27 March 2008

Enuff! Or why I ate Easter dinner from a vending machine

The girls have gone out for the evening and we are taking a break from heckling the television packing, so here I am, at the computer. And there is Bruce, shooting zombies on his new game console. The one he purchased after it was determined that we were broke - maybe because somebody had to go and buy a new dress at Orla Kiely. (Okay, that wasn’t Bruce.)

I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you that whilst Brussels smells like pee in places and sometimes throws up oversized Tin-Tin characters where you’d least expect them (so, anywhere), it does have its merits, and so much of it was stunning.

Firstly there was our host, Lisa. Lisa is like the girl of your dreams and the best friend you wish you’d had, all rolled into one. On the subway, after she bested the lecherous advances of a cocky seventeen-year-old with bad skin in French, she pointed out a station that always made her out-of-town friends laugh. Indeed, it gave me pause, and I thought I was being a bit juvenile for thinking it, but what’s the fun in living if we can’t scoff at a place called Kunst – Wet?


Possessing a hybrid accent and the comprehension of four or five languages, Lisa translates or interprets for NATO, I forget which, but either way – wow. When we told her about automatic car starters, which allow you to start your ignition from the warmth of your house, she looked momentarily stunned, and then said, “That would save your life if someone planted a bomb.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that stuff like bombs planted in cars only happens in the movies or on television, at least where I come from. Snow on the other hand! That’s some pretty life-threatening stuff.

She took us on a walking tour of the city: a tour that was frequented with stops in some utterly charming pub or restaurant, where we’d buy rounds of beer and devour plates of delicious food (punctuated by espressos). The streets were free of high-season shoppers so we roamed languidly from one district to the next, all night long, watching others and being watched, as it’s not very rude to stare in Belgium. I think all in all, we probably sat in five pubs and three restaurants, ate three meals and drank over ten glasses of beer that night. I put myself in a taxi at eleven and the others carried on until four or five (there simply isn’t a last call in Brussels).

Sunday could have been a write-off, but it was by far my favourite day there. We met up that morning and headed over to an Arabian market for breakfast, where a massive queue forms at a particular cart selling pancakes filled with goat’s cheese and honey or grilled vegetables (or all three!), and steaming glass cups of sweet tea made with fresh mint. We puffed on our pancakes at outdoor tables, listening to the desperate calls of the men trying to sell their fruit before things closed: Deux!Deux!Deux!Deux!

Then we wandered through the antique district, where you can buy furniture, dishware and toys for a pittance (if you can get them home), and the old town, which feels vaguely like the best parts of Paris, Krakow and Rothenberg, deftly stitched together. We paused to read hand-written letters pinned to clotheslines that somebody had strung through one of the squares. A voice behind me said, “Pardon, Madame,” which was my cue to keep walking, but somehow he got my attention. “Three minutes of your time, to list all the places you’ve slept.” “Does it cost anything?” I said, and he laughed. “No, this is for a festival.”

He showed me to a table where strangers sat elbow-to-elbow, scrawling messages amongst sheaves of loose paper and mismatched pens. It took more like five minutes, and I can’t remember what I wrote, but the experience of being tasked with something so random and simple, and then carrying that out in the quiet and warmth of that square reminded me of the better parts of childhood.

I pinned up my list of places I’d slept and did a little dance in front of it until the girls stopped trying to read, and we moved on. It rained a little later, making soup of all those words I bet. We visited too many chocolateres to count, and cooled our aching heads with fresh air and cups of hot Godiva exlixer.

That night I declined meeting them for dinner; I had to be up early to catch my train home. I figured I’d have a nap and then get dressed and go down to the hotel restaurant for a quiet meal alone.

I figured wrong! The hotel restaurant was closed for Easter Sunday, and instead a group of Spanish tourists swarmed the lobby in a shouting mass of confusion. I bought a bag of crisps, a packet of fuzzy peaches and a can of Carling from the vending machine and headed back up to the room to watch a programme on BBC, read the new Hanif Kareshi and basically feel sorry for myself.

The girls came back from dinner to see if I wanted to get a waffle, but it was late and I’d seen and done more than enough for one weekend.

The next morning I got out of bed shortly before the wake-up call that never came, showered, dressed and headed to the subway. I wandered around the crappy train station looking at bad installation art (stuff made from coloured construction tape?!) and then went through Eurostar security. By the time I reached France, it was snowing weevil-sized flakes of snow and I was looking forward to seeing Bruce, and sleeping in my own bed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Still witty.
Still a lovely writer.
God, I miss you.