Sunday, April 11, 2010

Brussels: Land of Chocolate, Waffles, and EU officials

{{Me encantó viajar contigo}}

For Semana Santa I went with Guillem's family on a road trip through the southern French countryside to Brussels. Carla, Esperança, Claudio, and I drove to Brussels to meet Guillem, who had been there the five previous days for a model European Union conference with other young people from all around Europe. I loved passing by car through the south of France, which is absolutely beautiful. It was amazing to see how the scenery changed as we all compared what we saw out our window with different states; to go from northern California to the mountain passes of Montana to northern New England in the space of just a few days. But at the same time, it was undoubtedly French; the small towns we passed could have been Belle's hometown in "The Beauty of the Beast", like perfect postcard shots of the pastoral French countryside.

Brussels is a very international city, as many of the main offices for the European Union are located there. They boast that approximately 50% of the population is not Belgian by birth, being as so much of it is composed of EU officials and their families. As well, Brussels operates on two different languages: French and Flamenco. Flamenco, Guillem's family said, reminded them of misspelled and mispronounced German (they all lived for several years in Germany and speak German fluently). Native Flamenco-speakers are very proud of their language, and in some ways try and avoid speaking French as much as possible. French is what is taught always in the schools, even in the high levels (unlike here, where Spanish and Catalan are required equally).

It was Brussels' grand plaza that impressed me the most about the city; the rest all seemed rather dirty and just filled with faceless industrial or office-style buildings (nothing laid out as well as Barcelona, clearly!). The buildings that surrounded it were all stunning, every inch filled with sculptures and carvings and spires and gilding on some of the statues. We spent lots of time in the grand plaza! And we also ate lots of waffles while we were there; they are not simply some American invention, Belgian waffles. They were a little lighter and fluffier than waffles at home, always a dessert food, covered in chocolate or sugar or honey. The answer to crepes in Belgium I guess!

We also took several different day trips (we were gone a full six days): one day to Luxembourg and one day to Bruges and another small Belgian town close to Brussels. Luxembourg was absolutely gorgeous and perfectly picturesque. We were lucky because the duke was in the city when we were there, staying in his royal residence, so we even got to watch the guard outside the palace parade up and down for a while at exact hours. It was the perfect idea of an European town: charming, with cobblestone streets that wind throughout the city, beautiful countryside churches, white-washed houses with red roofs, everything.

Bruges was equally charming and an enjoyable stop on our road trip. It is a very popular tourist destination (I think for epitomizing that small European town feeling) and we were told that, since we went on a Saturday, we would find it absolutely overwhelmed by tourists, but it ended up not being the case; they were present, but it wasn't like walking down Las Ramblas on a Saturday mid-day either!

On our way back through France, we spent the night in Lyon, where Guillem lived for three weeks several summers ago to improve his French. It was fun having a guide who could lead us through the most important parts of the city on a quick evening tour. It was much bigger than I had expected it to be, and had a really unique opera house that Guillem said they really try and make part of the everyday culture of Lyon.

Throughout the trip I got to practice my French a little bit, and everyone always said they listened to try and detect the dreaded "American accent". But, fortunately, I passed the test and have managed to eliminate it, which they are quite proud of as a result of my 2.5 months with the French Institute! I also heard a lot of Catalan being as, when they spoke amongst themselves, they always spoke in Catalan. I now understand the vast majority of what I hear, and would even respond to general questions to the group that were in Catalan. It's really amazing how much you can improve on a language simply by listening to it all the time!

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