Sunday, September 01, 2013

Belgique

I closed up shop at my servants-quarters-cum-studio, and made my way to the bus station across town at Gallieni.  In the semi-usual confusion, I got my boarding pass and boarded my bus out of Paris.  I blew kisses to chez Paris as I left.

I napped a bit, and woke up later as we passed through wide fields of grain.  

And with that I crossed the invisible line between France and Belgium.  If I had look away for a second, I would have missed it.  What was once a border is barely discerned unless paying close attention.


I arrived to the Capital of Europe, and made my way out of the bus station and on to the hostel I had scouted out.  I wandered down a canal, and eventually found my way to the Meininger Hotel- a nice urban spot not far from the city center.  As per European sensibilities, the place was quite green, with solar power on the roof and various energy catching schemes.  While I had planned to stay for three nights, the Austrian counter girl explained to me that while the first two nights were relatives cheap at 20 euros (about $26 dollars), because of the hotel's algorithm that factors availability of beds, time booked in advance and other factors, it shot up to 28 euros on the third night.  Not feeling like wandering around to find another place, I took the two nights and figured I would figure the third night out.  

I dropped my stuff, made my bunk bed and descended down to the bar for the ambrosia of Belgium, a Stella.  2 euros for a bottle, not bad.  My dad would be jealous, as that veritable teetotaler does like Stella.  I sat in the bar, with its beautiful mural of Brooklyn soft power stretching across the wall, as I caught up on biz.  Oh Brooklyn, I am quickly realizing that you are at the forefront of American soft power. 

I wandered down the canal and into the city center.  Brussels is apparently a comic-con capital, and I found all sorts of murals to comic book characters like Asterix and Tintin.  Immediately I was buzzing with Belgian cultural diplomacy to Japan (Belgian-Anime connections!).  And perhaps a lil Belgian comic-con diplomacy?  Why not, comic book nerds can be valuable audiences of outreach too.

I wandered into the cobbled city center. I had read that Brussels was "a poor man's Paris."  That is not entirely true: it is a poor man's mix of Paris and Amsterdam, but rich in its own regard.  But thankfully, just a tad cheaper than Paris.

I found my way to the beautiful city center of gilded glory and striking spires.  The center of town was resplendent in the day's fading light, with old churches and effulgent facades. I sat out on the cobbled ground, reading the Last Temptation of Christ, as the sounds of disparate languages bounced off the cobbled stone square and off the beautiful center.  On the breeze, the smell of hot waffles carried.

As I was wandering, I saw a bar called Brussels House of Mirrors.  As I got closer, I spied a giant state of my patron saint, Don Quixote.  The knight-errant was riding high on high bronze Rocinante, lance in hand.  Our hero was flanked by his trusty sidekick Sancho Panza, riding a bronze donkey- a pigeon was calmly perched on his head.  I got chills and knew I was in hallowed ground.  I circled the pair a few times, marveling at how such signs often offer me clarity to know that my path is just and my direction correct.

I wandered my way back around the square, and found a frites spot. I got the special frites, covered in a light dusting of salt and covered with gobs of  thick Belgian mayo, curry ketchup and grilled onions. I had wondered how I would accept Brussels after such a meaningful experience in Paris, but Brussels and I are quickly becoming bons amis/goede vrienden over Belgian gastrodiplomacy ideas.  I sat out in the square, eating my frites and drinking a Belgian pils as I watched the night creep across the city.  I liked my fingers clean of the curry ketchup and began having gastrodiplomacy ideas for an article on Belgian edible nationbranding.  In a place known for its fries, chocolate, waffles and beer, such campaigns could be a capital pd affair.

I watched the day's light fade, and decided to sample a little more of the Belgian fare.  I grabbed a hot Belgian waffle (gaufre) drizzled with caramel and a giant dollop of chantilly cream.  I sat back on my cobbled perch, slowly shoveling the hot caramel cremed waffle into my chubby checker.  It was immaculate.  I sipped the melted creme mixed with caramel as I ate square by square.  Yes Belgium, we are officially friends.  I grabbed a cheap can of Leffe, in itself an oxymoron in every other part of the world, and wandered back as the night bell rang- pondering my new environs.  It feels both familiar and foreign, and offers new questions to pick through.  That is always a good thing.

A few thoughts before I sign off: 

-I had read that Brussels has had problems with integration and immigration. It does seem less integrated than Paris.  There are significantly more headscarves here, and while most immigrants in France spoke French, I head a lot more different languages in Belgium.  Perhaps that speaks to Belgium's already polyglot nature compared to France's more uniform linguistic identity.  There are also a lot of different immigrants here than France.  While France's immigrants were mostly Francophonie, with a smattering of Indians and otherwise, Belgium has more Congolese (expected), Pakistanis, Romanians, Guineans and Ukrainians.  

-More to come on Brussels as the Capital of Europe, and I remain inherently curious about European public diplomacy internally.  I need to investigate pan-European public diplomacy via the EU, and I am quite curious about pan-European cultural and gastrodiplomacy--if you want to bring Europe together as one, the euro is not the ticket, but rather connecting Europe through music, culture and food.  More to come on such biz.

-More to come also on King Leopold's Ghosts, a book I read years prior on the open veins of the Congo borne out of the King Leopold's colonial enterprise in Central Africa.

-Will Belgium last? It contains two utterly different communities in the Flemish and Walloon.  They speak completely different languages (French, Flemish/Dutch), and have had some serious issues of late that I will address in a later post.  

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