Bustle in Brussels

When we landed in Amsterdam, we had no immediate sense of where our hostel was or where we were going. It took a walk down memory land for Todd and John to become confident where the path was to our much needed bed. Not that it wasn't fun, but I'm pleased to say we had no directional issues after our bus ride to Brussels.

Taking my first steps in Brussels made me quickly realize we were in a very different place. For one, there was no bike lane between the road and the sidewalk with people whizzing by. I don't know the injury count for that city, but you have to be paying attention anytime you step near their path because it's tough to swerve taking a corner 15 mph, talk on the phone, and carry home dinner simultaneously.

What Brussels lacked in bike chaos, however, it made up with people. When we arrived Saturday afternoon, we were eager to see what the city had to offer. Our hostel was posted up right by a less industrial side of town, with a wonderful cobblestone stretch of countless shops and stores we were thrilled to explore. Apparently so was the rest of the city. Working our way through the crowds, we were able to take in some of the sights: the royal palace (I wouldn't mind living in a place like that), a giant cathedral (they just don't make churches like they used to), and a supposedly famous statue of a little boy peeing. I'm not sure exactly what I expected on the last one, but the entirety of the child is definitely under two feet. We almost missed it even though we had it on a map!

More importantly than the sights, however, were the smells. It took a little bit to escape the shopping area, but narrow streets housing all varieties of restaurants on both sides awaited us, illuminated by strands of lights hanging overhead. We had a group meal in one of these restaurants, entirely taking over the seating area to feast on spaghetti, steak, mussles, and chicken. While I like to pretend to be brave from time to time, Mitch and Aren were the only two willing to order a food that came in shells. The other smell surrounding Brussels was the baking of waffles. When people talk about Belgium waffles being delicious, they're lying to you. These things are life changing. Besides the fact that every future waffle is now ruined for me, having a pastry that melts in your mouth with a sugary outer coating may be one of the best things invented.

After our exploration time was over, we made our way to meet Omar Van den Broeck at a mosque. Feeling optomistic, the "stronger" of the group (as John liked to see it) decided to walk while the rest took a bus, despite some dark skies and a long trek. We were able to see the larger buildings tower above us as we left the smaller shop part of town, as well as the parliament building and a giant (still green even though it's January) park. While we were enjoying the views, however, we also got drenched. Sometimes it pours and you get wet. This one was when the drops are so big you start to wonder if it's actually hail coming down. Needless to say, when we finally made it to the mosque, we looked a little suspect.

As a group, both wet and dry, we talked with Omar about how established religious institutions in Belgium receive funding from the government or outside sources, and were able to tour the mosque. For many of us, myself included, it was our first time entering an Islamic place of worship. The carpeted floor made it comfortable to sit and walk on (after shoes were removed), the general architecture used many curved arches and dome shapes, it was well lit from various fixtures, and all emphasis was pointed to a certain arch in the front so prayers would be directed to Mecca. Although very different from other churches I've seen, it was super interesting to make comparisons such as how mosques don't use any pictures in their worship area.

Feeling well cultured, most of the group decided to get a taste for the night life. We started at a three story bar, surrounded by more languages than I can ever hope to understand. I will say, I now understand why people like listening to French. It's just so eloquent. Our class settled in at the top floor, sitting around a variety of tables and trying to educate innocent locals by teaching them games involving spinning coins. I don't think all the rules were officially translated, but they were friendly enough to humor us with their attempts.

The funny thing about sitting in the same place for a while is it builds up a bunch of energy. Put that energy in a group of college students getting to know a foreign country, and you have the need to dance. We made our way to another bar where the music could be heard outside the building, and found a space upstairs that only had a few people shuffling around. If you're wondering what happens when 20 Americans walk into a bar in Brussels, the answer is dance floor domination. For some reason, the dancing made a bunch of locals start appearing around our group. They were probably all just as amazed as me that I was wearing a clean pair of socks.

The next morning came all too soon, but luckily we didn't have much on the schedule until later that afternoon when we met with Maliki Hamidi. This woman from the European Muslim Network was fascinating. She was one of those people so passionate about her work that when she started getting excited with a topic, you could see her eyes shine and quickly became motivated to nod along. Her organization is non-profit, but in a very literal sense. The members volunteer their time and pay for personal travel expenses because they do not want to lose the ability to be critical. Maliki expressed a belief that more than just money comes with funding and preferred to minimize bias as much as possible. The organization acts as a consulting partner for all sorts of organizations and efforts while pushing to educate both Muslims and non-Muslims about the what are cultural practices versus what are religious. She is also a Muslim feminist, trying to make connections with women around the globe to show how similar the struggle is and to create support for one another. It was very interesting to see her perspective and get a little bit of a different approach to connecting a Muslim identity with a European identity.

As our quick stay in Belgium came to an end, we got up the next morning ready to depart for Copenhagen, Denmark. Taking the train to the airport was so soothing I almost fell asleep instead of getting off at the right stop. We also got to experience walking out to the plane and using stairs rather than walking down a tunnel. Lucky for us, the plane had some sort of hydraulic issues so we got extra journaling time before heading out. All mechanical problems aside, we landed safe and sound in Copenhagen and settled in to our next home. Tomorrow we head to the Danish Immigration Museum to get a crash course in why people want to come to Denmark. If it wasn't so dark when we got here, maybe it would be easy to tell! I know tonight I'll be dreaming of French accents and Belgium waffles. Until then, thanks for reading and we'll see what next adventures we have in store.

Ben Harney

A group enjoying their first, heavenly, Belgium waffles.
The famous statue of a little boy peeing in Brussels.