Brussels, Belgium • March 2011 • Length of Read: 14 Minutes
It was the Easter Holidays and classes would not commence for another four days. Most of the students had been looking forward to this much welcome break for months and plans had been hatched to make quick getaways as soon as their end of semester exams had been handed in. Throw some darts at a map of Europe and you would be hard done by not to hit at least one of their chosen destinations.
While all this was happening, however, I found myself sitting across from Bjorn in the kitchen of my Maastricht University student accommodation; surrounded by greasy dishes, listening to classic rock, and nursing some warm 36 cent Aldi beers. We had missed the boat and were now paying the price of suffering excruciating boredom in a small ghost town. 'There must be something better we can do with our time than this' I pondered as the bridge of Skynyrd's 'Free Bird' blared from some battery powered speakers, but this thought was abruptly interrupted with the buzzing of my Swedish friend's Nokia on the kitchen table.
“Bonjour Michelle, comment allez-vous?”
Following a quick conversation in lightening-speed French, Bjorn's third-best spoken language might I add, he slams down his phone and asks nonchalantly: “Want to go to Brussels?”
"You read my mind. Fuck it! Why not?"
We left the quaint Dutch town by train the following morning and by lunchtime were wandering down to The Grand Palace where we were to meet the elusive Michelle. Like all young men, my brain couldn't stop trying to guess whether she would be hot or not. Craning my neck skywards I was awestruck by the guild halls encasing Brussels main square but am again shaken from a trance, this time by the sound of a rough voice shouting: “Bjorn, Bjorn!” A lanky 6ft tall bearded Belgian bounces into sight and gives Bjorn a massive bear hug which, by the looks of it, he was greatly anticipating. “Hey man”, he said turning to me. “My name is Michelle. You ready to see the REAL Brussels?"
Please tell me I didn't just make the same gender-switching mistake as Scotty from the classic teen-comedy Euro Trip?
We walked down some side streets until our path was blocked by what at first glance appeared to be a large huddle of paparazzi. As we got closer, however, there was no sign of any A-listers, just hordes of agitated tourists crushing one another like they were in a mosh-pit in an attempt to get a decent snap of the Manneken Pis. This miniature statue of a golden boy urinating into a fountain, and which translates to 'Little Pee Man' in English, is the most famous sight in the country, but Michelle and Bjorn weaved masterfully through the crowds without even a glance in its direction.
"Enough of him! You need to see the Jeanneke Pis, his little sister."
I thought they were 'taking the piss' for a bit, but lo and behold just around the corner and tucked behind some railings down a one-way alley was a little limestone girl squatting over a puddle and apparently also suffering from a leaky bladder. If this is a supposed representation of the locals one could do a roaring trade in Catheters in this city.
“Right, that’s enough sightseeing for one-day,” moped Bjorn. “Time to show you what Belgium is really famous for. Beer.”
We enter The Delerium Café, renowned for having the largest beer menu of any drinking establishment on the entire planet. Bjorn and I grab a table whilst Michelle heads over to the bar only to return moments later with some 'shoes' of beer. And when I say 'shoe' I do not mean that the bar had run out of drinking vessels and resorted to using what was on their clientèle's feet. What I actually mean is that he was struggling to carry three glasses towards us that were each the same shape and size as an adult's Wellington Boot. 2 litres of 8% Duvel a-piece? Starting off easy then I take it.
Sitting around a table, which was actually an up-turned cask, we shot the shit with my tour-guides intermittently rattling off stuff in their mother tongue when they got too excited. Born in Sweden, Bjorn moved with his family to the little Belgian village of Nivelles during his teenage years where he befriended Michelle and learnt to speak French. He returned to Sweden when enrolling at Linkoping University but his parents and younger brother still split their time between their Scandinavian house and their one in the suburbs of the Belgian capital we would be residing in this weekend
The hours passed effortlessly as the boots were drained and it wasn't long before we became loud-mouthed and boisterous; much to the bemusement of some Spanish girls at a neighbouring table. My round was up and whilst waiting in line at the bar a bald man, whom I would guess was in his mid-thirties, tapped me on the shoulder and in the broadest Glaswegian accent stuttered: “Parlez vous Francais?”
