I first visited Brussels as a student in 2007. I was backpacking after classes finished in London and had just started to eat my way around western Europe.
Making my way down one of the city’s back alleyways in search of waffles (naturally), I heard, “Sarah?” Being, as it were, thousands of miles from home and also in a completely random alley, I initially hardly registered the question as a name, let alone one that belonged to me. But after a pause I instinctively turned, expecting to feel quite silly as I watched someone wave to another Sarah just past me.
Instead, I saw my university roommate (and future fellow Urchin) Margaret waving to me from across the cobblestones. She had been studying in Germany, but I had no idea she was going to be in Belgium, let alone Europe, as classes had already been finished for weeks.
In a small (and probably corny-sounding but completely sincere) way, this is what Brussels is to me. A place where people come together, sometimes intentionally like with the EU, and sometimes unintentionally, like with its myriad refugees. Brussels symbolises a genuine attempt at moving humanity forward in new ways, understanding that trials and errors are essential to progress, something the U.S. has been too scared or entrenched in old ways to attempt.
I can only hope that last week’s bombings are seen as another trial to overcome on the path to progress, and not a catalyst for a slide into insularity.
Like perhaps so many other outsiders, I was surprised that Brussels was the de facto “capital of Europe,” a title I would’ve automatically presumed belonged to a city like Paris or London, had I known a title like that existed at all. The embarrassing ignorance aside, I know that I am not alone in knowing less about Brussels than those other cities, either in fact or fiction. In this case, the distinction matters little: what the world does or doesn’t know about Brussels perhaps says a little about the modesty of the city as well as our misunderstanding of the place and its people, along with its culture and history.
Once upon a time I too was just a tourist in search of a waffle and a statue of a peeing child. (I was also a tourist who got waffle on his new t-shift of a statue of a peeing child.) When I lived in London, I was lucky enough to visit Brussels more than once, and each trip helped me unravel the city as I hoped to see it, the city quietly deserving of such an important title.
During one of my early visits, my guide told me that there is nothing to do in Brussels but eat and drink. (Don’t confuse his tone; he wasn’t complaining.) Seeing as how he told me this over dinner and beer, I felt inclined to believe him. However, the next day marked my first solo exploration of the city, and it was then that my eyes were opened.
Brussels has over 80 museums, two of which deserve special mention if you love art as much as I do. The Magritte Museum houses the largest collection of work by arguably its most famous artist, René Magritte. A 15-minute walk north of that building will lead you to the Brussels Comic Book Museum, dedicated to the impressive history of Belgian comics. Both museums present, as I’m sure the other 78+ museums do, Brussels impact on European culture and world culture at large, as well as the feeling that you can’t help but feel fortunate standing in such a special place.
I overstuffed a small shoulder bag with supplies for the weekend and rushed to the Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof. It was only a short train ride to Brussels and when I arrived I realized the map I had of the city was totally useless and finding my hostel was going to be much more difficult than anticipated. Though I had bounced all around Western Europe by now, and even spent a couple of weeks in Moscow, this was the first time I had ever traveled alone. Really alone. The thought of becoming lost in a foreign city is much more intimidating when you’re by yourself than when you are with a friend – who you can conveniently blame your predicaments on.
My hostel was somewhere near the Grand Place, the gilded city center, so I set off. It is a long walk to the Grand Place from Bruxelles-Midi along a wide boulevard with Middle Eastern restaurants and shaded newsstands. I turned off before reaching the Grand Place onto a small road leading down a hill. The tourists cleared out and I checked my map again. It should be somewhere around here. There was plenty of light left and I wasn’t terribly concerned about searching for the hostel after dark, but I felt painfully visible and obviously lost as I walked back and forth up narrow, winding streets and alleyways.
As I trudged up a long hill back toward the Grand Place, a homeless man on the ground yelled at me in French. Then in Dutch. And finally in English. It hit me, forcefully as most epiphanies do – he didn’t know I was a tourist. No one knew I was an American studying abroad student hopelessly lost in Brussels. I straightened up, adjusted my bag, and continued on at a self-assured pace. When I stopped at an intersection, a woman clearly not from around here, asked me directions to some place or another. I casually replied, “Je ne sais pas,” and carried on across the street where I eventually found my hostel.
Every time I return to Brussels I remember and thank the city for teaching me to travel. It was here I perfected my RBF. I learned how to discretely take pictures without wearing my camera like a tourist totem around my neck. And I discovered the joys of sitting at a small cafe in a city park alone with a book. Like much of Europe, Brussels has overcome centuries of pains and joys. It will do so again, and the people who love the city will always return.