Once upon a time, a migrant in Belgium: Interview with InterNations

“Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Belgium, etc.”

I have almost forgotten I gave an interview about my beginnings in Belgium – it was such a long time ago after all. But it is a nice way for me to travel back in time while sipping a coffee. I also forgot that this person travelling to a new country which was to become her home is me. A younger version of myself, restless, curious, ambitious and eager to take in everything that this new universe had to put on offer.

Things have changed in the meantime; 15 years have gone by. Now I am a full-time Belgian citizen, enjoying the privileges of free, border-less travel within Europe, for however long it lasts, and accessing many countries of the world without a visa. I never introduce myself upfront as Belgian, though, because here is the thing: somehow I will always be “stuck” in my immigrant condition, because I like it. “Neither here, nor there” suits me well but I realise that this country gives me this option. I have a choice here, to belong or not quite entirely. It is an open place for me to evolve whichever way I chose to and one that accepts me. And today more than ever, I think I might show some gratitude for this. Belgium left it up to me to become as Belgian as I desired. If anything, immigration is a fascinating thing, don’t you agree?

These were quite possibly my very first thoughts about how I felt about this place back in the days. Read the interview here:

Silvia: Explorer of the Everyday | InterNations

Advertisements

Brussels Travel Massive goes L’Amour Fou and De Haus

De Haus, BrusselsTwo weeks ago, our steadily growing group of Travel Massive bloggers, professionals, start-ups and enthusiasts in Brussels gathered for the third time to celebrate Travel. The 13th of January, 2015 gave us a cold, rainy evening, the sort that would prevent most people from going out of their comfort zones. Yet many of us showed up with a fair dose of energy and good humour and we spent some quality, fun time together.

We found the perfect kind of refuge. Our host for the evening was the café/bar L’Amour Fou, my own personal number one burger place in town. L’Amour Fou is first and foremost about fresh, natural, home-made products. This is why everything tastes so good here. The place is always a full house, so if you fancy one of their famous juicy burgers (try Gringo and you’ll want more!), make sure you book in advance. It is also a cultural and musical hub, alternating art exhibitions, vinyl music, workshops, and even movies. One of those one-of-a-kind venues you just fall in love with.

L’Amour Fou gave us the perfect start: they offered us a choice of cocktails, tasty finger foods and generously put on the table two vouchers of 50€ each: one allowing for dinner in their premises, the other to be used in a famous Ethiopian restaurant, KoKoB. Our Brussels Travel Massive participants were invited to enter an Instagram and Twitter competition using the hashtag #bxltravelmassive. The winners of the two gift certificates turned out to be Emmanuelle Hubert and Elena de Marco – both very active at promoting our event online.

Then we went next door to De Haus, where the Gin & Tonic heaven is. Pierre Barbieux, owner of the two places, prepared a Gin tasting session for us, which culminated with a flambéed. What to say about this bar where I now spend most of my Friday evenings? This is where you’ll discover true love and devotion for this wonderful alcoholic invention that is the Gin & Tonic! The place boasts an amazing selection of Gins, among which the floral ones rank high on my list of favourites. But not only: De Haus stands out for its original interior design and the overall laid-back, cosy atmosphere and of course, a really nice and rich food and drinks menu. De Haus “Where the peanuts shells are thrown on the floor” and where you find “Probably the best toilets in Brussels”, as they market themselves, is the Gin-uine experience you just need to dive into. Take note: happy hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 6-8 pm. You’re welcome!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

With two such great sponsors, the evening couldn’t have been better! Thank you for supporting our freshly started Brussels Travel Massive adventure, we all appreciate it!

During the event, I took a step back once in a while, and, camera in hand, was delighted to see that our participants were having a great time in each other’s company and were evidently happy (that was even before the Gin tasting!) to come together and talk travel. Looking forward to our next Brussels Travel Massive event and connecting with even more people from the travel industry! Until then, cheers!

De Haus

A Travel Massive event

A Travel Massive event

Travel Massive meets Rock Salt

Rock Salt Chilli PeppersThe second Brussels Travel Massive meeting took place on November 20th in a very special venue. A new restaurant in Brussels city centre with a funky name opened its doors to welcome us, Belgium capital’s community of travel bloggers, start-ups and industry professionals. Keep this in mind: Rock Salt Chilli Peppers (RSCP, please!) fusion kitchen & lounge. What a welcome we had! I’m happy to share pictures, but I’m afraid they cannot translate the yumminess of the appetizers that an enthusiastic team of five people coming from different corners of the world carefully prepared and explained for us. Just to give you a flavour of the unique culinary diversity that inhabits the place, the restaurant’s Head Chef is from Indonesia (have no fear, the food is not Indonesian-spicy), the Under-chef is Spanish and the three kitchen helpers are from Spain, Macedonia and Belgium. A little universe of cooking artists at work! The bottom line is: what they put on the plates was a treat and there was some finger-liking involved in response to that (I saw it!).

