It may be difficult for anyone who knows me (and therefore knows how I prefer to sit in a bar/café/anywhere to avoid marching about in the cold) to believe, but on “Brussels- Day Two” I spent a good ten hours sightseeing. Shock.
The sightseeing process was, however, slightly delayed by my quest to find a camera charger (mission impossible). After having been coerced into splurging forty euros on what was apparently the only option – a set which comprised of every method possible to charge my camera, and took a puzzling thirty minutes to assemble – it, inevitably, did not work. In a normal world this would be annoying enough, but you could simply take it back to the shop, request a refund and erase such a trauma from your memory. However, this was not to be the case. I had to go to a special desk for returns and deliveries, was given a numbered ticket like when you’re waiting to buy new kids shoes in Clark’s, and waited in line for enough time to watch a nature documentary on whalesong, with dutch commentary (customer services had kindly thought about keeping us entertained during the painful waiting time). When my number was finally called, I was met by a glum-faced assistant who responded to my issues by presenting me with a piece of A4 paper claiming to be a gift voucher for forty euros. Obviously this was not the result an English tourist was after – what use would I have with a gift voucher for a discount hardware shop exclusively in Brussels? Maybe I could find a good-value toaster or a smoothie maker to take back home with me in my suitcase…
Giving up on this particular assistant, I searched the shop for a higher source of power and eventually found someone who spoke to someone who called someone who called someone else who called her back to say that the refund was legit. My forty euros and I were finally to be reunited. If this experience has taught me anything, it’s to never expect anyone in the world to want to help you out… ever. Okay perhaps that’s a slightly cynical view, just don’t expect decent Customer Service in Brussels! (It also gave me an opportunity to put all that French arguing/debating in practise, although this argument was less along the lines of “should girls be allowed to wear the Burqa?”, or “is there a need for feminism in modern France?”, and more among the lines of “give me back my forty euros, bitch.”
Despite this whole episode stealing a good hour of my life, I left the shop feeling triumphant and therefore ready to seize the day. Thus the tourist activities could commence.
First up, the Atomium. So I’m a lover of all things cultural and am not known for being strongly passionate about science or technology. However, atoms are cool, and the Atomium was very impressive. It’s Brussels’ answer to the Eiffel Tower: a non-religious landmark that celebrates and encourages innovation, technology and modern society. Originally being constructed as part of the 1958 Brussels World Fair, the Atomium is the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal, magnified 165 billion times. There are panaoramic views of Brussels from the top sphere, and you travel from sphere to sphere in some super cool space-agey, flashy-lighty escalators (who knew escalators could be such fun).
Inside the Atomium, there was an exhibition on innovation and invention, which sought to define the difference between the two. The main idea is that anything can be invented regardless of its purpose or target market, but when it comes to innovation, there needs to be the specific needs of a target market in mind. The exhibition included Apple’s first version of a tablet in 1993 – “the Newton Message Pad”- which failed to innovate because it “was too early”; the technology was not up to date and there wasn’t yet a need in the market for a tablet.
After my inner geek had been revitalised, it was time to go in search of yet more frites belges, this time opting for Brussels’ renowned Maison Antoine. You had to buy your frites (with an option of one of about a billion sauces – I stuck with my trusty mayo) at this little hut place and then take them inside a nearby bar. It seemed a bit weird to be taking a bag of chips into a bar but hey, if that’s the way to do it then so be it. We got chatting to some Italians on the table next to us (I say “we” because I pretended to know what was going on, but really I was quite clueless) who informed us that in preparation for every night out, they line their stomach with greasy fried goodness from Maison Antoine. This is apparently much more effective in avoiding a hangover rather than doing the standard end of the night kebab procedure us Brits are accustomed to. Seeing as these guys had already started on their drinking sesh at midday and had plans on making it a late one, I think it was fairly optimistic of them to think they could avoid a hangover in any case. Nonetheless, I was grateful to learn a bit of Italian drinking culture/tactics.
Oh also, here’s a “Cone of Legs” I found nearby…
Onto what Brussels is probably most famous for; the European Parliament. Just wandering about the parliamentary buildings was super cool and inspiring because you hear so many different languages and see people from all over Europe, not to mention the fact these are the people who make every day decisions that affect all of us as European citizens. I can’t really think of a less vulgar way to describe this experience other than a “linguist’s wet dream”. (cringing at that expression but really don’t know how else to put it!)
We went on a little interactive tour which told us a bit about the founding and the history of the EU, with many inspiring quotes along the way:
The tour ended with a virtual parliament type thing where we sat in a bright white room (a bit like the one in Bruce Almighty) and pretended to be a parliament member whilst listening to various virtual figures put forward their case in order to try and get a law passed. Each member delivers their speech in their own language whilst a team of interpreters work their magic into the 23 official languages of the EU, meaning that each member only ever has to work and think in their mother tongue. How quickly and efficiently a community of so many nationalities can communicate was something I found fascinating; again, too much for an aspiring linguist to cope with.
After a successful touristy/educational day, we sought to recuperate by munching on another Belgian speciality: waffles. I think all of us went for some variation on nutella (does anyone realistically prefer their waffles with anything other than nutella…?)
Overall thoughts on Brussels – loved it (even with the camera charger fiasco). Perfect combination of pretty and historical sites mixed with a more modern/urban feel. Part of the charm for me is that, despite being a capital city as well as the capital of the European Union, it really didn’t seem that touristy. You could truly sense that it is a vibrant city that people live and work in; i.e. it isn’t overridden by tourists! (Apart from me). Next time I come back here, however, I definitely need to explore more of “Bruxelles par nuit”!