I came back to Europe for a few reasons. Paul, yes, more adventures, yes, a job, yes, tick all of those boxes. But very high up on the list was another little teaser – something that kept bobbing up and wouldn’t go away.
I needed to make my peace with Belgium.
As it’s quite clear on this blog, I hate Belgium with a passion. So, I decided to take Belgium in small doses. You can’t knock yourself out with Belgium – take on too much at once and she’s sure to disappoint. So, back in February, I started with the smallest dose possible – Drielandenpunten. In this little corner of the Netherlands, the country actually borders both Germany and Belgium in the same spot. Tentatively, I put my big toe over the line. So far, so good. The ground didn’t cave in – perhaps Belgium had gotten its act together in the past four years.
So, the next month, when Paul and I sped towards London on the Eurostar and we needed to change trains at Brussels, it was me who suggested we take a brave look outside the station. Paul looked at me as if I were a martian.
“Are you sure? But… it’s Belgium!”
Disclaimer – the only person who hates Belgium more than me is Paul himself. As soon as we had crossed over the border, he was pointing out crumbing towns and deserted station platforms with grass growing in the cracks. “They just don’t care,” he would scoff.
Nevertheless, we braved the outside world. Without the aid of any kind of tourist signage, we followed the general direction of pedestrians and ended up in Grand Place. Yep, very nice, I will give them that. The square is really the only nice part of an otherwise very ugly Brussels, with little Manneken Pis, the peeing boy statue, the only real other thing of note. So we got back on the train, turning our attention fully on London, without thinking of Belgium again.
But we didn’t get out that easily. Two more visits followed shortly after – one very quick one during my guide training (I managed to completely get out of fact-finding Bruges due to my residency permit emergency) and an even quicker one en route from Paris to Dordrecht after training was finished.
Well, quick is a funny word. They were supposed to be quick. But when the Belgians get you inside their borders, they do the opposite to Australians – they’ll do everything it takes to keep you locked inside.
Road and rail, they’ve got both covered. You see, they’ve decided to do away with normal worldwide conventions of timetabling and road signage, and instead just give you a little taster of where your vehicle may be headed. On their roads, they only tell you the end town of a national highway. That’s like putting signs on Geelong Road saying Cairns this way, Darwin that way. We finally figured out the way to the Netherlands by going the opposite way to that of Oostende, a beachside town on the North Sea.
On their trains, instead of sticking to their roads system which would actually work in this case, they do the opposite. At Brussel Centraal Station, looking for a train headed to Amsterdam (on timetables printed on big yellow pieces of cardboard – no, the digital age has not yet reached Belgium), I came up short. Lots going to Antwerp, which is the right direction, but nothing crossing the border. Scratching my head, I figured I needed to switch to Brussel Noord Station. So off I hopped on a local train, as Brussels is one of those cities that has not yet amalgamated all their city stations into one big central one. One of the only ones left, I should point out.
Nothing at Brussel Noord for Amsterdam. So I jumped on another train to Brussel Zuid. Again nothing. I got desperate. ‘I am a clever, independent person,’ I chanted silently to myself. But I gave up and rang Paul. Turns out Brussel Centraal was the right one in the first place. I headed back – surely enough, every third train to Antwerp continues on to Amsterdam, stopping in Dordrecht along the way. They just type that in very small print on their massive pieces of yellow cardboard that have ‘Antwerp’ big and bold.
Of course, due to my jaunts around downtown Brussels, I missed my hourly train by seconds. I was hopping mad. Was this training trip ever going to end?
Finally the next train arrived, now at rush hour, but I gave all those Belgians a big greasy and the Beast and I knocked them all out of the way to get a seat. And I sat. And sat. We didn’t move.
Every twenty minutes or so a lady would come on the loudspeaker and give us an update. In French and Dutch, just like four years ago, except this time I had a basic understanding of one of the languages. She couldn’t tell us anything. She’d give us another update in twenty minutes.
All around me, people carried on with their normal commuting business, as if this was a daily occurrence. Eventually we began to move, with our dreary bilingual announcer informing us that we were to make some extra stops just before the Dutch border, at stations that serve towns that Paul likes to say are little more than a ‘thick tree’.
At these stations though, were hundreds of people. A Dutch girl my age squeezed in beside me, and probably as her fury matched my facial expression, began her tirade about Belgium.
By the time I got to Dordrecht I was ropeable. In my first month of work, I’d been two sets of days off in Bruges. Bugger that – I cancelled the first set and came back to Dordrecht instead.
But Paul convinced me otherwise. The next time, he caught the train down (with no delays) and met me in nearby Ghent – admittedly a lovely little city that is less fake and has a heap more character than otherwise quite pretty Bruges. We were however kicked out of town by the biggest freak storm I’d ever seen, and we were left to contemplate beer menus back – indoors – in Bruges.
There’s a great Colin Farrell quote from the excellent movie, ‘In Bruges’. It goes “If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn’t, so it doesn’t.”
I’m not that mean, though. Bruges is quite nice. The only problem is, it’s in Belgium.