Sunday, June 7, 2009

Five Things I love about Brussels

I've been meaning to post a blog entry since I first got to Brussels last month, but things have been so hectic (in the best way possible!) that I haven't had a chance. Now that I can finally sit down and write about my experiences, I thought I’d kick things off by describing five things I absolutely love about this city:

The Streets Smell Like Waffles   For centuries, waffles (or gaufres, as they are called here) have been a part of local cuisine and today you can find waffle vendors in dozens of places around the city. The mouth-watering scent of batter baking in irons fills the air surrounding the stands, making the streets literally smell like sugar. What’s more is that some subway stations have waffle vendors as well, so even the gritty underground can smell sugary sweet.

A Mix of Old and New   It’s not uncommon for cities around the world to contain a mix of old and new. But nowhere does this hybrid seem more pronounced than here in Brussels, where the cobblestones of the city’s Grand Place, first set down in the 12th century, lie just a few metro stops from the ultra-modern EU buildings, in which decisions are made that affect the future of the entire continent and beyond. With the elections on peoples’ minds (if for no other reason than voting is obligatory—most people seem fairly apathetic about them), on the news, and as the subject of posters plastered all over town, Brussels clearly has its eyes on what’s ahead. However, in the Grand Place area, surrounded by intricately carved, golden-tipped 15th and 17th century merchants guild buildings, it’s easy to lose yourself in Brussels’ past. 

Pop Music on the Metro   In DC, a long wait for the metro can be mind numbingly boring. But in the Brussels subway, cheesy pop music is played on the platform, which makes waiting for a train infinitely more fun. I’ve been hearing a lot of Katie Perry and Pink lately, but they’ve also played Mariah Carey, Prince, Cold Play, and Michael Jackson!

Environmentally Friendly Practices   In Brussels, people are more conscious of their energy consumption and they conserve power in some interesting ways. For example, escalators don’t move until you step on them. Metro doors will not open unless you press on a button. Many supermarkets charge money for plastic bags. I’ve also noticed that people rarely walk around with take-away coffee cups, like they do in the United States. And if people do have them, they’re way smaller than a tall sized Starbucks cup.

International Meeting Ground   As a bilingual city, Brussels inherently radiates a diverse vibe. Evidence of this duality pops up just about everywhere. Street signs are written in Dutch and French, subtitles for many foreign films are given in both languages (which means about half the movie screen is taken up by text!), and subway announcements are made in Dutch, French, and English. Furthermore, about a quarter of Brussels’ one million inhabitants are foreign-born. Add to that the number of people visiting the city for diplomatic and business reasons and your average tourists and you’ve got one very multicultural city.

The thing about living in such an area is that you never know who you’ll meet. As you saw from Rebecca’s recent post, some members of our group met Bruce Springsteen last week while hanging out in the Grand Place. At her internship, a student in the undergrad group met the Belgian astronaut that just went up into space. And two weeks ago on the subway, I got to talking with another passenger who turned out to be a friend of President Obama’s from his days at Harvard.

And this is only the beginning of why this city so great!


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