A Nigerian, an Italian, and a Mexican walk into a…
Shortly after crossing the border, my cell signal got a much-needed boost. From my window, Brussels was familiar. Dutch architecture adorned some of the buildings while others looked as if they were plucked straight from the 5e arrondissement in Paris. It was a beautiful symphony of mystery and familiarity.
Arriving an hour late, I was already miffed. The rental was only a few blocks away, but I was not going to trek anywhere with this backpack on. I gave in and booked an Uber.
Innocence was from Nigeria but moved to Belgium about six years ago. He drove a Mercedes-Benz C-Class that I was afraid I would bang up with my peasant luggage. Our interaction was short, but memorable. He taught me how to say a few things in Dutch and me in turn some phrases in English.
“So, besides frites what else do people here around here?”, I asked. He chuckles and begins to tell me about the kebabs, and chocolate. The narrow streets cluttered with bikes and other cars hardly allowed space for his vehicle, but he somehow managed to get me right to the door. I thank him for his conversation and superb driving skills as he pulls my bags out the car.
It does not look like much and the doorbell appears broken, so I push the button anyway. A crackling voice forces itself through a tinny speaker and I am caught in an awful game of charades when it cuts off. I wait, as if I had any other choice. Either that is someone running down the stairs or this place is falling apart. A young Italian person greets me, fast-talking and apologetic. Without a skip in his natural rhythm he lifts my bags and starts going up the stairs.
“Um it’s uh, we are still doing construction.”
As I am going following him up the stairs I see ladders, empty paint buckets, and think nothing of it. Then the stairs start to get crazy: spirals, missing boards, the don’t-step-here-or-you’ll-fall-through steps, and borderline optical illusions. I am tired, sweating, hungry, and I am too old for this shit.
He begins to wrestle with the door lock and it takes two minutes. Once inside I notice the clean minimalist aesthetic with rustic elements that reminds me of my pretend home in Montréal. Big windows invite the sunlight. My room has the essentials: bed, lamp, and a long table perfect to set up my toiletries and clothing. I toss my duffle into the corner and set down my laptop and camera on the bed. I take a deep breath in and then go to the living where my new roommate is waiting for me.
He offers me coffee and who am I to pass up coffee, especially if an Italian brew it. I see a stainless-steel canister with hints of red.
“OH, MY GOD, ILLY!” I blurt out.
He smiles and begins to scoop the coffee into a Bialetti. Thank you universe!
While we wait for our caffeine, he presents me with a page long list of things to do in Brussels.
“I only have three days.”
He starts to draw points of interest on an USE-IT map, which is a free map made by locals. My eyes dart to every pin drop and doodle trying to absorb as much information because knowing my luck I will forget the damn thing and lock myself out.
“If you’d like you can join me and some friends for pétanque. I can give you directions, it’s easy!”, he says.
I have not been here an hour and I am already drinking coffee (no sugar or cream because only barbarians do that) and have been invited to go play pétanque on a rooftop somewhere in Brussels.
“So, what’s the difference between bocce (I pronounced it BOCHee) and pétanque anyway?”
“It’s BOH-che, and really the difference is just age. Old people play bocce, young people play pétanque.”
I thank him for the correction and apologize for butchering his beautiful language. He chuckles and begins to ask me questions about my culture. Him, his significant other and a couple of friends, hitchhiked through México and ended up in Oaxaca where he recalls having the best Mexican food. His favorite: gallina en mole. His face lights up as he describes his adventures, remembering the bright colors, intoxicating aromas, and the people he met along the way.
“I love Mexican culture and I can’t wait to go back. I need some real tacos.”
“Wow, I had to travel across the pond to hear someone speak so fondly of my people and culture. You know there’s a lunatic in the White House who wants us out?”, I said.
We both laugh and begin to talk more in depth about cultural differences when his phone rings. It is his friend who is already on the rooftop waiting for the guy who is still in Saint-Gilles talking to me about tacos.
“Oh, I better get going,” he turns and says to me as I try not to toss coffee into my mouth, “I’m the one with all the equipment. Think about it. Join us if you’d like.”
He grabs his knapsack, keys, and reminds me to go to the Center. I sit alone on an orange couch looking around me drinking my coffee. I have three days and this one is almost over. I’m waiting for the coffee to start doing its magic so I can trek out. But first, let me give myself a pop quiz.
An Evening in Saint-Gilles (Sint-Gilles)
First, I needed to eat, but I also needed to walk around an explore the neighborhood. I am spent, but the coffee is starting to wake me up. After finishing off my cup of high octane coffee, I go into my bedroom and begin putting my daypack together. The window is open and below I see the street as vibrant as it can be. I hear Portuguese, Dutch, French, English, and what to be Arabic conversations. I smell food. GOOD FOOD. I want out!
Making way out from the maze of wood and tools, I head towards the plaza. Along the way, I get a few stares, but I am left alone and I feel safe. Children are playing at the park and few fly by on their bicycles. I find the tram stop, but I do not see any ticket vending machines so I turn around. Upon closer inspection, the signs are in both Dutch and French. Architecture, Dutch. I start to snap away. I make my way around Saint-Gilles passing a church, a tower, plenty of vintage shops, and cheeky Belgians who would call me ‘paparazzi’. I walked by a friterie or frietkot (in Dutch), but was so overwhelmed by their menu options, I kept walking. On my way towards the apartment I saw plenty of bars. One even had a dog in it, just relaxing by its parent’s feet. A local market had a Brazilian flag hanging from an awning outside, and my nose finally sniffed out where that smell was coming from. The Greek place that my roommate was raving about!
Even as the sun was setting Saint-Gilles roared on. It was loud, but fun. I made my way back to the apartment and was surprised by another male in the house. I did not want to be rude, but I was also STARVING! I excused myself, and went into the bedroom to unload my gear. I apologized for the short introduction and ran out.
Going up towards the tram station, I saw several restaurants preparing for the dinner crowd. Since Alberto kept raving about Greek food, I wound up there. Greeted by a pretty face who knew I was a foreigner she sat me near one of the outdoor heaters and handed me a menu. Since I am starving and ready to pass out, I order a large meal: lamb kebabs and a blond.
The owner comes out and makes his rounds greeting his guests. Tables are moving and at one point I had to duck so I would not catch the bottom of an outdoor heater to my face. It was wild! People are starting to trickle into the patio and the music starts to get louder. By the time my food arrives, the party is in full swing. Some of the diners walk by and give me the “Oh why is she alone” pity look. I do not think much of it. Instead, I am all smiles and I toast to each person that raises their glass in my direction.
No words will ever be able to accurately describe how delicious my dinner was that evening. It came with a salad, fresh bread, a side of olives, some I had never seen before, and FRITES! To boot the atmosphere was exactly what I needed after a long trip. After two Hoegaarden Blonds, I was singing in some imitated Greek-Belgian dialect of some sorts. The server came to check up on me and once she saw me singing gave me the thumbs up and ran back into the kitchen. I stopped to look around me. The plaza is still filled life at 10pm. Kids riding their bicycles, men having a smoke, dogs barking, music blasting, and I am happy to exist in the madness.
La Grillade chez Niko is located at 110 Chaussée De Forest, 1060 Saint-Gilles. https://www.lagrilladeniko.be
“Le soleil de la Grèce au cœur de Bruxelles ? C’est possible !”