Wednesday, May 19, 2010

August 6, 2008

Brussels is approximately the same distance from Düsseldorf as Amsterdam. They’re each about a 2 or 2.5 hour train ride. Much like our departure for Amsterdam, we got up early, prepared and left quickly. We each grabbed breakfast in the form of a cookie and a coffee at a Starbucks which was on our way to the train. It was our understanding that there was only one train that would be able to take us to Brussels.

As we stood on the platform, we saw another train boarding and ready to pull out that looked like it was headed to another city just beyond Brussels. It seemed safe to assume that it would make a stop in Brussels. So we considered boarding it in a hurry, though we hesitated for fear of the potential mess that deviating from our plans could entail. The attendants all blew their whistles, indicating that the train would be leaving imminently. Hearing that whistle meant that if you were going to board you should have done so by the time you heard it, though they’d still let you on if you moved quickly. My wife panicked and ran up to one of the attendants. He was a slightly older-looking gentleman. She immediately began pelting him with questions in English. “Is this train going to stop in Brussels? Is it too late to get on? Do we need reservations?” He really did not like this. His expression turned angry in an instant, and he fired back, “This is Germany! We are Germans!” What my wife did was rude, no doubt. The whole time we were in Europe, I was careful to politely ask people if they spoke English before speaking to them in it. If they agreed, I would proceed with the fevered question asking. In her haste, my wife had skipped the first step. It was easily understandable, given our generally sleep-deprived state. Though I could understand his irritation, it seemed to me that the hostility of his response was disproportionate to my wife’s transgression. He had to know that by lecturing my wife on the etiquette of speaking the native tongue of a place when you’re visiting it, he was making us miss the train. My wife is never one to back away from a verbal exchange. As she was gearing up to shout, “Fuck you! And Fuck your country!” back at him (I can read her mind), I pulled her away by her right arm, and we disappeared into the crowd. It’s one of the reasons I love her. I generally don’t mind it, as she often saves me the trouble of getting shitty with people by doing it for me, but in this particular situation it didn’t seem like a good idea. She can be a fiery woman, and it’s charming even when she’s wrong, as in this case. My heart smiled.

Fuck him and his country, indeed. I had generally liked what I’d seen of Germany thus far, and hitherto I hadn’t met a German whom I hadn’t liked. They’d all been very kind and helpful. This guy was just a passive-aggressive redneck. We have them at home too. They’re the same people who don’t want Spanish taught or spoken in Florida or California, and they have “These Colors Don’t Run” stickers with American flags on their pickup trucks. Germans don’t like excitement. They don’t like it when the polite and efficient habitual social patterns fail. They get unhinged easily. Days ago, when I’d sat on the concrete lion, the guard had lost his cool, as if I could have somehow hurt the concrete lion by sitting on it. If you had dropped me out of a plane onto the concrete lion, I couldn’t have hurt it. The train attendant blowing his whistle and guarding the door obviously spoke English, as evidenced by the fact that he was able to lecture my wife in it. Germans just don’t know how to handle commotion. Then again, we may have been assholes for bringing our uniquely poisonous brand of American dysfunction with us across the Atlantic to infect the land that had given the world the Third Reich, light fizzy beer and extremely well-engineered cars. The fact that we were spending our American tourist dollars in his local economy quickly assuaged any feelings of guilt that I had almost felt. Yes. She was right. Fuck him and his oversensitive country. Off to Belgium!

When the train that we had planned on taking arrived, we boarded it. Our passes were first class, and we ran to the first available private room that we could find and sat in it. These rooms are one of the nicest aspects of the high speed trains that run around all over Europe. They’re well worth the extra expense. Each room generally contains four or six plush leather recliners, all positioned around a heavy wooden table, all enclosed by two heavy sliding glass doors. We threw our bags down and sat in the opposing window seats of the first room we found. It is somewhat wasteful that two people should be the only ones occupying a room made to accommodate six, but nothing prevents anybody else from coming into your room and sitting with you. They’re equally entitled to it. Shortly after we had settled in, a family of three came in and sat with us. There were two females and one male. I couldn’t tell if they were all siblings or if the eldest female was the mother. She was, however, clearly the one in charge of their little group. Once we heard them speak it, was clear that they were very English. I know that there are subtle dialects and variations of English accents, though I’m not familiar with them. All I could tell is that it was English. We all started talking. They were great people, and it was refreshing to speak comfortably with strangers without being concerned about speaking too fast for them. My wife retold the story about the angry train attendant, and the lead English woman exclaimed, “That cheeky bastard!” I laughed hard, and nearly blurted out, “Holy shit! You people really say that!” I restrained myself as I feared that it might be taken the wrong way. I was somewhat delirious from my lingering jet lag and mild sleep deprivation. They left the train before we did. We wished them well, and they returned the gesture. Wonderful people can be found anywhere.

We arrived in Brussels early in the afternoon and it was ungodly hot. I had arrived in Brussels possessed of the irrational notion that it was slightly north of our point of origin and thus would be of slightly cooler temperature. I was very wrong. It felt no different than August back home.

We began our 45 minute walk to the hotel. The man at the front desk of our hotel spoke excellent English, and got us squared away with a deluxe room very quickly. All of the rooms in the hotel were themed for different countries all over the world. We got the India room. It was really incredible, and not very expensive, considering the ornate interior. The closet door was hand-carved with images from the Kama Sutra. I took pictures. We left our bags and headed right back out in search of our first destination in Brussels.

