“Not For the Faint of Heart”: New Year’s in Brussels

January 6, 2010

To assuage my sadness over the departure of my family after Christmas, Colbert and I decided to meet up for New Year’s Eve in Brussels, Belgium. Somewhere between the freezing cold, the confusing mix of languages (at least two at all times, on everything), and the strangeness of the town’s greatest tourist attraction (a statue of a little boy urinating), we decided that one visit to Brussels in a lifetime was enough. It’s not that it’s not lovely, it’s just that it was a bit too quirky, even for me! Oh, except the waffles were amazing, and I am determined to find the real Belgian secrets to making them myself!

Arriving in a new city is always an adventure. Trying to orient yourself, locate essential things like maps and transportation, and in this case, just trying to figure out what language to speak is not easy! Everything in Belgium is written in French and in Dutch. But English is not uncommon, nor is the occasional phrase in German. Everything is written at least twice, and even the streets have different names depending on what language they are written in, which gets really confusing really quickly when looking at a map. However, despite the fact that languages were bouncing around like ping-pong balls in my mind (I’m used to 2, but 4?) everything worked out fine!

One thing about Brussels that is really fabulous (in addition to the waffles) is the architecture. We ended up unintentionally seeing more of the city by foot than we had planned on several occasions (not so great in the biting cold) but the unique buildings (many of which are in my favorite style, Art Nouveau) made up for it. Oh, and the “Grand Place” with its town hall and palace were incredible!

The Town Hall in the Grande Place on New Year's Eve

As you have to do in any major city, Colbert and I spent quite a bit of time visiting museums! We saw the brand new René Magritte museum (he was a Belgian surrealist painter-most well-known for “ceci n’est pas une pipe”-you would probably recognize it if you search for it) and then the main Fine Arts Museum, which had an interesting mix of Medieval, Northern Renaissance, and Modern art. Mixing things up in strange and unexpected ways seems to be the Brussels M.O! We also visited the Brussels Historical Museum (I think that’s the name) and the Museum of Natural Science-which was full of huge dinosaurs found in Belgium, called “Iguanodons”. That is certainly not something you can see in every city!

Outside of the Magritte museum (no pictures were allowed indoors unfortunately)

David's "Marat Assassiné" which I have always wanted to see

Me outside with a fake dinosaur

Colbert indoors with a real one!

The highlight of the trip for me was New Year’s Eve. I caught a bad cold from Mom before she left, so I wasn’t feeling up for much of anything, but I took an afternoon nap and decided that because it was New Year’s, I had to make it to midnight. Colbert and I had no real plans, since the only thing the Tourist Office told us about was a midnight firework’s show, but we decided to have dinner and see what happened! We walked down a gorgeous little street that was exclusively seafood restaurants, all of whom had big displays and special menus for the holiday. I have a picture, but unfortunately we had to eat elsewhere, since dinner at 40-60 euros per person (about $60-$80) was a bit too pricey! None-the-less we had a good dinner (I had mussels) and I even got to talk to Dad, who called during the meal to wish me an early Happy New Year’s!

The park where they were holding the fireworks show was madness! There were huge throngs of people, a DJ playing songs from the 70’s and 80’s, and lots of young teenage boys throwing firecrackers everywhere-which was a little loud and dangerous for my taste! We people-watched, window shopped, and we ate a huge waffle while we waited for the end of 2009. We finally found a place in the crowd and when the DJ started playing “YMCA” we tried to get the crowd dancing (while warming ourselves up at the same time) but the man in front of us snarled “Hey! Watch your arms!” so we realized that apparently the YMCA is the kind of thing that only happens in America. The multi-lingual countdown and the gorgeous 30 minute fireworks show at midnight completely made up for it though! And it was even worth the hour and a half battle to get home after!

The park being set up for fireworks

One of the fantastic seafood displays

The Christmas tree at Grande Place

choco-banana-whipped cream waffle anyone?

Happy 2010!!!!!!!!

New Year’s Day almost everything was closed, so Colbert and I just wandered around the city (which looked like riots had gone through by the way) and we eventually found a Christmas market! We listened to Mongolian and Chinese musicians, ate waffles and drank spiced wine, and we watched the ice skaters and kids on the amazing carousels in between browsing the booths selling everything from bread to jewelry and mittens! It was really beautiful, and it was a lovely way to end the holiday season!

The top of the carousel

Animals on the carousel-it was only for children, so I wasn't allowed to ride!

Oh dear. I’ve almost finished this entry and I still haven’t explained the Manneken-Pis. Okay. This is why Brussels is very strange. They at some point in the 1700’s commissioned a fountain by a famous sculptor. His creation was a small statue of a little boy “taking a wee” into a basin on a street corner. Manneken-Pis is normally nude, but somebody decided he needed costumes for special occasions, so (as I know from seeing them in the Brussels museum) he has a Santa costume for Christmas, various costumes from around the world, various traditional Belgian outfits, and yes, he even has a white sequined Elvis outfit!!!! It’s even stranger than it sounds, as I learned in the educational video that he is not only a symbol of the city’s humor, but of its “freedom”. I’ll let you know if I figure out what that means! The best part is he is about 18 inches tall (yes, that’s it) and while I thought I was prepared for how tiny and insignificant he was in stature I still couldn’t help but be surprised that he really is THAT small! The other strange thing is that nobody knows why he’s represented. There are at least 6 different myths presented about him in the museum (including one that he put out a fire in the town, which is my personal favorite) but there doesn’t seem to be a real story. No matter though-tourists from all over the world of all ages and backgrounds come to see him, take his photo, and then buy t-shirts, plates, and beer mugs printed with his picture, and chocolates, statues, and corkscrews in his likeness.

The Famously Shameless Manneken-Pis

I think I have covered the most important things, except for a description of the waffles. You can find what we think of as a Belgian waffle in Brussels. But there is another version that is so much better! The dough (it isn’t made from batter) is sweet and dense, and the form is kind of irregular. But the best part is they have a sort of caramelized sugar on the outside, and they are served piping hot. We pretty much lived off of them during the entire trip! Mmmmm!!!!

I’ll leave you now with some of my favorite “pretty” pictures of the last day in the snow-and a note! I will be leaving for Spain this Friday (January 8th) and I will not be returning until the 20th! I plan to visit internet cafés when possible, but I’m not sure when/if I’ll be able to update my blog. I will try though! A bientôt I hope!!!

"Winter" in the park

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