Let's talk about Brussels. When I first I arrived, I felt like I was in the middle of a bad first date. I hated him. There I was, sitting across from the Belgian bloke, playing with my piece of bread as I tried to rearrange my face into something not pained, mentally hoping my apartment was on fire so the landlord could SOS me out of there.
And then, all at once, it smiled, and I kind of...sort of...became intrigued. Curious. Confusedly interested. Wait, kick you in the butt in love? Before I came to Brussels I had the idea that it was all Belgian waffles underneath parasol-dotted cafes, with buildings glinting with gold and medieval history. I expected there to be accordion players that took tips in the form of Belgian chocolates, and I had every intention of getting lost in Parisian-esque streets as I visited my aunt there.
What I got instead was a dirty, busy town that belonged to no one and was a hodge podge of life. Immigrants from all over Europe came there to work, so it felt like the city didn't have its own people. Neighborhoods went from African to Arabian to Polish to Indian as quickly as it took to cross the street. Everything was grafittied. I mean everything. Parked white vans, monuments of valiant heroes riding on golden horses, the sides of museums home to Magritte and Rembrandt — I once even saw a bush in a square spray painted in squiggly symbols that meant something to some hooligan kid somewhere. That's right, a shrub.
But with that dirtiness, oddly enough, came its charm. There was the smell of waffles and melting Nutella down every street. When you stood outside of museums, you had to flag down buses like taxis or else they wouldn't stop to pick you up. People spoke French with this surly frown, and that made me like them all the more for it. I caught myself saying “merci” instead of “bonjour” because I get tongue-tied and hand-wring-y when it comes to new words in my mouth. But the deli cashiers and postcard sellers would just smile at me in their heavy-browed way and make me feel better.
There were delis with fat pastrami sandwiches and cafes with heavily powdered fried-dough-anything on every corner, fighting for space with the vintage stores filled with Belgian grandmothers' dresses, and thrift stores that sold scratchy sweaters for only three Euros. I found `70s reading glasses that I've seen my aunt wear in family albums while in black and white, and pillbox hats that looked like they came right out of Doris Day's closet. In the vintage shop where I bought postcards to send to Chicago and Manhattan, there was a 40-year-old man with floppy curls and circle reading glasses, wearing a sweater that looked like it could have been knitted by his grandmother who lived in Antwerp. He was steaming kitschy wool knits, and I felt like I was in the opening scenes of a Woody Allen movie.
I'd buy myself chocolate filled puff pastries, winding through unevenly paved streets with chocolate smeared on my cheek like a five year old, not really minding that I'd figure this out an hour later. I stumbled across flea markets that were laid out in front of dignified looking churches, that had Turkish coffee cups and gold framed oil paintings of blushing women, next to old burner phones and boxes full of spoons. While there I found three things I'd buy if I had a little apartment in Brussels, one of them being a daisy dotted tea kettle I'd use as a flower pot. You're all invited to the house warming party.
The streets were comic strips, with the sides of buildings acting like the pages of a newspaper, characters coming alive on the backs of bars and the corners of record shops. Walking along the map became a game, where you'd try to find as many as you could find before it was time to hop on the bus and go back home to where my aunt made a proper Polish dinner, ready to split some red wine with me.
I'd go into second hand bookshops, pretending I knew how to read French, feeling cozy surrounded by words. I'd thumb through pages and dog-ear a couple of them to make them feel more homey, running my hands against covers that looked pretty enough to read if only I payed closer attention to my lessons in high school.
There were old men carrying grocery bags heavy with tomatoes and loaves of bread, and the roads were paved with cobblestone, making the bus jump and hiccup as it rounded the corner of the king's palace like it was no big deal. Meanwhile, yours truly had her nose pressed up against the window, having absolutely no chill.
There were vintage hat shops and cafes with white wrought iron tables with ash trays. I bought postcards of naked flappers and drank sour beer as I ate mayo fries smack dab in the middle of the Grand Place square. The buildings looked like something out of fairy tale picture books, all handsome and gold tipped. It was ugly and beautiful, royal and dirty, run down and full of charm and character. Brussels was like a weathered face that's seen better days — its skyline a bumpy nose, its roads the scars and crows feet — but damn if it wasn't the most interesting one you'd talk to over a pint. Where at first I'd never agree to a second date, now it's my favorite place in all of Europe.
Sneaky, sneaky Brussels. Slayin' hearts like it ain't a thang.