Originally posted January 3, 2012.
Technically, every European vacation does not have to end with Brussels, but it seems that fate has just wanted me to end all my vacations in Belgium. It has never been planned; the first two times we had our layover there after family vacations. I didn’t expect to get to visit there again. When the choir first announced that that was where they were going for tour, I knew my flight was booked for the 4th for the United States and that I probably couldn’t go. But, fate stepped in and pushed things around—my dad was able to move my flight, I was able to scrounge up the extra money for the trip, and all of a sudden I was booked for a real trip (read: more than 12 hours) to Brussels.
Even from the first coach ride, the trip was off to a great start. After four or five days hanging out in ghostland Oxford, I loved getting to talk to some of my choir friends again. And once we arrived at St. Pancras station, not only did I find all of my choir friends, but we also found A LEGO CHRISTMAS TREE!!! (Yes, my Hertford choir friends are way more important than a Lego tree, but seriously? Look at this thing!!!).
We spent most of the first afternoon/evening settling in to the hostel and getting our bearings around the town. It’s funny because even though my last/first trip to Brussels only lasted about four hours, I knew that the boys were leading us around in the completely wrong direction—although this ended up as a short-lived victory because I definitely could not tell my bearings very well for the rest of the trip. Once we did find a place for dinner, it turned into a great first night in the city. At the restaurant we tried some Belgian beer and through the course of the night we also managed to get mulled wine and Belgian waffles (the touristy kind, which means dipped in chocolate and with a huge dollop of whipped cream on top). I quickly learned that going to Brussels meant eating a lot of really great food. I don’t know how any one could stay thin in such a city; they are famous for four different things: beer, waffles, fries, and chocolate.
But besides eating, we also got to explore the center of Brussels that night. From my trip during the summer, I knew a little of what to expect. I remembered that the main square had beautiful old buildings and that at night they turned off all the building lights, played classical music, and projected a light show onto the town hall. But visiting the main plaza during the Christmas season blew my previous experience out of the water. They had set up a huge Christmas tree in the center of the square and on one side they had a nativity with live animals. And, the best part: they still had the light show, only they had added these permanent, color changing light towers with spotlights on the top. It was amazing. I could have stood there and watched all night, except it was pretty cold and crowded. We walked around a Christmas market in a nearby square and then headed over to visit the Manneken Pis. If you haven’t been anywhere near Belgium, you probably wouldn’t know about him, but if you have, he’s the statue of the little peeing boy that is advertised for EVERYWHERE. Seriously, even in the airport they have pictures of him and mini statues of him. The best part is actually getting to visit him in Brussels. You walk down this entire street filled with a bunch of chocolate shops and waffle stands, all with different versions of the Manneken Pis dressed up in the windows. And then you arrive at an intersection, turn to your left and say, “That’s it?” He’s really tiny in real life and so it’s pretty hilarious that everyone makes such a big deal about him. I was disappointed that he wasn’t in costume; for all the holidays they dress him up in seasonal costumes, but I guess it still wasn’t close enough to Christmas to put a Santa outfit on him yet.
But our trip wasn’t free from problems. My hostel roomie had her wallet stolen that first night. Thankfully she was able to call her mom and cancel credit cards and other people leant her money for the rest of the trip, but I still felt horrible that she had to be in that situation. I always try to be careful with my belongings in crowded cities, but for the duration of the trip I was even more vigilant. But, once we got into bed I stopped feeling so sorry for her. She warned me before that she had a cough, but that didn’t really help me feel better in the middle of the night when the bunk bed frame kept shaking. Thankfully she started getting better and the rest of the nights weren’t so bad. Don’t worry Rebecca; I don’t regret my decision to room with you.
On the second day we had our first concert. I was nervous because besides I’d never been a part of a public singing concert. Before coming to Oxford, I hadn’t been in a choir since I was eight years old. Plus I was missing the support of Alice, Hettie, and most of the other Hertford altos. Seeing the venue didn’t help calm my nerves down either. We were singing our very first concert in the Brussels cathedral, the biggest church building in the city. It felt like walking into the Louvre or Westminister Abbey and realizing that your voice was going to be echoing off all the arches and stained glass windows. I didn’t feel worthy of adding my voice to such a sacred, lofty environment. Thankfully I had two great organ scholars that didn’t even entertain the idea that we, the Hertford Chapel Choir, weren’t ready to sing in the Brussels Cathedral. They gave me confidence and it ended up being a really great concert. It was really cool to hear our voices echoing back at the end of each piece, and to hear the crowds of people applauding afterwards.
That night was also great. I joined forces with Gareth, the Hertford chaplain, and a few other choir people and went out to dinner at a cozy neighborhood bar. It definitely had more of a local feel to the place, as opposed to many of the more touristy spots we had been visiting. One of the guys at the bar asked me where I was from in broken English. When I replied “Texas” he of course burst out laughing with, “Bush land!” Thankfully that was one of the only times during my whole time abroad that I got teased for that part of my state’s reputation. Oh well. I loved trying many more of the Belgian beer. So much of it was brewed right there in Brussels or nearby. And we had a great time eating spaghetti, chatting, and playing with Lucy’s paper snowman. On the way back we checked off another important Brussels activity: getting Belgian “frites” or fries—with mayonnaise, of course. Again, I’m glad I was only in Belgium for three and a half days. It gave me the perfect excuse to indulge in all the great food.
