sucked ass. What a ripoff.

Later on, I found out there was an observation level at the airport where you could eat and watch the tarmac. I had to get in on that. Since you had to buy something to get into the restaurant, I wasn’t hungry, and I wasn’t sure about trying Belgian beer, I instead bought a bottle of French merlot which was something like 12.5% alcohol by volume. I drank it, watched the planes, started to feel very warm and amused, then decided to go through security to get to my proper terminal and gate. Alcohol kept me from properly emptying my pockets so I kept setting off the metal detector. The security personnel were visibly annoyed and I earned myself a patdown from an American gentleman who was for some reason working in the Brussels airport. This is what I get for not drinking in a year and a half and being a total lightweight to begin with.

It took me a few hours to sober up, by which time my plane had come and it was time to be off to Budapest. The sun was going down, and I hopped aboard a Malev Hungarian Airline flight. They served us cheese sandwiches and tea. I napped a little bit, but then they rammed my elbow with the meal cart. Fuck.

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