25 March 2008

Brussels: A Great Place, If You Don't Have to Go

I made a last-minute decision to go to Brussels with my Canadian visitors, and although Brussels has many merits (some of which I couldn’t shut up about), I think in retrospect I do prefer London.

Their international train station alone would put you off the city forever, just as an example. For design and efficiency, I give it an F, for: Fuck! Where Are the Fucking Toilets?!

Signs are usually pretty easy to follow because they rely on symbols rather than language to direct you. This is why they are called signs, and not instructions. If the train station in Brussels had come with a set of instructions, I would not have had to wander in painful circles for the better part of an hour, though, because their signage sucks monkey balls.

Getting off the train, you can either go left (into a maze of shops, cafes and more signs) or right (into a maze of signs and escalators to platforms). My instincts told me to go right, so right I went. Right past the only toilet I was able to find after a harrowing hour with a plaintive bladder, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Information signs only lead to maps that serve to tell you what you already know: You Are ‘Here,’ hopelessly lost in the most poorly-designed train station on Planet Earth, where somewhere is hidden a toilet. Happy hunting! Flemish backpackers and Dutch families aimlessly covered the same square meter, and although I couldn’t make out what they were saying to each other, I’m pretty sure it was along the lines of what I was saying to Jesus Christ, who I haven’t welcomed into my heart, but who usually gets the brunt of my abuse when things start to go terribly wrong.

Here was the dilemma: the only sign I could find that included the male/female toilet symbol was posted next to an arrow and the platform numbers 3 and 4.

Those doors, on either side of that set of escalators: were those the toilets? No, they’re locked, and the escalators go to platforms 5 and 6.

So back to the sign I went, thereafter following the invisible sightline of its arrow, which eventually landed me at a lift. Above the lift were the male/female symbols, an upward-pointing arrow accompanying the male symbol and a downward-pointing arrow accompanying the female symbol. Finally, some progress!

Except that the lift only had one button – an arrow pointing up.

In desperation, I got onto the lift anyway, which took me to the platforms above the station. I walked for a very long time in silence until I came to the next toilet sign. It was located above a different lift. Men’s toilets: downward arrow – women’s toilets: upward arrow. The only button for the lift pointed down this time. I pushed the button, got into the lift, and went down. The doors opened and I found myself back on ground-level, in front of the same lift I’d gotten into earlier.

Feeling utterly dismayed, I retraced my steps to where I exited the Eurostar and went left this time. I walked for what seemed like a very long time, deep inside the maze of shops, until I found the international sign for Toilets, and an arrow. I lost track of the sign for a while, beginning instead to take note of all the puddles that dotted the station floor - puddles that might have resembled spilled drinks in a perfect world, a world where toilets were not obscured by riddles like some nightmarish, toiletless Wonderland – when finally I caught up with it again near the arrivals lounge.

Ten minutes later, I was back at the first lift, facing the same dilemma. Female toilet: down. Button to the lift: up. There wasn’t even a stairwell to retreat to - just more lifts that took you up and ever away from the elusive basement-level toilets.

Finally I braved a café that looked, for all the world, like it would never have a toilet. At the top of a set of stairs, I caught sight of a door emblazoned with a loafer. Against all hope, I bought a bottle of Evian and said to the girl, “Est-ce-que vous avez un salle de bain?” to which she replied, “Toilettes? Oui, la bas” and pointed at the set of stairs.

And after practically flattening myself between the pink-slipper-emblazoned door and the stall of that very small toilet, I asked the Lord Jesus Christ to please wait outside for me, or find his own damn stall.


palinode said...

I stayed in an Etap hotel right across from the train station. Brussells was a nightmare to navigate. We got lost and found ourselves driving around and around in a part of the city that consisted of nothing but plazas and monuments, then another that was nothing but narrow packed houses and loitering Turkish guys on the corners. Every street has two names and no one knows where anything is. Except for the statue of the little urinating boy.

palinode said...

Really, if you're going to go to Brussels, go to Bruges or Leuven.

Anonymous said...

Too late! Maybe next time...

Lass. said...

Just reading this post made me need to pee.