I’ve always been curious about Brussels. The wee neighbor of my beloved France has long lured me with its promise of bountiful chocolates, beers, and… okay fine – moules (and maybe some frites). All these goodies to be procured amid a charming matrix of cobblestone streets lined with quaint brewpubs, confiseries, and cafés. A melodic mélange of French and Dutch filling the air, the world is as it should be: sans McDo, sans monster trucks, and with plenty of time to enjoy la belle vie.
En réalité? Pas exactement.
So, how did I wind up in Brussels? For my 32nd birthday? Through a long series of random (or maybe not) events, summarized below…
- Circa 1990 (age 9): Become obsessed with France when the exchange students briefly grace our 5th grade class
- 1992 (age 11): Take beginner French in 6th grade, and feel remarkably content as my French self: alias “Claire”
- 1995 (age 13): Freak out with excitement as I learn that our 8th grade French class, hitherto bound for Quebec, is in fact now traveling to none other than fabulous PARIS, France! AND NICE! Encourage abject middle school students to purchase baked goods in support of our fancy trip, resulting in only mild success (likely due to our kickline performance to a modified version of Milord…)
- April 26, 1995 (age 14): Embark on my first trip to France; massive disappointment ensues as I slowly realize Mrs Greekophenopolis* (our French teacher) has taken the liberty of planning all of our meals for us – including a first stop at none other than the Parisian McDo. NOOOOOO!!!!!! Quel horreur!!!!! And there was fish. And capers.
- 1996 – 1999 (age 14 – 18): Continue my love of France through the instruction of deranged and what some may call perverted high school French teachers, the most noteworthy of whom hailed from Wisconsin and delighted in reminiscing about former days spent consuming head cheese. AHHHHHHH!!!!! Quel horreur!!!!!
- 1999 – 2003 (age 18-22): Continue with French at U of M, only, why? What does one DO with a French degree?
- 2005 (age 24): Plan my escape from hateful office job in Chicago (in hindsight a “great!!!” out of college job, but who wants to sit in a desk at age 22? Pas moi) and land a 3-month English teaching assignment through the French Embassy
- 2005 (age 24): Make the foolish decision to turn DOWN the opportunity to teach French (okay, it was in Poitiers, but still!) for fear of breaking up with my preoccupied boyfriend and continue my life of hateful office
- 2007 (age 26): Peace out to California, quit a few jobs, and revive my French obsession through a series of antics with my new bestie: a bona fide Frenchman
- 2008 (age 27): Mayyyybe not California. Move back to Chicago, tutor kids in French, find new job with INTERNATIONAL projects…
- 2011 (age 29): Always on the lookout, find second new French bestie in Chicago, maintain love of Frenchiness
- April 2011 (age 30): Buy myself round-trip ticket to Paris, to be gracefully put up by my Frenchie’s brother and copine. Wheeee!!! Amazing time, French skills proliferate…
- Summer 2011 (age 30): Spend 9 weeks abroad, 5 of which are in Toulouse, to be TEFL certified… wheee! I will teach English in France!
- September 2011 (age 30): Discover that it’s not so easy to just “teach English in France” as an American. Visa anyone? Anyone?
- December 2011 (age 30): Apply for “real job” in France, and amazingly, receive an offer!
- March 2012 (age 30): Realize that visa may never come through, yet appease myself with classes at the Alliance Française as I dream about my daily cheese and mache consumption in my new Lyonnaise homeland
- June 2012 (age 31): Give up on visa ever arriving – whomp whomp – resign myself to life in hateful office while dulling my awareness with irresponsible behavior
- June 2012 (age 31): VISA ARRIVES!