Sumit Gupta, one of the two young owners of the restaurant, was the perfect host. He takes pride (and he should) in picking only the best quality and freshest products on the market to prepare the menu. He buys everything himself from selected suppliers to make sure his fusion food gains respect and high appreciation from his customers.

The Brussels Travel Massive participants in the event were spoiled at Rock Salt Chilli Peppers: the appetizers were bountiful, artistically decorated and no doubt, mouth-watering. And to wash down this amazing food, Sumit prepared some delicious cocktails for us, using a most surprising mix of ingredients.

Needless to say that the attendants to the Brussels Travel Massive event had a great time in the cosy atmosphere of the Rock Salt Chilli Peppers bar and lounge area, cocktail in one hand and appetizer in the other. Just a teaser to stimulate your senses.

Rock Salt Chilli Peppers has recently opened Rue des Cultes 34-36, 1000 Brussel and specializes in fusion food. The menu is rich with a variety of worldwide aromas, so if you are a foodie, or if you simply want to chill with a cocktail in a modern, laid-back and exotic setting, go give RSCP a go! We were very lucky to taste the best samples of what this restaurant has to offer and we thoroughly enjoyed every single bite and sip.

The second Travel Massive meeting in Brussels was a pleasant medium for the travel bloggers and enthusiasts who attended to meet, greet and discover one another, make new connections and why not, friendships. Most of all, it provided us with the opportunity to come together for a friendly talk in a beautiful and comfortable environment and taste some of Rock Salt Chilli Peppers specials, prepared with love by Sumit and his crew.

Travel Massive Brussels chapter is currently seeking to enlarge its number of members and bring travel bloggers and tourism professionals under the same roof to exchange creative ideas and experiences. It aims to build a strong local community of people who share a passion for travel/tourism. They are also on the lookout for sponsors to host further Travel Massive events in Brussels.

A special and heartfelt “Thank you” goes to Sumit and Rock Salt Chilli Peppers for having so generously supported our second meeting with so many goodies on the table! I gotta say, you rock!

Rock Salt Chilli Peppers

 

A Travel Massive event

A Travel Massive event

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t let Doel die

Doel_Belgium

I was missing chaos when I found Doel. After a recent trip to Indonesia which gave me a crash course on how chaos can look like, Brussels seemed a tad too orderly and sober by contrast. No monkeys on the roof, no motorcycles that carry whole families together with their belongings, no passengers on top of buses, cars that actually stop at the red light –the ordinary was failing to excite the eye and mind and the civilised world was once again comfortable, yet colourless and dull.

Somewhere not far from Antwerp lies Doel, a small village the Belgian state is giving up on based on a decision to expand the Port of Antwerp, one of Europe’s largest. Doel happened to be in the wrong place. Its inhabitants left. Some 25 people are still refusing to do so, but the evacuation order could become resolute one day. Doel is slowly but rather surely going down.
Doel_Belgium

Yet for now, its streets are alive with a weird kind of magic atmosphere. They are empty, devoid of residents, overtly displaying heaps of dirt and unkempt gardens filled with greedy weeds that grow uncontrollably. Some houses collapsed, others are still standing. And in the creepiness of an area that leaves the impression that a cataclysm made everyone pack and run, a strange and unexpected sight! Every single wall is covered in graffiti, making Doel a colourful if far from cheerful place in the gloomy mood set by the Belgian weather.

European graffiti artists left their marks on the walls in an attempt to save Doel from demolition, hoping to convince the government to preserve it, if only as a container for street art, an accidental tourist attraction. But it does not look like the message is coming across. For now, no entry fee is claimed and no one distributes flyers to celebrate the fortunate outcome of a derelict village that was doomed to disappear but escaped its fate.

In spite of itself, Doel magnetises visitors, however, no doubt thanks to its creative graffiti that gives life to its eerie emptiness. People who are curious enough go to this dodgy but seductive area with a camera and snap some shots. The day I visited, a group of men were taking pictures of their Ferraris and Porches parked against various graffiti backgrounds. Doel, it must be said, has become an original and seriously cool place unlike any other.

