Brussels

Posted on May 27, 2009 by Steve

After a planned trip to Istanbul was scrubbed due to overbooked flights, we scrambled to figure out Plan B. I had already requested time off before Memorial Day, so we were committed to go somewhere, but domestic travel by either air or car is a dicey prospect over a holiday weekend. Besides, last minute accommodations at nearby beaches were in the $200-300 range. We settled on Belgium: the flights to Brussels were wide open, and since the European Parliament was not in session, a nice hotel room could be had for $85 a night.

Not counting Toronto, this was my first international trip with the child. Things went pleasantly smoothly, with just a few headaches. We bought a Sit 'n' Stroll, which promised to make travel simple by combining the features of a car seat and a stroller. Like many hybrid inventions, it's not particularly good at either of its two functions. The low point happened early, while boarding a Wednesday afternoon shuttle to New York. We found that the stroller is too wide to roll between the seats of an Embraer 175, so I had to transform it to car seat mode and carry it, with child, down the aisle, bumping business-suited shoulders and scanning for two open seats together. About the time it became clear that there were no such openings, the wheels deployed. Naturally, by this time the kid had begun fussing and kicking. I backtracked and found that a sympathetic flight attendant had cleared out a row for us, and once we settled in the flight went smoothly. The transatlantic legs between New York and Brussels were quite tolerable, with our kid sleeping most of the way and other passengers' kids providing cover noise.

Brussels seems like a typical European city, with plentiful sidewalk restaurants and expensive shopping. The tourists blend in with the snappily-dressed locals better than usual, often speaking French. At one cafe it was only by noticing that every table had a city map that I realized all the customers were foreigners. A hapless local (or perhaps another tourist) was going from table to table asking for directions and getting nowhere. The entire country is indecisive on language; in Brussels, French seems to have supplanted Belgian Dutch ("Flemish"), but both languages are insistently present in street signs, product packaging, and metro station names. Frequently the distinction is minimal, but a moment's delay in recognizing Zuidstation as the Gare du Midi could cause one to miss a stop.

Belgians claim to have invited french fries, and their twice-fried frites were available everywhere. Bars even let you bring in fries from outside to get a beer to make the classic combination. Both ketchup and mayonnaise are offered. We were usually pretty pleased with the food, despite the fact that we invariably got the tourist-ready multilingual inkjet menu, which describes an entire dish with the words "Grilled Steak - 13.95." The house wine was always fairly priced and palatable, and waiters always spoke English to let us know if the meal included salad. I tried stumping one by thanking him in turn using English, French, and German, and he always gave the appropriate response until he mistook my Spanish and answered "Prego!"

We met up with an old friend of Ayda's who lives outside the city, and she and her husband were good enough to drive us (with three children altogether) to Bruges. We had seen it in a movie and guidebooks and other tourists alike said it was unbearably charming. With its canals, horsedrawn carriages, postcard architecture, and pedestrian squares, it felt like Venice without the Disney veneer. I forgot to climb the belfry, but we saw quite a bit of the town on foot. The drive back to Brussels included a automotive spectacle, as one supercar after another passed us on the E40, presumably driven by Eurocrats on their way back from a day trip to the beach. These included some Ferraris, a Lotus Elise, an Audi R8, and what may have been a Ford GT or a modified Mustang.

On our last day we made it to the Brussels historic center to see the sights and the little pissing man. Unintentionally I'm sure, Ayda got the perspective just right to get a photo of the statue urinating on my head.