As I departed Boston the only thing in my head that could be heard over the din of travel anxiety was the thought for all the times I’ve quoted “the horror, the horror” I knew very little about Belgium’s involvement in the Congo. And that I’ve been meaning to understand this Walloon business for like 20 years now. OK, and wishing there was a Hercule Poirot tour.
One very amusing Oasis documentary, and a short stop in Amsterdam later, voila, I landed in Brussels, finding it a puzzling Southern California-esque 85 and sunny. I napped for four hours as everyone advises you not to, then rose a la Lazarus to wander around in aimless circles. getting lost was OK, then awesome, then scary, then fine, then fun, then alarming, then I stopped caring. Time didn’t stand still so much as flopped around in a haze of cafes, cathedrals, splendidness, garbage, beggars, tourists (U.S., China, India, U.K. most represented), squares, cobblestones, statues of that peeing kid, ornate windows, waffles, and chocolate shops. Euros are pretty. So nice to hear French. Dutch is hilarious. The youths are as tattooed and bearded as they are yonder U.S.
Log-like I did sleep that night, merci dieu. 11 euros for hotel breakfast? Not when there’s a quickie mart around the corner, I won’t. Began frontal attack on Brussels. Passed through the intensely symmetrical Garden of the Mont Des Arts several times having to retrace steps. What used to embarrass me about being the gawking, map-wielding, tourist I’ve become reconciled to, if not actually embraced. Top of my list: Magritte Museum. Whatta guy. WHATTA PAINTER. And possibly one of the greatest smart alecks in history which I meaneth with deepest art love ❤and appreciation. In fact, thought I had a moment of Stendhal’s disease hyperfocused as I was on The Female Thief, brought about by eye candy and either too much or too little coffee. That one I would heist, thanks.
If sound were an ocean and you cast out a net and pulled in the day’s catch you’d have the Musical Instrument Museum. So many species (did you know there is something called a piano giraffe?). THIS is where From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler reboot should happen. You grab up a little audio guide thingy and listen to floutes, lamellaphones, zithers, cornets, lyres, accordions, tambourines, pianos in identity crisis. As to the squeezey wheezy bagpipesque varieties made out of bladders and stomachs and so forth, one might wonder how they might smell after a few years of spittle action. Ah, let’s not think about it. But oh what a refuge, joy, outlet, and/or torment so many of these must have been in people’s lives.
‘Twas tres chaud (90 degrees), with the sun grilling my poor neck so I took refuge in the Parc du Brussels. One wishes one’s thinking processes went along such harmonious lines. And holy mysterious dark leafy glen, wandering down a side path, was magical. Seems like there should be lion statue robots to walk around in a dignified remote manner. Leaves + good weather + colonialist coffers invested in public spaces = Eden.
On the way to Sablon area I hit the convenience mart had a very nice dejeuner sur Parc de Sablon which is posh and gonzo bananas.
Royal Museum of Fine Arts: One could spend a week. A month. A lifetime. Hieronymus, St. Anthony, baby. Ooooweee. Thought it would be like the Mona Lisa with a guard, safety plastic, no, it’s just out on a table there, kinda like a…science fair. That shite is the shit, man. With HB, I see the “whattaweirdo,” school but to my eye I seyz fair play to him: it too is a truth about life if a little transposed. Wondered what Scott Joplin made/would make of him. Came across teenage daughter on bench in front of giant Reubens unbinding her hair and taking off her glasses and directing her harried mother on how to take pic in a calm, clinical voice. I was reminded as I continued how much of being tourist is looking for the bathroom. “OMFG it’s that Death of Marat painting I’ve been semi-obsessed with for 30 years that I’ll see once in my life ever—WOW, great—so now where’s the bathroom?” Well, after the Brueghel (pt. 1 and 2)—who I deeply dig (did Maurice Sendak like them?)—I was hitting oversaturation point: the enemy of the tourist. Oh, another masterpiece. Tra-la-blah-la-la.
Sunset didn’t come till like 10 p.m.—after my bargain basement Dec./Jan/Feb. traveling (which has been a gift and a delight don’t get me wrong)—that surfeit of daylight seemed supremely luxurious. Drifted from neighborhood to neighborhood—like anywhere else it seems like immigrant neighborhoods are on the outskirts. Lots of that nice after-dinner harmony of the kids playing soccer, families in parks.
Mondays 90% of museums closed so I decided to shimmy my way to the ATOMIUM. Good hot n’ sunny gravy—where was all that famed northern moody broody gloom? A nice sunny day is especially nice when viewing a giant, silver, 335-feet tall, gleaming replica of an atom. It was hard not to take it as a reproach from my high school chemistry teacher who I had a mild fear-crush on, who somehow managed to be both stern and woebegone at the same time, and gave my tests back with a reproachful sigh. I decided not to take the Atomium personally. Wondered at the number of aspiring atom-splitter grad students envisioning hurdling themselves off the top of the Atomium in the middle of their dissertation. Bumped into same mother-daughter from museum and with daughter now directing mom like Truffaut on various stairwells. Please Goddo let no one yarn bomb this place.
