Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Brussels, Belgium

Posted on 8/27/03

I took my time getting out of the hostel the morning that I left for Brussels. The train ride to Brussels was barely an hour long so rushing to the train was not an issue. Plus, I was about 20 pages away from finishing “The Lost World” by Michael Crichton and I wanted to take advantage of the relatively vast book exchange in the Snuffle’s lobby. After acquiring a copy of “The English Assassin,” by Daniel Silva that was minus the back cover and looked as if it had been dropped in a bathtub, I headed out for Brussels.

A Bruges local had put the fear into me about Brussels. When she asked how long I was staying in Brussels, I responded “Two days.” She shot back with “One day too long. You’ll be ready to leave after one.” I didn’t have a choice. I was committed to two days in Brussels because I had a plane ticket from Brussels to Glasgow. Besides what was two days? Two days was nothing! I could do two days in my sleep!

Sure enough, I was wishing I could have slept through the whole thing. I was ready to leave Brussels five hours after arriving. And I had spent three of those five hours asleep. My hostel was dead center in Brussels’ Arabic slum. It was like Hell’s Kitchen a la Marrakech. The neighborhood was filthy, reeking of garbage and full of beggars and young guys standing around doing nothing early on a Tuesday afternoon.

Click on the little red circle to see a political message from the Belgian youth.

Weeks of traveling, walking untold miles every day, coping with new cities, languages and customs every few days, compounded with too much wine and too little sleep had started to take it’s toll on me. Despite copious amounts of coffee at breakfast, it was clear to me on the train ride into Brussels that my reserves were shot. Up to that point, as long as I kept moving during the day I was fine, but even this tactic was now spent. Once I weeded my way to my hostel through the piles of uncollected garbage and the stores that displayed half their inventory on the sidewalk I didn’t have the strength to go back out and face the chaos of Brussels. I had some lunch and collapsed into my bed until 6:30 that evening.

I didn’t want to, but after shaking off my nap hangover, I went straight into the teeth of Brussels, walking the length of the Arab slum into the city center. While the frequency of French speakers increased in the city center, the cleanliness of the streets did not. Brussels was shaping up to be a boring, foul nondescript city who’s only redeeming quality was the occasional chocolate shop.

What is it wiht these cities and their decorative farm animal exhibitions?  First the horses in Vienna, now this?What is it wiht these cities and their decorative farm animal exhibitions?  First the horses in Vienna, now this?

What is it wiht these cities and their decorative farm animal exhibitions?  First the horses in Vienna, now this?

In two days, I spend a cumulative eight hours roaming various neighborhoods in Brussels and from what I could determine, with the notable exception of a small neighborhood called “Ixelles,” there was nothing but ugly, poorly maintained buildings that appeared to have been slapped together in just a few days and almost zero indication that the city had an organized sanitation department.

To make matters worse, in contrast to the rest of Europe, Brussels’ city parks were so poorly maintained that they could have just as easily been designated as vacant lots on the city map if not for the fountains that were scattered around to make them seem more park-like. Usually, even in the worst, polluted, loud, stinking European city, one could count on escaping the smell and the noise in a huge, green, quiet, public park. But all Brussels had were browning fields of patchy grass with paths composed of fine, tan dirt that was kicked up into a huge dust cloud every time one of the baffling number of park maintenance vehicles drove by, leaving you chewing on dust particles for several minutes afterward. There appeared to be no escape from the rank, revolting city that was Brussels.

I found only one salvation during my 48 hours in the Brussels. The desk clerk at the hostel referred me to an Italian restaurant on my first day called Da Piero. The restaurant was a strange oasis of fine dinning in the otherwise over-priced, under-whelming selection of kebob and kebob-related take away joints that lined the streets of the neighborhood. The table clothes were clean, the food was reasonably priced and fantastically savory and the two gorgeous hostesses doted over me during the entirety of both my meals there.

Whoops, before I get too distracted by the women, let’s not forget the hostel. The Generation Euro hostel was a disaster of unpleasantries. A dozen French and Italian backpackers kept the ground floor of the hostel engulfed in a fug cigarette smoke during all waking hours and the cleaning guy took it as a personal affront if you used the sinks or even walked on the floors in his presence. On my first morning, nearly 30 minutes after he had mopped the hallway in front of my room, I walked down to retrieve my day bag. Despite the fact that the floor had long since dried, he had a conniption fit down at the other end of the hall, yelling at me in French like I was walking on his newborn puppies. He got his revenge after I left the building by stealing my mostly full bottle of shower gel that I left sitting out on my suitcase, which cost me three Euros to replace at the reception desk later that night when I was in desperate need of a shower.

Like most cities, Brussels had it’s small cluster of centuries old churches and cathedrals, but due to a film festival going on that week, nearly every single one of these structures had huge stages and projection screens erected in front of them, making it impossible to appreciate even this minute saving grace of the city.

Arguably, if I had more than two days to devote to Brussels, perhaps I would have stumbled on the more pleasant points of the city, but in my defense, I tried that tactic in Berlin and we all know what that got me. For the most part, the impression that I got in the first two hours in a city never changed markedly whether I spent two more hours or five days trying to amend it, so I don’t feel exceedingly guilty about not giving Brussels a fair shake.

After two days, I fled the city, heading out the airport three hours earlier than necessary, holding my nose and breathing through my mouth the entire time.


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