From Amsterdam, we took a 5:50 AM train to Brussels. Why so early, you ask? As college students on a budget, we tend to like saving money more than we like ourselves.
One of my friends, Simran, was going to meet us in Madrid (our third stop) and was flying out around the same time – luckily, we found an American exchange student in our hostel that was also going to the airport around the same time, so she didn’t have to navigate the labyrinth of Amsterdam public transport alone. More from the realm of kind strangers.
When we arrived in Brussels, our first order of business was to find some waffles. Obviously. We found this wonderful little place which had all kinds of Belgian waffles, with a variety of sauces and syrups – based on the recommendation of friends, I decided to get the waffle with speculoos sauce: a kind of gingerbread cookie butter, I think? It was quite good, and I’d recommend trying it during a visit to Belgium.
It was cold and overcast that day, but we endeavored to explore as much of the city as we could.
After another visit to a cafe…
We began walking around, first heading for the peeing boy. No, it’s not what you think. A statue, or more specifically, a fountain where the water is made to look like it’s being peed out by a statue of a little boy. If you think that’s weird, there are two more urinating statues just like it, elsewhere in the city – one of a little girl and one of a dog.
We also met a clip-clop-neigh doggo.
We eventually came across a church, the Eglise Notre Dame du Sablon. Luckily, it was open, so we had the chance to explore it for a bit. You as a reader have probably noticed that I love churches – this one was no exception. I was especially moved by the sculptures present – in particular, a painted one of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus and a series of relief sculptures featuring multiple angels in flight.
There’s something about the way the angels, in particular, were depicted in motion that drew my attention. The strong sense of movement that the sculpture expressed and the intensity of their flight conveyed the gravity of the scene quite effectively.
After a while, we wandered out, stopping a bit at a nearby park to get our bearings. It was quite cold, you see. And the wind seemed to be a little less intense in the park.
We eventually resolved to visit the European Parliament, one of the things Brussels is most famous for and a site of personal interest for me. Even before we entered the building where tours were conducted, the grand nature of the overall structure didn’t fail to catch our attention. We made our way to the Hemicycle, a large semicircular structure which served as the main building.
Although we worried about lines, we managed to get a spot on a tour within just a few minutes, and in we went! After passing through some security checkpoints and checking our bags, we headed upstairs to be dazzled by the spirit of international cooperation.
Our tour began with a look at a scale model of the parliament complex (which is actually huge). Scale models are exciting to me – they take a space that to us seems vast and compress it down to a level where we can appreciate the entire space with a single gaze. The model was quite beautiful, and it gave me a unique appreciation for the architecture of the complex.
After seeing more of the building’s common areas, we went to the actual parliament chamber, which looked quite a bit like Congress (and, I would suppose, most national legislatures) but somewhat more polished. Here, our guide stopped to tell us more about the EU overall and how business is conducted during legislative sessions.
One particular thing he highlighted was the methods used for translation between delegates – a critical part of making parliamentary meetings run smoothly. Here’s an example:
An Italian delegate is making a speech. In order for the Slovenian delegates to understand them, an interpreter first translates the words from Italian into English (since all the translators speak English). Then, another interpreter translates the words from English to Slovene.
So when a joke is told, there are three different waves of laughter. Yes, it’s as awkward as it sounds.
Wave 1: The Italians hear the joke in Italian.
Wave 2: All the English speakers hear the joke translated to English.
Wave 3: All the delegates who don’t speak English or Italian hear the joke translated to their respective languages.
Oh, and also, every single tour guide we spoke to made sure to take some shots at the U.K. for Brexit.
When we wrapped up at the parliament building, we decided to spend the evening wandering around and getting food in the city – where, among other things, we came across this delightful sign. (It’s based off a Rene Magritte painting of a pipe called “This is not a pipe”.)
Here’s where I’d like to throw in a disclaimer: the anecdote I’m about to share is not meant to be romanticizing or self-aggrandizing in any way – I only want to talk about an experience that was important to me.
As we walked around the city around dinnertime, we passed a homeless man sitting on the side of the road with his belongings next to him. I stopped to speak with him for a moment. Recalling my experience with Sven so many weeks ago, I asked him what he needed. He said that he and his friend sitting next to him would love a cup of hot coffee with sugar. Assuring him that I would return, I headed to a couple of nearby stores to fetch some coffee as well as a warm scarf, which thankfully only took a few minutes. When I came back, he thanked me, and we spoke for a bit. He told me that most people he knows always seem unhappy – even though they might have warm clothes, a sophisticated phone, a nice house, a shiny car, and all the possessions they could possibly need, they remain unsatisfied. “This is my house!” he said, gesturing to his tote bag. “I live out here, on the street. But you’ll always find me with a smile on my face. Remember that. And don’t lose your way of looking at the world. It’s good for you.”
