Brussels: The City That Doesn’t Take Itself Too Seriously

I imagine it’s not easy being the capital of all of Europe. A continent so filled with history, beauty and culture, and to be the head of all of it? in a way, Brussels is to Europe as Beyoncé is to the music scene (in my humble opinion), so naturally, the only way to deal with so much pressure and privilege is this: Do not take yourself too seriously. And Brussels does not. Brussels has an excellent sense of humor.

It was such a joy to arrive in Brussels after spending a week in Paris—potentially the most pretentious city in Europe. Potentially. Here are the things I noticed immediately upon arriving in Brussels that prove Brussels is your friend’s really cool, humble older brother who has a lot to offer but also knows how to make fun of himself and have a good time in any kind of company. Are you a little confused? Let me explain.

1. The Manneken Pis

IMG_1338The Manneken Pis is arguably the most famous landmark in Brussels, and what is it? It is a little boy happily peeing into a fountain. It is hilarious, making light of the whole concept of naked, cherubic statues spouting water into fountain basins. And, not only is the actual statue funny, but the rest of the city has a fun time parodying the little boy as well. BelgianIMG_1340 Waffle shops have remakes of the Manneken Pis outside their stores happily holding a waffle. Glasses stores have him wearing a cool pair of glasses. Clothing shops have him outside painted neon colors.  Furthermore, several times a year, they’ll dress the little guy up in different costumes for holidays. There are many legends as to how the fountain was dreamed up and created in the first place, which you can check out here, but I know the real reason it’s there: when you’re the coolest city in Europe, it’s hard to keep that from manifesting itself.

2. The prevalence of grafitti

IMG_1377I’ve never seen more imaginative or pervasive graffiti anywhere than I saw in Brussels. It was overwhelming—especially because in this city, graffiti is mainly used as an artistic outlet to make something beautiful for the city than it is to simply scrawl names or hateful things. In a way, Brussels graffiti is the best free public arts project a city could have. IMG_1332Aleah and I saw entire skate parks filled with graffiti from ramp to rail, entire building walls covered with hopeful words and images, and entire artistic communities created and designated by where the beautiful graffiti ends and the stucco starts. Brussels is so creative it can’t help but share as many original, creative things with the world as it can.

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3. Headquarters of USE-IT

Traveling throughout Europe, we had to get really familiar with maps. We used any kind of map we could get our hands on. Sometimes they were great, sometimes I wondered why the city even wasted its ink. But, our whole 120117_logorelationship to maps completely changed when we got to Brussels. Our couchsurfing host gave us a map left to him by another surfer made by a tourism company called USE-IT. The moment we read it, we were absolutely blown away by how excellent it was. It was a map created not-for-profit for the city of Brussels by its residents—filled with not only the big tourist attractions, but also the little known places and shops only the locals know and frequent. The map came use it 00complete with sections called “How to act like a local,” “Local slang to know,” and short paragraph description of all the 80 hotspots the map suggested we visit. The map was not only clear and thorough, but filled with sarcastic humor and lightheartedness. After using the map for 2 days, we decided we had to go to USE-IT headquarters in Brussels and thank them for the map that made our trip, and when we got to headquarters we found that nearly 20 other cities in Europe have followed Brussels’ example and created their own USE-IT maps. We stocked up on those and were set for the rest of our trip. But, of course, something that cool, helpful, welcoming, smart and funny could only have been created in Brussels. And, of course, imitation is the sincereest form of flattery. You can check out USE-IT’s website here.

4. Inability to select a single national language

Brussels is one of the most open, welcoming cities I’ve ever encountered. And a result of that, I feel, is welcoming all languages and not being sticklers about their own language. Belgium, in general, hasn’t decided if its national language is Flemish, French, Dutch or German, and Belgium really doesn’t care. If you like beer, chocolate and comedy, you’re in the right place, no matter what language you speak.

5. Expertise in Beer, not wine

It’s all about Belgian beer here. The emphasis on beer really stood out to me after just having been in Paris where people basically put wine in their coffee mugs in the morning.

6. Jokes are scattered throughout the city. 

The artists here certainly have a sense of humor. Let me show you some funny things I saw around the city you might appreciate (besides the Manneken Pis and its parodies).

This was at the train station to greet me upon my arrival in Brussels. From moment one I knew I was in for a city that had an excellent sense of humor.

This was at the train station to greet me upon my arrival in Brussels. From moment one I knew I was in for a city that had an excellent sense of humor.

There can be no way a person would name a place like this "Versailles" and not have a great sense of humor. No way.

There can be no way a person would name a place like this “Versailles” and not have a great sense of humor. No way.

This was in a coffee shop window. Yeah.

This was in a coffee shop window. Yeah.

This was just sitting around on a nonspecific street.

This was just sitting around on a nonspecific street.

A frieze of little babies doing activities usually done by adults in friezes like this. And this is on the side of a "serious" building in Brussels' Grand Place! I need to meet the mayor of this city and shake his hand!!

A frieze of little babies doing activities usually done by adults in friezes like this. And this is on the side of a “serious” building in Brussels’ Grand Place! I need to meet the mayor of this city and shake his hand!!

