Saturday, March 5, 2011

Brussels To-Do List

A half-day is hardly enough to explore a city, but that’s all I had in Brussels.  Before my arrival there I dutifully studied a tourist map and jotted a list of Brussels priorities in my journal.  Here’s what made the cut:
  • See piss statue
  • Free garage view
  • Granny’s waffle pick – Mokata
  • Check out Grand Place
  • Look for cardboard box
  • Post office
The last thing on the list—the post office—was my first order of business.  Two weeks earlier I had mailed myself a book entitled, Why Should We Teach About the Holocaust?, given to me free at a local museum in Krakow.  I wanted to read it but was still two-deep in unfinished books at the time; lugging a third in my backpack would have been a travel guru no-no.  I solved the problem by mailing the book ahead to myself for pick up in Brussels.  I sometimes do this to ensure a stream of good reading material ahead, and to save myself from certain strain on the neck and back along the way.  I had done this many times before, and always met with success from Helsinki to Bangkok to Nairobi.

But in Brussels there was one little complication.  I discovered that I’d written the post office’s address on the package itself, but neglected to record it in my journal, arguably the most essential part of the mail-ahead process.  At the time I didn’t have access to wi-fi to look up the address again, but figured it must have gone to the main post office where general delivery mail, also called "poste restante," is typically received.
I stopped in a nearby hotel and asked where I might find the main post office in Brussels.  At first the concierge was insistent on directing me to the closest post office, perhaps for convenience-sake, and it took some explaining to make him understand that I had mailed myself a book from Poland to Belgium, and it was probably at Brussels’ “main” post office.  He told me there were a couple of “main” post offices in Brussels, one closer to the center, and another further out.  “Which one’s the main-main post office?”  I asked, sensing some frustration on his part.  Still he graciously provided directions to the closer one.  I thanked him and set off with fingers crossed, passing the Grand Place along the way.  (Check).  Twenty minutes later, the book was in my hands.  (Check).

I was pleased, and also excited, because now it was time for a waffle.  I had saved the waffle experience for my last day in Belgium, in order to leave something to look forward to.  Three full days I’d waited for this waffle, and now I was really tasting it.  I settled on a recommended place dubbed “Grandmother’s Waffle,” so called because it’s a favorite among Belgian grannies wanting the cheap, authentic stuff.  The actual name of the restaurant is Mokata and, just like the map said, I found it tucked away in a ritzy shopping area across town.  I went inside and ordered a “classic waffle with sucre,” or plain waffle with powdered sugar on top.

I don’t recall seeing any grannies in Mokata, but I do remember the middle-aged, ruddy-faced man who ruined my Belgian waffle experience there.  I was waiting for my waffle and minding my own business when a man walked in and tossed his bag on the bench seat next to me.   He began speaking to me in French, stopped mid-sentence and said, “parlez vous Francais?”  When I replied, “no,” he rolled his eyes dramatically and switched to English.  “Watch my bag, will you?”  He turned and walked away, presumably to the bathroom, without awaiting my response. 

A few minutes later he returned and asked, “You are American?”  I nodded and said yes.  “Well, I won’t hold that against you.”  Whatever, asshole, I thought, now becoming annoyed.  He sat down next to me and opened his French-language newspaper.  He was so close I could read the fine print on the advertisements.

Things were quiet for a time and I was beginning to enjoy my waffle when this man dropped the paper down a bit, turned to me and said, “my name is Patrique, what is yours?”  Here we go.  I told him my first name through a mouth full of waffle, and quickly turned away.  Most people would have picked up that I was not interested in having a conversation, but not Patrique.

He began to ask me a series of personal questions—where are you from?  are you alone?  do you have a boyfriend?—which I did my best to dodge.  Frankly, Patrique (rhymes with freak) was no Brad Pitt, and he was creeping me out.

“So when are you going to marry me?” he asked, abruptly.  I was already thoroughly irritated by everything Patrique—the accent; the arrogance; the intrusiveness; the pretentious way he pronounced the name Patrick—and now he had thrust this ridiculous question into the middle of my one and only Belgian waffle experience.   I told Patrique politely—but in a tone that said leave me alone to enjoy my waffle—that I was leaving for Bulgaria that evening, so I didn’t think his suggestion would work out.  Again I turned away and pretended to read my journal.  I began to shovel the waffle in even faster in an effort to get out of there. 

But I didn’t finish soon enough.  Patrique lowered his voice, leaned in even closer, and said, real sleazy-like, “when you come back to Belgium, you should come stay with me.”  Now this jerk had completely ruined my waffle, and I hated him for it.  I took the last bite and began to gather up my things.  I got up, looked at Patrique with utter disgust and said, with a fake smile, “I don’t ever plan on coming back to Belgium.”  I paid the bill up at the front and left.  I don’t particularly remember whether the waffle tasted good, thanks to Patrique, but it was done.  (Check.)

Now I was in a mood, and had become less interested in the remainder of my to-do list.  I decided to nix the “free garage view”—a parking garage where one could ride to the tenth floor and get a decent panoramic view of Brussels for free.  Who cares? I asked myself.  Plus, compared to Bruges, Brussels was dingy.  I doubted an aerial view would clean things up.

I should at least go see the piss statue, I thought, consulting the map.  Actually, the statue’s formal name is “Mannekin Pis” and is one of Brussels’ most famous attractions.  I found it after a good walk and stood wondering what all the hubbub was about.  Basically it’s a tiny statue of a curly-haired kid peeing into a fountain.  For some reason people go crazy for this, evidenced by the scores of souvenir shops filled with Mannekin Pis kitsch—everything from Mannekin Pis corkscrews to Mannekin Pis chocolates.  I left half-suspecting this was a joke Belgians play on dumb tourists (like me) who will follow the herd anywhere to see something just because someone says it’s famous.  (Check.)

Piss on Brussels, I say.  To be fair, by now I was tired and cold, and still I had a couple hours to kill before my one-hour train ride to the airport in Charleroi.  Closer to the train station I wandered into a hip-style coffee shop that accepted credit cards with no minimum purchase.  The young café staff was, surprisingly, friendly; the cappuccino strong; and the a la carte lasagna slice delicious.  And just like that Brussels turned around a bit.

I was packing my things to leave and noted that I still had one item—“look for a cardboard box”—remaining on my Brussels to-do list.   Just then a girl emerged from the back storeroom with a large, pristine cardboard box that apparently once held sleeves of Solo cups.  I watched the girl carry the box outside and set it on the sidewalk, presumably for the next day’s trash pickup.  One woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure, I thought, as I snagged it on the way to the train station.  (Check.)  And if you’re curious to know why I needed a large cardboard box that night in Brussels, please tune into my next post, tentatively entitled, "The Budget-Airline Blues."

And that’s Brussels.  Done.