Belgium – no safe haven

bxl

It’s a particularly grey day in Belgium. It makes for the ideal background of a funeral. The country mourns its victims today, the ones it couldn’t save from yesterday’s terror attacks. But mourning, a sky that seems to be crying in unison with us, the one minute of silence and the countless hours of anger are not enough. Something has failed again in Europe. Something important. The protection of civilians has taken three blows. There will be long-lasting scars.

While the whole world stands united in anger, stupefaction and frustration facing terrifying events that have come to be recurrent for reasons we cannot truly comprehend, our peace of mind and freedom fade away. Slowly, but surely, we find ourselves in circumstances that many other countries outside Europe have got used to, but that we wouldn’t have expected here a while back.

On the world map, Belgium is not a big country. That’s easy to see. It also shouldn’t lack the necessary resources to invest in the protection of its people, considering that it hosts some of the most important international institutions. Yet culprits slip through irresponsible fingers. Clearly, there are weaknesses.

How is it possible that neighbourhoods such as Molenbeek-Saint-Jean or again Schaerbeek breed their terrorists unhindered? It’s not like the Belgian authorities didn’t have a clue of what was going on there. After all, it is not yesterday that these districts started to make such a bad reputation for themselves. While Belgium is doing pretty well at exporting small arms and light military weapons (with the Middle East as prime market), it also seems to rank as a top exporter of Jihad, with the highest number of foreign fighters recruited by Syria and Iraq. How can these details be missed out systematically (or deliberately disregarded?) in a country of only 30,528 km²? Something is wrong in the picture.

Also, why would any country put the European Headquarters –presumably a main target for terrorists- right in the middle of the city and have a metro run just underneath? I’m sure one day I will get the point of this, but until then, all I see is EU employees being exposed to risk every day along with people who simply live in the area. How is that safe?

Last but not least, how can an international airport become so unsafe few days after a most-wanted terrorist is captured? Wasn’t it potentially the very first building that needed reinforced security, with the knowledge at hand that Salah Abdeslam had friends out there? Had this occurred months later, I would have understood that the Belgian intelligence and Police could have been caught off guard. As such, I struggle.  But it’s always a good thing to put the whole country back in lockdown after people died and many were injured. It gives a strong sense of reassurance. It is an attempt to show that the situation is under control. It isn’t.

I think someone needs a shake. I get red spots when I hear passive, resigned, powerless remarks such as Prime Minister Charles Michel’s: “We feared an attack and it happened”. It sounds as if “oups, we feared a tsunami would strike and so it happened”. This lax attitude is sadly pretty representative of how things “happen” at many levels in Belgium: slowly, painfully slowly. But while I can wait forever for a document to be sent to me by the Commune because they cannot decide whether to mail it in Flemish or in French, other things require immediate action. And now, getting the bad guys is one. No, this is no time to accept things as they come and pat security services on the back telling them they did all they could. Of all evidence, they could and should have done better. This cannot “happen” again. Because some things can be (here it is) prevented.

Luckily, there are services to be grateful for. Less referred to in the press but nonetheless pivotal, the hospitals doubled their staff and deployed all possible efforts in Brussels and throughout Belgium to receive and treat the wounded. Ambulance drivers, medical staff, firemen, Red-Cross and volunteers, donors, the whole country was mobilized to offer help to the attack victims or simply to one another. Solidarity was truly the watchword in the chaos that was 22nd March 2016. Taxis were free of charge in Brussels for the day to help commuters go back home and many people offered car sharing and accommodation when transport means were at a standstill. There is so much potential for good in us, humans.

The reactions extended beyond the Belgian borders. I haven’t yet counted the number of people who made my phone buzz the whole day and flooded my social media pages with their concern for me and their comforting messages. France, Germany, UK, The Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Sumatra, India, United States, Canada – a whole universe of people was there for me offering priceless support. No doubt, multi-cultural, borderless friendship is a true blessing to be grateful for.

I get it: there is nothing more frightening or dangerous or hard to grasp than a human bomb, a being who only lives for the sole purpose to detonate himself/herself in a public place, making sure he/she never quits this world alone. There is nothing more evil and pathetic at the same time. Possibly, there is also hardly anything less foreseeable than the nature and behaviour of such individuals. But I refuse to think that we allow them to outnumber or outsmart professional intelligence and security services.

Today, the sun will not shine over Belgium or in my heart. But after we all bend our heads to keep a minute of silence, we have to stand up again and face tomorrow. And hopefully, we will wake up to more responsible leaders who take better actions and make faster decisions. Belgium, cry, wipe you tears and go back to business. There’s work to do.

