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2005-07-24

Brussels. Day two. I made it through breakfast without being accosted, attacked, verbally abused or otherwise importuned: things were looking up. I did have a bit of a kafuffle getting into the luggage room, but one of the hostel staff very kindly helped me out, informing me that the key cards need to be reprogrammed at Reception every day – something it would have been nice to have been told when I checked in, but never mind. I was determined to have a good time. I went to the cathedral and the national art gallery, two activities guaranteed to be relatively peaceful. Half the gallery’s modern wing was cordoned off for no apparent reason, and the Rubens collection was closed for the lunch hour (what? Paintings don’t need to eat!), but never mind! I got to see some very nice Flemish masterpieces (damn, that’s good windmill!) and some kicky turn-of-the-century Belgian symbolist works; always good fun.

Back out on the mean streets, though, the Horde continued to be aggravatingly French. I tell you what, even if I didn’t speak the language, I’d have figured out what the word ‘tatouage’ meant pretty damn quick. Five minutes did not pass when I was not informed that I had “un joli tatouage” or “quel beau tatouage!” or “c’est un gros tatouage”, as though I had perchance not noticed the fucking thing in the seven hours straight I spent under the needle having it done. Men followed me down the street, aggressively making small talk and sulking when I refused their invitations for coffee/beer/dirty monkey sex. Shit. Is that what it’s like being incredibly attractive? It’s a lucky thing I turned out on the average side, or I’d have become a slavering bloodthirsty sociopath by now.

The weather was again unbearably hot and muggy, and I really wanted to sit down and have a cold drink, but there didn’t seem to be any cafés at all, just restaurants and bars and kebab huts. I have to admit (and I realise I’ll most likely be asked to turn in my Radical Pinko Secret Decoder Ring for this) that I began to long desperately for a Starbucks. I felt disgusting and sweaty and dishevelled and glaringly conspicuous, and all I wanted was to sit in a bland, womblike, air-conditioned environment and enjoy an overpriced, mass-produced iced coffee like a civilised person. I do have to applaud Brussels for remaining thus far unravaged by the contagion of American chain retail, for there was nary a Starbucks to be found. Bravo, Brussels. But never fucking mind! I decided to have beer instead.

I went to Café Dada on the Rue Fossé aux Loups, met some nice people, and drank my way three-quarters of the way down the beer list. Somehow I ended up in an argument with a Swede who became violently offended when I told him I thought his country was really fantastic and socially forward-thinking. No matter: I suspect he was a bitter ex-pat who had been rejected from the country for not being good-looking enough.

Drank some more. Stumbled back to the hostel in the wee hours, and was met at Reception by the same kind employee who had helped me open the door to the luggage room that morning. He began chatting with me, and offered me a beer from the (now closed) bar. Manna from heaven! Why not?

As I nursed my Duval, my new friend confessed that when he’d first seen me (or more specifically, my “tatouage”), his heart had leaped in his chest (it sounded better in French, but still, steady on now!) and he knew that he had to have me, or something. He begged me to leave the hostel and come stay with him for the rest of the weekend. He told me that I was beautiful and that he felt that we could really have a connection. I laughed at him some. He glared at me, and pressed on with his suit. I managed to extricate myself somehow (my memory gets pretty hazy around that point), promising I’d see him the next day, went back to my room, and passed out fully clothed on my bunk.

Day Three: hangover day! I woke with a start at ten o’clock on the button, just as the last of my roommates were vacating the premises. Shit. I showered and changed as quickly as my delicate, throbbing skull would allow, racing to get my possessions out of the room before I was busted by the cleaning staff and publicly beheaded, or whatever punishment the hostel reserved for stragglers. Mercifully I escaped undetected and headed out for some sightseeing. In the state I was in, it was more like sight-squinting. Walking towards Grand Place, I was followed down the street by yet another obnoxious suitor: after chatting with me for ten minutes, he asked me a question about the hostel; when I didn’t understand what he meant he told me that my French wasn’t very good. Very suave, mate. Not wanting to be misunderstood, I switched back to English to give him the brush-off. I spent the evening exploring St Josse and went to bed early.

Day Four. I woke up bright and early and was first in line for breakfast. My plan, as my train didn’t leave until five PM, was to leave my backpack at the hostel for most of the day and perhaps check out the comic book museum. However, my date with Tintin was tragically not to be. My Reception-desk love interest, on his way to the kitchen, spotted me across the crowded breakfast room. My heart sank. He made his way to my table and stood over me, glaring at me accusingly as I ate my cornflakes.

“I looked for you yesterday,” he said.

“Really?” I said. “Yeah…I overslept and had to pack up my stuff pretty quickly.”

“What are you doing today?”

“I’m leaving. Today is my last day.” I gave a sad shrug.

“What time is your train?”

“Uh…twelve.”

“I want to see you before you leave,” he said peremptorily. “Just you and me. Intimement. Where will you be?”

“I just have to pack, and then I’ll be in the common area.” He gave me a suspicious look. I pointed over at the patio and smiled reassuringly. “Now, allez travailler, toi!”

Needless to say, I packed up my stuff at lightning speed and raced through checkout before the breakfast shift was over. I found myself out on the street, in the rain, with six hours to kill and all my luggage in tow – a fitting end to my holiday, I suppose. After slouching around the city centre for a few hours, I wound up at Gare du Midi two hours early, parked on a bench on the sidewalk, trying to ignore the faint stench of raw sewage. When I got back to London, and walked the entire way from Waterloo to Victoria without being spoken to or even glanced at by a single person (passing approximately eighty Starbucks en route), I could have cried for joy.

Well, in three weeks I’m off to Prague. Rumour has it that there are hardly any French people there at all. I can hardly wait!

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