Brussels: More than Just Manneken Pis

[Week 65] Peacefulness is under-appreciated.
[Week 65] Peacefulness is under-appreciated.
Despite the less-than-stellar beginning to my Brussels sojourn, things are quickly looking up.

First if all, and based on prior experience in Rome, who is here is of utmost importance. As it is, there’s a lovely community of GEM PhD fellows. We arrived to find an already established little community and I’d like to think very quickly fell into place considering the sheer amount of social gatherings planned for the next few months!

Work-wise, I have my own office, with my own desk, my own chair, and our own little shared kitchen, printers (black and colour!), and our own little pair of bathrooms for the floor— fellow PhD researcher friends may be laughing at me now, asking “why is she so happy about having an office?” But believe me, lucky friends, it was not like this in Rome. Be grateful for your offices and your printers, each and every one of you.

My French is rapidly improving, thanks to having to speak it with everyone, and despite popular conception, people here attempt to speak English when they see you are having difficulties. Worst case scenario, such as discussing complex bureaucracy, it’s a case of I-speak-English-you-speak-French. During our first appointment with the lovely people at the Ixelles Commune for instance, we were given instructions once in French, and repeated the same instructions in English just to make sure we understood. Beyond this, the ladies at Carrefour Boondael very kindly explained— in French and English— how their student loyalty program works. The people at the MOBIB KIOSK, the same. Belgians have both the desire and the capacity to help, which I am grateful for with all my heart.

Public transport works, and shockingly is more or less on time— with the exception of rush hour periods and the number 71, which either appears in pairs or not at all. Bus 71 in Brussels is my Bus 53 in Rome!

I’ve never had to miss a bus because it was too full. I’ve never had to slap away a pickpocket. And highest of my list of priorities, there has been little street harassment— perhaps because we live in Ixelles, I hear it’s not the same in Bruxelles Centrale.

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Certainly, Brussels is not an awe-inspiring destination. Manneken Pis is disappointingly tiny, and the only other attractions are big, shiny balls and various EU buildings. That said, beautiful places abound. It is possible to sit on the steps of Bourse without being harassed, it is possible to enjoy as the sun sets at Grand Place or lay a picnic blanket at Etangs d’Ixelles and goose-watch. As a temporary home it’s perfect. I’ve made the comparison to a friend: Rome is like a Victoria’s Secret model with stage 4 lung cancer, glitzy on the outside but foul on the inside. Whereas Brussels, Brussels is like entering a nondescript plain-looking building, only to realize it has a beautiful veranda on the inside and has a freshly baked apple pie waiting on the counter. People have their own preferences— certainly many would and indeed do choose the Victoria’s Secret model­-type despite potential inner decay— but I’ve had enough of facades of beauty.

Bottom line: I’m falling in love with Brussels. I cannot stress enough how easy life can be here, and how warm the people are once you speak to them in ever-improving French. There are friends and colleagues all around, and we’ve established a couple of sukis in the Ixelles area. The medical system works, which I’ve written a backlogged post about, and perhaps the highest praise I can give a country: I would not mind paying taxes here, knowing that I reap the benefits.

Crossing my fingers that I’ll be allowed to spend my third year here!

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