A Night in the Belgian Ghetto (Part 1 of 3)Posted: December 15, 2014
The following events occurred in the spring of 2012; and may I be eternally grateful there is no photographic evidence of their occurrence.
It was the Easter Holidays and classes would not commence for another four days. Most of the students had been looking forward to this much welcome break for months and plans had been hatched to make quick get-aways as soon as their end of semester exams had been handed in. Throw some darts at a map of Europe and you would be hard done by not to hit at least one of their chosen destinations.
While all this was happening however, I found myself sitting across from Bjorn in the kitchen of my Maastricht University student accommodation; surrounded by greasy dishes, listening to classic rock, and nursing some warm 36 cent Aldi beers. We had missed the boat and were now paying the price of suffering excruciating boredom in a small ghost town. ‘There must be something better we can do with our time than this’ I pondered as the bridge of Skynyrd’s ‘Free Bird’ blared from some battery powered speakers, but this thought was abruptly interrupted with the buzzing of my Swedish friend’s Nokia on the kitchen table.
“Bonjour Michelle, comment allez-vous?”
Following a quick conversation in lightening-speed French, Bjorn’s third-best spoken language might I add, he slams down his phone and asks nonchalantly: “Want to go to Brussels?”
“You read my mind. Fuck it! Why not?”
We left the quaint Dutch town by train the following morning and by lunchtime were wandering down to The Grand Palace where we were to meet the elusive Michelle. Like all young men, my brain couldn’t stop trying to guess whether she would be hot or not. Craning my neck skywards I was awestruck by the guildhalls encasing Brussels main square but am again shaken from a trance, this time by the sound of a rough voice shouting: “Bjorn, Bjorn!” A lanky 6ft tall bearded Belgian bounces into sight and gives Bjorn a massive bear hug which, by the looks of it, he was greatly anticipating. “Hey man”, he said turning to me. “My name is Michelle. You ready to see the REAL Brussels?”
Please tell me I didn’t just make the same gender-switching mistake as Scotty from the classic teen-comedy Eurotrip?
We walked down some side streets until our path was blocked by what at first glance appeared to be a large huddle of paparazzi. As we got closer however there was no sign of any A-listers, just hordes of agitated tourists crushing one another like they were in a mosh-pit in an attempt to get a decent snap of the Manneken Pis. This miniature statue of a golden boy urinating into a fountain, and which translates to ‘Little Pee Man’ in English, is the most famous sight in the country, but Michelle and Bjorn weaved masterfully through the crowds without even a glance in its direction.
“Enough of him! You need to see the Jeanneke Pis, his little sister.”
I thought they were ‘taking the piss’ for a bit, but lo and behold just around the corner and tucked behind some railings down a one-way alley was a little limestone girl squatting over a puddle and apparently also suffering from a leaky bladder. It this is a supposed representation of the locals one could do a roaring trade in Catheters in this city.
“Right that’s enough sight-seeing for one day moped Bjorn. Time to show you what Belgium is really famous for… Beer”
We enter The Delerium Café, renowned for having the largest beer menu of any drinking establishment on the entire planet. Bjorn and I grab a table whilst Michelle heads over to the bar only to return moments later with some ‘shoes’ of beer. And when I say ‘shoe’ I do not mean that the bar had run out of drinking vessels and resorted to using what was on their clientèle’s feet. What I actually mean is that he was struggling to carry three glasses towards us that were each the same shape and size as an adult’s Wellington Boot. 2 litres of 8% Duvel a-piece? Starting off easy then I take it!
Sitting around a table, which was actually an up-turned cask, we shot the shit with my tour-guides intermittently rattling off stuff in their other tongue when they got too excited. Born in Sweden, Bjorn moved with his family to the little Belgian village of Nivelles during his teenage years where he befriended Michelle and learnt to speak French. He returned to Sweden when enrolling at Linkoping University but his parents and younger brother still split their time between their Scandinavian house and their one in the suburbs of the Belgian capital we would be residing in this weekend
The hours passed effortlessly as the boots were drained and it wasn’t long before we became loud-mouthed and boisterous; much to the bemusement of some Spanish girls at a neighbouring table. My round was up and whilst waiting in line at the bar a bald man, whom I would guess was in his mid-thirties, tapped me on the shoulder and in the broadest Glaswegian accent stuttered: “Parlez vous Francais?”
“Sorry man,” I replied, “I don’t speak French but would Scottish slang do instead?”
It turned out that he was there with five other guys on a stag do; and like me also found the concept of drinking from a welly trivially hilarious. He owned a jewellers about a 15 minute drive from my parent’s house and promised that if I was ever planning on getting married that he would offer a great deal of engagement rings. I thanked him for the offer but told him that he would be waiting quite a while if that were the case. I still have his mobile number and contemplate from time-to-time whether or not to give him a buzz. I wonder if he would still remember who I am three years on? Probably not!
Back at the table I divided up the beers and checking my watch saw it was already midnight. Jeez, we’d missed dinner and everything. It had been daylight when we entered the pub. Last orders were sounded and I started to yawn; it had been an awfully early start.
“Fancy calling a taxi soon?” I muttered, taking a large gulp from my shoe.
“Taxi? You do know where Nivelles is, don’t you?” looked Michelle quizzically.
“Not a Scooby-Doo”
“It’s at least a 50 Euro taxi fare away; and that’s if they even want to take you! We’ll have to wait for the first train…”
“And when will that be?”
“In about 6 hours’ time,” slurs Bjorn.
And with that we staggered out into the dark and wet back-streets of Brussels. This was going to be a long, rough, night.