Sunday, 20 May 2012

Crete, not Athens (Κρήτη, όχι Αθήνα)

Today marks the commemoration of the Battle of Crete.

During our one-night stopover in Brussels (which I toured through two decades ago), half the family had a bad cough, a result of the snap change in climate as we travelled from south to north. Instead of becoming acquainted with the food, we tried to get acquainted with the northern European climate. On our arrival at Brussels Midi (from London via Eurostar), it was raining steadily, leaving us feeling quite despondent. Although I'd booked a hotel reasonably close to the station, walking in the rain with luggage and children was out of the question: there were no extra hands for holding an umbrella upright. The streets beyond the station looked like an untidy muddled cluster; the taxis parked right outside the train station looked much more tempting.

As we neared the rank, a slim well-dressed young black man nodded to us as he opened the boot of his cab. I gave him the address of the hotel.

"Fifteen euro," he said. The price didn't sound exorbitant. In Greece, we are led to believe that taxi fares in northern Europe are expensive. But Greece has recently caught up to their prices - since the crisis broke out, laws regulating the Greek cab business have made them quite expensive here too, not to mention the rising fuel costs. (But our tourists are still slow to catch on to this fact.)

Once the cabbie had placed the luggage into the boot, we all got in, and off we went.The taxi meter wasn't turned on, which didn't concern me, as I thought perhaps this was legal in Belgium, which of course it probably isn't; likewise in Greece. EU countries all have their own laws and countries still debate within their own national borders because there is no European public space.

"Where are you from?" he asked us in French. He spoke French most of the time, but when I didn't understand, he did his best to speak in English and make himself understood.



"No." We all laughed, and so did he. "We're from Crete." We had had exactly the same experience with a Nigerian taxi driver in London only the same morning, and another Nigerian Eurostar official who was thrilled to hear we were from Greece. He narrated the story (in broken Greek) of his arrival in Greece, which is where he had entered Europe from before ending up in London at the suitcase security check-in of St Pancras International.


"It's an island in the Mediterranean, located north of the Libyan Sea." (I stopped myself from saying "located between Greece and Libya." It's easy to confuse other people about Crete's status that way.) He looked puzzled. We were now driving along wet narrow roads and one-way streets. It all felt very disorienting. This isn't what I imagined as meaning 'close' to the hotel.

"And where are you from?" I asked him.


While we were being driven to the hotel, I took the opportunity to find out whatever I could from the driver about the city.

"What's that?" We were driving along what looked like a castle, although I could only see its spire.

The cabbie looked in the direction that I was pointing to. Very politely, he explained that he didn't really know what it was, but it must be some kind of historical monument, and it's very old. Again, we all laughed. We take things for granted when we see them on a daily basis; tourists are often better informed than ourselves.

We had left the avenues and were now driving along very narrow roads full of cars parked in strange positions, resembling the maze of Athens streets, but without the dust, grime and sunshine. The roads were busy with vans being loaded or unloaded... but many shops also looked closed, as if out of business. It wasn't quite clear to us what was happening in Brussels. We would only realise later that we were seeing the most obvious signs of the European economic crisis in Northern Europe.

The drive seemed to take a much longer time than I thought it would. The narrow busy one-way streets, half of whose store fronts were unlit from disuse, continued until we came to a very large square where some kind of activity was taking place, despite the pouring rain.

Place du Jeu de Balle, Brussels' flea market, as seen from the hotel window

"Place du Jeu de Balle," our driver pointed to the right. "Hotel Galia is down here." He was worried that the flea market had closed off the streets, but he drove us round the square, straight to the hotel, which directly faced it. The shop fronts on the square looked in a dismal state - the premises directly next to the hotel were boarded up, while a building on the corner had been demolished. While the raindrops were falling on their heads, people were selling all sorts of what looked like household bric-a-brac at partly covered stalls. Some goods were laid out on tables, while others were in buckets, and others were strewn over a piece of plastic over the ground. They could not be called antiques. We'd call it junk, and it was difficult for us to understand who would be desperate to come out here on a cold wet dull grey day to buy this stuff.

We paid and thanked the very sweet driver, our first introduction to Belgians, and entered the hotel with our luggage, where we were met by a beautiful slim young lady, humming to a tune that was being played on the radio. She looked as if she were expecting us.

"Have you just come from Athens?" she asked us with an excited look on her face.

"No, Crete!" Again we laughed. Thanks to the Greek mass media, the whole world now equates Greece with Athens. This time, the woman showed some recognition of the place name.