Versailles: A Labyrinth of Magnificence

Crucify me if you must, but, after spending one day at Versailles, I’ve learned the following: the phrase “you can’t have too much of a good thing” is a lie written by someone who has never been to the Palace of Versailles.

Indeed, the moment you get off the train from Paris to the city of Versailles, immediately you are overwhelmed by the scale of the magnificence that surrounds you, and you aren’t even at the palace yet. The town of Versailles—so old, so towering, so quiet, so mysterious and breathtaking—each stone in the street seems to whisper stories of its past that a passerby could hear if only they walked more slowly and looked more closely.

Perhaps a visit to Versailles might be less overwhelming if you had at least a week to spend in the town alone, but when Aleah and I went, all we had was a day. And not even 24 hours! More like 10.

We arrived in the morning in the town of Versailles, which, like I said, is stunning. Our original plan was to go right to the Palace, but when we saw the town, we realized how foolish that plan was. Go right to the Palace and miss the town? No way! So we roamed the streets, each street looking like it was painted from a fairytale book. We walked down low-lying sidewalks beneath lightly-colored café walls through espresso machine exhaust and cigarette smoke. We found a sprawling, green park complete with a lake bordering the palace walls at which no amount of time spent laying out on its verdant expanse would have been enough. We finally tore ourselves away from the greenery and breached the Palace gates.

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As I walked up to the Palace through the courtyard after having entered the gates, a nervous energy consumed me, which surprised me. It took me another two minutes before I realized: even though we have 7 hours to spend at this place, there is no way I will be able to see or appreciate even 10% of the things that lay before me.

For a person like me who is a slave to her to do list and who likes to have ever box checked and every grammatical error corrected,

Where do you start?

Where do you start?

this unfortunate realization within the Palace gates was unsettling for me. I made a decision then to dedicate all my time to the gardens. I knew if I went to the gardens and the Palace, I’d see even less, and if I was going to dedicate my time and energy to something, I wanted to feel like I’d be able to do whatever I chose justice. So, I headed to the gardens while Aleah headed to the Palace. She’d meet up with me in the gardens after she’d had her fill of the Palace.

A WORD OF CAUTION. DO NOT ENTER THE GARDENS OF VERSAILLES WITHOUT EATING A LARGE MEAL FIRST. I REPEAT, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO SEE THE GARDENS ON AN EMPTY STOMACH. I made this mistake. Good lord.

First of all, I stand by my belief that the gardens of Versailles are bigger than some National Parks in America. Staring out over the gardens of Versailles must be close to what staring out into infinity must feel like. DO NOT get me wrong: I have never seen anything more beautiful in my life. But the excitement generated by the unparalleled beauty that lay before me was coupled with the simultaneous, nagging knowledge that I would not be able to see it all. Not even 50% of it. Maybe not even 25%. But onward I marched.

...which direction should I start walking?

…which direction should I start walking?

Armed with a map, I felt pretty safe in my wandering. So, down one perfectly-trimmed, tree-lined corridor I walked which opened up to a towering, magnificent fountain. I continued walking forward and saw another magnificent fountain. I changed direction and saw another one. Then a large, gorgeous reflecting pool that leaves the one lining the National Mall in DC in a shameful blush. Onward I walked, my neck on a constant loop of cranes and turns to see as much as I could as I kept walking.

Finally, the heat began to get to me, and I ran out of water, and I began to feel hungry. “Okay,” I thought, “let’s find a food stand.” Unfortunately, I hadn’t kept that in mind as I wandered through the gardens, so when I consulted the map that was now a bit damp

Another gorgeous corridor with untold wonders littering its path to oblivion.

Another gorgeous corridor with untold wonders littering its path to oblivion.

from my sweat, I found, to my chagrin, that the nearest food stand was near the entrance to the gardens. I gulped. And, I’ll admit, I began to panic even more. Now, the nervous energy I’d had since the beginning because of the vastness of my surroundings was manifesting it darkest sides.

I walked down a corridor lined with towering trees and bushes only to find it doesn’t go all the way through, instead a beautiful goddamned stream was blocking me from getting to the other side. A lovely stream. But goddammit already, I just wanted a sandwich. I doubled back, walking the long corridor with a much quickened pace. Another corridor. Again, thwarted by a wall with a shining, golden crest crowning it. Shit! Cool, yes, this wall is beautiful, but COME ON!!!

Before I knew it, I was in the middle of an area I couldn’t find on the map, and these are the things that I saw all around me. I was neck-deep in panic mode:

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Side 1: shrubbery————-Side 2: wall———–Side 3: shrubbery——–Side 4: shrubbery

Finally, I found my way onto the tourist stretch, but the food stand was nestled within the narrow, verdant corridors leading to fountains and whatnot. And, I have to tell you, after the 4th fountain I saw that wasn’t a food stand, I thought, “My kingdom for a disgusting, ugly, stained, Grade-D hotdog stand!!!” I would have gladly traded a flawless, expertly sculpted, legendary fountain for a goddamn slice of pizza. Finally, I found the promised land and ordered a sandwich, a crepe and a bottle of water. I found a spot on the grass near the entrance of the Palace, so there would be no way for me to get lost. I sat down and I slowly ate my food, and contemplated the statues surrounding me. That was enough for me. The three gorgeous statues circling me as I ate my over-priced

Enough with this already.

