1) The north part of the city is characterised by shiny skyscrapers and huge ring roads. “The ring” is an expressway round the city and there are literally hundreds of cars on a huge road between the skyscrapers. Not much you’d want to see there right? Well, wrong actually. For this is Brussels, and in Brussels the middle of the busiest road in the city is the perfect place for a farm with Alpacas, sheep, chickens, ponies and ducks.
2) The Botanic garden is a little piece of green paradise in the crazy traffic. From whatever angle you try and take a picture of the garden you get a skyscraper in the background.
3) One of the largest Moroccan communities in Brussels is close by too. A totally different feel to the African bit and lots of shops selling beautiful saris. Different churches, different clothes, different food.
4) I already knew that Belgium was complicated but at a talk given by the VUB university for new students my suspicions were confirmed… “so you will need a residence permit to live in Belgium, this is absolutely essential, everyone living here must have one. But there are 19 boroughs in Brussels and each one has different rules for how to obtain one. Some communes send a police officer round to check you live where you say you do, others just check your name is on your doorbell, others don’t bother and just want to see your passport and some you can just go and say you are here. So be very careful to follow the correct procedure. But if you are an EU national they probably won’t mind too much if you don’t obtain one, but actually do check because you must have one.”
“So when you go to the doctors you will be given slip with 1 of 4 colours on it. Don’t worry about what colour you are given, it makes no difference to us. In fact, I’m pretty sure nobody in Belgium knows what the colours mean.*” (*says head of the health insurance company)
5) I haven’t really met many people who are actually from Belgium. Walking tour of the city centre given by a Venezuelan, walking tour of Ghent given by a guy from Barcelona…
6) On Sunday cars were banned from the city centre and all public transport was free. Hence all the main streets were filled with bikes, people on rollerblades and people on these things which were like rollerblade skis.
7) You can buy everything you need at the Marche du Midi market (apparently the biggest in Europe?). Fruit, vegetables, pastries, kitchen equipment, gadgets, curtains, ironing boards… there are so many people just getting through the crowd is an experience. Noticeably absent is the lack of tourist paraphernalia. What struck me most is the contrast between this market and the market in Isle Sur la Sorgue. In Isle Sur la Sorgue the market sells lovely soaps and organic products, paintings and pottery and I got the impression from the accents that middle class tourists and people with money shop there. In contrast, Marche du midi seems to be where people buy what they need to live. Everybody is haggling for the lowest possible price. You get the impression that they don’t have much money to spend and the store owners need to earn as much as possible. Hence all the bargaining and shouting going on in several different languages.
8) Not interesting but all the supermarkets shut really early here (8pm).
9) LHS: in a beautiful old building like this, what would you expect inside?
RHS: The most modern interior possible of course!
10) In Ghent they have a really cool thing when a baby is born. The street lights in one of the squares are connected to the maternity hospitals, every time the lights slowly flash, a child has been born and apparently everyone in the square starts clapping. What a cool way to welcome a baby to the world!
11) Ghent is Dutch speaking, so all the announcements on the train are in Dutch until you get to Brussels, where it switches to French followed by Dutch.
12) The historic centre of Ghent is beautiful…
13) When graffiti is restricted to specific areas of a town, the resulting “graffiti corridors” become tourist attractions themselves and you start to appreciate graffiti as an art form.
14) This rule leads to some pretty spectacular results…
15) And even some attempts at the “real thing”…
16) Ghent’s newest building has apparently caused a lot of controversy. I liked it however as they have a grand piano inside that anyone can play and great acoustics. There were some pretty good pianists on Friday afternoon.
17) The biggest contrast I’ve seen so far of wealth versus poverty is the juxtaposition of the EU quarter and Sint-Joost-ten-Node – the poorest part of town (whose inhabitants come from 153 countries).
18) The European quarter made me realise I must learn more about politics… I reckon some pretty important decisions are made here. There are armed policemen everywhere and everyone is in suits and looking official. The buildings are, well, interesting and by all accounts I’m starting to think the Scottish parliament building isn’t so bad after all.
19) The Parc de Cinquantenaire is really nice and contains Brussels very own version of the Arc de triomphe, which according to my guidebook was designed to celebrate Belgium’s 50th anniversary in 1880. It makes a nice change to the buildings and thundering traffic of the EU quarter.
20) The weather here is really moody. Beautiful skies turn to heavy downpour and thick clouds within an hour. Predicting the weather for the day is near impossible (apart from the guarantee of rain at some point), so I now never leave without my rain jacket, my umbrella and my ecco boots.
21) Sometimes moving to another country feels really hard when there is so much to get used to and so many admin things to sort out. But reading back through this makes me realise it is pretty cool to be here after all!