There was Grifters/GBV show of 1994. Finally seeing The Clean (2012?). Then the Black Pus under the Pawtucket Bridge in 2014. Now, Mini Europe. Not an exact parallel. But of comparable joys. How? Why? How the f should I know? You love what you love. Mini Europe is a theme park kind of like the 17th-18th century Grand Tour on a miniature golf scale. It’s also perhaps a graveyard of the Old World. And the world’s greatest entertainment. One walks along through sorta northern to southern Europe with replications of major buildings—Big Ben, Eiffel Tower, Coliseum, etc.—and lots of interactive features including having to give a Viking yell to get a tiny, laboriously mechanized scenario of a Nordic pillage started. Or pretending to steal the Mona Lisa in a foot chase. I spent close to two hours culminating in a pretty terrible lunch which I thoroughly enjoyed.
In a post Mini Europe glow, I walked around the giant Ossegempark Parc d’Osseghem Laeken and following a trail of echo-y barks, came across the police doing dog training with German Shepherds. I remembered how Rumble in the Jungle and how George Foreman brought his German Shepherds to Zaire for the fight, unaware these were the dogs the Belgians had used as attack dogs when it was a colony.
Before jumping on the tram, I couldn’t resist the Jardin de Sobieski with azaleas and trees all going kabelwy and looked like something Fragonard would salivate over. Shout out to the grandmotherly woman who shepherded me to the Extreme-Oriental Garden (Xtreme?) as it read on the sign. I developed a weakness for Japonaiserie (Van Gogh, etc.) in college before a real awareness of colonialism and appropriation that might at least contextualize such things, so such things as Japan Building make for complicated viewing.
Dinner: decided to splurge and go out as I felt an Adoration of the Pizza coming on. And worship, I did. But it was yuuuuuge. Carrying the leftovers in a pizza box turned out to be a natural deterrent to proprietors trying to lure you into their restaurants. Something a bit sad about those empty ones, like someone being all dressed up for a date and just about to be stood up. One gentlehomme stopped mid-pitch seeing the box. I pretended to give it to him saying, “delivery” and then wasn’t sure if it made sense as I hadn’t seen one pizza delivery truck, car, or bike since I’ve been here. How innocent that seems.
Poppies by side of train on way to Bruges KILLING me. No one wonder that Marimekko lady or fella has it so bad.
The day started with some of my very best aimless wandering – which makes it sound like a casual affair. Nee. It’s rooted in a pressing urge (if not greed) to see, devour even, a place (with eyes? feet?). So that took up a few hours. I DUG the canals. Riding a bicycle on those cobblestones (bumpaBUMPabumpa) would drive me crazy. About 50% of bikes unlocked, a sign of prosperity or optimism?
The Bruges Market Square is clotted with so many tourists photographing themselves/friends/family/buildings/carriages/fry stands, a conceptual photobombing art project to become recognized world-wide could be realized. Oh, the gold (or gold-like substance) a-glintin’ and a-gleamin’ on those determinedly magnificent buildings. HERALDRY IN SPADES. CVS seems like a present-day parallel to one of the dynasties that created these beasts and I was trying to imagine its palatial Town Hall, etc. Not hard.
At the Belfry of Bruges the ticket booth guy asked what country I was from and I added without thinking “Sorry about Trump.” He laughed. Theorized feet were smaller circling up the precarious 366 steps (best guess: 2? 3? deaths per year from falling or heart attacks or both?) when built. Family from northern England (this I guessed by their accent) at top of tower had some in-joke where they kept saying to each other “Fuck this, Angie,” in a French accent and laughing hysterically. Finally Belgian waffled. With frambois. WORTH ALL THE HYPE.
The guide on the boat tour kinda looked like the heroes on the cover of romance novels I read as a teenager: captain’s hat, tan, tall, white teeth, sweater tied around shoulders, old-school bonhomie. We chugged under bridges, through ludicrously scenic glades. Ducks at eye level. What could be better.
As a painting junkie, I had been so looking forward to the Groening. My SECOND Hieronymus Bosch in so many days, miracle head didn’t explode. Took selfies with both, possibly in bad taste. Flemish primitives (which I find confusing nomenclature however many times explained) seriously rawk. I wondered how often the artists chose (consciously or nay) subjects so they could paint fabric. There’s a whole lotta fucking fabric in old paintings, some of it far more animated than the person in it. I did my best to detect (if in a reductive manner) “ass kissers,” i.e. paintings done to appease/flatter patrons which didn’t preclude artistic success. So many cool things in so many paintings, uh, it was exhausting.
