Brussels Without the Bustle
BRUSSELS, Belgium—It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and Brussels is still sleeping.
As I exit the metro, I forgo my usual walk-sprint up the escalator and instead let the city appear slowly before my eyes, like a drop of water spreading across a sheet of paper. At least that’s what it would have been like if I had looked to the left. As it turns out, my first Belgian landmark is not the regal architectural styling of the Bourse, home of the former Brussels Stock Exchange. Instead, I spot a Pizza Hut, filling me with repentance for the many tacky sins of my country.
Desperate for an aesthetic palate cleansing, I wander down a grungy cobbled sidewalk lined with shuttered shops and find myself alone in the Grand Place, the central square of Brussels. My footsteps echo as I walk haltingly towards the city hall (Hôtel de Ville in French or Stadhuis in Dutch), trying to simultaneously take in the meticulous Gothic detailing of the façade and the transcendent awe of the colossal middle tower. In lieu of the insightful historical commentary that my friends would have provided had they been with me, two very simple thoughts cross my mind.
First: somebody built this! Many people, in fact! With their hands! Without a crane! The sheer feat of having constructed a building of this size without any modern machinery stretches far beyond my comprehension. Never mind the artistry of carving every unique figure on the façade, the fact that this building exists and still stands after hundreds of years renders even my reverence small and insignificant.
Second, I am extremely smug about having the Grand Place all to myself. Tranquilly pacing several laps around the square definitely makes up for any lingering crankiness I may have had about catching the 6 a.m. train from Paris. I am the only tourist here, and boy am I smug about it.
But not for long. Though I may not be able to identify the specific Gothic architectural style of the Hôtel, two years at Harvard have trained me to recognize the unmistakable shuffling of many running sneakered feet and the eager snap of unwieldy SLRs. A Chinese tour group has ventured excitedly into the square.
Summer me, however, is a much kinder species than my school-year alter ego, so instead of barrelling brusquely across irritating peace sign snapshots, I welcome the sight of these tourists. In fact, the obnoxious chatter of Cantonese fills my ears with the welcome cacophony of home. I ask one of them to take my picture in front of the Hôtel (the perpetual plight of the lone traveler), and my heart fills with an overwhelming delight as he crouches down in the familiar Asian photographer squat.
It’s 8:45 a.m. on a Saturday morning, Brussels is crossly rubbing its eyes, and I walk swiftly out of the Grand Place to get to the Manneken Pis before the rest of the Asian tourists do.