I started to get the feeling that maybe visiting Paris first was a mistake – that it was like eating the tastiest thing on my dinner plate first and then realising that all I had left now was broccoli (or Brussels-sprouts, even. Ha. I’m sure you couldn’t see that one coming!). But I hadn’t even reached the city centre yet, so I decided to withhold my broccoli pronouncements until later on. I decided that maybe once I’d cracked Brussels’ crème brulée lid with my teaspoon, I would see warm melting raspberries and smooth chocolate cake batter.
I was walking down Avenue de Stalingrad, heading for the Grand Place, when in the distance I heard the unmistakable promise of a melting raspberry: a rumbling of drums, a far-off trumpet. It was in the opposite direction to where I was headed, but there’s something about faraway drums that makes you feel you’re missing out on something big, so I turned down a side-street towards them, getting my teaspoon ready.
I was not disappointed. The crème brulée lid shattered into thousands of delicious lego pieces and the chocolate cake batter was thick and flowing. A band of 12 young people dressed in a mixture of black Cossack hats, fluoro yellow shorts, funky indie suits and black suspenders were dancing down the street, playing the liveliest, most enthusiastic and unabashedly happy music I have ever heard. There were drums, trumpets, accordions, saxophones, clarinets, trombones and one big, moody tuba. A trail of grinning people were following along behind them, and they lured us all into a big auditorium where they clambered their way up onto the stage.
The music was fantastic – it was fast-paced and. They took turns having solos and the rest of the band would creep up around them, staring at them in ‘mock’ curiousity and awe. The accordion player kept doing jumping splits like a rock star, the lead trumpet player looked like the kind of guy who would make embarrassing but witty speeches at wedding receptions, and the notes bounced comically along like a multicoloured beachball at a football match.
They played for about an hour, and Brussels went from a broccoli side-dish to a place where people were ecstatic to be alive.
Later on in the same day, after discovering where all the tourists were hiding (they’re all around the Mannekin-Pis, which, truth be told, is not all that exciting. They dress him up in little outfits and it smacks sharply of people who put clothes on their pets…) and that a day without cars results in a day swarming with bikes (to the extent that crossing the road requires the skill and dexterity of the 2006 ‘Frogger’ champion), I heard a different kind of music.
Near Bourse/Beurs station, there was a DJ playing emotional, intense and incredibly loud piano recordings from the top of an abandoned building. I stopped to have a sandwich at a little Dutch café and watched the hodge-podge of Brussels folk float by. There were people on rollerskates, a guy on a penny-farthing, and at one point a man in a medieval peasant outfit trotted by on a horse. As I was sitting there a group of what looked like African American rappers flounced by – wearing oversized white jerseys, straight-rimmed caps, silver sunglasses and straight faces, but they were speaking in French and had the soundtrack of Chopin’s ADHD cousin behind them.
Here’s to discovering that, even though places aren’t Paris, that doesn’t necessarily make them broccoli.
P.S. Obviously I’ve been having trouble with the speed of my updates lately. I hope you’ll bear with me if I intersperse everyday junk with actual travel stories. Instead of writing about Amsterdam, which I was meant to be doing, I wrote about a rebellious piece of pavement near my flat. It isn’t because I don’t want to write about Amsterdam – it’s just that pieces of pavement keep getting in the way…