“Sorry man,” I replied, “I don't speak French but would Scottish slang do instead?”
It turned out that he was there with five other guys on a stag do, and like me also found the concept of drinking from a welly trivially hilarious. He owned a jewellery shop about a 15-minute drive from my parent’s house and promised that if I was ever planning on getting married that he would offer a great deal on engagement rings. I thanked him for the offer but told him that he would be waiting quite a while if that were the case. I still have his mobile number and contemplate from time-to-time whether or not to give him a buzz. I wonder if he would still remember who I am three years on? Probably not.
Back at the table I divided up the beers and checking my watch saw it was already midnight. Jeez, we’d missed dinner and everything. It had been daylight when we entered the pub. Last orders were sounded and I started to yawn; it had been an awfully early start.
“Fancy calling a taxi soon?” I muttered, taking a large gulp from my shoe.
“Taxi? You do know where Nivelles is, don’t you?” looked Michelle quizzically.
“Not a Scooby-Doo”
“It’s at least a 50 Euro taxi fare away, and that's if they even want to take you! We’ll have to wait for the first train...”
“And when will that be?”
“In about 6 hours’ time,” slurs Bjorn.
And with that, we staggered out into the dark and wet back-streets of Brussels. This was going to be a long, rough, night.
After leaving the pub, each seemingly missing some basic senses due to the amount of alcohol consumed, we found ourselves rambling toward a flowered garden. Michelle ushered us with assurances that he knew someone who could put us up until our train departed in six hours’ time. The repeated chronological dialling of his entire phone book, however, and following voice-mails didn't quite have me so convinced.
As we stopped for Bjorn to take a piss a gang of four boys approached. They could not have been more than twelve years old and were clearly a local ‘young team’ looking for trouble. Bjorn and Michelle told them politely to ‘do one’ but the kids kept back-chatting and giving them lip. At least I assume from both parties’ mannerism and reactions that this is what was happening; the whole exchange was taking place in French of course.
What then transpired still both amuses and shocks, me to this day. Michelle said something to the supposed leader and the group immediately began to scatter. You would think this would be the end and the matter was closed, but no! Bjorn and Michelle began to pelt after them and after a brief tussle dumped the weakest member with an almighty splash right into the middle of a pond. The boy started to shriek as his friends pulled him out of the ice-cold water whilst my two companions simply sauntered back over, dusted themselves down, and then announced: “We should really get the fuck out of here – and fast!”
Ducking along side streets to avoid the fuzz Michelle eventually got hold of one of his friends who was a barmaid at a nearby pub. Fortunately, it was one of the staff member’s birthdays and all the employees were having a lock-in after closing time to celebrate. We made ourselves welcome, just thankful to get in from the bordering on zero temperatures, and I found myself perched on a bar-stool nodding in and out of sleep.
Seeing the state of us she offered that we share her bed until we could catch the first train out to Nivelles. What she conveniently didn't let on, however, was exactly where this bed was that we could share. Leaving the bar we walked for about 10 minutes through rougher and rougher neighbourhood streets. When one stops worrying about their possessions being stolen because their actual life seems to be on the line it might be a good time to turn around. But still we marched between dilapidated warehouses and crumbling flats before turning into a gate, crossing a claustrophobic courtyard, and pulling our drunken bodies up a winding stairwell; a stairwell that looked and felt like a cross between part of the set from a Brazilian slum in City of God and a Mafia hit-spot from the Godfather.
Entering the apartment, a solitary room, it would be kind to say that Michelle’s friend might have been a minimalist. The walls were bare, the lighting temperamental, and Mother Hubbard’s cupboards lined an alcove kitchen that consisted of a rusty tap and crusty sink. The water supply had been disconnected and I began to wonder if this was perhaps a squat. Where the ‘bed’ should have been was a single stained mattress lying on the wooden floorboards and that would apparently be our accommodation for the next short while.
