In the Belgian capital, we Couchsurfed with a Heidi, a woman of about our age. Arriving in the city and making our way around, it seemed like most people were French-speakers – Walloons. Heidi and her friends were Flemish-speakers, though – Flemish being Belgian Dutch.
Heidi was very sweet and turned out to be a great host. On the evening we arrived, she and her friend, Wim, took us to a birthday party. It was nice enough and everyone spoke English, though parties are not my thing and I find parties where I don’t know anyone pretty alienating. It was also very smoky and I was a little shocked that many people were smoking inside with three young children around.
The next morning, Heidi took us around Brussels. We went first to a nice park near her home then took the tram to the city centre. She showed us some of the cartoon artwork that adorn random walls and demonstrate Belgians’ pride in the work of the likes of Hergé.
We went to see the Mannekin Pis, about which there are various stories to explain its existence. That day he was wearing a blazer, trousers and a boater.
Next, we had a look at the Grand Place, a square bounded by various beautiful buildings including the elaborately Gothic and statue-festooned City Hall.
Later, we had dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant, Kokob. It was the first time I’d had Ethiopian cuisine and it was good, if a bit messy. The pancakey injera bread with which you scoop up the food was very filling. Afterwards, we did a little more walking around, stopping by the Palace of Justice to take a few photos of the skyline.
The following day, we were on our own. We didn’t get out of the house very early, but I suggested going to the Atomium. I didn’t figure out a good way of getting there, so it took us a while; we took one tram, realised we couldn’t get into the park nearby, walked a while and took another tram. Habiba didn’t enjoy the process much.
The weather was not great, either, so walking around Osseghem Park was only a moderate pleasure. The Atomium itself is an imposing sf-esque structure that I found fascinating to look at. It’s like no other building and it’s great to walk around it and see how its profile changes. Standing under the spheres around the edge and looking up is also quite fun. If you look closely enough, you can also see your reflection in the metallic balls – although only as an aluminiumy smear. We didn’t go inside – which I now slightly regret.
The next day, we did some earnest sightseeing in the city. We got up early and headed to the flea market for a walk around. Then we went to MIM, the Musical Instrument Museum. When you go in, you’re given a set of headphones that you plug into various boxes around the museum; each is related to a particular display and you can listen to music made by the instrument you’re looking at. First impressions weren’t that great as many of the boxes didn’t seem to work well on the lowest floor. Further up the building, the sound quality was better.
The bottom floor was dedicated to machines that make music – from old player pianos and music boxes to early electronic instruments. The next floor had traditional instruments from cultures around the world. Further up were historical instruments from Western classical tradition; there were lots of harpsichord-like pianos, many elaborately decorated or painted with scenes from mythology and so on.
Afterwards, we had chips/French fries – a Belgian specialty – for lunch, checked out the Mannekin Pis again – this time he was nude – and went to St Michael and St Gudula’s Cathedral. This was a typically Gothic edifice; however, it differed from many other similar places we’ve visited by being quite bright and not at all crowded inside. It was less adorned than others; there was a series of modern fiery paintings of the Crucifixion. The brightness might be explained by the fact that we were experiencing one of our few sunny spells of our trip to Brussels. There were steps down to a basement level where some of the ruins of the original structure were on display. It cost a euro to go down, with an honesty box for the money; I paid when I came back up, having decided it was worth it.
Next, we went on a walk, the route for which was on a map Heidi got for us. We passed an area where everything had been painted yellow (or maybe bright green – it’s hard for me to tell) and three similarly coloured cars lay wheelless and full of plants. We passed through a couple of parks – Brussels has more than its far share of green spaces, apparently – went by the European Commission in the pouring rain, dropped into a supermarket to escape the weather and buy teabags and toothpaste, walked through the Parc du Cinquantenaire, which contains its own Arc de Triomphe and a big road that runs right underneath, surfacing for no particular purpose in the middle of the park, then on past the European Parliament and back towards the tramline home via the park between the Royal Palace and the Belgian Parliament.
That evening Heidi had a dinner party with ourselves and three other guests. We ate some very tasty Belgian fare that she prepared, along with the some leftover stew of Habiba’s from the previous night. In the morning Heidi accompanied us part of the way to Gare Midi. We said our goodbyes to another great host and started on the journey to Paris.