I left for India on May 27th. Its a 7 year hiatus. The last 3 visits were tied to marriages including my own. I left India in 1998 and I go to a vastly changed country today. I am very eager to see the changes that everybody keeps talking about. I decided to take a short break in Europe enroute. Having chosen Jet Airways (pretty good one) I took a break at Brussels for a week. We landed in Brussels on May 28th and were greeted by an ad for Starbucks next to a coke vending machine. Long live America. The customs check was a breeze due to our American passport.
Belgium sits nestled between France and Germany hence French and German are used in most places. English is used too. This is where Napoleon was humbled and his dreams of a french empire came crashing in Waterloo (close to Brussels). Flanders has thousands of war dead buried during World War 1. I remember a poem Nehru quoted in his 'Glimpses of world history', 'In flanders field....". Bharathi wrote a poem lamenting how Belgium was mauled by Germany during World War 1 despite its declared neutrality.
Waiting for a cab I was surprised to note that all cabs were Mercedes, 100%. I know that in Germany BMW's run as taxis did not expect it in Brussels. This is our second Europe trip so the generic small European cars were expected. Most cars were German made, some Italian. I saw just one Toyota and one Ford. All along the way to Hilton in downtown the buildings were unremarkable. Mostly flat topped, mostly old, pretty ordinary buildings. Just like Madras of 80's. The cab ride was interesting, the cabbie played Western Classical music (Chopin's nocturnes, Mozart sonatas --- I peered at the play list :-) ). I asked him if all cabs do that. He proudly said only he does that, that earned him a generous tip.
Our hotel, Hilton Brussels, is close to downtown situated in a street lined with designer shops. Armani, Faconnable, Tiffany, Ralph Lauren, Hermes etc. I visted the shops while Rowena and Preeth slept. Its the first time I saw Ralph Lauren merchandise priced way above Faconnable. Also the dresses sold by RL were very unlike anything I've seen at their boutique shops in US (not the facory outlets). America is good to shop economically but Europe is where quality is. I've felt that way during my visit to Zurich, Paris last year.
In the evening we took a road map and walked towards the most famous landmark in Belgium, 'Mannekin Pis' (Dutch for 'little man pissing). Its a non-descript cheeky statue of a small boy pissing, its located in a hum-drum location on street by the side, yet its the most famous sight. Then we proceeded to Grand Palace Cote. A Jazz festival is on for 3 days. There are Jazz performances in several parts of the city. The streets are mostly cobbled stone roadways. The trams are old and creaky unlike the swanky ones in Zurich. The road side bistros are typically European, we have a poor imitation of those in parts of NYC. I did not see a single 'chain' restaurant. The plebian American in me. We had lunch and dinner in different places. A waffle is not a waffle if you have not eaten it in Belgium. A crispy waffle topped with nice vanilla ice cream studded with some really luscious straw berries. The chicken pot pie we had for dinner was simply out of the world. Of course the usual irritants of having to pay for water (its costlier than soda) was there and no doggie bags (yet again the American)
Hollywood really rules here too. Whether its Paris (and the snobbish French) or Belgium its Hollywood all the way. The theater near our hotel features "Sex and the city part 2" complete with a tall poster of Sarah Jessica Parker sashaying in a gown slit all the way upto the hip. There was Russel Crowe staring menacingly in a poster for 'Robin Hood'.
I stepped into a Faconnable store (there is one at NYC opposite Saks). The store assistants really would prefer to help you try out clothes rather than you helping yourself. Not sure if it was because the store was an upscale one. The home stuff in RL store was breathtaking. Talking of shops, next to waffles Belgium is known for hand sewn intricate lace work clothing and lace work material. We bought a small souvenir and marked out some table cloths for purchase on our last day. To say that they were 'intricate' is an understatement.
The Louis Vuitton store was interesting. Their hand stitched leather goods are considered the best and of course priciest too. It was cute to see store assistants handle the boxes and bags like they were jewellery. They placed the bags on the table on a nice soft cloth like a jeweller showing of a diamond. The boxes and bags are stored in cloth covers.I guess any LV store across the globe would do that.
Before I part for today a really curious thing. I've heard from my cousin who visited Germany about their curiously designed toilet bowls. When I stepped into the bathroom in my hotel room I was taken aback to see 2 commodes. One was our usual one. Another one next to it had no lid and interesting had two taps, cold + hot just to wash away the urine. Yes its only a urinal. One wonders at the need for hot+cold water for THAT.