Alternative title: Things I miss about Brussels
Confused on where I am? I’m in China, and I’m taking these moments to catch up on my black hole of un-blogged content. My apologies for any confusion with the timeline, and thanks for sticking with me!
My solo travels began internationally with a journey to Brussels, Belgium: the heart of Europe — the headquarters of the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Bruxelles is a part of both the French Community of Belgium and the Flemish Community, but is separate from the Flemish Region and the Walloon Region. Uhm, so imagine my very first Carrefour experience and me finding out that every single label is in French and Dutch only. Coucou, excusez-moi.
Traveling solo has exposed me to so many cultures, values, beliefs, and ideas that are vastly different from the ones I was raised with. Some, I’ve profoundly absorbed and incorporated into my own way of living. Some, dang — they’ve made me appreciative of my home country.
Even though I did loathe the harsh winter temperatures that wreaked havoc on my skin at the time, and the ugly truth that many circumstances did not quite match — Brussels & I were not on the same page, which apparently made me quit and go back home… Reminiscing about my European life never fails to make me feel so euphoric and immensely nostalgic. So without further ado, here’s a non-comprehensive list — because, like gazillions of people before me, I’m pretty sure this list is never-ending — of a few things I miss about Brussels. Prêt?
1. The Brussels art scene
Museums, Contemporary Art Fairs, Independent Art Fairs, Artwork Markets, Art Galleries, murals, abandoned buildings covered in dope graffiti — you name it, they have it. Though it is less celebrated than its major European counterparts — situated between the art hubs of Paris, London, and Berlin — its central location has encouraged curators and artists to nurture galleries in the city.
My most favorite, however, was the Comic Strip Trail — a 3-mile series of 30 murals painted on building walls. Located throughout the city, it was like finding Easter eggs hidden in a dizzying megalopolis surrounded by numerous friteries or traditional restaurants, kiosks and vans serving quick-service fast food, particularly fries. Oh, speaking of which…
These deep-fried dreamboats in lots of shapes, varying degrees of golden, oil-licked hue, topped with various sauces and with or without salt… TAKE ME BACK, PRONTO!
After a lifetime spent eating American-style fries, my first taste of Belgian-style frites was truly a transformative experience.
Did you know that there’s a genuine cultural war between the French and the Belgians over its true origin? Well, during the World War, American soldiers were introduced to fries by the Belgian army — as the official language of the Belgian army was French, soldiers nicknamed the delicious fried potatoes French fries. The name stuck, and decades later we’re still giving credit to the wrong country.
Maison Antoine was my front-runner. Not only do they make great fries, you can also take them to one of the cafés on Place Jourdan.
TIP: Ask for Samouraï Sauce, which is a blend of Indonesia chili bean sauce (or harissa) and mayo. THE. BOMB! Also try Poivre (mayo strongly flavored with black pepper), and Andalouse (sweet pepper tomato-mayo sauce).
3. Waste Management
Sorting waste is mandatory in the whole of the Brussels-Capital Region. Paper, plastic, glass, batteries, chemicals and bulky household are separated from “rest waste”.
To manage these waste flows and keep Brussels clean, Bruxelles-Propreté is mainly responsible for public hygiene. We had 4 trash bins at home; there are waste collection days for each street and special collection services. The collections take place twice a week for the white bags and once a week for the yellow, blue and orange bags.
I have no idea how the waste management is per country, but I certainly hadn’t experienced something quite like Brussels’ anywhere in Europe and Asia.
In Europe, customers clean up their own area after eating — at least they do at fast food establishments.
I was raised in the Philippines and I was accustomed to leaving my trash on the table afterwards because…why not? There are workers who would clean up after ourselves anyway?
This goes back to no. 3 (See: Waste Management) And you know, just being clean, considerate, decent human beings. I still keep my space tidy and clean up my area after eating even now that I’m in China — especially now that I’m in China.
And that’s probably one of the many things I am proud of today. So, thx, Belgium.
5. Greetings, French accent, and speaking in broken French
I took great pleasure in going to corner shops & épiceries and walking around Etterbeek aimlessly just to be greeted with a cheerful Bonjour! or Bonsoir!, and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations because let’s be honest, the French accent is one of the most alluring accents in the world.
And in spite of the fact that my knowledge of the French language is limited to Ça va, Merci, Bonne journée!, Je m’apelle Alaizza, and all the basics, I really do miss talking with my Belgian friends in person (we still talk online every now and then) despite my broken French, which never failed to make them laugh hysterically.
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I had never lived with several different nationalities under one roof. But in my second home, there were British, Nigerians, bi-racial children, a Mexican, a Moroccan, and a Filipina — me.
I met university gals from France, Iranian gentlemen, a German aspiring model, the Filipino owners & staff of the lone Filipino restaurant in the whole of Brussels, some of the sweetest Swiss lads, so on and so forth.
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Sure, there were inevitable culture clashes and a lot of culture shocks from time to time, but every incident made me learn how to work in a variety of cultural contexts and handle candid conversations gracefully — and to not take everything personally.
7. Host family & friends
The best part of traveling to new places is meeting so many amazing people from all over the world; the worst part is not seeing them every day when you go your separate ways. But that doesn’t make me miss anyone any less.
Today and probably ‘til the day I die, I will always have this profound gratitude in my heart towards my host family, especially my host parents. They believed in this small town-slash-island girl since the beginning, and came to the rescue — many times — when I needed help the most. I’m beyond proud of the genuine work they do for so many people.
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And to my close friends, my brothers, my Never Sober Club: Thank you. Even though I was kind of an anti-social back then, y’all went out of your way to make me feel at home. Even though my replies these days take 3-5 business days, y’all are still there, trying to protect my heart from afar. So it’s safe to say: It’s not you, it’s me. Santé!
