When I was a teen, I used to escape the Belgian suburbs by hopping on a train to Brussels. It was the city after all – the city by default. Nevertheless, I held a great deal of prejudice against Brussels, which I thought was definitely too humid and colorless. You see, I was born in Los Angeles but my family moved to my dad’s hometown in Belgium when I was seven. Compared to dazzling LA, Brussels is often said to be boring, dirty and cloudy. Don’t we all somehow expect real cities to be immediately seductive?
Well, Brussels does things differently. She finally won me over, one step at a time, when I moved back two years ago.
photo via flickr
Unlike London, Paris or New York, Brussels is not an extrovert. This shy city unveils her hidden secrets and displays her true colors only to the curious and open-minded. In fact, I am still unfolding the different facets of her today, many of which cannot be found on TripAdvisor. There is always an unseen gem to discover: a secret bar, a world-renowned architectural house just around the corner, a mysterious freemason symbol on a building, a hidden park in the city. Brussels will not take your breath away with, say, an Eiffel Tower. No, the devil is in the detail and her charm is discreet.
One of these charms is diversity. In a city of 1.1 million inhabitants, most speak a distinct set of languages and come from all over the world. And really, as someone with a mixed background, I feel at home in a small city that doesn’t know in which language to greet someone. Should it be in French, Dutch, English, Italian, Arab or Ingala? There is a sense of confusion that I delight in. When I walk from the African quarter, Matonge, to the European Union institutions, go past grandiose cathedrals and palaces, take a public elevator down to the oldest neighborhood of the city, the Marolles, Brussels allows me to travel the world while being at home.
This blend of peoples is embraced in Brussels’ delicate and quirky sense of humor. When I pass by Manneken Pis, a little statue of a baby boy peeing — a sassy baby who is standing up, peeing, with one hand on his little hip, mind you — I see many boggled tourists. “Wait, is this teeny tiny statue of a peeing boy really a must-see of the city?” Yes, it is, and I love it. Despite the grey clouds above our heads, Brussels is lighthearted and does not take herself too seriously. Brussels’ good-natured and ironic humor is alive during dramatic situations too. In November 2015, the city went through a lockdown after the Paris attacks. As the police were hard at work tracking suspected terrorists around town, they asked Brusseleers not to give hints on their whereabouts on social media. Our response was simple and endearing: we broke the internet with kitty pictures. The police played the game and thanked the city for the kitty posts by tweeting a photo of a cat’s feeding bowl with the words “police” on it. Magical.
Brussels welcomed me with my quirks and foibles. And she will do the same with you. She will probably first invite you over for a beer at a local pub. When you step in, you’ll immediately notice that the list of beers hardly fits on the board. The next big decision will be “which one to take”? But there is no pressure: if you don’t like the first one, you can get the next one, the one with the cherry flavor. Then you will probably munch on some cheese and mustard to go with that beer. Who knew it could be so complementary? The conversations that ensue can be carefree or earnest. It’s up to you. Then she’ll probably offer you a street food delicacy – a warm waffle – which never fails to warm my heart during the cold month of December.
photo via flickr
There’s no doubt: my shy friend awoke the bon vivant side of me and taught me not to fret. Whilst I love high-end French dishes and fancy cocktails from New York, fundamentally, there is something comforting to see that, really, all you need to be happy is good beer, good fries and good chocolate. Brussels invited me to embrace curiosity and celebrate the offbeat details in life. In this way, Brussels, my home, prepared me for all my travels and discoveries to come.
This article is part of our AT HOME series featuring stories from and about the meaning of ‘home’.
This is a guest post by Melissa Vida.
Melissa was born in Los Angeles to a family with roots in six different countries. Adapting to different cultures within her own family stirred her curiosity to discover the whole world’s peoples, perspectives, environments and art forms. As a self-respecting foodie, Melissa loves to travel through local dishes: she will never say no to trying something new! When she is not traveling, you’ll find Melissa dancing to Bollywood or salsa and taking theater classes in Brussels.
Follow her on her blog, facebook & instagram.