Nearly nine months ago, I arrived in Brussels with one backpack, one suitcase, and not much else. I was easily excitable. I was nervous. I was uncomfortable. I was overwhelmed by city life, by options, by people.
And here we are. Nine months later. I’m leaving Brussels in a week, as easily the best year of my life comes to a close. What has changed? What has studying abroad done for me?
While my parents were visiting, they said I was more worldly and confident. Those seem like obvious traits to contract from a long stint in any hyper-international city like Brussels. I’d hoped there would be more differences, more improvement, but maybe worldliness and confidence is good enough. Those are, after all, pretty valuable.
And from what I’ve gleaned from other international students, the real internal changes comes during the reverse culture shock stage — the return home, the reassimilation, the hurt, the longing, the confusion, the disconnect.
I’m banking on my new friends spread out across the states, across the world, as a support system for these inevitable moments of feeling alone, alienated and disenfranchised with everything normal.
But until then, prepare for some reflections, guides and lists, as my way of attempting to summarize this experience into comprehension. An attempt to remember and continue to remember the things I’ve cherished most as an American studying abroad.
How to Fall in Love with Brussels
I’ve rarely found anyone during my travels that understood why I chose to study in Brussels. I’ve rarely found anyone that understood what I saw in this city, how I could be enamored with a city that’s so dirty, dumpy and boring, with its top monument being a little peeing boy.
Brussels is weird, full of dichotomies, and so long as you don’t dig the conventional, it’s easy to fall for the city.
1) Cultures and Languages
The Sunday market at Gare Midi makes for a remarkably international morning.
As I’ve said before, Brussels is incredibly international. It’s the home to the European Union, and for that reason alone, diverging European cultures are brought together and present everywhere.
Legally, all signs are in French and Dutch, the country’s top languages. But German is also an official language, so sometimes you’ll see signs in all three, or if you wander east, signs exclusively in German. Then there’s English, because in Brussels, more people speak English than Dutch. Then there’s every other language in the world.
I hear new languages on public transit every day, and I can rarely identify them. Is that Bulgarian or Macedonian? Is that Polish or Czech? Am I hearing Arabic? Which of the many, many African dialects is that? Why would I even bother asking myself such questions?
In turn, exotic restaurants abound. Japanese specialty shops have made it to the suburbs. Street markets can transport you to Turkey.
But at the same time, Belgium has its own unique and quirky culture that’s absolutely evident in day-to-day life in Brussels. It’s something that sets it apart from the likes of New York City or London — international cities that, while are obviously fantastic, can’t exactly be considered emblematic of their countries.
Brussels isn’t uniform. The Grand Place is, of course, stunningly gorgeous and remains the most beautiful city plaza I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Outside the center, you have examples of 19th century Parisian style apartment buildings, pristine, beige and permanently royal looking. Then there are the typical, narrow brick homes you’ll find all over the country. And then there’s a sprinkling of truly unusual Art Nouveau, and nothing says cool like stumbling upon a Victor Horta.
Some find the modern architecture, particularly around the EU quarter, an eyesore. Maybe they have a point, but I find it all part of the charm. Brussels is old and new, in all respects, like most of Europe.
Even a simple sandwich — beef tartare and capers — can be an amazing lunch in Brussels.
Belgians are the butt-end of many French jokes, but Brussels has more Michelin starred restaurants per capita than Paris. So, ha!
In all seriousness though, it’s real difficult to have a bad or mediocre meal in Brussels. The restaurant scene is thriving and diverse, with traditional, rustic bistros just as popular as the most cutting edge, modernist dining rooms. It’s all here and it’s all more affordable than, say, Paris.
I could never tire of the smell of caramelizing Liege waffles in the streets of downtown. I always relish the opportunity to pick up top quality chocolate at the grocery store for next to zero euros. And there’s not much else as satisfying as a cone of fries after a long night of beer tasting. In fact, there’s not much I’ll miss more than the fast food — deep fried meats served simply so, and juicy, meaty kebabs. Sultan’s, move to California, please?
Brussels doesn’t have a museum that every tourist “must” visit. There’s no Louvre, no National Gallery, no Albertina, no Prado. But there’s a lot of smaller stuff, and in fact, the artistic community in Brussels is really active. It’s easy to enjoy without any pretension.
Apart from festivals and little galleries and stellar rotating exhibits (hint: the current Stanley Kubrick photography expo), there are some permanent gems.
The Magritte Museum has an unrivaled collection of the Belgian surrealist’s works. And the Belgian surrealist’s works are awesome. The BOZAR consistently churns out interesting, high-brow exhibits in Victor Horta’s palace. Tucked away far from the center, the Musee d’Ixelles has a surprisingly impressive and vast permanent collection, including original posters by Toulouse-Lautrec.
And there are concerts, lots of them, all the time, all over the place! The options are overwhelming, with high-profile artists coming through constantly. Good and bad: the venues are small, meaning the shows sell out quickly. But when one manages to get tickets, the reward is tremendous. Particularly beautiful and intimate venues include La Botanique, Cirque Royale, and Ancienne Belgique.
Seeing Andrew Bird perform at Cirque Royale was easily one of the cultural highlights of my year.
What I adore most, though, is the love for cinemas. The BOZAR holds Cinematek, a separate film museum that screens classics and silent films with live piano. Film festivals abound all over the city, in art house cinemas like Cinema Nova or the Vendome. Walking through the super touristy Rue des Bouchers, you’d never know that if you walked through one hotel lobby, you’d end up in an adorable cinema called Actor’s Studio, with just three small screens. Even smaller: Le Styx, in Ixelles, where screens have space for a dozen or two. Wherever you go, there’s likely an unusual film, from somewhere in the world, in its original language, with trendy moviegoers lining up, nearby.
A couple takes an afternoon stroll through the Bois de la Cambre.
Yes, Brussels is pretty sustainability-minded, but I’m talking about accessibility to greenery. Brussels has a lot of natural beauty for a place many mistaken to be urban sprawl. I’ve heard folks claim it to be the Greenest Capital in Europe, and they could easily be right.
Part of this distinction is owed to the massive forest that spreads across the southern part of the city, along with the huge Bois de la Cambre, whose center is a lovely lake, whose center holds an island, whose center has a Swiss chalet turned restaurant. To the east, there’s Parc de la Woluwe, which combines hilly forests and large ponds. Wandering any of these spaces, it’s easy to forget you’re in a metropolis.
The obvious parks — Parc Royale in the city center and Parc du Cinquantenaire with its giant arch — are both enjoyable with feelings of importance. But nearby are other gems: a few steps from Parc Royale lies Parc Egmont, completely hidden and incredibly peaceful, and close to Cinquantenaire in the EU Quarter is Parc Leopold, a prime spot to people watch around a pond, surrounded by modern architecture.
Also: Parc de Tervueren, the most pristine and manicured of them all, a gorgeously green tram ride just outside city limits. And Parc de la Sauvagere in Uccle, rough and hilly, with horses grazing.
Nine months later, I’m still discovering new things about this city on a daily basis. And from what I’ve heard from many locals, Brussels can continue to surprise for years.
Academic Year 2011-2012
You can follow Janelle’s other travels on her personal blog www.janellebitker.com.