Brussels Finale

I have learned that the countless paths one traverses in one's life are all equal. Oppressors and oppressed meet at the end, and the only thing that prevails is that life was altogether too short for both.
- Castañeda

I admit it: I wasn't expecting much of Brussels. It was basically a place where I had to be on May 15 to catch a plane home. In fact I'd extended my stay in Luxembourg another day because I didn't figure Brussels would be very interesting.

And I don't beat myself up too bad for being wrong about that, because it was what several experienced Euro-travelers had told me.

Let me tell you: Brussels is, as Don Cornelius would say, a stone gas.

It took me all morning to get there; the train was slow and stopped at every obscure stop. And got held up; they were doing some work on the track or something. I have to say the Belgian railroad system didn't impress me greatly; I kept expecting to hear somebody speaking Catalan.

On the other hand I did get to see quite a bit of Belgian back country, which on the whole was really beautiful, the Ardennes especially: hills and woods, the scene of the last great German offensive of World War II and some brutal fighting as the Americans struggled to hold the line. You could imagine this would have been a bad place to fight a war, especially in the winter. Not that there are any good places for that.

It took me almost no time to find a room in Brussels; walking away from the station almost at random, lacking a map, I happened to walk right onto a little square lined with hotels. Most were impossibly expensive but there was a little place, the Hotel Eperonniers, just off the square, with one room-and-bath left.

The Grand Place turned out to be only a block away. A great open square surrounded by old buildings so ornate as to verge on the grotesque, lined with restaurants and cafés and snack stands, it was teeming with groups and singles, tourists and locals, strolling about the square or sitting and eating or just hanging around.

As a glance at the left of the photo will show, there was another kind of crowd on hand too:

The riot squad, they're restless, they need somewhere to go...they were all over the area and they were obviously ready for trouble, and I wondered what I'd walked into. But I drifted over, looking as harmless and stupid as possible, and asked a young cop what was going on; and he grinned and said the single word: "Soccer."

Which of course explained it all; there was a big soccer game and therefore a distinct possibility of the fans taking the town apart. I made sure I knew the way back to the hotel, and considered other possible escape routes if the shit hit the fan.

And the fans were on hand, little groups of them wandering around in their team colors - some with faces painted as well - and occasionally bursting into strange hoarse songs; but otherwise most seemed to be behaving themselves.

Most, but not all. Some time later a bunch of fans, on the street below my hotel room, decided to fight the law; and, as usual, the law won.

But that was all that happened, and after a while the cops dispersed and the Grand Place went back to peacetime mode.

I looked a little at the old buildings with their fancy façades - whoever built them didn't believe in holding back on the ornamentation; sort of like my mother - and later, still drifting, found the inevitable cathedral on a nearby hill:

This is the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. I took the picture from across the street and that was the closest I got. I had, it appeared, finally and terminally burned out on cathedrals.

This is more my kind of historical monument: the notorious Manneken-Pis, one of the world's great triumphs of bad taste and easily the most popular single sight in Brussels. The photos you see mostly give an incorrect impression of his size: as will be seen below, the little bastard is about the size of a not particularly large doll. (This one, by the way, is a replacement; the original was stolen by French troops in the 18th century. What they wanted with it, I don't want to know.)

As I say, there are no Chinese people left in China; they've all gone to Europe. In fact I think they were following me around. No, they had their own people to follow; the guy waving the yellow banner is the tour guide. A handy way to keep the group together and make sure nobody gets lost in the crowds, but the effect of one of these bands marching along following the bannerman...let's say it's a sight that stays with you.

It was a fine afternoon for cruising the streets, drinking Stella Artois (my whole-world favorite beer; I'd already made its acquaintance in France) from cans bought at little hole-in-the-wall stores, watching the tourists and the locals, always something to see:

As for example these members of the Black Horse Motorcycle Club: Euro-bikers, all of them riding Japanese bikes, though I saw a surprising number of Harleys in Brussels and for that matter all over Europe.

And of course the babe-watching was good too...I think this one was just down from the day from Luxembourg.

But nothing matched this van. Nobody seemed to know its story; the locals were staring as much as the tourists. It was parked by the little square by my hotel for the whole afternoon but I never did see the people who presumably came with it. Although I wouldn't have been totally surprised to learn that it had driven itself there. Y2K, sixties style? The mind boggles. Some sort of time warp here.

At last the shadows began to grow long; people at the sidewalk tables were starting to have dinner, and it was time I did likewise. My supply of Belgian francs was depleted, but I found an ATM and made a small withdrawal (first time I'd done that in Europe, and it felt truly strange: standing on a corner in Brussels getting money out of my bank account in Tahlequah, in francs at that) and went back to the square. The café downstairs from my hotel was having a special on mussels.

Mussels are the famous Brussels specialty and I'd been advised not to miss them. For once popular advice was right; the mussels in Brussels are...there ought to be a rain-in-Spain joke here; "are so good you'll do the hustle," OK, OK, never mind. But they really were delicious, served in their shells in a kind of soup with celery and other seasonings, in a huge crockery pot with a big order of fries on the side. The café didn't have Stella Artois but they had Jupiler, also excellent (being Belgian, after all), and I went through quite a few of those too.

Toward the end I got into a conversation in Spanish with a couple of young girls, not much more than teenagers, who were sitting at the next table. They were from some place near Madrid; they were interested to hear that I'd recently been to Girona, where neither of them had ever been. "Gerona," they called it, and giggled when I remarked that they better not do that around Catalans; "Ah, Catalans," they said, and rolled their eyes.

Up in my room a little later, I thought about the last events of the day: here I am in Brussels and I got some money from my bank in Oklahoma and then had dinner sitting next to a couple of girls from Spain. And they could as easily have been Italian or German or Arab or for that matter Chinese...the world was indeed changing very fast; the old national labels didn't seem to mean as much. At least around here, though in some parts of the world, according to the news on the room's little TV set, people were still killing each other over incomprehensible and seemingly trivial distinctions.

But I had had too many Jupilers to be much good at Deep Thoughts just now, and I fell asleep without reaching any conclusions....

Next morning I went down to the same café and yes, by God, I had Belgian waffles. With strawberries. The best strawberries I ever tasted.

Then I walked over and sat on a bench on the little square for an hour or so, watching people hurrying past on their way to work or school or whatever; and finally I shouldered my pack and set off up the hill to the station to catch the train to the airport.

Make my bed
light the light
I'll be home
late tonight
bye bye


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