Returned to Brussels. Walk walk walk walk. Do European city emergency rooms see more ankle injuries with all the cobblestones? If you are from Belgium, I wonder if it’s hard to fathom why other places do not have so many parks. There is no way to softball this next bit: Brussels is underdogged. You might even say severely. Sure, a dog here, there, but not the steady stream you see in other European cities. Ou est les chiens, Brussels? Less merde perhaps but less joy. Think on that. A man coming out of the store addressed me in Dutch (?), and as I tried to understand what he was saying, traced his hand down mine to give it a squeeze, a disconcertingly intimate gesture, watching my face. Ick. Et tu, Brussels.
Got up early. Synapse path had solidified to find train station near my hotel. Two big wins in my book. Now, as an idle exercise, I’d started considering cities and neighborhoods on this trip in terms of foot chases. These were evaluated on the factors of a) likelihood of escape—labyrinthine qualities of alleys, parks, fences, etc., b) pleasure of chase c) agility required. So, when a tall young man bolted through my upstairs train compartment, pursued by a police officer, maybe I was less startled than I might have been. Off they went. And off I went, hot on the scent, to Ghent. I tried to think of a limerick with Ghent and vol-au-vent, but didn’t have stamina.
I arrived knowing exactly jack shite and no map. Take that, organization and planning. But got a hot tip from the coffee guy: follow the tram lines to the city center. Longish walk. Ghent possesses Gravensteen the castle-iest castle I’ve set foot in, plus a photo-ready chevalier dressed in armor. He seemed almost horrified I was traveling alone, which was funny as I wondered how much was a result of being in character (gallantry and all that). It was a very clean castle. I mean when you think of all the blood and shit and gore and piss and vomit on it in its heyday.
Off to duck into St. Nicholas’s, a multiplex of a cathedral. I like my cathedrals a little cluttered with statues, grottos and chapels, kind of mitigates the psychological warfare of the giganticness. There was something coming out of a communion cup of this wooden carving of Saint Someone that looked like a finger or a snake and my exclamation of puzzlement caused the back of a praying elderly woman to stiffen. How annoying is it to be a dedicated Catholic, who has tried to live their life as close to the tenants of the church as possible, and have tourists poking around the insides of your place of worship? And making observations like: the Mary/Bebe Jesu statue has an element of ventriloquist tableaux.
Pottered around town. Another boat tour, yum yum. More rib places (?) than I might have expected. That City Pavilion pointy and neat-O.
Belfry ace. The swarms of bicycles buzzing by seemed like my devoted cyclist pals vision of heaven. No one wears helmets or reflective gear. Do Europeans worry less or are just resolute to the hazards of life? Perhaps they are one in the same.
I will say in Ghent, as in Bruges and Brussels and eventually Antwerp I kept forgetting where I was. It was not France. It was not Germany. It’s…just sort of ambiguously Western European, which I suspect is a very USAian thing to say.
The night before I asked the concierge “so, hey, I haven’t seen any squirrels in the parks, are there any?” I believe he somehow got the impression I thought Brussels disobliging by not supplying healthy quotient of these fine mammals. He said in a mollifying customer service-y tone that since it was hot they hid but might come out later. I nodded, appreciating the gesture. Finally got some frites. Ace. Gave that mayonnaise a miss though—I know, when in Rome, but—there an escape clause when it comes to large heavy dollops of mayonnaise. Ketchup is like a dollar: HA.
I would like to point out, if any demythologizing of solo travel is needed, that anxiety and frustration management has been much of any trip I’ve ever taken. In some episodes, on the verge of tears, and deeply embarrassed by it, feeling joyless and despairing of that joylessness, I’ve trudged around in circles looking for some elusive chapel or whathaveyou. In terms of money, time, and effort, travel is very expensive, and to not enjoy it feels like failure and maybe worse ungrateful in the extreme. Trying to halt that snowballing of despair can take an awful lot of work. I know other people who solo travel and have much less of this. God bless ‘em. Pas moi.
OK, ANTWERP. Let’s not bury the lead: did NOT pull diamond heist. Antwerp has no connection to “twerp” I can find. Sunny breezy warm. Something there made me sneeze. Walking into the square I saw a bunch of uniformed hotel women cleaners sitting on the fountain having a smoke break and I thought of my urge to take photo of people working I’d had: waiters, cleaners, garbage guys, builders, repair men. In the end it seemed intrusive.
It turns out my making at least a cursory effort at French is not helpful here as Dutch is the name of the game and it’s actually rude to do so. Dutch sprinkles the “k”’s, “I”’s, j”’s, and “umlaut”’s somewhat at random (from my vantage point) but seem like it could be good fun if you are a graphic designer. Did I drink a carrot juice outside a café while writing in my notebook listening to Cher blasting through a cavernous health food restaurant? I’ll never tell.