- July 2012 (age 31): Spend increasingly more time with boy “friend”
- August 2012 (age 31): Prepare for move to Lyon, continue spending good times with “friend”
- August 2012 (age 31): Second guess my trans-Atlantic voyage, decide “friend” is more than “friend”
- August 2012 (age 31): Abort! Abort! Cancel flight to Lyon, randomly “rebook” trip to Brussels for my birthday to avoid total sunk cost, and replace “Lyon” with “Milwaukee”
Right! So… back to Brussels. Rebooking my Aer Lingus flight for my 32nd birthday seemed like the perfect opportunity to see this presumed gem of a city with my very own eyes. Lucky for me, my “copain” took an interest, renewed his passport, and joined me on my trans-Atlantic rando-voyage.
HAHAHA!!! So mayyyybe it was kinda maybe sorta my fault that I paid zero attention to the multitude of empirical evidence that I do NOT like touristy areas. But! In my defense, I didn’t think Bruxelles was touristy! It’s true that I do tend to live in a very small world contained to the confines of my own head… hrmmm. I guess being the headquarters of the EU or whatever may result in a fair amount of visitors… yeah, but it’s not like I knew that.
Anyway, the charming matrix of cobblestone streets actually turned out to be a neverending maze that traps innocent foreigners in a gigantic web of moule frites. Yeah, okay, so maybe we nursed our 36-hours-of-wakefulness-induced delirium with a pint or two at a seemingly “slightly out of the way” pub (actually like 4 steps away from the Grande Place). Followed by another stumbled upon pub which turned out to be rainbow-colored (also amazingly only a few steps away)… hmm… okay, so we were kind of super delirious and more than mildly in need of nourishment outside of peanuts, olives, beer, and hunks of myserious white cheese dipped in mustard. Anyway.
How many restaurants did we enter, sit down in, and then duck out of incognito? Oh, I’d say at least three. It was a no-brainer to avoid the food pushers aggressively shouting “mussels!” in whatever language they perceived their prey to speak. “Moules!” “Mosselin!” NO! Laisse-moi! The barricade of twelve identical restaurants bearing identical posters of food was clearly not happening, but come on! Where is my quaint little café??
We tried. And failed. And tried again. Realizing that an incognito escape was not possible at one restaurant, I went with Plan B and abashedly told the host, “Désolée, c’est charmant, mais nous n’aimons pas les enfants comme ça.” Blame the screaming child. Monsieur the host understood, no hard feelings.
With increasing delirium, mon copain stopped in his tracks as if he’d seen the light. Pointing, “What about this, Kel?”
“Yes, that’s lovely. Perfect, looks great.” Or, maybe we’d just given up.
Sooo…yeah. Maybe we ended up in an expansive checkered-table-cloth tourist restaurant. Maybe there were piles of moules. Maybe we ordered more moules when I found the first pile of moules to be distasteful. Maybe we ordered 3 bottles of wine. Maybe I rambled to the waiter in French. Maybe we walked home for over 40 minutes following dinner.
Maybe we stumbled into a chocolate shop late-night and maybe I bought a large bag of chocolate-drowned raisins and toffees. Maybe we woke up the next morning and discovered that this nice lil’ restaurant was literally like 10 steps away. Okay. Yeah. Maybe it was Chez Leon. Maybe it’s a chain. Maybe don’t go there. Ever.
So the next two nights were filled with legit deliciousness. Apparently, Brussels does have great food-bearing establishments. La Manufacture was pretty fabulous (vegetarianism went out with window with foie gras…) and my birthday could not have been better at Restaurant d’Ogenblik. They even sang to me and my “f-ing good” crème brulée.
The next couple days were filled with mostly pleasant, some unpleasant, and all ridiculously misguided traipses around the city. So? Yeah, it was a good time. Our antics pervaded most every activity, and we were bent over laughing at ourselves on more than a few occasions.
Will I go back to BXL? Eh, probably not. Next time, it’s Bruges. The place everyone says is boring. But, I like boring. How can it be boring when you’re travelling with your favorite? Plus, now that I’m 32 I can’t handle these cities with their young people and their rap music and flash dancing.
*Real teacher’s name has been modified to protect her privacy. She was Greek, anyway.