Our hotel room was actually two rooms, with one double bed and a bunk bed. The wallpaper gave the room an art deco look.

"Was it sunny in Greece when you left?" she asked us. This opened up a discussion about the climate, an obvious choice of subject in Brussels."Here, it rains nine months a year," she said gloomily, handing us a set of keys. We were given a choice of appropriate rooms (finally selecting one on the first instead of the third floor). The rooms had recently been renovated, the bathroom was large and clean and the beds were comfortable. We took a short rest for the sick members of the family to revive their energies.

*** *** ***
From a Brussels tourist brochure found in the hotel: "City tourism isn't just about big monuments and museums: excursions off the beaten track create the true emotions of a visit. Meeting real life and seeing the real city creates those unforgettable memories, because you can't find it anywhere else!" VisitBrussels Week-end Bienvenue/Welkom Weekend

On the hotel map, I found the locations of Manneken Pis and Grand Place, being the two places that we thought would take us to the most touristy sites in the city on such a short visit. On a one-day stopover, you can't do much more than take a walk and have a bite to eat. Along the way, we would also pass various other sites of interest according to the map, which also held one surprise: in the vicinity of the hotel was a Greek Orthodox church. We aren't church goers, but it means a lot to Greeks to bump into familiar cultural sights when away from home. Armed with umbrellas, we set off.

 We stayed in the Marollen neighbourhood - the Greek church is pointed out by the blue arrow. It's the first time I've seen a Greek Orthodox church specifically mentioned on a non-Greek tourist map. While respected as a minority group, Greeks usually keep a low profile in Europe. Greek communities in Belgium have a long history spanning four centuries, but a large number of Greeks settled there during the post-war years, working in minefields.

The Greek Orthodox church in Brussels;
it's built along the lines of local
architecture rather than the Greek way.
To see the church, we had to take a detour off the main road that led to our chosen sightseeing route. We found the church closed; its offices were open every weekday except Friday (which is was that day). The detour was not wasted; by walking down this side street, we got acquainted with the Marolles neighbourhood of Brussels, well known for its street art and comic strip tour, some of which we saw during our walk. The art work contrasted starkly to the rather grim looking buildings in some parts of the area. A number of walls were covered with graffiti.

Our detour led us into the "comic strip" roads, as well as through lesser known area covered in graffiti; note the Greek - ΠΡΑΣΙΝΗ ΘΥΕΛΛΑ (green wave).

Continuing our walk, we came across all sorts of weird and wonderful street scenes: sandy sectioned off areas for dogs to poo in (?!?), highly visible public urinals on main roads (!?!) and recycling centres separating all glass colours (which explains the need for urinals, I suppose). Activities such as these seemed strange to us because, in all fairness, we don't see people drinking alcohol straight on the road in Hania - this activity is reserved for our Northern European tourists. Looking after select breeds of small dogs, however, is on the rise, even in the crisis. We often see young people - both male and female - walking their dogs both in the city and around the villages.

At one point, we came across what looked like a grand old Gothic-style church, across the road from a funky art dealer, all neighbouring a skating park which was covered in the graffiti style often associated with skateboarding. We found the contrasts too confusing. The church had lost its significance amidst its incongruous surroundings; its cavernous emptiness made a glum impression on our minds, dampened by the rainy weather that we were once again about to subject ourselves to. The art dealer's shop was the only lively looking store we had seen so far - there were no customers, but the outdoor decorations made an impact against the general greyness. The whole scene looked culturally incoherent.

The church led to what looked like a promising side-street. It was pedestrianised and lined with cute buildings, cute cafes and cute artists' galleries. We had entered the area famed for its Belgian chocolate. The elegant displays in the chocolateries had matching prices: something like €32 for a box of 25 hand-crafted tiny balls of chocolates. I was disappointed. Clearly I could not buy chocolate at this price, but somebody else probably is: Brussels has a constant flow of grey-suited men coming and going, and they don't make ordinary wages. A few people were sitting outdoors in the dank sky. What could have been a moment of joy at the Place du Sablon in better climatic conditions suddenly took on a morbid miserable appearance in the bad weather.

Presentation: it's everything in places like this - maybe too much.

Back on the main road, the ruins of a wall with a Rapunzel-like tower caught our interest. This was the 'castle' that we had seen from the taxi. No wonder the driver had no idea what it was - there was no sign on it to indicate its significance to the city (it turned out to be a surviving part of the old city walls).