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!

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Metro ride in Athens

Athens metro, GreeceComing back from Athens, Greece where I attended a TBEX travel bloggers’ event that gave me a fresh insight into the blogging world, I found myself lost and uninspired: what to blog about the city? The doubt was legitimate. I didn’t manage to see Athens. I only went to the Acropolis Museum and had a 2€ espresso with a view on the famous ruins and took a free ride on a hop-on and off bus, courtesy of City of Athens. The rest of the time was spent at the Megaron Athens International Conference Center, either in the conference rooms or in the hallway.

I did finish my journey with a short evening walk in the Acropolis area though, nostalgically retracing the steps of an eleven-year-old kid who was travelling for the first time abroad: me. I did not forget that my teacher had slapped me for having lost myself from the group, an act which I have ever since perfected through regular practice, especially when it comes to hiking on a mountain. The mythical atmosphere of the place must have distracted me to such an extent that I forgot to follow.

Years later, here I was again, jumping from one metro into the other to come and listen to the TBEX speakers , hoping to suck in all their knowledge just by being present. I wasn’t going to stay long in Athens, not enough so as to feel the pulse of the city and be able to blog about it. Writing about Athens didn’t seem realistic. And yet. When I arrived in Brussels, Belgium and had to take the metro back home, weary and sleepy as I was, I found my story angle.

Factually, Athens was for me an accumulation of underground travels this time. As a result, the metro became the only site in Athens that I could give some observation-based feedback on. As I was waiting for my metro connection in Brussels, it became clear as day that the metro stations in Athens were infinitely cleaner, nicer and overall friendlier by comparison. And by clean I mean spotless, which is easy to notice because they are built with white marble walls and granite floors. On the walls, small representations of gods and goddesses remind the travellers of where they are. In Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world, the myth is present, the legend is brand.

So what if the metro is so packed with passengers when it enters the station that some of them are glued face against the window? You’ll squeeze in, everybody does, eventually. The place is so neat it shines. There’s not one single trace of graffiti spray; eating, drinking and smoking in the stations are also forbidden. Some of them even have screens where you can watch the news while waiting. Let’s have a look at the price as well: a five-day ticket costs 10€. Now that’s affordable. And cherry on the top, in Athens the metros run until 2 am on Fridays and Saturdays.

The Brussels metro, on the contrary, welcomed me with a rat hole type of smell that put me off any desire to have breakfast and a general state of uncleanliness – a stain on its status as Europe’s capital city. At the conference in Athens I had a nice conversation with a representative from the Munich Airport about how airports are the business cards of their cities. They are, after all, the first stop on a traveller’s way to somewhere. And first impressions tend to be long-lasting.

The same goes for metros. After the airport, they are most likely what the visitors see next. Or the only thing they see at all, several times a day. Wouldn’t it be interesting, Brussels, to take Athens’ example and clean out a bit the mess that has established itself all too well in your underground world? I would like to come back from my travels to underdeveloped countries and be greeted by clear signs of civilisation, which can hardly be a reality as long as dirt is allowed to pile up with negligence. Shall I remind you that you’re hosting some of the most important European institutions and that it would be interesting to stand out as proud and presentable?

I felt like congratulating the City of Athens on this one. Crisis there may be, but the efforts to maintain a spotless and welcoming underground transportation system have not been affected and this is all to your credit. Next time I will spend more time on the upper level, too.

P.S. And while doing my research, I was pleased to discover that Frommer’s included Athens in the top ten cities with the best subways in the world: http://www.frommers.com/slideshows/818699-the-world-s-best-subways-10-top-cities#slide818700 Well done!

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.

Where are you from?

San bushmen paintings, Drakensberg

San bushmen paintings, Drakensberg

This is the typical opening question to any conversation in Brussels, Belgium. It is not by chance: home to some of the most noteworthy European institutions, the city is full of temps or perms coming from everywhere. Today, an uncountable number of cities make room for expats as far as the world stretches. Some still don’t. While some people relocate for better comfort and on the pursuit of happiness, for others “migrate or die trying” seems to be the only option. Mankind is on the move.

Migration lies at the core of our survival as a species. 50,000 years ago, a handful of indigenous people of Southern Africa (the San, our common ancestors) undertook the journey of their lives: from one place to the other, through drought and ice, they walked and populated the Globe as diversely as we have it today. “Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey” is a fascinating documentary tracing back our origins, in time and space, placing humanity face-to-face with the reality that we all share the same genes.

There is no end to migration. I hope there is one to prejudice. “Old concepts of race are not only socially divisive; they are also scientifically wrong.” Watch and reflect.