Travel | In Brussels: Journey to the Centre of the EU

Au Chapati, Tweekerkenstraat, Brussels

In Brussels
Journey to the Centre of the EU
A Travelogue

The man sitting beside me – my daughter and my seats are not together – is American. He’s drinking Belgian Leffe beer and his American friends who encircle me drink Belgian Stella Artois, or Italian mineral water. The international aura is refreshing. I feel positive about this trip.

It feels like an escape. If only temporary. Back into sanity…

The UK having just a few days earlier taken the mad decision to exit the EU, here I am on the Eurostar train to Brussels. But this journey is unconnected to politics. My daughter, whose travelling companion I am – whose formative years were spent in Munich, who lived and worked in Berlin, and whose chronic Lyme disease (Lyme borreliosis) health problem the NHS doesn’t recognise, has an appointment with a specialist at a renowned private clinic – shocked at the referendum result and its implications for her future, wants to hear no more of politics, at least for now.

Through the windows on either side of the carriage, the bucolic Kent countryside slides by. It is suddenly replaced by a deep blackness that the reflections of the lights, coming on as we enter the Tunnel, make a futile effort to penetrate, and then accepting defeat, fade into obscurity.

One of my neighbours, having just returned laden from the bar, distributes cans of the German-style beer Kronenbourg 1664, brewed in the French city of Strasbourg – official seat of the European Parliament – accompanied by napkins with the message ‘Je ne regrette rien’, printed on them. It has become hot and stuffy, the atmosphere oppressive. The Americans begin to complain amongst themselves about the ineffectual air conditioning. I long for the train to come out of the tunnel and for the clean, fresh air of mainland Europe.

‘Franglais Vins’, sprawling in huge letters across a massively long shed announce our arrival in France. At Calais-Fréthun, the Americans go, and suddenly the carriage is half-empty. It’s quieter, less claustrophobic, but the heat remains.

Good news! Three UK, the mobile phone service provider I’m with sends me a text letting me know that their roaming service is free in EU countries.

The train picks up speed. The ‘continental’ landscape is wider with (minus the ceiling) 180-degree views to the horizon. It’s sunny. It’s bright. The English couple sitting behind me pull the blind down all the way. I’m skimming through Eurostar’s free magazine, Metropolitan, that features a myriad of interesting cultural events in the UK, around Europe and beyond. An Englishman sitting across the aisle and a seat in front of me, I noticed, started reading The Daily Telegraph as soon as he sat down and hasn’t, to my knowledge, once looked out of the window.

The English honey roast ham in my sandwich is brought to life by the zesty heat of the French mustard – I find myself wondering what the future holds for the German-owned Aldi supermarket near my home, where the latter was bought.

We stop briefly at Lille and soon after the vernacular architecture is unfamiliar – I think we must be in Belgium. We’re entering Brussels. We’re there.

There are armed soldiers at the station…

The taxi driver is friendly and – just like his London equivalent – keen to chat – in French, which my daughter is good at, while I’m not. I can follow what they are saying, however. He speaks a little English. Flemish, too, and some Dutch. He has visited Liverpool, Manchester and London. He’s Syrian and has lived in Belgium for thirty years. He drives us to our hotel on the northern outskirts of Brussels.

That evening, we both choose the chicken brochette at one of the two nearby eateries, La Petite Fourchette, which serves French, as well as Asian and Greek-style food. Within seconds a basket of sliced baguette and a bowl of prawn crackers arrive on our table. I had ordered frites as an accompaniment. They come with mayonnaise and ketchup. My daughter ordered rice, and when it arrives it’s the sticky, Chinese version.

My daughter prefers to go to the clinic alone…

A day ticket for the entire Brussels underground network is only €7.50. My French, as I’ve said, is not good – my Flemish is non-existent – and a man who speaks no English is at first reluctant to help me to use the ticket machine, but as we work together his attitude softens. Seemingly pleased at our success, he smiles and goes on his way. At Simonis, a suburban metro station I pass through, the platform walls are lined with pretty Persian rug designs rendered in tiling. At Rond Point R Schuman Plein, where the European Commission building stands, it’s eerily quiet. There are many police – some mounted – and roadblocks; barbed wire is strung across the pavements. The epi-centre of European government feels remote and isolated, while the nearby grand boulevards dominated by heavy, belle époque architecture, make the few figures wandering around them appear subservient, insignificant.

European Commission building at Rond Point R Schuman Plein

I notice that here in Brussels the road markings are better defined than in Germany, but that the paving blocks almost everywhere are badly laid down and wobble. I stand still to consult my map. Someone stops and asks me if I’m lost. I’m not, but she insists on giving me directions.

While a man inside, wearing a hi-vis jacket, uses a small petrol-driven machine – the like of which I’ve never seen before – to trim the edges of the lawns, a couple of soldiers duck into the Jardins Botaniques for a quick smoke; the camouflaged patterns on their combat gear that make them look so foreign on the city streets, blending in with the verdant foliage, briefly conceals their presence.

If it’s of interest, I ate a light lunch at Jacques Brel’s old hangout Le Mort Subite (The Sudden Death), and returned to La Petite Fourchette for a lonely supper – steak frites – my daughter was staying overnight at a friend’s place.

The following day my daughter returns to the clinic…

Colossal and super-shiny, the 103 metre-high structure, based upon a single iron atom, The Atomium was built for the 1958 Brussels Expo. I’ve had no breakfast. The coffee machine in the café here is broken but the guy at the ticket counter tells me I can get a coffee in the restaurant at the top. The lift had been the fastest in the world when it was first installed and seconds after entering, I’m sitting in a white Panton chair, under the domed roof of the restaurant that occupies the top half of the uppermost sphere. They can serve me coffee, but have no pastries, however the waitress kindly offers to go down to the café on the base level to fetch me croissants. Before she sets off, she gives me the coffee, which isn’t very hot. I’m looking out of a rain-spotted circular window and down on a collection of models of European landmark buildings in Mini-Europa, the theme park which sits near The Atomium’s foot. A hoard of tiny figures wandering around in brightly-coloured rain ponchos are passing a pocket-sized Eiffel Tower and a stolid Brandenburg Gate, heading for the little British Houses of Parliament. Defiant, seemingly impervious to the storm that is approaching, the diminutive European Commission building looks on from its corner. Fifteen minutes later, the waitress returns. I have drunk half my coffee and the remainder is cold. ‘Je vous remercie, madame’ I say to her with a smile – remembering a bit of schoolboy French – thankful for just something to eat. Wolfing it down, I leave her a big tip and go.

That evening, we tried the other restaurant, a bit further along the road, La Brasserie, where my daughter ate herring and I foolishly ordered a steak Americaine that turned out to be steak tartare, which I couldn’t eat, and which the kindly waiter exchanged for meatballs.

Our trip has not been a success…

The specialist my daughter had sought out and travelled here to see could offer little help. Had he been sent her reports in advance, he may have been in a better position to offer advice, he told her, but no request for them had been made at the time she booked the appointment. On her second visit to the clinic, on our second morning, she gave blood samples and was afterwards presented with an expensive menu of tests to choose from, but with no advice on which to base her selections. Having ticked a few random options, feeling confused and depressed, she paid the enormous bill and left.

We sit together…

Our seats on the train back to London face Brussels. We watch as, under a sky filled with dark clouds, the city recedes inexorably into the distance.

Text and photographs © Pedro Silmon 2016

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