Controversial if not shitty opinion: I’m not sure I’m totally sold on a bicycling city. Sure, less pollution, better health, less traffic, but when bicyclists are like, bombing down the sidewalk (somehow in pictures they look like they’re toodling), you could easily get mowed down, so as a pedestrian you have to worry about cars AND bikes.
While in Antwerp I did observe this intense paleness that I thought was only in paintings for some sort of hyperbolic emphasis. Not an unhealthy or sickly pallor—just an intense, and yes, glowing, milk-white skin. Really something.
In Cathedral of Our Lady and after clocking a fair amount of cathedrals in the week—I found myself thinking: how did the Catholic church pull it off? One after the other after the other.
MAS Museum is neat, more fun to look at maybe than to be inside, which is not slag but credit to the thing. Would Howard Roark blow it up? I chitchatted with the meneer at the ice cream shop (chocolate, if you were wondering) across the street. I asked him if it was nice to look at that building every day and he shrugged amiably and said didn’t have a choice in the matter.
So more aimlessness which led to—oh yeah, right, right, the Red Light District, totally forgot. How do you indicate as a radical feminist/tourist that you are in solidarity with sex workers as you pass by women in bikinis, stilettos, (etc.), in glass boxes? You might try to wave kinda low-key, like you would to a neighbor you like, but aren’t yakking buddies with. What the hell do I know? I mean, they’re like right there. It’s four in the afternoon. Avoiding any eye contact felt censorious. Too much eye-contact felt prurient. I came up with “hey.”
BTW I figured out the answer to world peace problem—help GtotheT find a train station. Half of a block of people from kids to grandpas of many different nationalities cobbled together enough English to get me there. I bowed in gratitude. Och, my feet hurt. And the directions were perfect.
Side note: I am a lifelong teetotaler, don’t like mussels, and have been scaling back on the sugar if you are wondering why there isn’t more beer/seafood/chocolates talk. Waffles, I did some damage. And frites. I poked into one chocolate shop, and, chitchatting about all the chocolates, the young man said he was lactose intolerant. I laughed, not meanly I hope, just like “life is full of painful ironies,” but he looked hurt. Rats. He proffered a hazelnut pinecone milk which I took even though I didn’t totally want.
Brussels, with all your beauty and history—please, anything—almost anything—but a peeing child. “A croissant a day keeps the joy in play” has been my motto including some questionable variations and I’m not stopping now at the end of the trip.
As the Clock, Fantastic Art, Police AND Orthodox Church museums were closed (c’est quoi ce bordel?) I found consolation in seeing the Jacques Brel museum which I had wanted to say anyway (I confess I’d initially gotten him mixed up with Berthold Brecht). Jacques Brel Museum. Now that was a man not afraid to roll his “r”s. Feel like they were making fun of him in Funny Face along with the rest of the Frenchie bohos. I was impressed with his intelligence, self-effacement, beauty, charisma, and honesty in talking about writing, work, Belgium, inspiration. What it means to be Belgian however, and it was clearly significance to the guy, is still a little lost on me. Next, I shopped successfully. Why does this country hate peanuts? Overstating, OK, but catch up, Europe. They are the stars of the snack show NOT in the supporting roles. I hit the Musee Horta. Best staircase EVER. An Art Noveau fan’s dream date. “Biomorphic whiplash,” as been the description, I guess. One of those places that is gorgeous and very hard to imagine a family with young children with melted chocolate on their hands running around.
Side note: Brusselians seemed to have a rather direct, even unwavering, gaze—not hostile, mind you—but it’s a little disconcerting. Has anyone else observed this?
I could have gladly stayed for another month (and frankly I’d be game to move to Brussels) but I was at the diminishing returns point of the trip. May I say, in all this touristing, each one of the things I was seeing would have been enough novelty and interestingness for one day—one week even—and here I was seeing like 10 a day.
But the last night was good. Was booted out of the Botanical Garden at closing time, saw a woman perform at a record store with complicated loop pedals, kicked around a soccer ball with some little kids, forestalled a teenage pickpocket, ate a gyro, and observed a large crowds at some Belgian fashion event. I wandered around till the very last moment before the sun set, trying to stuff as much Brussels in my pocket as I could before I left. I loitered in the Grand-Place just as tourists will do when the lights obligingly came on and that felt like a small blessing of super-cornball tourist luck.
Now for the FINAL ROCK T SHIRT TALLY BRUSSELSGIUM
1 Deep Purple
1 Iron Maiden
1 Slip Knot
1 Guns n’ Roses
1 Depeche Mode
1 Ray Pettibon (not really band, but…kind of close)
+ 3 guys who look like they aspire to look like the singer from Soggy
Brussels? Yeah. Go.
Gilmore Tamny is the author of My Days with Millicent, which OE is serializing.