Food in Belgium is Good. That’s Good with a capital G.
I arrived in Brussels on Saturday afternoon after a long train journey, during which I was forced to share a carriage with a couple of teenagers who were eating the most delicious-smelling chips that ever existed, and a girl who was enjoying a waffle that dripped with syrup. It blinded me to everything else. The sights, the sounds, the buzz, the crowds, the great weather, the buskers… no, the only thought in my head was lunch. I stopped at a little wall hatch that sold Belgian Frites, and ordered what we Irish would call a poke o’ chips. I don’t know what they call it over here. I settled for saying “frites” and holding up one finger.
I was not disappointed. These chips were the nicest I have ever tasted (with the possible exception of the ones I had for lunch in a cool little restaurant on my first day in Tallinn, which fell into the category of Food that is impossible to eat without going ‘Mmmmmm’ with every single bite).
Then I had a waffle, as advised by Croquecamille. It was like taking a little trip to Food Heaven. Everywhere, everywhere, were the waffle carts and frites stands. Weaving my way through the crowds, I saw people sharing frites, eating Belgian chocolates, and tucking into waffles that were heaped with strawberries and cream, chocolate sauce, and various other delights.
It all looked incredibly appetising – until, that is, I followed the signs to Bruxelles-Midi station to catch a train home. I’d been amused at my guidebook’s description of the area surrounding this station. Do not, under any circumstances, go there alone at night! it warned in ominous bold print. Use one of the other stations if you can. Be on your guard. Don’t carry a handbag, and if you do, be prepared to wallop somebody over the head with it if you want to have any chance of keeping it (it didn’t actually say that last bit, obviously, but you get the idea). They were going a bit over the top, I felt.
The scent of frites and waffles gradually disappeared and was replaced with – strangely – the sickly sweet aroma of incense. Swanky restaurants with pretty pavement terraces became grubby street cafes selling scary-looking concoctions (most involving unidentifiable chunks of meat). Names of shops and posters on walls were no longer in French or Dutch, but in a Middle Eastern language of some sort, with unfamiliar symbols as letters. Youths skulked in doorways, smoking fragrant cigarettes, and I realised somewhat nervously that I was the only female in sight who was not wearing a head covering. People were watching me suspiciously. I had to swerve to avoid a brawl that spontaneously errupted on the pavement in front of me.
Choking on the clouds of incense, I entered the station. It was the first time that I’ve ever seen signs in French and heard it being spoken all around me that I actually felt comforted and in familiar surroundings. I don’t think I’m quite ready for non-European travels just yet, you know. In fact, I was very pleased with myself on the way home, when I started to get a horrible, uneasy feeling that I was once again on the wrong train. Do you speak English? I asked the woman next to me. She shook her head, saying something in Dutch, and I slumped back in momentary defeat. Francais? she asked. Oui, un peu, I said, brightening. I explained my train worries, and we had a very basic but helpful conversation. This is something that has really impressed me on my travels – seeing people meet and establish a common second language before easily entering into conversation. And now I’ve done it, too!
I was slightly less calm and confident after a long and complicated train announcement about an hour later, when the train was stopped at a station. Everyone stood up and began speaking in urgent tones, grabbing bags. Some left the train, others sat back down. I sat in the middle of it all, wondering what was going on and feeling increasingly nervous about where I was going to end up, as the three people I stopped and tried to ask for help shook their heads blankly and continued to speak Dutch. I must admit that I panicked slightly, which might explain why I suddenly leapt to my feet like a madwoman and yelled Does anybody speak English?! over the general babble.
Still. At least I got back. And I seem to be getting over my fear of drawing attention to myself…