Mussels in Brussels

Before I dive into Amsterdam, let me share a little Brussels, or as the French call it, Bruxelles. I went to Brussels to meet Zarita, who had boarded the 7:50am train with her classmates for a little field trip to the EU parliament building and the French consul to the EU office. I on the other hand had no business whatsoever in Brussels, except for a mild curiosity. I had heard the place was quite uninteresting and even a little uninviting. I was aware of its business-like atmosphere. I mean, Brussels isn’t exactly known for anything interesting, except perhaps for mussels.

Actually, I’d believe I was just imagining this mussels connection were it not for two references I’d like to share. First is the restaurant Leon in Paris. It’s a chain of seafood-ish restaurants that boasts its Brussels origin and traditional Belgian flavors. Their specialty, mussels. The second is a little known Men At Work song who’s title escapes me, but the chorus goes …

I come from the land down under,
Where woman work and men plunder.
Can you hear that thunder?
You better run, you better take cover.

Well, my favorite verse in this song is …

I met a man from Brussels, he was 6 feet tall and full of mussels.
Blah blah blah blah and gave him a vegemite sandwich.

So, although the reference does not pertain to the seafood, mussels, I think I may have adopted that interpretation subconsciously.

Anyway, I boarded the 8:50am Thalys train at Gare du Nord in Paris. There was a little scare before boarding because my travel documents, a Eurail pass that affords me discounts or free travel on rail, had not been validated. Furthermore, since it was a joint pass, I couldn’t validate it because Z was already in Brussels having traveled on a ticket purchased for her by the UofC. Let me say, rail travel is quite nice, but if you’re trying to do it on the chap, it’s a ridiculous hassle. Anyway, I paid for a full price ticket and got on board.

Gare du Nord in Paris.

The Thalys from side.

The Thalys from inside.

I disembarked at Gare de Midi in Brussels at about 10:30am, after some minor delays on the line, carrying all of our luggage myself. Walking through the station I realized that unlike when I arrived in Paris, where there was a beautiful loving girl to take me around town and get me situated, I was totally lost in Brussels. I hadn’t given I a moment’s thought to what it was I was going to do once I got there! Zarita was somewhat more fortunate to be part of a guided tour but I had no idea where the train station was, what the city looked like or what there was to see.

Zaritchka claimed that she would be busy until 1:30 and then would contact me on her cell phone, which I carried, and join me for a meal before we boarded the 5:25 train for Amsterdam. So I figured I had a few hours to wander before our rendez-vous. So, I formed a plan of action.

1. Deposit luggage in a locker.
2. Locate an information booth and obtain a map of the city.
3. Determine the best form of public transportation.
4. Walk about and find a decent place to sit down for a beer.

Step 1 was a piece of cake, but cost me 3 euro, a rip off like everything else in the train stations here. Step 2 was equally simple, and the maps were all free, bonus. Step 3 proved to be much more complicated than I had thought. The information booth had provided me with a city map and a metro map and tram map. For one thing, I had no experience with trams. You know trams, those bus like things that run on electric cables and rails in the streets. Then I tried to locate the metro stops on the city map, no dice. The metro stops seemed to only roughly correspond with locations on the map. Even when I managed to match a spot on the metro with a spot on the map, it made it seem as though the metro was totally useless unless (try typing that word combo rapidly) traveling outside the city. Furthermore, there was a severe lack of anything that seemed to be a substantial landmark I should visit. It seemed like Brussels was all government and business; no pleasure.

Ok then, if there was nowhere worth going, and no clear way of getting there, I suppose all there was left to do was wander about aimlessly. Ah, there’s the rub, for in my aimless wander what suffering may come. I thought I had been wise to wear my boots that day, as it had been slightly overcast in Paris and there was threat of snow in the Benelux area (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg). Indeed there had been snow, with a healthy mix of rain and mild weather, forming an applesauce consistency, but thoroughly soaking coat of slush throughout the city! Cowboy boots are made for dry barren Texan or Mexican ranch land, not European winter shit. And so I began my path to freezing cold, soaking wet feet and general malaise. Misery notwithstanding, The city is quite small and I managed to have get a splendid tour of a substantial part of it, which I present to you know in photograph.

Oh Boy, I should have probably immediately turned back and tried a little harder to understand the tram system.

Hello Brussels, Avenue (or Laan) Stalingrad named for that infamous battle deep in the heart of Russia that turned the tide of WWII. Apparently the Belgians are very grateful.

Tram lines suspended above the streets, which seem to be designed with tram in mind as opposed to car.

Some awesome street art in a random side street.

A somewhat typical Brussels street.

Palais de Justice. I took this weirdo elevator thing to the upper level of the building.

A better view of the Palais de Justice.

A pretty little cathedral.

The lawn of the Palais d’Egmont, some rolayish estate in the middle of the city.

Another little cathedral, set affront a menacing sky. Fear the wrath of GOD!

Ok, after about 3 hours of stomping through slush, my boots had soaked completely through and I couldn’t take it anymore. If my mom had been there to see it she would have likely cried and begged me to take them off so she could soak my feet in some hot water, give me tea and put me to bed. Sadly, mom was not there and taking your boots off in public is a little odd. So I stopped in a relatively warm little café for some food and a warm drink.

Finally MUSSELS IN BRUSSELS!!! Ooooooh, these were gooooood too! They’re moulles au gratinee, mussels with tons and tons of cheese, tomato sauce, garlic and red bell pepper. Needless to say, delicious.

So, I waited till around 2:00 and then started calling all of Z’s friends to try and get in touch with her. No luck. At about 2:30 I decided it was best to head back to the train station. There was also almost no way I could continue walking around the city with my footwear in its current state of saturation. I had thoroughly soaked my feet and probably destroyed my boots. Ironically though, the weather had cleared during my meal and the streets had been slowly cleared by property owners and pedestrian traffic. If only I had restrained my itch to explore by a few hours. Yet, I had found some delicious mussels, so at least I could feel a sense of accomplishment. If and when Z contacted me, at least at the train station I’d be in the best possible place to make a move. By some slight planning on my part, and a little luck, I was already near a metro stop and proceeded there to take a train back to the station. It turned out to be simple enough and the payment was surprisingly honor based. You were supposed to buy a ticket and validate it yourself. There were no turnstiles, attendants, security personnel or cameras.

I reached the station and shortly after Zarita called, informing me that the group had been held behind and the talks and tours wouldn’t conclude until 4:30. Our train was at 5:25, Zarita and the other students were at least 30 minutes away and we still had to validate our train passes. This was not good. Well, I’ll spare you the details but I didn’t even see Zaritchka until 5:20. I found a way to validate our passes on my own, sans her passport, so that we managed to board the train by about 5:22 or so. Many of the students in her program were also going to Amsterdam that weekend and were on our train, rushing along with us, or likely without. I wish I had calm enough nerves to have my camera ready to take pictures when the 10 or so of them came running through the station, frantically searching for their lockers and the train platform. It would have been hilarious if I hadn’t been having a minor heart attack at the time.

Well, after all that stress and wet feet, we were on our way to Amsterdam where later, a hostel owner would remark to one of Z’s friends, “Calm down man, this is Amsterdam, sit down, relax and smoke a joint.”

No comments: