We went to Brussels for a couple of days over Easter. This summer, it will be ten years since we left. It seems scarcely credible. We were curious as to whether the children would remember anything. Spoiler alert: they did not.
I found us a loft in a bohemian part of town through airbnb. A lot of people were away over Easter and friends had kindly offered to let us stay in their house but Mr. Waffle said that we couldn’t possibly impose in that way. It’s possible I could have but he just couldn’t. It was pretty cool and absolutely enormous but, dear God, does sound travel in a loft where the bedroom walls do not reach to the ceilings.
We decided to go to Rue des Bouchers for dinner. It’s an extremely touristy restaurant strip near the Grand Place where we had never eaten before and probably won’t again. Not the most amazing food experience. We went around the Grand Place in the bucketing rain. The children were a bit underwhelmed. And though, in some ways, it was a very authentic Belgian experience, I can’t say I was absolutely delighted either.
By contrast the Galeries de la Reine which, as 19th century shopping arcades go, is quite a good one was viewed with mild enthusiasm. It was, at least, dry. We saw a 157sqm flat to rent in the Galeries for â‚¬1,600 pm which would get you a shoebox in the middle of nowhere in Dublin and reflected on the overheated state of the Dublin property market.
We went for lunch with old friends of ours. I am sure they welcomed us like a hole in the head as they had just driven back to England the night before to collect their son from boarding school and they were off to Italy on holidays the next day and, unkindest cut, she had just had bad news from the Belgian authorities about citizenship and I think Brexit is likely to be awkward for them. However, we were delighted to see them and everything seemed unchanged except for the five enormous children we now have between us. Their son who attended our wedding as a three month old is now about 6 foot 6. It was very hard to stop saying, “You’ve got so tall” on a loop.
We then went into town and had some chips, looked at the Grand Place and the Manneken Pis, had a restorative drink in the Metropole (I used to go there with my father when I lived in Brussels in the early 90s and it is gratifyingly unchanged). The boys and I went home while Mr. Waffle and herself explored the excitements of the Rue Neuve (shops). It continued to rain.
Herself did a very elaborate Easter egg hunt for her brothers in the apartment which they quite enjoyed even though Michael is not an Easter egg fan. Mr. Waffle and I went for breakfast in the pain quotidien in the Sablon and then we went home and dragged everyone to Easter Sunday mass in the Sablon (quite long, included an organ concert and Gregorian chant, children’s patience was tried high). Afterwards we went for lunch at the bottom of the Sablon – the Sablon must be one of the most expensive places to eat in Brussels but just at the end is the much cheaper flea market zone and we had lunch there which was both satisfactory and economical. I had the classic Brussels spag bol which always includes carrots. I was not disappointed. Then we explored the famous (for a certain value of famous) flea market at Place Jeu de Balle (herself fascinated, boys almost horizontal from boredom). We took the outside lift back up to the Palais de Justice which towers in a menacing manner over this working class part of Brussels and, indeed, was designed to do so. Mr. Waffle tells me that a local insult is “architecte”.
In an effort to entertain the boys we went next to the dinosaur museum. This is largely unchanged since we left 10 years ago and I spent much time there when we lived in Brussels so it was a real trip down memory lane for me. The children did not remember it at all but pronounced it moderately satisfactory which was really all I could hope for.
We went to visit our old haunts, our old flat, the parks we used to go to. It lashed rain but we did get a chance to do some before and after photos. My favourite is this one from Rue de la GlaciÃ¨re which was around the corner from our house. We must have walked up and down it 1000s of times. The street is called after the ice factory which is still there (now supplying ice for sea food displays and the like rather than ice boxes as must have been the case in the 19th century). Just inside the door, there is an old cart which had previously been used to haul ice around and had been sitting there for about 100 years. The children always enjoyed climbing up and sitting in it. I was pleased to see that in the 10 years since we had last seen it, there had been no significant change. The children, on the other hand, have changed quite a bit.
The children and Mr. Waffle went to explore our favourite playground (Parc Renier Chalon, thanks for asking) and the Princess’s old school. On the way there, they met the optician who had supplied Daniel’s first pair of glasses. He is now in his 90s and very sprightly. They had a grand old chat and he revisited with Daniel the proper way to clean your glasses. Then we all went to lunch in a nearby bistro which Mr. Waffle and I were very fond of when we lived in Brussels. It was perhaps a bit elaborate for our needs but I was glad to see it has remained unchanged.
That afternoon we went to the toy museum. When the children were small, we went there all the time. Although they did not remember it, it was completely unchanged. We knocked an entertaining enough couple of hours out of it recreating scenes from the children’s youth. Even Michael was moved to concede that it was quite good.
After this I went in to the Grand Place, did some mild shopping in the environs and settled myself in front of the fire in the Rose Blanche, a cafe on the corner of the Grand Place where we used to go a bit when we lived in Brussels. In due course, herself and Mr. Waffle joined me but the boys stayed in the flat, unimpressed by the lure of the city centre.
The Princess and I went to the pain quotidien for breakfast and then took ourselves to the MusÃ©e des Beaux Arts. The hours and hours I spent with her there when she was a baby – it was less bad than you might imagine because it was always very quiet. I was a bit worried because now everywhere seems to be inundated with tourists but, happily, the gallery was as gloriously empty as it had ever been. Herself is a great art gallery companion, she seems to be genuinely interested in the pictures and we passed a very happy couple of hours. I know sometimes, you can photograph something to make it look like it’s empty when it’s really not but these pictures do convey the genuine echoing emptiness we encountered. If you are going to Brussels, I cannot recommend the galleries highly enough.
While the Princess and I were enjoying our art extravaganza, the boys and Mr. Waffle went to look at the Botanique gardens adjacent to our apartment. Alright but, of course, damp, was the verdict.
We went for lunch in an Italian near the apartment which was a great success but the children were all disappointed that they did not meet a Madam Pipi. When we lived in Brussels, the toilets in many establishments were guarded by fierce older ladies wearing aprons and sitting in front of a saucer. They kept the toilets clean and you had to pay them on the way in and if you didn’t understand the rules and failed to pay them, the consequences were truly terrifying. However, they seem to have all died out while we were away and while it makes going to the bathroom in Brussels a great deal less unnerving, it feels like the end of an era.
In the afternoon we went to mini-Europe which was more entertaining than we expected but probably a visit once a decade is sufficient.
All in all, it was nice to go back although, very damp. It was strange but, I suppose not entirely surprising, that the children remembered none of our regular haunts. I wonder how long I would need to be back in Brussels for to forget I had ever gone away; not very long, I suspect.