The Cantillon Brewery makes a variety of very specialized beers in very traditional Belgian styles. These people have elevated the production of beer to a level of sophistication rivaling fine wines. There was an old man at the desk who spoke decent English and gave us a brief explanation of how the self-guided tour works. We paid him. He gave us a sheet of paper with information to be read at each stop on the tour, and he sent us on our way though the brewery. My wife played tour guide. Breweries are cool. We’ve toured a bunch of them back home, and this one wasn’t very different except for the fact that it was much older. It struck us as funny that the tour was conducted without supervision. Aside from the potential risk of us stealing trade secrets, the legal liability of turning people loose seemed egregious. We could have easily fallen off of the ancient spiral staircase and mangled ourselves. It seemed apparent that Belgians must not be nearly as litigious as Americans. They probably have a more common-sense legal system that wouldn’t tolerate those sorts of shitty, opportunistic lawsuits aimed at nothing but extracting money for irresponsible personal behavior. Good for them. We were careful to use the railings and not touch anything. The brewery was beautiful and old. At the end of the tour, the old man brought us samples of their beer and it was incredible. Whereas I don’t really enjoy fruit beer very much, my wife does. She loved it. I didn’t love it, but it was markedly better than any fruit beers that I had tried at home. We bought a small sampler containing a variety of the different styles they made there.

After we left the Cantillon Brewery, the trouble began. Neither one of us was drunk, but we hadn’t eaten in quite a while. We were very hungry. The extreme dry heat amplified this. I don’t know exactly what part of Brussels we were in, but it was like a ghost town. Just about everything was closed, and there weren’t people around anywhere. We made an effort to look for a food place that seemed worthwhile and authentic. Quickly we realized that this was out of the question. We found a small quaint-looking deli that had sandwiches and beer. It was family run. We cautiously asked the woman at the counter if she spoke English. Not a word of it. She didn’t even know how to say “No.” She just smiled bashfully and shook her head. My bullshit meter is pretty sensitive, and I could tell that she wasn’t lying. She did, however, motion for her son to come over. He looked to be about 13, and he did speak a little English. We had no cash, and he explained, thankfully before we ordered, that they don’t take credit cards. Thus started our next hunt: we had to find an ATM. This took a good half hour. It would have been impossible if not for our GPS. Once we had money we returned to the deli, ordered, ate, and each had an excellent Belgian beer. Belgian beer is arguably the best in the world, and in Belgium it really is cheaper than water. The food was good, but not incredible. We didn’t care.

Once lunch was over, we embarked upon our next adventure, still limping from the first one. We were headed for the main art museum in Brussels. I love art museums. We hunted vigorously, and even took a subway to save ourselves some of the trouble of walking a great distance. The subways in Brussels run on the same honor system that they do in Germany, and once again lacking honor, we rode for free. Thanks, Brussels. Strangely, the subway trains all smelled like horse manure. I didn’t exactly understand how that was possible, since horse manure is a specific and unmistakable scent. It didn’t seem likely that anybody had brought any horses or their waste onto the trains. There wasn’t much time to wonder about it. After some mild navigational difficulties, we made it to the museum, just in time for it to close. We were utterly out of patience, and just decided to return to our hotel room to regroup. When we got to our room, we both fell asleep on the bed for a solid two hours.

After our nap, my wife prepared herself for an evening out. We planned on taking it easy, as she was beginning to feel unwell. I was beginning to get paranoid about all of the stealing of public transportation that we were doing. I determined that we should get subway passes. We went down into the station and over to the kiosk. I asked if he spoke English. He replied, “No.” He was lying, but I didn’t care. I held up two fingers, and asked for two passes. He responded in French, the official language in Belgium, with the total money we owed for them. I didn’t understand. My wife actually had four years of French in high school and a semester of it in college. She quickly interjected that she spoke a little French, but could he please slow down a little. He repeated himself with the same cadence he had the first time, only just a little bit louder and more annunciated. My wife still couldn’t understand him. He could tell this immediately, and he began counting on his fingers in French. He made it to the number nine. Then he repeated it, and said something else afterwards that must have been the change. I gave him a ten euro note, and he gave me some small change in return.

There was one particular bar my wife had really wanted to find to eat dinner in. After riding the train to the correct part of town, we began looking for it. We failed, but persisted for a while in looking. We must have been in the very touristy part of town, because there were tons of restaurants. Each one had a maître d’ standing out front, calling to passersby, and they were all extremely loud and pushy. Eventually we gave up searching for the bar and began walking through the maze of restaurants and cafés, looking for something suitable. There were lots of places selling crepes. We like crepes. So we picked one. The crepes were good. My wife’s situation was beginning to worsen, though. She was feeling sicker, and suspected that she was developing a urinary tract infection. We resigned ourselves to just head back to the room after finding some cranberry juice.

This proved impossible. Apparently cranberries aren’t very readily available or popular in Europe. We even looked for a pharmacy, where we hoped to find something that might be helpful. We failed and just went back to the room. There was a vending machine in the hotel lobby where we would be able to get my wife plenty of water. That would have to be enough.

The gracious man at the front desk was no longer there. Instead there was a very attractive-looking woman who looked to be in hear early 40s. I considered making a comment to my wife on that point but decided against it. We approached her and explained my wife’s problem. As it turns out, her English was every bit as good as that of the man who had been there earlier. She understood completely. She had a remedy for it that she kept at her home, but didn’t have handy. She said that she would call her husband. He would drive it over, and she’d send him up with it when he arrived. She was easily the nicest, most helpful person we met the whole time we were in Europe. He brought a few tablets of something that looked like a simple over-the-counter medication and provided instructions for taking it. We thanked them both profusely. My wife took the tablets as instructed. We spent the evening in the room watching TV and eventually went to sleep early.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.


All content copyright 2009 Michael Scuro - All Rights Reserved