During this time, the sky was changing colours - one minute it was blue, the next it was dark. At this point, our luck started to run out. On our way to Manneken Pis, we got caught in a downpour. No matter how much we kept our umbrellas hugged around us, we could not keep dry. As the only sane person among my company (two were sick and one was under-age - no one was in the best of moods), I led them into the first eaterie I could find. Neither the name of the non-descript cafe nor the range of food it offered was of any importance to me at that moment. I just needed to salvage my family's sanity.

*** *** ***
The casual diner was run by an Asian woman with impeccable English skills and polite manners. Her husband was just as welcoming. The last customers (schoolchildren) were on their way out. We had the place to ourselves. The display case contained an interesting mix of dishes - spaghetti and mince, noodles with vegetables, chicken breast slices, rice-paper spring rolls, and various sandwich fillings. We had last eaten on the train (Sainsbury sandwiches). Anything edible looked tasty at that moment.

The man showed us to a table and laid some placemats in front of us. "Where are you from?" he asked us in very broken English.


"Ah, Grecia! Io, Italia! Una fatsa, una ratsa!" We were just as excited to hear this as he was to say it.

"Where from in Italy?" my husband asked him.


"Ah, isola!" my husband spoke to him in the broken Italian that he remembered from his study years. The man responded in Italian; we caught the words "Magna Grecia".

"Noi, Kriti," my husband continued.

"Atene?" The Italian did not seem to understand. Like most non-Greeks, he seemed to know only of Athens.

"We are from Crete, not Athens."

"Why Brussels?" he asked us, speaking more with his hands than in words.

"Holidays," I said.

"Vacanze," my husband translated.

"Vacanze?" the man exclaimed. "In Brussels?" He made the sign of the Roman Catholic cross as we all laughed. "Vacanze in Brussels?!" He was now shaking his head in disbelief. His wife was busy in the background heating up our order, with a smile on her face, acknowledging her husband's joke.

Sometimes the food is not important - my conversations with the owners of this cafe were priceless.

We found an opportunity to ask the couple about the closed shops. The woman explained that Brussels was in the midst of an economic crisis, where 40% of the commercial area had closed due to the bad economy and the number of people living on welfare had risen quite sharply. It came as quite a shock for us to hear this. We'd been brainwashed into believing that southern Europe was facing a crisis, not the prosperous north. In places like Brussels, it's easier to see the crisis seeping through the threads, unlike in London where we had stayed close to one of the most deprived areas of England - despite its social problems, it had what seemed like a bustling local economy.

A young girl entered the cafe. She went to the back of the diner that was not so visible from the shop front. She took out a small laptop from her bag, together with earphones, and began tapping away as her order was taken. The woman returned behind the counter, taking a teabag out of a box. Then she heated up some water in the microwave and took the tea to the girl's table. At that point, the man left and got into his car which was parked outside the shop. The woman followed him, placing two chairs from the shop on the road to keep other cars from parking there. At this point, I had the feeling of deja vu. Although this is a common procedure in the south, hogging parking spaces in this way wasn't what I expected to see in the north.

The rain continued to fall steadily until the end of our meal, when it stopped pouring - now, it was only drizzling. As we paid for the meal, I asked the woman where she was from.

"I am from Bali in Indonesia," she spoke softly. "Do you know Bali?"

"Yes, of course, it's an island, just like Kriti," I told her. "Most people in Europe know about Bali, it's a popular place for holidays." She looked so happy to hear this; her eyes brightened as she smiled. But what was she doing in Brussels, so far away from home?

"I came here because of my husband, we live and work here now."

"So you're here to stay?" I asked.  She hesitated before answering.

"I suppose I'd like to go back one day to see my family, but it's not easy. Life brought us here to Brussels," she said, with a tone in her voice that I recognised. We thanked her for her hospitality and continued on our way.

*** *** ***

Belgian icons: waffles, chocolate and Manneken Pis
Our destination - Manneken Pis - would take us through more empty roads, although the stores looked slightly busier in this area than they did in the Moralles neighbourhood. The first sign of tourist-centred activity was pictures of Jacques Brel on the window. I'm a big fan of Jacques Brel, having been introduced to his music in my school French lessons, and the first CD I ever bought was in Brussels: a Jacques Brel collection. But that was twenty years ago - and he's been dead for more than a decade already. It's a lack of modern icons and heroes that causes this attachment to the past - Greece suffers a lot from this imagery attachment herself.
Oh, look, waffles for €1!
The streets from this point on were getting busier, with shops clustered closer together and more people milling about. A few people were obviously tourists like ourselves, judging from the maps they were holding in their hands. We came across a few eerie sights: a couple of shop windows were broken, and boarded with cardboard stuck over the hole in the glass. Whether this was caused by vandalism or burglary is not significant - these were the first signs of direct parallels with the demonstrations that have been taking place in Athens in the last three years. Less than a week before we arrived, Brussels was the scene of more crisis-related street rage by state sector workers (among previous cases of social unrest).