Some of the graffiti artworks are exceptional. It is exciting to be almost alone on empty streets amid the bountiful testimony of street art. Scary, too. This is a genuinely derelict place, not a museum that is meant to recreate the impression of abandonment. The doors to some of the houses were left open just wide enough for the curious passer-by to spot the traces of a questionable kind of occupancy. Squatters, no doubt.

Doel made me marvel. Not only at how an ugly place (if you add the neighbouring nuclear plant and the large number of electricity pylons) can become eye-catching, visually interesting enough to be inspiring, and even earn itself an identity made of spray paint models. Graffiti made Doel worth a visit, if only for a while. And with discussions to erase it from the map dating back since 1970, my guess is that you still have plenty of time to go and take those pictures, too!

Doel5 Doel4 Doel3 Doel2 Doel_Belgium_16 Doel_Belgium_15 Doel_Belgium_14 Doel_Belgium_13 Doel_Belgium_12 Doel_Belgium_11 Doel_Belgium_10 Doel_Belgium_8

Doel_Belgium_9

 

Hell of a May Day

Royal Greenhouses in Laeken
May 1st is, no doubt, a public holiday in Belgium, too. Labour Day or Easter – who cares about the underlying significance of the event, as long as it is a day off? I was once asked by a seemingly mature person why Easter was supposed to be a sad occasion. True, if you grow up thinking that Easter is that one moment when you look for egg chocolates in the garden, you might slightly overlook the mythical Crucifixion of Jesus (you know, the guy in urgent need of a haircut) by the Christians. Nowadays, everyone is just happy to have a day off away from the office. And I am by no means an exception.

Caught in Brussels, I decide to do the tourist and visit highlights that, possibly prevented by some exceptionally good instincts, I haven’t previously. Bill Bryson says that “once you’ve done a couple of circuits of the Grand-Place and looked politely in the windows of one or two of the many thousands of shops selling chocolates or lace (and they appear to sell nothing else in Brussels), you begin to find yourself glancing at your watch and wondering if nine-forty-seven in the morning is too early to start drinking.” (Neither here Nor there – Travels in Europe)

Still, the great thing about Brussels is that, small though it may be, one can hardly pretend having seen it all. There is always a park, a theatre, a museum, a bar, a site in or around Brussels that even locals are surprised to discover. Seriously, though I could criticize close to a hundred things about it, I am amazed how there’s always something to do or see in Brussels. Especially when you can’t book a flight to anywhere else.

Forgetting that I was not the only one enjoying a day off, I set my mind on visiting the Royal Greenhouses in Laeken. The day is bright though rain was supposed to be on the menu and I suspect that the guys from the weather forecast had been consuming again – somehow, their predictions are often wrong.

The first difficulty when reaching the park is to find a parking place – take the wrong lane like I did and you’re bound to do the tour of Brussels without any possibility of turning around in a foreseeable future. I end up managing to squeeze my car between two parking spaces for the disabled. Time to visit.

My mum is the fervent royalist, the kind who posts pictures of queens/kings and their inheritors from around the Globe on Facebook and captions them with enthusiastic remarks such as “Long live X or Y” ending in at least 3 exclamation marks. She dreams of restoring monarchy in Romania and I would hardly be surprised if she joined some activist group that secretly plots to get the job done. So I call her to say “Guess what? I’m going royal today: I’m visiting their weeds.” She asked for pictures with the intention to, of course, post them on Facebook for her other monarchy-crazed friends to like. She never ceases to amaze me.

The difficulty to find a parking place confirms my fear: half of the Brussels population had the same idea. Plenty also brought their children, strollers and most of their belongings with them. It’s a splendid sunny day, the entry ticket is 2.50 euros and I have a massive queue of humans in front me. I’m in trouble, for patience will be needed.

The cashier woman will not be nominated for the Kindest Person of the Year award. She looks bored already and it’s only noon. She takes my coins with a silent sign to put them down so that she can count them. I say “Bonjour” to her and although the poster says that the staff can reply in no less than 5 languages, she serves me a cold “alstublieft” in Flemish. She might as well have said “Go fuck yourself” to me. Maybe she actually did. The intonation was in no way different. I treat her with the adequate kind of look. Belgium is not a place where Flemish people love Walloon people (or the other way round), but Brussels is where they pretend to best. You should see Bruges!