The next day, Friday, was the most exciting day of the whole trip. Jen had only booked two concerts so we had the entire day to explore Brussels. First we left the hostel and went to a flea market. I must say that most of us were disappointed with what we found. Most of the vendors were selling broken and damaged goods. I counted at least three or four paintings for sale with huge rips through the canvas. We quickly got cold and found an artsy café down a nearby alley where we could get some coffees. Then we walked through the city back toward the center and the museums. Even though it was cold, I really did enjoy the walk. We walked through a part of Brussels that I had not seen before. It was hilarious because all of us girls had our cameras out the entire time. The boys eventually just started walking ahead because we took so long to snap all of our pictures.
We decided to visit the Renee Magritte Museum first. It was amazing. They played a lot of music from the 20’s and the 30’s, from the beginning of Magritte’s life. I loved learning more about how Magritte first became inspired by the surrealist movement and other important art movements during his lifetime. I also just love Magritte. So many of his paintings are gorgeous and detailed, but also play with words and the way that we turn them into images. Gosh darn it, all that stuff that my English 300 professor told me about Saussure is actually true. Unfortunately some of the really famous paintings (the one with the pipe, the one with the apple over Magritte’s face in his self-portrait) were not at the museum; I’m assuming they are either owned by other more famous museums or are out on loan much of the time. After this museum we were planning on at least running through the National Brussels Art Museum, but we were starving for lunch and had to let that one go.
After lunch, I convinced my roomie Rebecca to break off from the bigger group and come with me to the Comic Book Museum. We had seen pieces of comic books all over the city. Not only were there Tintin movie posters like in the US and the UK, but comic book murals painted on the sides of many of the buildings that we passed. I couldn’t visit the city of Tintin’s creator and not go learn more about him. The museum was pretty cool. They had life-size models of Smurfs and Tintin in the lobby and comics everywhere on the upper level. I didn’t know that the creator of the Smurfs was from Belgium too, or that they originated in another comic, from another plot. Hanna Barbara didn’t make the cartoons first. I did get the English translations from the front desk, but most of the comics themselves were not translated. That was a little disappointing. But the building that housed the museum made up for it. It was an Art Noveau style building, very 30’s. I wish I could have taken even more pictures of it.
On that last night, we all headed down to the hostel’s “Backpacker Bar” for happy hour and then headed across the street for bowling. I learned from all the other Oxford kids that there aren’t as many bowling alleys in the UK. For them bowling is even more of a treat. So, they expected me to be much better at it than them. At first I didn’t think I would live up to these expectations; I hadn’t been bowling for at least a year or two, since I got to Rice. But as it turns out, I still had some skills. Sam beat me, but I broke 100 and for me, that’s still pretty good.
I was sad when I woke up on Saturday because I knew it would be our last day. But, I wasn’t too sad to leave the hostel. It wasn’t the nicest place, even though we were huge fans of the bar. This day was also our last concert. We had to take the subway and a tram to get to the church because it was on the other side of town. It was much closer to the University, according to the church’s pastor. We were surprised to see the church was The Church of Scotland … since it is located in the middle of Brussels. But the pastor was really sweet. He really wanted to tell us a lot about the church and its history as an English-speaking church in the middle of Belgium. And he didn’t mind that we ended up giving a concert to an audience of three people. That number might have disappointed me, but they were really excited to hear us and wanted to talk to us about our choir and our music after we finished. I loved interacting with them, especially since one man was actually a graduate of Hertford College. Plus, I know that I sang my best during that concert. I don’t know if it was the sun streaming through the stained glass windows, because I knew we would be leaving in a few hours, or that our choir just sounded that beautiful, but I almost cried during my favorite piece, “O Magnum Mysterium.” It was a great note on which to end our trip (pun sort of intended).
Looking back on this trip, the parts I enjoyed the most were the conversations I had with the other Hertford students. If I hadn’t gone on this trip, I would have left at the end of my eight-week term and might have never seen the other students again. After this trip, that is still true. Everyone kept asking if I could come back and visit, but I don’t know if that will be possible in the next year or so. But this trip did give me more closure to my term at Oxford. I thought that I would be bawling at St. Pancras station when I bade my friends goodbye. For once, I didn’t have a tearful parting. I felt like I was led to Oxford, led to join the choir, and led to go on this Brussels choir tour. Somehow, and I’m not clear on the exact effects yet, this trip was meant to be part of my life and meant to change me. Maybe it means that I will finally learn another language. Or maybe just experiencing another European culture will enrich my life and will continue to open my eyes to other parts of the world and other perspectives. Either way, I’m glad that something has made it possible for me to end every European vacation with Brussels.