Turns out waking up at 4am on a Saturday off the back of 50 hour working week feels about as good as it should. Coffee can’t go down fast enough and it seems I can’t move fast enough because at 4.45am, when I am supposed to be out the door en route to my 5.10am train, I’m still not dressed and my hair is a fright wig.
Loitering on the corner of my street, bathed in a glow from the street lights and wearing a trench coat, I feel vaguely like I’m in a bad noir film. A cab comes at the 11th hour, moments after I have befriended the idea of power walking to the station. I continue the noir theme by flagging it down with my trench-coated arm and slipping into it under the cover of 5am darkness.
In the cab, I realise I have left my book on my bedside table. Four hours on a train cannot be spent any other way than reading. I buy a Nick Hornby at the station, in record time, throwing money at the kasse. My train is waiting on the platform and I stag leap on. Belgium, here I come.
Fucking Deutschebahn (I am officially German now, because I am familiar with the world’s most efficient country’s dirty secret; the inefficiency of their rail system). My train doesn’t leave, due to technical difficulties and I’m turfed out. I run for the 6.14am to Duisburg and, once the heating kicks in, fall asleep on it.
From Duisburg to Koeln, I pounce on the snack lady and relieve her of the last coffee on her tray. It tastes like a boot and is as strong as smack to the head with a concrete slab. My eyes go from slits to slightly bigger slits.
Running significantly behind my printed schedule courtesy of Fucking Deutschebahn, I am wildly guessing when trains will depart and arrive at my various connections. On Koeln station I risk it and sidestep into a café to order my third coffee for the day. It’s just on 8.30am.
On my final train for the morning, I loiter in the luggage storage for a while, as I don’t have a reservation for this particular train – I had a reservation for the one that left before it – and now feel less noir, more Christie-esque. I think it’s the trench. A Thalys ticket man with an impressive moustache says I can take any free seat and suggests a cosy compartment away from the riff raff. Thank. You. I sit with Nick Hornby and watch Germany become Belgium through the window. Later I will be joined by two men who will then make a return appearance in the evening at the pub I will find myself dancing in. Moustache Thalys man also joins us, although not in the pub, and tries to guess what city in Australia I am from, despite the fact I am holding a book over my face. Oddly, he goes for Perth.
On Brussels station, amidst a sea of French accents and big-city grit, I find Tammy and we embrace like long lost lovers. She warns me Brussels has not exceeded any expectations she may or may not have had and that it’s grey. Very grey. We hop on a train that looks like something out of a 1980s movie set in New York and listen to the dulcet tones of a mobile busking accordion player, who maintains extended, awkward eye contact with a fellow commuter, as if daring him not to toss him a few euros compensation.
Brussels is, indeed, spectacularly grey and soon after we have set out on our lets-find-food-and-wine walk, it begins to rain. Winding down themed cuisine streets – Greek, Middle Eastern, Italian – we find ourselves in a tourist hotspot where waiters beckon and say things like ’where are you from? What’s your name? They call me Mr Satisfaction …’ The rain (and waiters of the aforementioned ilk) chase us into a restaurant that looks like it belongs on the back-lots of LA, used for made-for-TV films that require novelty French restaurant settings. And so begins our eating frenzy, which will wind its way past a restaurant we are invited into to have a wine for the boss’s birthday (don‘t mind if we do), past a waffle house, into a pub with over 2000 types of beer and end up in a kebab shop after a night during which all conceptions of drunken Irish men are reinforced with lashings of cider and mortification.
Sunday dawns grey and chilly and we kick off with a pain au chocolat and coffee in a corner café. Suitably fuelled, we begin to stroll and soon witness Brussels’ second coming. If Saturday was something of a letdown, Sunday gives us a right slap across the face for ever doubting the city could impress. Brussels is, it turns out, stunning, perhaps even more so because it exists beneath that cranky grey sky. I am beginning to feel I am visiting a beautiful, moody, bad tempered woman. I don’t know what she’ll do next. I want to dislike her for her brooding brow and harsh tongue, but I think I love her because she’s so bloody beautiful. And she knows it. Cafes and restaurants provide splashes of cosmetic colour, wrought iron balconies cling to old, French-style apartments like snippets of lace. The whole effect is a Hitchcock-in-Europe film set where Brussels is the snow covered volcano and you her bumbling co-star.
We buy Godiva chocolate coated strawberries, stop for greasy fries and mayo, both of us groaning that we have to stop abusing our metabolisms. In what must be one of Brussels’ wealthier neighbourhoods, where the locals are groomed and the shop windows magazine-perfect, we blow into a café just before a sudden snap delivers another downpour. Both of us eye the cakes and then each other. But it’s not to be – there is simply no room for the citron tart. We take our coffees out into the grey afternoon and continue inspecting chocolate shops.
Brussels, the beautiful, scowling European woman who suffers from something of an identity crisis, has sucked us in with her cobble stones and lace balconies, her glowing cafes and sprawling palace squares. She sends us on our weary way with an episode involving a man attempting to drunkenly urinate against the wall of a café on the station. He is later spied staggering onto my train, where he passes out in the toilets and has to be pulled out by police on Aachen station.
Tomorrow he and I will both wake up in Germany and Brussels will seem like a strange and, dare I say it, intoxicating dream.
Brussels in pictures here.