« Je m’endors quelques minutes, tout au plus,
Et quand je me réveille, le soleil est là… »
– Echoes of Mine, M83
Bruxelles: Nice city. Pas extraordinaire, but the people are extremely warm, accommodating. When I first arrived in the city I thought it was going to be boring — this is perhaps because neither I nor my housemate whom I was traveling with had time to do proper research on the city before our hasty departure — but what I learned from this trip is that in traveling, you truly get what you give. One cannot expect things to simply happen; one must actively seek what the city has to offer, whether by taking a chance at a restaurant or a cafe that one knows nothing about, or by striking a conversation with the waiter in the restaurant or to the lady one is sitting next to in the train.
For me the feeling I get standing in the middle of le Grand Place is insignificant compared to the richness one would never expect to find in the spontaneity of human contact. In my last afternoon in Bruxelles, I found myself exploring the city solo in search of the statue of the pissing cherub (Mannekin Pis), which turned out to be disappointingly small and nothing out of the ordinary anyway. On my way back to le Grand Place, I stumbled across a shop selling scarves called Klaus Duffy, which is apparently a Belgian brand. They had some scarves on offer for 6 Euros, so I decided to walk in. As I was paying, I struck a conversation with the shop attendant, who is a student working there part time. I asked her what she’s studying — Masters in Social Engineering, which is apparently similar to social work. She is Portuguese, but having a Belgian social worker boyfriend demands extra commitment from her; I think she has fallen in love — with the people, the city. As we said goodbye, I wished her well.
In Brugge (Bruges), we had lunch at a kebab restaurant which offered pasta bolognese (with halal meat, thank goodness) for 3 Euros. While we were eating, the owner struck a conversation with us, asking us where we were from — the usual. When it was our turn to interview him, he told us he was originally from Alexandria, Egypt, where he was a politician. However, Mubarak’s government wasn’t too fond of him, and he was sent to prison twice. The police attempted to kill him, and he told us that on his body there are still scars from the various tortures he underwent, even marks from an electric chair. After things got too serious, his father advised him to leave the country, and so he joined his uncle in Amsterdam, from where he made his way to Belgium where he has been living for fifteen years now.
Like I said: extraordinaire. The beautiful thing about people is that each and every one of them has a special story to tell about their lives — this is exactly what drove me to become an anthropologist in the first place. Sometimes you wonder how much truth there is in what people say — and being anthropologists, this should always be a central concern — but really, how can one tell when one’s been lied to? Let’s not forget that lies too always contain some truth therein, perhaps not about the subject matter but certainly about the liar him/herself.
I consider this trip to be another one of my many experiments: for me mobility and finding things to do isn’t so much a problem, particularly after that Eurotrip I embarked on with my friend back in the summer of 2011. Now, I don’t want the buildings to speak to me; I want to uncover the past and the present from the people who live there themselves. They can tell me so much more than these silent buildings and monuments could. Part of the challenge in this trip is to break out of my bubble and reach out to people; given my shy and timid nature, it is not unusual for me to sit in a corner and clam up. It is even worse when one travels with a friend, who is obviously the first person one would strike a conversation with in moments of boredom. But I tried to remind myself that while I could always speak to my traveling partner when we are alone, my moment with these people I randomly cross paths with will not last forever. It is an even greater challenge to communicate with my extremely rusty French, which was another hurdle I had to overcome.
After much reflection, I could say for sure that Bruxelles turned out to be extraordinaire after all, but more because of the people than because of the waffles. The photo below was taken in a bookstore called Tropismes, which is located in the Galerie des Princes in the heart of Bruxelles. The interior of the bookstore is simply breathtaking; I couldn’t stop staring at the ceiling. It was certainly palatial, to say the least.
Would I visit Bruxelles again? Yes — in a heartbeat.