Saturday, April 15th 2017.
I tapped my fingers against my leg as I reviewed everything in my head. Coat. Clothing. Underwear. Documents. Camera. Train tickets. Check, check, check. Was I forgetting something? And why is that car going so slowly?! I was being driven by my host dad early this morning to the train station. You can guess my destination by the tittle. Not my first “solo” international trip, but the first time I organised and prepared for a trip like this completely by myself.
It had been a busy week, and I started and finished packing the night before. As pressed as I was, I was still able to pack everything easily (I guess by now I have some experience in that) which just ended up increasing the feeling that I might be forgetting something.
This time I didn’t have constant reminders of what I shouldn’t forget, of the time I was leaving, or a tidy folder of documents organised by my mom, or the million indications given by my dad on how to be alert and careful. As annoying as these things can seem at the time, they give you a sense of being taken care of, a sense of security that my caffeine-induced self is lacking right now. I keep checking trains and departure hours and roaming inside my backpack to check for the fifth time if I have everything, to realise I do. So here I am, slowly soothing my nerves, sitting with crossed legs and dotted socks; writing – maybe somehow talking to you – from the train that marks the beginning of a new adventure.
What awaits me now?
What awaited me, was waiting. Simon (a previous exchange student in France who was hosting me for a few days in Belgium) was coming in late to the train station. So I walked around, got a few meters out from the station and five minutes hadn’t gone by and I had already heard dutch, french, english, spanish, german and some other languages I couldn’t even identify. I felt transported to another world.
Simon’s train is finally getting here and I prepare a joke in my head … “Welcome to Brussels Simon!” from a South american in her very half hour of knowing the capital of the EU.
The day is ending over Brussels before our eyes in shades of orange and baby blue. We are sitting in a terrace… probably someone else’s. Next to the Place of Justice, placed in the highest point of the city, there is a lookout spot: a long balcony where tourists and inhabitants can enjoy the view. We had taken it one step further, and with some almost parkourish moves we had climbed and jumped into our new own exclusive terrace. Now we are freezing, but it barely matters with such view and good conversation.
A long day is coming to an end, but my tiredness is merely physical, my mind is excited, jumping up and down reviewing the day, appreciating the sunset and engaging in conversation. We had walked around everywhere – that is the wonderful thing about Belgium, even in big cities all you need to see is at a walking distance. We discovered Brussels together since Simon had only been here a few times. Obviously, as soon as Simon got here we went to get some belgium fries and a beer (drinking is legal here for +16 year olds, I know, awesome PLUS awesome beer) and we sat at the Grand Place surrounded by old, beautiful and kind of gothic buildings. After catching up a little more and finishing eating we went to what Simon likes to call “the biggest disappointment in Belgium” alias The Mannekin Piss. In case you don’t know about it, it’s a very famous monument, a fountain in the form of a little boy peeing. And well, the 61cm (24 in) of size do make you wonder why this seemingly insignificant statue is so famous. Let me tell you why: the latest version dates from 1965, but the real reason of its creation in the 14th century is unknown and surrounded by urban legends. There is even one story that tells about a time when Brussels was being attacked, the invaders conceived a plan to place explosive charges at the city walls. Our later Mannekin Piss happened to be spying on them and when the bomb was set he urinated on the burning fuse and saved the city. Crazy right? But it is not only the mystery that it awakens, the speculation and the urban legends aroudn it what makes it a loved monument for les Bruxellois, it also seems to represent very well their rebellious and defying spirit and their absurd, maybe even childish sense of humor. I had a little taste of these characteristics later in my stay in Belgium, but that is another story.
Later on that day we had passed by Les Galeries Royal Saint-Hubert, a famous shopping gallery known for its wonderful glass ceiling and the fact of being filled with the most expensive chocolates (and clothing… but who cares about clothing when you have chocolate). I bought some from “Leonidas” which was more decently priced than the others but still an excellent chocolate (not that it was that cheap either, ouch) but it was Worth. Every. Penny. We went to the city’s park to devour them, to then continue with a tour of the King’s Place and in my disappointment, only a small part of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts; since the Matisse and the Modern museums were sold out (lesson: buy your tickets beforehand). Still we got to see awesome artwork and things as weird as a three-part painting of a children orgy. Yes, you read correctly. A children orgy. Only the fin-de-siècle museum took us most of the afternoon; we were almost kicked out since it was closing hours but I was still amusing myself like a little girl in an watercolor painting area that was set up for visitors. I’ll definitely set apart some more time for the Royal Museums next time. Because, yes there will be a next time, I am determined to come back.
So there we were and here we are, a Paraguayan and a Belgian. Two people from different ends of the world and totally different backgrounds, meeting in the capital of Europe. We discuss about life, about what exchange has done to us. There is a feeling of immense freedom and wonderlust seizing my bones as I stare down to the city. Having one of those very teenage moments when you feel like you own the world. I had come here on my own, organised it on my own, moved around freely in a big capital with a friend and discovered once again new places with old souls.
We hear a siren somewhere far, Brussels reminds me of Gotham city. I love it here. I ask Simon what I ask myself in many moments like this one “How am I going to be this happy again?” How don’t you become addicted to this high of adventure and discovery, to knowing and connecting so fast, so intensely to such diverse people? That’s why they say “once an exchange student, always an exchange student” this longing for the uncommon never completely leaves you, maybe you hide it in a while, but it is always there, beating, waiting.
“You will be, you’ll see” he answers in this calm and vague way of his, contrasting my almost always passionate and detailed speech. Rationally I know he is right, but my body is full of a melancholic ecstasy that whispers: “you’ll never get better than this”.