Poverty and homelessness consist of incredibly complex and diverse situations that affect so many people in so many different ways, most of which cannot be solved by simply “being positive” – I want to underscore that emphatically. But this man wanted to remind me to take the time to be thankful and truly comprehend what is available to me rather than focusing on what isn’t. That’s something that I want to carry with me as I continue my education and personal growth. And as I gain more experience, to do my part in tackling the institutional problems that afflict members of my community and of other communities.
Upon bidding him farewell, I reunited with my friends. We wandered around for a bit longer, after which we decided to head to a café to get some food. We had just sat down and started eating when we all received an email from RyanAir, the carrier for our flight to Madrid the next morning: “We sincerely apologize for the cancellation of your flight on 30/10/2018.”
We had an AirBnb reserved for Madrid starting the following night, and the next available RyanAir flight to Madrid was four days later. And we couldn’t just go to Rome (our last stop) since our planned flight to Rome was out of Madrid.
Time to problem-solve.
Someone dialed customer service, someone googled train options, someone else googled other flights. Like a well-oiled but slightly panicking machine, we investigated the possibilities. Eventually, I hit upon a rather longwinded but ultimately workable idea – take an overnight bus to Paris and fly from Paris to Madrid, where the flights weren’t terribly expensive. We agreed to go forward with this plan, which would require us to cancel our Brussels Airbnb.
Note about our AirBnb hosts, two of the nicest people I have ever encountered – after hearing about what happened, they gave us a FULL REFUND and told us not to worry about the fact that we had to cancel on the night we were supposed to check in.
After booking our tickets, we decided to head to the Delirium Café for some refreshment, and to decompress for a bit. We were there until about midnight, after which we returned to the central train station to retrieve our luggage (we had stored it there for the day). By this time, it was raining quite a lot, but we forged on, grabbing our luggage and walking a few miles to the bus station.
Quite damp at this point, we eventually found ourselves in the bus station – unfortunately, security had arrived and were closing down the main part of the station, so they kicked us out. Also, one of the security guys brought the angriest German Shephard I’ve ever seen, to emphasize the sentiment.
However, the other guard did tell us we could go to a different part of the station closer to where the buses actually arrived – an indoor waiting area where we could stay warm and dry. And so we went there, discovering a large group of other passengers waiting for their international buses, with departure times ranging from 2:00 AM to 6:00 AM. There were people headed to Spain, France, and a few other countries. We were warm, dry, and surrounded by fellow travelers.
But it was not to be. Intimidation doggo and security man returned, kicking us out of the waiting area into the cold, rainy night. So, we had to wait outside for about an hour and a half. The kicker is, some of the other people there had to wait outside for over three hours, since the station wouldn’t open until early morning.
As we waited, we kept warm by dancing to the music being played by some Spanish students waiting for their bus – they had a speaker, and it seemed like a good time for Ariana Grande. At long last, our bus arrived, and it had air conditioning for about 10 minutes before it dropped to about 40 F for the remainder of the night. And so a shivery sleep began.
When we awoke in the morning, it turned out that the bus was two and a half hours late, which meant that we would miss the Paris-to-Madrid flight we had booked the night before, and we would have to book another one.
Eventually, we made it to the Paris-Orly airport, took our flight to Madrid, and made it to our Airbnb, which was a truly beautiful and well-situated accommodation.
And then we rested, and ate some delicious Spanish tacos.
Anyone who’s spoken to me about Belgium knows that I’ve had some choice words to describe our experience with transportation and logistics in Brussels. After some reflection on the overall experience, I decided to take a different approach: gratitude.
The man I met on a Brussels street reminded me that complaining serves no real purpose, even when things seem miserable.
People have often told me to remind yourself that “other people have it worse, so you should feel grateful,” that such an approach is an effective way of developing gratitude for what you have.
I find this woefully inadequate, as well as an insult to those in our world who suffer deeply. Gratitude for my blessings and cool-headedness in difficult situations out of my control shouldn’t be predicated on the existence of “superior” suffering. They should be implicit mindsets that I work to develop over time, to increase my own peace of mind and that of those around me.
If we can feel thankful in our own right, without needing to compare ourselves to others, we can take that one step toward un-tethering our own happiness from the actions, behaviors, and circumstances that affect the rest of the world.
And that’s the lesson of Brussels.