Sunday, 30 October 2011

Muscles in Brussels

This is not a pipe
Over the years, I don't recall a moment when I thought to myself, 'Hm..Brussels would be a nice place to visit.' In fact, when it happened that my friend Pj and I would be going to the Belgian capital, I panicked. ('But what IS in Brussels?') Being something of a foodie, my friends were forthcoming with lines like, 'They have good breakfasts!' 'Divine waffles!' Oh, but I kid - I am a certified foodie.

When I think about it, though, I realise that I have this country to thank for some of my enduring fascinations. You see, Belgium is the country that produced René Magritte, the surrealist artist whose work was my first introduction to surrealism. His celebrated work, Ceci n'est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe), baffled me some during my first year at university, yet I saw myself move from a grudging interest to a full-blown appreciation of his art, and the cultural movement as a whole. (Seeing Owen Wilson's character in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris meet such surrealist greats like Magritte and Salvador Dali nearly sent me into cinema heaven last week)

Toto le héros, my second all-time favourite foreign language film (Kassovitz's La Haine is undisputed number 1), was also directed by Jaco Van Dormel, a Belgian. Long after I'd watched it, parts of 'Boum', the catchy song from the film, would ring in my ears at the oddest moments: 

La pendule fait tic tac tic tac
Les oiseaux du lac font pic pic pic
Glou glou glou font tous les dindons
Et la jolie cloche ding din don

So it was short-sighted of me to initially dismiss Belgium. That said, I can't help thinking that it is a country that is often overshadowed by its more dominant neighbours, France, Germany and Netherlands. But be not fooled, Brussels has lashings of culture to offer.

With Serge Melkebeke
We arrive on a mild October night from London St Pancras, and are a tad underwhelmed by Brussels Midi Station. It could be because we're famished, and most of the food places are closed for the day, leaving us promptly descending into hungry unamusement.

Over the next two days, I realise that our short visit is shaped by two things: the rain and Pj's sass. By some funny twist, we've left behind an unusually sunny October in London, and have been tricked into thinking that the rest of Europe must be experiencing the same warmth. Or at least, that's what we tell ourselves. Not so in Brussels, where the wind and rain conspire against us everyday. 

On one such day, we make a mad dash across Grand Place, the imposing 15th-century market square in the city centre, and come upon an open door beyond which we can see well-dressed people mingling and looking at some artwork on the wall. It looks like an opening night for an art exhibition, and a quick read from the information posted on the door tells us how the artist, Serge Melkebeke, is inspired by African art forms. Check and checkmate! We're about to fling our African selves in, uninvited.

'Let's go in.' I say to Pj
'We can't just go in! It looks like a private viewing.'
I cast a pointed glare from her to the rain pelting down. I think she gets my point. Besides, I've also spotted glasses of red wine circulating round the room, and a table laden with hor d'oeuvres. 
'We've just got to look like we were personally invited...' I whisper as we push the door wider open and enter.
Gate-crashing, it turns out, is not so much an art requiring flair and forethought. Just copious amounts of sang-froid.  

Grand Place
On another occasion, we take cover from the rain in a shop (for some reason it seemed fun to play this game of 'let's see how we can outwit the rain'. Good game.), only to turn around and see that we have entered the showroom of celebrated Belgian milliner, Christophe Coppens. It's a sumptuous, intimately lit space, with jazzy hats and quirky designs, and the kind of place you could spend a fortune without realising. And this from a girl whose hat-wearing experience is limited to berets in the thick of winter. There is a smaller, inner boudoir with a beautiful wallpaper and lamps that give it a warm glow. We fall in love with the showroom, the design of which is actually like a hat, and want to take pictures, but the shopkeeper absolutely forbids us. 

Enter charmingly sassy Pj from stage left. 

She smoothly whips out her camera, and shows the shop assistant pictures we have taken: outré styling in shop windows, bold colour combinations and other such weird and wonderful images we've so far captured of Brussels. I catch on pretty quickly, and as she flicks through the images, I throw in sentences like, 'the contrast is very arresting, wouldn't you say?', 'it's very European, that.' (No, I don't know what that means either)
By the time she's done, we've clearly won the shop assistant over. And the piéce de résistance is when I mention that Christophe Coppens is Belgium's answer to Philip Treacy. She finally caves in, and away we click.

If you can't beat 'em join 'em. The shopkeeper models a Christophe Coppens creation
On to the Magritte museum, next door to the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, where I'm bitterly disappointed to discover that we've got our times wrong, and the museum is actually shutting in twenty minutes. 

Enter charmingly sassy Pj, this time from stage right.

A few well-placed questions and innocent, disarming smiles later, Pj manages to let the security guard see the sense in her way: to let us in free of charge since the museum is closing anyway, and really, does he not think charging us the full whack (€8) would be simply exploitative? Et voilà, we enter!

I have to say I'm in something of a daze by this time, and slightly in awe of these quick-thinking skills she possesses. I'm fast learning that in Brussels, we don't so much need mussels as muscles. Big, chutzpah-filled muscles.

Speaking of mussels, this trip firmly confirms that those shelled mollusk are never to touch my lips again. We are walking along another restaurant-lined street off Grand Place, when a man standing in front of one restaurant grabs me and kisses my cheeks warmly. As he does so, he smiles a lot and compliments me in rapid-fire French, but I'm a bit shell-shocked. I'm wondering if this is how restaurant owners generally greet customers in Brussels.
He ushers us in, and fusses over us. And having decided to try mussels while in Brussels, I order it and wait expectantly.

The waiter sets a huge bowl of mussels before me with a flourish, and I try one and immediately know with a sinking heart that I dislike the taste completely. I gag. The waiter is disappointed (and/or offended). And Pj looks smug as she digs into her steak. I'm unamused.

So that's it for mussels. Now as for waffles...ah, I make no such promise. 

The now infamous sundae on waffle


Mz A. said...

awww, i visited Brussels and had so much fun (thanks to my friend) but it's such an unappreciated place thanks to France etc. the rain!! smh! not not not!
Now u have me reminiscing all over the place *sigh*
it's gr8 u girls had such a great time xxx

Obibini (The Black One) said...

u left out the part about going to see the museum of comic book. where they got Tintin and the Smurfs. or u didn't did that?

Davida said... KNOW I didn't!