I thought this was about a job interview, but it’s really mostly the trains.
Brussels has three train stations, all connected in a nice straight line (unlike some of those other, sillier cities where to get from North to South you have to go East for an hour). I have usually used Central Station, an unnecessarily functional and dull place which inexplicably only has 6 tracks, set next to each other in an undecorated and somewhat stale cellar. This in the (administrative) capital city of Europe. I guess the “Eurocrats,” as the locals call them, don’t have to use such vulgar things as trains. (Versus the Central Station in Antwerp, which is referred to as “The Cathedral of Train Stations” for good reason.)
On Monday I went to Brussels Noord (North), which is an industrial-scale transit point, 12 (I thought I saw 17) tracks, which purportedly shuffles 200,000 commuters per week, though on my couple visits it always seemed to have only mediocre traffic, escaping through oversized and relatively irrelevant halls where lightly crushed fast food soda cups and candybar wrappers accumulate in the corners. (Note: not my picture, found it online.)
(Historical note, the first train on a public railway on the European continent departed from the original Brussels North station in 1835. First train on the continent, and they built that station with 17 tracks; now that’s confidence.)
Leaving out of the side exit I was faced with a giant cartoon woman, naked, fuchsia nipples matching the color of the words “peep show” and “live nude girls” covering the massive tinted windows across the street. Other than that it felt like a normal business day afternoon, black and dark-gray sedans on the streets, individually packaged businessmen on the sidewalks going about their business in a less-beloved European capital…which it is. The chlamydic grit of Paris’ Pigalle, with the architectural blandness of a Warsaw suburb.
Within a block or two it began to feel very much like Dar Es Salaam and a bit like Tangier. Pavement ended under red and white construction tape that had long ago fallen down and accumulated with a serpentine writhe in a corner, worn footpaths between uneven heaps of sand on the raw street beyond. Old radios with extended antennae poured voices wailing in any of several languages over speedy rhythmic music, men strolled around in full-length djelaba robes and matching headwear, and small clusters of women hurried past in robes of strictly conservative design and gaudily audacious colors.
The women, either old or young, none of seduction-prone middle aged, moved quickly through the streets without ever looking up, only their faces showing, while above them women from Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa sat on stools behind windows in bikinis, red lights not visible in the afternoon sun, lazily tapping on the glass with large acrylic fingernails at passing men, none of whom ever look up.
On the back of an envelope I had sketched out a path from the train station to the luxury hotel where I had an appointment, but as I so often do, I inexplicably changed path and headed off in a different direction. I do not understand why I do this. I was hoping for a predictable grid-structure to the streets, which of course did not exist, and the atmosphere was not noticeably changing from scuzzy to fancy.
I was considering the wisdom of backtracking when I turned a corner and found the four star hotel, ground floor a chic restaurant with ridiculous prices and stylish furniture filled with butts in expensive suits, butts’owners sipping stylish drinks, a different language at each table. The website for the hotel shows an entirely different building, set next to a large park, it is not clearly labelled as some other major landmark in the city, though that pic is no longer on their website. Instead I found this one of the couch-thing we were sitting on. (Again, not my picture, and am I supposed to formally state the hotel name and website, or would doing so be the problem? I think the name on the glass is outdated anyway. Why is the world run by lawyers? I do not represent the pictured hotel, have no ties to it whatsoever. Please don’t sue me.)
I was there to meet with a lady who runs a tour guide company. I want to give that a try.
A couple weeks ago I found a website where you can basically list yourself as a tour guide. There were only three for Belgium, two in Brussels and one on the other side of the country. I emailed both the Brussels people, asking if they would like to collaborate, since I live in the northern part of the country, including the waaaay more attractive cities of Antwerp, Gent, and Bruges.
One of them responded that she was interested, and I should join up with one of her tours, so we could all check each other out. I spoke with her on the phone and she told me how they specialized in small groups, from a couple people to a family, maybe eight people max.
I recognized her from her profile picture when she came in, joined her, and found myself sitting on a not-comfortable-enough-to-linger-on, rectangular-block, sorta-suede couch-thing, vaguely not-talking to nine professional guides about today’s tour, which was for 150 businessmen from across the European Union, who would be packed onto three tour buses and taken to different points in the city before converging like SWAT teams on a high-end restaurant downtown.
I tried to make myself useful by keeping track of the businessmen as they climbed onto my assigned bus. They were bland in the way that only businessmen can be, and the other guides lost count. I used units of ten corresponding to fingers stuck out in my pockets to keep the yuppie-guppies straight in my mind. (Businessmen/commuters strike me as schools of busy little fish, all in matching gray suits, swimming past, mouths gaping for water, tiny briefcases clutched in fins, though I just looked up what a guppy actually looks like and they are surprisingly stylish fish. But “yuppie-sardines” isn’t as catchy.)
Oh, and because the universe is Beautiful, they came from some sort of paper company, in town for a paper company conference. I am proud and disappointed that I refrained from Dunder Mifflin jokes the entire time.
For the next hour I followed along with the tour, not helping, maybe learning? I was clearly not a guide, and I was clearly not a businessman. They wore silky suits and loafers, I wore jeans and Cons. I was neither sardine, nor cleaner shrimp (seems like a logical parallel for the guide, no?) but I’m not sure what I was. A remora?
Luckily it takes more than simply being out of place to make me uncomfortable any more, so I rather enjoyed the experience. I think I could potentially be a good tour guide, and I learned a bit about Brussels, which hopefully I will remember until next September when my parents come to visit Belgium.
There was a non-tour guide conference coordinator, directing the guppies across Europe. He was Christian Bale, but substantially French. At the end he said I was invited to stay for a drink with them, and did not try to dissuade me at all when I said I had to go. I grabbed a falafel and headed to Central Station.
I had 45 minutes to wait, so people-watched in a little courtyard outside the station. It was one of those perfect evenings, just on the opening edge of summer, the air soft as only air in that season can be, the city not asleep but calm, its mutterings just below audible. The sun was gone, but the sky was still visible, dark blue, 10:00 PM.
A few travellers came and went, their suitcase wheels sounding the same note across the cobblestones. Two older tourists in pristine backpacks walked past, cameras held in front of their bodies and looking at no one. A group of students studying abroad strutted by, chatting louder than Belgians ever do about where to go for a cheap meal.
Under an archway stood that night’s greatest gift. He was slightly balding, and played that violin with a patient and durable passion that lifted the wait from acceptance to pleasure. I would have gladly leaned against that wall until he went home. But I had my own home to return to, so I headed to track six, and swear I recognized the green teddy bear graffiti on the side of the train as it pulled up. The way home was a broad U, passing through Antwerp, so I ended up coming home on the same train I normally do, just two hours later, last train of the night. No cars on the road.