If you’re not a Belgian and live in Brussels, or really, just Belgium in general, you’re always asked why you live here. People get Paris and London. And Berlin, ok, they see the appeal. But Brussels?
I’ve developed a standard response that’s detailed enough but still fairly vague. On one hand, it’s a safety mechanism as I’m becoming fatigued at answering this question multiple times. But on the other hand, I’m hesitant to tell people the real reasons. Brussels is sort of a secret. And selfishly, I want to keep it that way.
If you put in the work to get to know the city, this place makes it difficult to not fall in love with what’s hidden below the surface. I occasionally joke around that if someone told me Disneyworld was in Brussels, I would believe them. That’s how hidden some of the city’s true gems are and I find it quite nice – there’s a continual sense of discovery and amazement.
One of my favorite things about Brussels is the Sunday market outside of Gare du Midi. Supposedly, it’s Europe’s largest outdoor market, and I’m not inclined to disagree with that statement. There is stall upon stall selling everything you do and don’t need – showerheads, old lady grocery carts, tangine pots, jeggings, and some of the cheapest produce in the city.
Behind one of the larger stalls selling about fifty different types of olives, is the best part of the market and my personal reason for waking up on Sunday mornings – Moroccan pancakes. The name is a bit of a misnomer because they aren’t pancakes at all. In fact, their name is something like M’Semen. But everyone just calls them crepes to avoid the other, incredibly more awkward, name. I like to call them Belgian burritos.
The crepes are usually assembled by this adorably pudgy pre-pubescent boy who has enough sass and volume to insure his future place as the king of the market. The Moroccan pancakes are a combination of unpasteurized goat cheese, pickled onions and artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted peppers, stuffed grape leaves, olives and homemade honey. All of this is rolled and held together by freshly grilled bread that runs the border between a tortilla and naan. To top it off, you get an accompanying cup of the most delicious and addictive mint tea. Wrapping your hands around the piping hot glass of tea on a drizzly Sunday morning is one of most the satisfying ways to begin the end of my weekend.
Finding the crepes provides one of the better glimpses into real Brussels life as well. Most visitors come to the city blindly because of cheap Ryanair deals and usually just tote around the city center. Other than the Grand Place, the city center is a grimy, gritty, purely urban cityscape that only holds charm to those who have taken the time to geek out on history beforehand.
Or there is Eurocrat Brussels – the shiny, bland office structures of the European Union and the weirdly Americanized sports bars functioning as the communal after-work watering hole in the nearest neighborhood square to the European Parliament.
To see what everyone else is like outside of these two areas, you have to discover the neighborhoods. Or just stand in line on Sunday morning for the crepes.
Like the crepes, the waiting line a little mix of everything. The heavy North African influence of recent immigrants is clearly apparent, but so are the disheveled European hipsters who have just rolled out of bed and sauntered over from the nearby gentrifying St. Gilles neighborhood or the impeccably polished and trim European parents with their multilingual babies in tow, and the proudly self-defined Belgian mutts – those who are half Belgian, half Congolese, or various other combinations. Sometimes it can be overwhelming observing the crepe line, watching all the cultures clash around you. But it’s always the best place to sit back and stare at life as it happens all around. And when it gets to be too much – all of those people, all of those conversations rapidly changing from Arabic to Dutch to Portugese to French – you take a honeyed bite of the crepe and take a heartening sip of tea. Then you sit back and let the city unfold in front of you.