Ticket in hand and with a still relatively good mood on my face, I get excited to see the flowers. But the road is packed with obstacles. To begin with, there’s a lot of walking to the greenhouses. There are also too many people lingering on and blocking my chances to move forward. I’m usually good at overtaking but this promises to be a very special day. People seem to stop and take pictures of every single patch of grass in a park that had absolutely nothing exceptional to offer and the families and big groups of friends occupy any available space, active at keeping everyone else behind.

I was starting to make my way when I was stopped by another big gathering: it was the queue to enter the greenhouses. I couldn’t see the door from where we were standing. I breathe shoulder to shoulder with the other visitors. A baby starts to yell so hard it reminded me of an excellent condom commercial (and if you haven’t seen it, please do before it’s too late: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYvLahRzabs). I was by then deeply cursing myself for having had such a wonderful idea as coming there that day of all other days.

And then the heaviest of rains started to pour down, making some of us run towards the two-three trees that grew in this park, clearly not made to accommodate visitors on rainy weather. Stoically, I endured it by covering myself, the camera and my bag (all three items soaked through within 5 minutes) with the only means of protection I had: my jacket. No, not a waterproof one!

Suddenly, it was not only grey and rainy, but also very cold. Under my very wet jacket, I was all but having fun. 10 minutes later, we were still not moving, and the rain wasn’t giving us any break. Once again, I congratulated myself on the idea. When we did move, it was only to put one foot in front of the other and then stop for longer minutes still. 100 metres were now separating me from the sheltering entry but it didn’t look like I was going to get in there that day. It’s the biggest joke to just stand wet in the pouring rain so close to a shelter and not be able to reach it. Frustration was escalating. But not to worry, two teenagers who must have been either volunteers or hired on very low wages to stroll around the park and make belief they were doing something there show up.

People, having identified them as traces of some sort of local authority start questioning them on how come we were left outside under such weather conditions. Those who had made it inside were evidently not giving one single fuck about those who were outside: they were having the time of their lives slowly taking happy snappies of every flower petal. I ask the teenagers if going back would get me out of the park. I had seen one plant too many and my car was still 2 km away anyhow.

“Oh, you’re right in the middle of the circuit and you can’t go back right now: everything is blocked by those who entered behind you.” Now this was absolutely unbelievable. In a country where it rains every 2 hours and on a day with high affluence for which heavy rain showers were actually announced, this royal park had taken absolutely no measure whatsoever to offer visitors an enjoyable, dry experience (and yes, damn it, I forgot my umbrella, but that doesn’t make them any less guilty). I can hardly imagine that no one has yet considered building shelters or at least sending guards inside the visiting spaces to herd the lazy crowds towards the exit. I know we were geographically in Belgium where people are not exactly familiar with the verb “to hurry”, but the awfully slow motion in the management of the place was simply unbearable.

Anyone who would have peeped beneath the green jacket covering my frozen self would have been met with a look that hinted to the fact that I was on the brinks of committing mass murder.

Not having anything better to do, I start to smile. At a sign of the only guard present I finally move in the covered area we had been longing for during those long minutes of incessant downpour only to notice that the sun had made it through the clouds again and was shining over us mockingly: “A tad wet, hey?”, it seemed to say to me. The guard tries to look like the world is depending on his job and does an affected kind of walking from A to B, speaking into the walkie talkie as if he was from homeland security. He does both actions very slowly, but gravely, in an imposing kind of way. Some old men take off their wet shirts in an attempt to dry them a bit. The old lady next to me whispers into my ear: “Look, topless men – if only for this and it was still worth coming.” Naughty old little lady! I agreed: we did get something worth 2.50 euros.

Finally in! Now, whichever genius mind built these greenhouses, he/she was a selfish bastard/bitch with no intention of ever inviting in more than 10 people. There was only one very small path between the truly beautiful flowers (of which I now didn’t give a damn) gorging with too many people. I almost fainted at the thought that I was going to be stuck in there again. I prayed hard that the path please not be too long. It was. Visitors were stopping to find the best position for their future Facebook profile picture. Damn Zuckerberg, too, he transformed us into a bunch of selfie and like-my-status obsessed individuals. My plan to get the hell out of there as soon as I could was compromised. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to go very far to observe the animal in its natural environment. I had a whole safari right in front of me.

It didn’t rain anymore after this. It was only once I made it outside the park and the royal environment (with only one picture as a souvenir) and started to breathe regularly again that I realized why I felt that the Universe held something against me on that May 1st. I hadn’t had a single coffee the whole day.