Before entering the side street leading to Manneken Pis, the hullaballoo was already evident. The main road was vacant in comparison to what was going on in the narrow road. The souvenir shops made a garish impact, in the same way as in the centre of Hania, once a tourist starts walking along Halidon St. The area clearly becomes a tourist magnet, an enclave disassociated with the remaining area that the locals probably avoid unless they want to buy cheap seashell chocolates, waffles and ceramics in the shape of traditional Belgian architecture.

Although the signs all clearly said €1 (at two different shops), this is totally misleading (it should have stated: 'v.a. €1' which means 'starting from €1'.  I ordered two waffles for the children (below) - I was charged €6. It was raining and we were lucky to find cover under the balcony of a disused building sandwiched between two souvenir shops so that we could eat the waffles without getting wet. Maybe each topping was another euro or so - who cares at this point, right? All I'm sure of is that I was purposely misled.

As for Manneken Pis, no one had bothered to dress him on that day. He looked so much happier twenty years ago when I last saw him, wearing a medieval suit in the middle of summer under a blue sky, when the European Union was celebrating her comeuppance rather than her demise. But that is not the general image of Brussels in the media. Brussels, together with Berlin, is where all the decisions regarding Greece's future are made. Brussels is where the Eurozone finance ministers meet to decide Greece's fate. The Belgian central bank governor recently broke the taboo of Greece leaving the euro by describing the situation as an 'amicable divorce', while Brussels policy documents are littered with the word 'growth'. On the other hand, Athens is Greece, and Greece is Athens. Maybe it's time they all looked into the mirror themselves. 

After tasting our first (rather overpriced) waffle (nice and sweet), and making a decision not to buy the 6-boxes-for-€10 chocolates that were selling at the souvenir shops (on the pretext that we are probably better off saving our money to buy better quality ION chocolate when we get back home), we wandered into La Grande Place for a quick look at the main square in Brussels. We could not stay long enough to admire the interesting architecture, because our stroll was spoiled by more heavy rain.

At moments like these, I like to remember Cavafy's words:
"And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean."
(Ιθάκη - Ithaka)
 *** *** ***
After La Grand Place, we walked back to the hotel, taking a slightly different route, constantly ducking under the awnings of the large buildings to protect ourselves from the rain, taking care not to disturb the homeless who were sheltering in these protected parts of the streets. The evening was spent at the hotel, so that my flu-ridden family members could recuperate. The brasserie's tempting aromas wafted up to our room, with free entertainment provided by the sounds of a jazz concert taking place there that night. A meal out in food-loving Brussels (as I was told by a colleague) was not to be for us that night. Instead, we downed the last of our Kettles crisps, bought from Sainsbury's.

Hotel breakfast room by day, brasserie by night: the Chez Nous restaurant attached to Hotel Galia was decorated with items bought at the flea market. 

Maybe I was more open-minded when I first came to Brussels. My mind has been shaded by my experiences of living in Europe for two decades, and is now clouded by the problems Greece is facing. Even in my own country, I cannot see the problems so clearly, because I live in Crete, not Athens. But from what I saw in Brussels, it was obvious that the feared contagion had already begun.

Breakfast contained a rich variety of cold meats and cheese, good coffee and delicious bread.

I had ordered a taxi in the morning to take us to Midi for the next leg of our journey. After a very filling delicious breakfast (included in the price of our booking), we noticed a very gruff stocky white man standing outside the hotel, who did not even bother to announce his arrival to his paying customers, or even to the hotel staff that had made the booking. When we emerged with our luggage and children, he opened the boot. No Bonjour (or Goedemorgen), no assistance in placing our luggage into the car, not even an acknowledgement of our existence as his precious customers. But the drive to Midi station took half the time that it had taken the previous morning and the meter was turned ON. When we arrived at the station, he parked the car and opened the door of the driver's seat without even looking at us.

Breakfast at Hotel Galia

"How much?" I asked on purpose, just to see if I could get a spoken response from his tight-lipped mouth. He pointed to the meter without speaking: €7.20, half of what we were charged by the very sweet polite Nigerian the previous morning. It seems that being helpful and cheery comes at a price!

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