Every author, at some point, would not at all surprisingly deal with writer’s block, and handle it differently. My way is simple, instead of puzzling it over, I would leave the pen and paper and get out of the house to do something completely different.
This time, I chose to go for a flying visit to somewhere where the manuscript I was writing would be briefly and indirectly connected, but the place left me with a vague recollection after two decades visit, so, a three-day and two-night trip to Brussels was swiftly arranged almost as soon as the impromptu idea emerged, through the Eurostar city break package.
Although there were so many attractions in Brussels to be seen, my limited time made the purpose clear and the targets simple: visiting the Grand Place and the European Parliament; and some photo-snapping of the European Commission and NATO.
On Monday of 1 August, I took a 8.16am Eurostar train from King’s Cross, St.Pancras, and arrived at my hotel in the centre of Brussels around 11.30am local time, too early for check-in at 3pm. The friendly staff in the reception desk suggested me to leave the suitcase to him and go for my sightseening.
I happily accepted his suggestion and just about to give my suitcase to him, he suddenly cried: “Wait!” while his eyes were still looking at the screen of his computer: “Your room is available now!”
I must have had a puzzled look on my face, he glanced at me with an affirmative nod: “Yes, you can check in now.” I was elated: “Wow! great!” He gave me the key: “Room 401.” “Thank you!”
I took the lift to my room. It was a cosy and clean room, the fresh cooling air from the air-conditioner made me feel refreshed. I left the suitcase in the room and went straight to Grand Place.
Without any sense of the direction of the city, I asked my way to go there, and luckily, it’s a straight-line from Rogier metro station, a nearest station of 5 minutes walking distance from my hotel, to Grand Place, with some familiar high street stores along the way, it’s obviously a tourist-zone. It took me about fifteen minutes to walk there.
Grand Place was a square with distinctive style of architectural buildings, it’s seen as the perfect example of ‘eclectic and highly successful blending of artistic & architectural style that characterise the culture and society of the region’ (Ref: UNESCO) The seamless integration of art, of nature, of architecture and ingenious crafts perfectly emphasise in a wonderful way on how the ecolutions and accomplishment that a highly successful commercial city of Northern Europe at its height of the thriving and prosperity. Brussels Grand Place has been included on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites for its unique world-wide value since 1998.
It was about 12 o’clock, the August sunshine of Northern Europe was warm and gentle, so comfortable I wondered if Brussels ever had a real definition of heat-wave in the summer.
I took some photos of the impressive buildings, and strolled into the tourist office on the other side of the square, and met a smiling girl at the information desk, who was patiently answering all my curious questions.
“What time the Town Hall and the Hotel De Ville will be open? It’s 12 noon already.”
“Oh! Is today a public holiday in Brussels?”
“No, it’s because today is Monday.”
“I don’t get it.” Isn’t Monday the start of a week, when everything gets back to working order after a break of weekend?
“Monday is not open, it's always closed on Monday.”
I suddenly realised something dimly: “Are they open on Sunday?”
“Yes, they are.”
“I see, Is Monday your weekend?”
She smiled and nodded: “You may say that.”
What a big world! And the ways of life each had something to recommend them. I would have to find time to come back again to see the inside of the architectural buildings of Brussels’ heritage. But I only had one and half days left, so I wondered how to fit in the time.
The next morning, I got to Rogier metro station around 8.30, to visit the European Parliament, and photo-snapp the European Union (Commission) and NATO. With the help from the hospitality of a local commuter I had come across when I was trying to buy a ticket, who not only used his bank card to get a one-day ticket of euro 8 for me, since it didn’t take cash, and I gave cash to him instead, but also drew the line and marked where to get off on the map and accompanied me two floors down to the right platform before waved goodbye.
Knowing that the European Parliament had given the opportunity for visitors, the European Commission and NATO were not open to the public. I therefore took some photos outside the European Union on my way to the European Parliament. The grand building was in the centre of the city of a busy Avenue, opposite a metro station, excluding an air of aplomb, didn’t mind at all being photographed, and no of the passer-by of the crowd gave a second look to the photo-snapping, obviously it’s a common sight around there.
I then continued walking for about ten minutes and arrived at the European Parliament to have a proper visit inside. There were three buildings to visit, and the seats of the buildings were surrounded by the trees and facing a small park. The rays of the August sunshine slanted through the trees, setting the grand buildings and greenery each other off to advantage.
The visitors, in groups or individuals, all had well prepared guides with headphones and explained orally in different languages and in remote control, the relevant commentary would keep pace with the visitor subject to which floor you were on, once put the headphone on, visitors didn’t need to do anything. I visited the European Parliament; Parlamentarium; and L’Hemicycle, from its past, present and how and where it functioned for less than three hours!
I then headed to NATO, where it was situated in the far more open-spaced outskirts of Brussels, and next to nothing, no other buildings, no streets, but several uniformed guards looking at the luxurious spaces that the city utterly lacked, and the bus and tram lines. On the other side of the wide space, a couple of metres away on the left, the big words on the top of a building of ‘Orange’ behind the lush trees was clearly seen.
Knowing that NATO was not, or never would be, open to the public, I snapped some photos in the distance while my bus was passing by, mostly for the membership flags that were fluttering in the wind, and the famous enormous building behind. I clicked the last photo on my way to the opposite bus stop where I would wait for the bus to return to the city, and it led a black-uniformed guard walking towards the gate and waved to me: “No photos please!” I continued walking across the tram lines and towards him while he walked to me, and we stopped face to face while he said eagerly: “Please! it’s impossible for anyone to go inside…’ He sounded like a French speaker and speaking English made him look too concentrated in his words.
Looking at his earnest face, I couldn’t help laughing: “No, I don’t intend to go inside, of course not!”
“Oh! good, you know, it’s not possible…”
“I know! I’m coming to ask you for directions. I want to go back to the city and I am not sure which bus stop I should be waiting for, there are more than two stops on this side, mixed with tram stops, I am confused which is which.”
He turned to the other two guards who were coming closer to us, and they exchanged some words in French, and he turned back to me looking perplexed, said apologetically: “Sorry, we never take bus or tram, we don’t know. You may be asking the people who are waiting at the stop. Oh! No one is there.”
I nodded: “No one there indeed!” I saw other two officers in different blue uniforms with the same colour hats standing in chat a few steps away from the right side, and I said to the black-uniformed guard: “Thank you, I will ask them.”
“Ok, good luck.” He turned and went inside the gate.
“Excuse me Sir, do you know which bus stop to go back to the city?”
They looked at me in surprise, as if they heard a question from outer space, then turned to each other in wonder, and turned back to me with a shrug: “Sorry, we don’t know.”
“Oh! Dear! What am I supposed to do?”
“Don’t worry, you can get to a bus that comes this way and ask the driver, they must know.”
Now I’m back to London, the scenes of the flying visit have been percolating through the times, and the heavily grounded military organisation in a friendly way and the sight of the guard in the open spaced gate of NATO who was on the alert with a great deal of good nature once the vigilance was lifted is still clear in my mind.