For my birthday, Peter is taking me back to the capital of fries and chocolate: Brussels, a city I lived in for nearly 12 years.
“I only came for six months,” is a common response for expats when asked how they ended up in Brussels. With key institutions of the European Union and NATO, there is no shortage of foreigners in the Belgian capital.
I only moved to Brussels for a year contract. This changed to three, and then I changed jobs and ended up staying for more than a decade. My stay was brief compared to many.
Brussels is a funny place that many love to hate.
‘Cloudy with a good chance of rain’ is the most common weather prediction. Belgians don’t understand the concept of customer service. Shop assistants will glare if you say a brief “Hello” or even smile when entering their shop. Supermarket cashiers have perfected the glare, especially if you take what they consider to be too long to find your purse. They may stop mid-scan to have a 3-minute conversation with the cashier behind them about the new brand of salad dressing and whether they should bring some to the BBQ on the weekend. That is irrelevant!
Belgian bureaucracy deserves a whole post of its own. Multiple national languages cause their own problems. Still, there is a tendency to over-complicate everything and the queues are always long.
The first time I visited the capital of fries and chocolate I left again after only a few hours. I was visiting with friends and we had planned to stay for two nights to see the city. Mid-afternoon on the first day, we were already in the much cuter city of Bruges, relieved to have made it out of Brussels in one piece. One of my friends was not so lucky – her favourite boots were beyond repair, ruined by run-ins with some wonky cobblestones and poorly placed dog poo. Her ankle was a little tender, too.
Dirty, illogical and unimpressive were my first and only impressions of the capital. Why then did I decide to sign a contract that would force me to live in the city for a year? And why did I stay?
It’s a lot like mould really
Like many cities, Brussels grows on you the longer you live there. Once you get past the fries, chocolates and the waffles – and lose the pounds you put on sampling said fare – it starts to feel like home.
You factor in extra time for standing in the queue just to purchase two stamps or to discuss your urgent need for hygiene supplies with security at the supermarket when there are still 20 minutes before closing. Logically, you accept this extra time and forget that this is not normal.
You wear flat shoes for the walk to work is normal and prevents heel damage on the cobblestones. Dodging dog poo mid-stride while looking up to appreciate the varied architecture becomes second nature.
You meet your first real Belgians and enjoy having coffee and a croissant together before going to your local park on the weekend to enjoy some rare sunshine. Of course, you joke about how many real Belgians you know.
When I left Brussels, I was moving on to the next phase of my life. There were many things that my shoes and I have not missed. Many friends moved on around the time that I left and others have left the city since. I have only been back a few times, mostly to deal with official matters such as voting or passports, or to go to a funeral.
My return to the capital of fries and chocolate has been a long time coming
This weekend I am going back for a real visit for the first time. I am really looking forward to it. Typically, it is forecast to rain all weekend.
This time, we will be taking our daughter, to show her some of the places that Mummy used to live. Our itinerary will, therefore, have to be kid-friendly and will include some things that I have not seen in a very long time, if ever.
Miss M was not even a work-in-progress when I lived in Brussels, so I am really not familiar with many of the places that are kid-friendly.
I know families with small children would eat early and leave most bakeries and breakfast places before I got there. I would sometimes pass them leaving or be faced with the debris they left in their wake. Rarely were there any children at restaurants I visited. This may be a challenge for us.
At least I know Miss M will eat hot chips – convenient when we are visiting the capital of fries and chocolate. We are planning on visiting Maison Antoine at Place Jourdan, so she can try some of the best in the world.
Lots to see and do in the capital of fries and chocolate
We also plan to visit some of my Mum’s favourite haunts. My Mum visited me at least four times while I was living in Brussels and it was a great base for seeing Europe. She had found her favourite bakery, her favourite chocolate shop, her favourite chocolate shop for hot chocolate, as well as her favourite chocolate shop for cakes. Naturally, she had found her favourite shoe shop as well. We also plan to visit the antique and flea market in her honour.
Our little dinosaur aficionado is most excited about visiting the Bernissart Iguanodons at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. We will eat waffles in the Grand Place and visit both Manneken and Jeanneke Pis. Still, I am not sure what value these two will have for a small child.
I hope to take lots of photos, but I am afraid that some of the sites will not look very impressive in the rain. At least then they would be a typically Brussels scene.
I will have to remember to pack suitable shoes. And to take my umbrella.