Enough with this already.

ham and cheese panini in the gardens of Versailles, at that moment, was all I needed. I didn’t need, or, at that point, want, the other 99.9999% of the gardens.

I felt lightheaded as I left the Palace that day, firm in the knowledge that maybe I was wrong to have wanted to be a “princess” when I was younger.

A Picnic of International Proportions…

Manuel, Aleah and I had made plans the night before to have a picnic on the canal right by Manuel’s apartment. It sounded lovely enough. One thing we’d noticed roaming the streets of Paris is that everyone in this city loves to picnic in it. It’s the cheap way to dine. Grab a couple essentials from the grocery store (and not an expensive fromagerie or chocolaterie, either), find any one of the infinite picturesque spots in the city to park yourself and your crew, and enjoy. We were going to meet some of Manuel’s friends at the canal, so our crew would be more than enough to bring the ship of our evening safely into the harbor (too much?).

That evening, we all met at Manuel’s apartment and walked to the grocery store. Manuel walks like a Parisian: quickly and with purpose. And, when he got to the grocery store, he did not mess around. Immediately, he grabbed a basket and assumed picnic-preparation mode. It was downright fascinating how he already knew exactly what to get. He made a B-line through the store picking up everything we would need—the bare essentials: sausage, brie, crackers, olives, mustard chips (he was very particular on that), caviar, baguette (of course) and two bottles of wine (of COURSE). He paid before we could even take out our wallets, and with that, we were on our way to the canal.

It was 8 pm (or 20:00 depending on how European you’re willing to get with this blog post) and there was a slight chill in the air tempered by a whole lot of cigarette smoke. People were bustling around the narrow, cobblestoned streets, no doubt preparing for their own evening plans. We finally made it to the canal, and though the canal is long and wide, I felt incredibly lucky to have found a seat. The canal was packed with picnicking Parisians who’d found their evening locale along the canal as well.

 

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“Looks like we weren’t the only ones who had the idea to eat on the canal tonight!” I said good-humoredly.

Manuel looked at me like I was an idiot. Of course we weren’t the only ones to think of this. This is not unusual. This is what you do here. Stupid American.

We sat down and started taking out our food, when Aleah and i realized we hadn’t brought any eating utensils. But before we could

Manuel and the corkscrew that saved the day.

Manuel and the corkscrew that saved the day.

notify Manuel, we opened a pocket of his backpack and took out a knife, a spoon and a corkscrew.

“Manuel!” I said. “You came prepared.”

“Ahh, I always have this here,” he said. A man who keeps a knife, spoon and corkscrew in his backpack in case of emergency or gametime decision picnics? That’s my kind of guy.

Manuel’s friends joined us, and they brought two more bottles of wine, among other things. His friend was Japanese who brought her friend from Japan along with her. She spoke English, French and Japanese, but her friend only spoke Japanese. You can imagine the Tower of Babel we began to construct, one “Can you pass the olives?” at a time.

Another one of Manuel’s friends arrived—who also brought a bottle of wine (in case you’re confused, we’re at 5 bottles of wine now)—spoke French, English, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. Manuel himself spoke all those languages and  German. It got to the point

Manuel, who doesn't speak Japanese, with a picnic companion who only speaks Japanese.

Manuel, who doesn’t speak Japanese, with a picnic companion who only speaks Japanese.

where every other sentence spoken at that picnic was in a different language. French, Italian, Japanese, English, Portuguese, Spanish and who knows what else were being tossed around the circle like a beach ball so strenuously that 5 bottles of wine almost wasn’t enough to get me through the meal.

We started to talk to each other about how we each ended up picking up the languages we each spoke, and Aleah summed up the night quite eloquently when she simply said, “I think we can all agree that Emilia and I speak the fewest languages the worst.”

The final friend who arrived, with the fifth and final bottle of wine.

The final friend who arrived, with the fifth and final bottle of wine.

Indeed, we all could. I was in such good spirits and feeling so Parisian by the time the caviar ran out that I even accepted a cigarette when Manuel pulled out his pack. I tried to take a suave puff while gazing out over the light-speckled  canal nonchalantly, but while my mindset at the time may have been Parisian at the time, my lungs were not. My charade ended in wheezes and gasps and laughter from everyone at the picnic. No, I wasn’t French, but I had just had a quintessentially French evening.

Me and the cigarette that blew my Parisian cover.

Me and the cigarette that blew my Parisian cover.

When the last baguette had been bitten around 11 pm (or, again, 23:00) we tossed our trash (one of the few groups to do so, unfortunately) and headed down the street to the free evening concert on Place de la République. I didn’t do much jumping up and down because I was still quite full, but I stood amidst the crowd and listened to the French band singing lyrics I didn’t understand, and thought about the glass of red wine I drank on the Parisian canal as conversations in Japanese, French and Italian I also didn’t understand floated through my head and into the water.