Friday, May 5, 2006

First Impressions of Belgium

Brussels is a beautiful city with a rich cultural heritage, and is home to almost a million people from many different countries. It is the capital of the European Union and its official languages are Dutch & French. As my first time in Europe and really the first time I've live outside of North America, there are a few things that have caught my attention.

For the day that I've been here so far, I've noticed that the majority of the people speak French, which is what I expected. Luckily, they understand my French, but I can't help but wonder if they know right away that I'm a foreigner. (note: I've seen a good number of Asians speaking French around here) With the exception of the library, I've spoken French at all of the places I've been too, including stores & restaurant. From what I'm told, the Dutch speakers can speak better English than the French speakers can. Those French prefer to stick to their own language.

It is quite well known that most countries outside of North America has excellent public transportation, and Belgium is no exception. Trams rattle the windows of my quaint apartment every few minutes, and those are only a few of the choices one has to get around the city. In addition to trams, which run above the ground on electricity, there are the metro (subway), busses, taxis, and trains. One only has to wait a few minutes before getting on one of these, and they are very efficient.

There are also a lot of cars in Brussels, and parking is a problem. Unless, of course, you have a SMART car, which is barely 2m (6ft) long. "Quel problème de parking?" a popular billboard says. Streets are narrow and drivers are crazy. Road rage is common. So is honking. One can easily see the emphasis on public transportation as many streets have the tram tracks in the middle of the street with only one lane for each direction given to cars (busses & trucks can drive along the tracks). Of course, that doesn't prevent anyone from driving up the curb and driving on the tracks, at least for a little while. Pedestrians jay-walk all the time, and cars slow down for them without any hassle.

Small markets are common, but there are a few grocery stores around. Prices here are a little higher than in the US, but most things are still reasonable if you shop around. Oranges typically go for €1/kg, baguettes cost €0,60, and waffles are €0,60 or, if you prefer them hot, €1,50 at any of the many waffle stands along the streets. The waffles are everything they're made out to be. Hot and crispy on the outside, soft and slightly chewy on the inside. Most are coated with a sugary syrup, but you can also get them chocolate dipped... (I won't be trying that anytime soon) Fries are also common (with their specialty being "moules et frites" or "mussels and fries"), and I had the joy of trying them tonight (but just the fries - the mussels will have to wait). Lesson learned - going to tourist attractions: good; going to a restaurant close to the attraction: bad. The fries were €2,30, but we were charged €0,70 each for mayonnaise & ketchup (which are thicker and more flavorful than in North America) - that's crazy, but at least they were good. Talk about a tourist trap. And Belgian chocolates? I guess I'll just have to wait for Talyn to get here so she can give her opinion.

The buildings here are quite amazing. There are many gothic cathedrals with impressive and intricate sculptures and decoration. The architecture of parliament buildings, malls, and even parks are all of such high quality - it's as if I were in Europe...oh wait... Cobblestone streets and sidewalks are common, which gives everything a very historic feel. (you can probably tell that I grew up in North America)

Those are just some of my first impressions on Brussels - there will be plenty more to come!



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