A beeping noise wakes me from my sleep and my first thought is: 'thank God I'm still alive'. As my vision starts to focus I then see an arm resting on me and my second thought shifts to: 'apparently I had been given the role of little spoon in this cuddle orgy.' The four of us were locked together under the skimpy mattress like pieces of Lego and as I unattached myself, the others shook awake. Thankfully by the look on Bjorn and Michelle’s faces they to weren't that bothered about hanging about for breakfast…whatever that may be.
We groggily made our way to the station without turning to look back once; weaving through the gardens where the early morning skirmish had occurred and onto the train that was waiting patiently at the platform. On the journey, Bjorn surveyed himself properly for the first time and in great annoyance realised that in the commotion one of the runts had ripped the pocket clean off his brand new Ralph Lauren shirt.
“My girlfriend got me this for my birthday the other week and this is only the second time I’ve worn it,” he panicked. “She’s going to kill me when I next see her.”
Pulling into Nivelles my stomach started to rumble. We hadn’t eaten in 12 hours and now the beer was wearing off I became absolutely famished.
“Is there anywhere we can get some grub around here?” I queried.
“Ha-ha not likely,” smirked Michelle. Today is Sunday. Everything is closed on a Sunday.”
Just when things were looking up.
Thankfully, when arriving back at Bjorn's house his brother is there to answer the doorbell; a bemused and bewildered look on his face. We wander in, cook up an omelette the size of a pizza and start to chow down. "It's my birthday today and all I've done is mess about the house the last few days," mutters Fillip. "Do you guys fancy going on a road trip somewhere?"
Looks like I wouldn't be getting much of a chance to recuperate after all.
“Where do you want to go on a road trip?” I asked Fillip, who was lounging back on the living room’s corner sofa wearing nothing but a skimpy pair of shorts and a completely unbuttoned shirt. He bashed the buttons on his Xbox controller and Tiger Woods hit another 300+ yard drive.
“Germany! I've always wanted to go to Cologne and it’s not that far a drive.”
“Okay, I'm up for that. Do you have a car?”
“No, but we can just take our dad’s. He won’t mind.” (Said in a tone that made it blatantly clear his dad definitely would mind).
Within half an hour we were packing the boot of the BMW 5 Series estate parked in their driveway; leaving as much room as humanly possible for the pair of German Shepherds Fillip was rightfully unwilling to leave behind. He had been left on dog-sitting duty whilst his parents were away for the weekend and weren't going to let them leave his sight.
With Bjorn behind the wheel, we screeched out of Nivelles onto the main highway; the sat-nav indicating it would take three hours to reach our destination. The driver, however, had a different idea of what route to take and soon indicated off the slip-road signposted to Waterloo. “We can’t drive past the site of one of the most famous battles in history without stopping to have a look now can we?”
I guess that’s a valid point!
Pulling into the car park Fillip let the dogs run loose whilst Bjorn and I paid our entrance fee and trudged up the Lion’s Mound from where we could see the vast expanse of land where Napoleon’s army clashed with Wellington and Blucher 200 years ago. It was a glorious vista and on the anniversary of the battle each year thousands of volunteers dressed up in Seventh Coalition and French uniforms can be found re-enacting the bloody encounter in the surrounding fields.
Back at the tourist information centre, we found Fillip, the bearer of some unfortunately bad news. Their parents had arrived home earlier than expected to find the house in pitch black and their drive empty. The brothers were to bring back the car and dogs immediately and not to think of doing anything as rash as an impromptu cross-border road trip ever again. We piled into the motor and headed back in the direction from whence we came what felt like only minutes after setting off. Germany would have to wait to be graced with my presence until another time, but under the circumstances, I was happily content with the historical knowledge gained of Napoleon’s defeat.
That weekend in Belgium had been an interesting one, to say the least, but in no way has it put me off returning. As a matter of fact, I am keen to go to Brussels even more now than when it was nascent and unknown.