First time in Belgium: one mishap after another

My weekend in Brussels was basically one mishap after another.

It takes an hour and 15 minutes to fly from Geneva to Brussels. But when I returned from Amsterdam last month, I decided that I shouldn’t fly within continental Europe unless I really had to. The threshold I had set was 6 hours: if it takes less than 6 hours by train to get somewhere, then I’ll always take the train. Brussels was the first guinea pig in this new experiment.

Since I had limited travel time over the weekend, I decided to break up the journey by adding a stopover in Lyon. So on Friday night, after getting out of work, I took a two-hour train to Lyon and stayed there overnight, with the intention of catching an 8:30 train the next morning to Brussels. I would have arrived by around 1:30pm, if things had gone according to plan.

The Geneva – Lyon part of the journey went smoothly. I stayed at the Nemea Appart’Hotel, just a few blocks from the Lyon Part-Dieu train station. The room was way bigger than I expected and quite comfortable.

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The next morning I casually made my way to the train station, reaching the appropriate platform at 8:20. There was already a train parked on the platform. This is where I fucked up. I had assumed, based on my admittedly limited experience riding trains in Switzerland and also Amtrak in the US, that if you’re taking a train at 8:30, and you get to the platform at 8:20 and there’s a train already waiting there, that’s the train you’re supposed to take. The night before, in Geneva, I had arrived at the platform at 7pm to catch the 7:30pm train to Lyon, and the train was already there. “The train is very early, ah?” The woman behind me had said conversationally (to me, in French), and I had grunted in agreement.

So I got on the train without thinking about it. Less than two minutes later, the horn blew, and the doors began to close. It occurred to me that this was not the train I was supposed to take. I rushed to the door and pressed the ‘open’ button repeatedly, but to no avail. The train took off.

I was panicked, but I found a seat near the door, put my bag down, and reasoned through it. First, I figured out that I had accidentally boarded a regional train headed for the east of France — the opposite direction of where I wanted to go. Second, I knew that I had to head back to Lyon. Third, I wouldn’t make it back in time to board the 8:30 train to Brussels, so I had to book a new ticket pronto.

Luckily, I had the app from SNCF, France’s national rail operator, installed on my phone. I opened it and checked timetables. The next train I could take to get to Brussels would require a transfer between stations in Paris (the train I’d originally booked was a direct one), and it would leave at 9:04am. The price was 182 euros. Ouch. I bit the bullet and bought it: an expensive lesson learned.

Ten minutes later, we arrived at the nearest station, Miribel. I got off, walked across the bridge to the opposite side of the tracks, and boarded the first train back to Lyon, which luckily arrived in just 5 minutes. By 9:04, I was on a train to Paris.

The train journey was kind of wild. For most of the trip through the French countryside, you’d see blankets of snow and swirling fog like this:

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And then the further north we got, the more the season reverted back to idyllic summer pastures:

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I disembarked at Gare de Lyon in Paris and had to transfer via RER to Gare du Nord to continue my journey north. The trip only takes 8 minutes or so — almost shorter than the time required to wait in line to buy a RER ticket.

I arrived in Brussels just before 2pm. It was a quick underground tram ride between Midi/Zuid station and my hotel, NH Collection Brussels Centre, located in a central part of town close to the famed Grand Place and many shopping centers.

The view from the street:

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The lobby was pretty fancy. It’s more of a business hotel.

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There were chairs that looked like burgers. LOL.

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This was the room. Small but comfortable.

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I asked the lady at reception for lunch recommendations. She pulled out a map and drew directions to a place that was 0.3 mi away and served traditional Belgian cuisine like fries and mussels. I walked to the restaurant, hungry and excited, and pushed open the door to discover it was jam-packed inside. Cool, I thought, so the locals must quite like it. Then the waitress pushed past the crowds to approach me. “We are full,” she said.

This confused me. “But I’m just one person?”

“Yes,” the waitress said, “but we are full.”

I thought about arguing with her or at least getting more clarity on the situation, but it was super loud in the restaurant, and I already had trouble understanding her English. So I threw up my hands and left.

I ended up having lunch at a nearby bar and grill that was not full. Despite my valiant efforts to only order in French, I mispronounced the word for mussels, moules, as “mou-lay” instead of “mull”. So the waitress brought me boulettes. Meatballs. It was too late to correct the error. The Mort Subite Kriek, or Belgian cherry beer, was really good, though.

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By the time I finished lunch it was 3pm. I walked back to the hotel to recharge my phone, and then set off towards the European Parliament, which was half an hour away by foot. It was already starting to get dark.

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The EU Parliament honestly felt… understated? It was in what felt like a CBD part of town, and the structure wasn’t nearly as fancy as, say, the UN or the World Bank. I guess the point is that people are here to work, not to rubberneck.

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(On Monday, when I told my boss that I’d been in Brussels over the weekend, she said, “Was it very gray?” Looking back at the pictures, I’m starting to realize how bleak and cloudy everything was.)

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They had a piece of the Berlin Wall on display.

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There was also something called a Parliamentarium nearby — a collection of interactive exhibits and a gift shop on EU history and governance. Visitors received an audio guide that they could tap on certain icons throughout the exhibit to prompt voiceovers, but my device didn’t work so well, and I felt frustrated by the general low-key shittiness of the entire day. I returned the device and left the building, heading back to the hotel. It was already dark.

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I don’t have any pictures, but I will say, the long open-air shopping streets and night markets around Grand Place were lovely at night. My legs were hurting a lot and I wasn’t hungry, so I just popped into Carrefour to buy a box of blueberry juice, and I went back to the hotel to soak in the bathtub and watch The Crown on my phone. Tomorrow was another day.

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Sunday morning in Brussels was decidedly quieter and calmer than Saturday. When I went out in search of breakfast at 9am, very few shops and cafes were open. I found a place nearby and ordered a cafe au lait, an omelette au fromage (why did it come with cole slaw???), and a fresh fruit waffle. At least I didn’t mess up the French this time.

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And then just a final lap around Grand Place. It was under construction.

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Oh, and the pissing statue, naturally…

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What is a Drug Opera? Hahaha.

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At 10:30am, the local Waterstones bookstore opened, and I went in search of Antoni Porowski’s cookbook. Alas, they did not carry it. But I did end up buying Chanel Miller’s memoir, Know My Name, and read it on the train back to Lyon, silently sobbing through most of it. I still feel a bit shaken by what I’ve read. She really laid her heart bare: sliced it open and spilled the pain for all to see. And she’s a fantastic writer, too. You could tell no ghostwriter was involved. I’ve since lent the book to a German coworker and am curious what she thinks about the way the American justice system is portrayed in this book.

All in all, it took more than 7 hours to return to Geneva on Sunday. 4 hours from Brussels to Lyon, an hour and 38 minutes in Lyon, and then 2 hours from Lyon to Geneva. The train back to Geneva was super old school, like the Hogwarts express. There were these tiny compartments with two rows of bench seats facing each other. I found a compartment with two other solo travelers, but we were quickly joined by a mom traveling with a 3-year-old and a 5-month-old. To be fair, they were not totally disruptive, and the baby only cried twice. I still don’t know how that woman was able to hold on to her sanity. Maybe French moms are just more chill.

Overall Brussels was okay. It didn’t seem as dangerous as Fox News makes it out to be, certainly. Nobody verbally harassed me or tried to panhandle from me. Nobody was, like, wearing a niqab. I guess above everything, I just found it kind of boring, but also stunningly beautiful in some quarters. Maybe I’ll come back to a different Belgian city, like Bruges or Ghent, in the future.

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