I was in Brussels earlier this year, in March. I was staying the weekend and thought I’d meet up with some friends. But I arrived around 1pm and I wouldn’t meet anyone before 4pm. I had some time to kill, then, and catching a free, public wi-fi network around Brussels proved nothing short of impossible. I didn’t want to stay at a cafe and make time. I was doomed, then: I had to face the elements and walk around Brussels. So walk around Brussels I did: as I had a lot of time to kill, I didn’t see the point in following any particular itinerary. I have seen most of the must-see places in Brussels and, to be honest, I was a bit worried and wondering about how safe Brussels was (little did I know the gruesome attacks that happened two days later). Perhaps I was seeing what I ‘wanted’ (i.e. expected) to see, but Brussels did seem a lot quieter to me and in some ways more expectant than in previous times I had been there, in 2011 and 2013. There was visibly more police in the streets. Also because of all this, my only rule as I was walking around town was to avoid the main attractions: no Grand Place, no Manneken Pis and the area immediately next to it. Other than that, I would turn left or right completely at random.
I walked quite a bit. Before I noticed I had walked from Brussels Central to Brussels South stations and I kept walking aimlessly. I had been walking for a good hour and a half and I needed to start going towards the bar where my friend and I had agreed to meet. With technology out of the equation, I had to resort to basic human contact and hope English would be ok. It didn’t work for the first few people, until I reached a bus stop. It’s due to the aimlessness that I cannot precise where this happened – I tried to identify the place in Google Maps but I couldn’t recognise it. For all it’s worth, it was by a bus stop near to a small park. I had already tried three times to ask people, to no success. So, in that mixture of English, French and whatever else is deemed useful – I’m very good at speaking foreign – I asked this old lady:
“Pardon (French entonation), do you know where this place is? Which direction? (French entonantion)”
Most of the times I ask someone something on the street, I find myself wondering why don’t I do it more often instead of looking down to my phone. This time was no different – although I did think ‘what have I done’ for the first 5 minutes of the exchange that followed:
Very nice old lady: ‘oh yes, what do you need?’
Me: ‘ah, great, could you tell me in which direction Porte de Namur is?’
Even nicer lady: ‘oh dear, it’s a bit far away but it’s on that direction’
Me: ‘ah that’s fine, I have time. Thank you very m—‘
Inquisitive nice old lady: ‘Where do you come from?’
Me: ‘ah, I’m Portugues—‘
Amazed old lady: ‘Oh Poooortugal! I love Poooortugal, I was so happy in your country!’
Me: ‘Ah, I’m very glad to hear that! I’m happy you had such a nice time there’
Ok, I’ll stop transcribing the exchange. I meant to write it just so that you can get the tone. But it went on for a good half an hour, and it was truly heart-warming: so this very nice old lady (and a smoker – I had finally found a lighter!) is from Finland, but met her now-husband, who’s Portuguese, on a trip to Portugal some thirty years ago. We talked about my hometown, Leiria, about the one time – 20-odd years ago – that she was in the Azores, where I grew up and truly come from, and she told me stories about places in Portugal I haven’t been to yet. We also talked about Brussels, how much both of them (unsurprisingly, him way more than her) dislike how cold it is and how much they want to move to Portugal soon. There was something about she having to stay here because of her pension I didn’t quite catch. There were also more details I fail to remember now; and that adds to my urgency in writing this. This piece isn’t half as affectionate as I intended on writing it.
Anyway, that weekend was great. I eventually walked on, met my friend who I missed dearly, and we talked for hours and had a great time. I met another friend of mine the day after and, come Sunday evening, took the train back to Rotterdam. But this old lady, forever unnamed to me, and this random exchange, was the cherry on top of the weekend. And a sweet reminder – yet another one – of how the little things on your way change your trips from good to unforgettable. These stories are always out there. Should you reach out for them.