8. Alcoholic beverages
And more santé! Belgians have a particular style of toasting — they raise their glass during the verbal toast and say santé, then raise the glass a second time while exchanging glances with others at the table before drinking.
Alcoholism? Alcohol abuse? Who cares, right? Beer in Belgium varies from pale lager to amber ales, Lambic beers, Flemish red ales, sour brown ales, strong ales, and stouts.
Drinking in Brussels, as in the rest of the country, is a delight. The city boasts a massive variety of café-bars and taprooms: lavish Art Nouveau establishments, traditional lounges with brown stained ceilings, specialty beer bars with literally hundreds of different selections of ale and, of course, more modern stomping grounds. Many of the more remarkable watering holes are handily located within a few minutes’ walk from the Grand Place and also in Ixelles, but really you’ll be spoiled for choice.
Delirium Tremens Café was my favorite and is one of the best-loved taverns — featured in the Guinness Book of Records for its exceptional beer list (now 2,500), it is the bar most often visited by newcomers and travelers. Spacious wooden barrels, authentic décor and a spectacular list spanning classic brews to the more eclectic drinks make Delirium a popular place.
TIPS: There is no smoking in any establishment that sells food, along with bars and clubs. And, please be aware that many beer shops in Belgium do not accept credit cards. Oh also, different glasses for different beers – each Belgian beer brand has its own type of beer glass. *wink*
9. Transport System
The public transportation network is managed by the Brussels Intercommunal Transport Company (French: Société des Transports Intercommunaux deBruxelles or STIB; Dutch: Maatschappij voor het Intercommunaal Vervoer te Brussel or MIVB) or usually referred to in English by the double acronym STIB-MIVB. It is quite extensive and you can easily go from one place to the other using the metro, tram, or bus from 6AM to 11PM.
If you wish to buy a MOBIB card, you will need your electronic identity card, a recent ID picture, and 5 euros. It has a validity period of 5 years, and can be bought in a KIOSK, or in a BOOTIK. You scan it every time you get on or transfer — hold your card in front of the blue circle at the bottom of the MOBIB validation scanner.
Oh how I miss the transportation efficiency around Belgium and the effortless commutes to and from Paris and being close to other European countries. Also, the woman’s voice in the Metro announcing the next stop in three languages.
10. Architecture & Design
When it comes to Gothic hallmarks, there’s no beating Brussels’ Town Hall and its army of façade statues. There’s Place Royale by Barnabé Guimard, St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral’s enormous stained-glass windows depicting biblical scenes, a 19th-century flâneur’s ultimate dream: Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, The French-speaking Brussels Parliament in Rue du Lombard, the beautiful Cauchie House built by the couple Carolina Voet & Paul Cauchie… I mean, where to even begin exploring all the architectural treasures Brussels holds?
It has an impressive number of stunning buildings with historical significance and value to the city that span from breathtaking examples of Art Nouveau to more contemporary modernist projects with organic shapes and environmentally conscious designs.
Brussels’ atmosphere absolutely made me feel like I was living in my own Disney Princess story book.
11. Arcade du Cinquantenaire
Arcade du Cinquantenaire is a monumental triple arch in the center of Parc du Cinquantenaire or Jubelpark, and is topped by a bronze quadriga sculptural group with a woman charioteer, representing Brabant raising the national flag.
I loved meeting some of my friends and playing with the kids there and watching leaves fall and simply walking around while munching some delicious sweet or savory Belgian liège waffles bought from un camion de gaufre.
12. MORE FOOD (Cote d’Or Chocolate, baguettes, croissants, pasta, gourmet cheese)
Evidently, Europe is way different — way, way better than the country I grew up in. Food servings were very big, dairy products were cheap, lots of meat to choose from, steaks were excellent, affordable baked goodies and so on, which eventually made me conclude why most Filipinos are fun-size.
Typical Belgian cuisine isn’t that known abroad and beyond the classic “snacks”, such as Belgian chocolate, beer, and waffles, most people couldn’t name a traditional Belgian dish. Try Moules-frites (French) or Mosselen-Friet (Flemish) or mussels with fries — a classic Belgian dish you can find at just about any café or brasserie in Brussels. Also, Carbonnade à la flamande (French) or Stoofvlees (Flemish). This Flemish stew literally translates to “stew meat” and that’s a pretty accurate description.
I’ve been longing for croissants from Carrefour, and I miss waking up early in the morning to buy numerous croissants from the adorable boulangerie et patisserie in Place Jourdan and smelling freshly-baked baguettes along Chaussée de Wavre on my way home and drooling over different types of fancy cheese and mentally complaining because I sorta eat pasta almost every day and devouring different flavors and brands of chocolate — dark, white, milk, and orange, lime, coffee, cola-flavored chocolates — every night while watching Suits, or DreamWorks Dragons: The Series.
“Abroad is the place where we stay up late, follow impulse and find ourselves as wide open as when we are in love.”
I love losing myself in a world so unfamiliar from the one I was raised in. I love when something foreign and unusual becomes just another blip in my routine. And most of all, I love meeting the person I am when I am somewhere far away.
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Do I have any regrets? Truth be told, I do. But I think Belgium hardened me in a good way as it challenged me — like a dry run of what’s in store for the future of my semi-unconventional life, or like a pre-real deal.
Brussels is a challenging city, which reveals its beauté authentique gradually. The best way to discover it is to wholeheartedly throw yourself into the adventure, choose what fascinates you, and (take an Ouibus from Paris or Amsterdam and) go for it anyway.