Sunday, January 15, 2012

This is Belgium

“I’m sorry, I’ll have to see your visa,” the border guard barked at me.

“But I only have a passport. I was told that a tourist visa didn’t require paperwork.” I’m shuffling through my bag pulling out boarding passes, receipts, cords, and ready to deploy my laptop to show him the webpage I have saved on my computer that says that I didn’t have to file for a tourist visa – of course the page isn’t loading – there’s no wireless. Behind me I hear someone begin to grumble in Italian.

“Get out of the line,” he gestures viciously at a corner of the customs counter where I go and stand waiting until some mammoth agent approaches me frowning, “you’ll have to return to the U.S.”

I can tell that’s what he’s going to say. I’m already crying. I have three bags stationed around me as though we’re all about to be executed.

These were the nightmares that I was spinning in my head in the nights leading up to my departure from the U.S.

From the park near the Royal Museum for Central Africa
In reality, the experience went more like this.

I get off the plane at about 8 in the morning looking like a wilted cabbage and stumble through the line, handing my passport off to a very buoyant looking customs agent who stamped my passport without a glance, I retrieved my three bags and dragged them about fifty feet through a “gate” where no one said anything to me before I realized that the experience was already over and that I was in Brussels and that the greatest challenge now facing me was finding JP who was already walking towards me with a very hospitable smile.

I have never had such a pleasant or practical introduction to a city. When I decided to take the Rome study abroad program in summer 2007, they basically gave you an address and wished you the best of luck in finding your way to the apartments that the school owned. When I arrived at the apartment after several hours of hauling my luggage the wrong way through the city by the forum and then the Coliseum, I made a horrible impression on my new roommate. I smelled awful – but dammit, I wasn’t going to pay for a cab when I could walk myself there. It had looked easy enough on the map.

View from the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula
On the other end of the spectrum is my experience here in Brussels. I am incredibly blessed to have such wonderful and accommodating hosts who have stayed with me this first week in order to get me settled. And when I say “settled,” I don’t mean handing me a map and pointing me in the right direction, I mean that they have walked me to the nearest supermarket and purchased groceries for me (refusing my offer to pay), taken me to the city’s landmarks and introduced me to the Belgian moules frites, taken the tram and subway with me as a training session so that I would know which lines to take and where to find libraries, dentists, the works.

There is absolutely no comparison.

Hôtel de Ville in Grand Place
JP, an old friend of my grandfather’s is an imposing figure. In the picture that he emailed me so that we would recognize each other at the airport, he is laughing and jovial, well-dressed and ostensibly at some professional party. He was holding a glass of white wine in one hand and seemed to be caught in the middle of a joke. What the picture fails to convey is how tall he is. When first entering the house that they have in Woluwe St. Pierre I remarked on how high the ceilings were and he looked up in surprise “really? You think they are high?” Of course, to him they are not – to a man who requires such clearance, you would need higher ceilings. Or maybe I’m just short and used to living in a basement.

Nonetheless, I have grown incredibly fond of him in a very short time. Bearded and soft-spoken with a great deal of laughter behind his eyes, I find it very difficult to think of him as anything but a delighted and delightful uncle. I enjoy speaking with him and regret only that I cannot pass the conversation comfortably in his native tongue. He speaks incredibly fluent English however and is knowledgeable about a number of subjects, from birds to post traumatic stress disorder. It seems that there are no subjects that are off limits and in that way that it is pleasant to hear polite people curse, I was particularly charmed when our parking spot was stolen from us yesterday afternoon that he loudly said, “Shit!” for my benefit.

His wife joined us today and right now I can hear her cooking in the kitchen (coq au vin). She is a lovely woman who speaks French slowly enough so that I can understand it with a light and lovely voice – all smiles and very stylish. When I gave her the earrings that my friend Marz made, she immediately took out her own and donned the new pair. “Tell your friend that she is very talented.”

They said that they are going to spend the rest of the time here speaking in French. It’s good for me and I can understand a fair amount of it. I just say very little back. Maybe that’s also a good thing.

Le ventre de Bruxelles ("The stomach of Brussels")
I am in love with this house.  One block away I can find a patisserie, a grocery store, a convenience store, and a pharmacy. It’s just a short tram ride to the city center where I have already visited the Grand Place with JP and dined along “le ventre de Bruxelles” (the stomach of Brussels), a street that is wall-to-wall restaurants of every type imaginable.  This is how I know that I am in the right city – a place that nicknames its streets for the food that you can find there.

The weather here is a mirror of Seattle (gray, mild, maybe some rain) – except that every morning this week has featured a few hours of sunlight. Yesterday, JP and I took advantage of the good weather and went down to the outdoor market and sampled fresh cheeses and artisan sausages. Then in the afternoon we went to the park in Tervuren on the edge of the Forêt de Soignes – a location perfect for an afternoon bike ride.

Bruegel's "Fight between Carnival and Lent,"
from the Museum of Fine Arts
And then this morning we went to the Museum of the Fine Arts where I was formally introduced to Bruegel and Bosch.  As it was a Sunday morning, the traffic in the museum was light enough so that JP could keep up a running stream of information about the different styles and paintings that we were viewing. He is extraordinarily knowledgeable and his enthusiasm for Bruegel has made me a fan, the same way that Rick Kenney in Rome made me love Caravaggio.

“Bruegel, beer, moules, and chocolate,” he laughs on the way back to the car, “this is Belgium.”

He is joking, of course, but it has been a lovely tour so far with food and beautiful art as the highlights.

In the afternoons, I’ve been contending with the relentless and accusatory blinking cursor on my computer screen (a battle for another blog post). I have not had a McDonalds or Dunkin Donuts coffee, Diet Coke, or the general garbage that I usually have access to in over a week. I have salad every day with quiches and soups and very rich rillette.

Cathedral of St. Michael and Gudula at night
Which is to say, this is really all a lesson in putting aside my fears. Forget the border guard that you’ve prognosticated about, stop predicting defeat and anticipating change by tracing the possible threads to destruction, Jessica. The thing is, whatever you’ve predicted, you’re going to arrive at your destination eventually. And the chocolate at the end of the journey is worth the stress, but it never requires it.


  1. Formidable, ma fille. Tu rentreras avec un accent belge!

    1. Merci, maman! Ne t'inquiétes pas. Je vais continuer pratiquer mon français.

  2. When I first moved to Belgium in the fall of 1968, I entered this cathedral and the choir was singing a motet by Palestrina. I was absolutely overwhelmed by the ethereal sound in that sacred space. I will never forget it. Check the news and see if they're giving any free concerts there.