‘IMMERSE YOURSELF IN the culture of the country you’re living in!’ our year abroad coordinator would cry at those frequent evening lectures in second year. So, when some of my colleagues invited me along to an exhibition on the Mayans in Paris’ Musée du Quai Branly, I thought my year abroad coordinator would approve. The exhibition was about as exciting as an exhibition on the Mayans would be for someone who is as interested in the Mayans as I am, although the audio guide made it more bearable. Well, I say bearable – explanations in French were randomly interspersed with role plays about the artefacts spoken with Guatemalan accents to make the whole thing more authentic, or so I assumed. Authentic? Maybe. Confusing? Yes.
Afterwards I left the revived world of the Mayans and met some uni friends. We inadvertently traipsed the whole length of the Champs-Elysées, half of which is currently devoted to a Christmas market. A Paris Christmas market is probably what you expect – busy, commercial and expensive, but I enjoyed some nice mulled beer and good company, and managed to meet the Eiffel Tower for its hourly sparkle on the way back to the train.
Speaking of markets, we spent last weekend in Brussels. Crazed fans of mine will remember that my trip to Antwerp this summer was ended with a flying visit to Brussels, so I was glad to see it again in a more extended (and wintrier) light. There is a Christmas market there, too, unsurprisingly – a little less commercialised than the Parisian version, or indeed the one which has sprung up in Orleans. That wasn’t the main reason I went there, though. Given the fiasco I’d had a few days prior of an ATM randomly swallowing my bank card one night, and a phone charger on its way out, I was in need of chocolate. And Brussels doesn’t disappoint in that department.
Sunday was a misty end to the month in the Belgian capital; the mighty Atomium half-hidden beneath a fog which didn’t seem to lift even deep into the afternoon. After having lost my right glove on a Metro train, I had somehow thought I could strategically alternate wearing the left one on each hand to keep them both equally warm. That didn’t work.
As acquainted as I now am with European trains, we took the coach. We’d taken the £30 (or so) return Megabus from Paris more or less solely based on the ridiculous savings compared to the train, and very much enjoyed the half-empty and WiFi-equipped coach on the way there. The way back, however, was spoilt by the overriding stench of body odour and something else (I think curry powder but the BO was too strong to come to any solid conclusions), and unconnectable WiFi. Then I needed the toilet. Using a coach toilet on the motorway is generally not a problem, but when the toilet is blatantly designed for people no taller than 5’7”, and as Brussels has a lot of roundabouts and corners, going to the toilet is not the easiest thing in the world, I can confirm.
Nonetheless I really like Belgium – as a tourist destination it is underrated, underexplored and undersold. For Brits it is just as reachable as France – by plane, train, boat or car – but it doesn’t have the pretentiousness of France or the properness of Germany, either, but rather a feel of its own – its bilingualism, its architecture, its cuisine. Nowhere more present are these than in its cities, not least Brussels. It is not Europe’s most photogenic city; much of it is samey shades of grey and post-modern architecture, home to MNCs and banks and other ominous organisations, but the cobbled and warped heart of the city has yard glasses of character. Beer and chocolate are everywhere, the air laced with the smell of waffles and old buildings line French-and-Flemish-named streets. Even in biting 2°C the city felt warm and alive, even if my hands were definitely not.
All this Christmassy-ness should probably force me to start buying some presents. I have just less than three weeks until I go home for Christmas, something I find surprising but frustrating. It’s seems like yesterday I arrived here laden with bags but bizarrely it seems like months and months ago. Time is strange.