BRUSSELS — I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t a DJ perched in a tree spinning techno music surrounded by a swarm of giant artificial butterflies in the main terminal of the airport.
Six months after the deadliest terrorist attack in Belgium’s history, I anticipated an airport filled with gun-totting militia in drab fatigues surrounded by plywood-covered windows awaiting repair. More than 30 people were killed and about 300 injured in blasts at both Brussels Airport and Maelbeek metro station in Belgium’s capital in March.
But there was no sign of the horrific event or any lingering soot in the duty free shops. The airport was bright and sleek. As I made my way to baggage claim I spotted the tree-dwelling DJ surrounded by perky young things. I’d never seen so many people looking happy or dancing in an airport — I’m talking full-throttle, shake-your-money-maker dancing.
It was a joy to witness. Sometimes when the world appears to be falling apart like a poorly made H&M sweater, dancing is a perfect morale booster.
Outside the airport and in the city center I frequently saw the uniformed militia in heavily-trafficked pedestrian thoroughfares. I smiled and said hello whenever I passed them, but I was usually smiling because I had just finished another box of chocolates. They were likely thinking, “There goes another chubby American tourist who’s here for the chocolate and waffles.” They were right. I ate so much chocolate I came home with pimples.
My time in Brussels was a week of contrasts, veering from the happiness of tourist mainstays such as waffles and frites, or a visit to the resplendent, chandelier-filled Royal Palace, to serious discussions of terror cells or the cultural divide between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking residents.
While it appears as if the city is rebounding from the attacks, the number of hotel bookings have yet to recover and tourism numbers have dwindled. The Cambridge-based travel data and booking app Hopper reported that there are 35 percent fewer Americans traveling to Europe this summer.
There are campaigns afoot to bolster urban pride, such the private civic organization which started a “Sprout to Be Brussels” slogan. The government urged residents to hashtag social media posts with #bxlove as a show of support after the March attacks.
Without the onslaught of summer tourists I had easy access to the city and could zip in and out of museums without the normal summertime delays. There is a museum for almost everything in Brussels, although I was baffled as to why there was no Smurfs museum. Those mushroom-dwelling cartoon critters are true blue Belgian.
Restaurant reservations were generally not a problem, and I was always able to get a seat at a cafe. Nice for visitors, perhaps not the best thing for businesses here.
The must-see locations, according to every guidebook, included the Atomium, a striking 335 foot atom which was built for the World’s Fair 1958. Why a giant atom? Well, why not? The majestic Grand-Place in the city center is a cobblestone plaza surrounded by Gothic buildings. It’s so perfect and opulent it feels as if it was constructed as a set piece for a PBS period drama. It’s necessary to walk through Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, the oldest mall in Europe, and linger over the chocolate shops. I challenge you to walk by the Pierre Marcolini store and not purchase fondant squares and champagne truffles.
Truly perplexing is the tourist draw called Manneken Pis (“Little Man Pee”), a 1619 bronze sculpture of a toddler urinating into a fountain. I’ve seen a million replicas — well, not a million, but at least six — and I’ve yet to find the charm.
What was far more interesting to me was the little street just a few hundred yards away from that bronze, diaperless tyke. Move away from the center of the city, and you’ll find the neighborhoods with the bars, restaurants, and cafes where the city’s inhabitants dwadle over coffee or cocktails.
“The neighborhood cafes is where life happens in Brussels,” my friend Marcelo told me. He lived in Brussels for two years before recently moving back to the US. “You need to go to the dirtier streets and the quieter quarters that define Brussels.”
“Dirtier Streets and Quieter Quarters” may not be as catchy a slogan as “Sprout to Be Brussels,” but Marcelo was right. I met up with a series of his friends (and a few strangers) who took me to these chocolate-and-tourist-free zones. I got a much better taste of Brussels in its sprawling neighborhoods such as Saint-Gilles, Saint-Gery, and Ixelles. It tasted more like beer than Brussels sprouts or chocolate.
“Brussels is like a disco ball,” one of my new-found friends explained as we sat outside drinking white wine at the cafe Le Fontainas. “There are lots of little pieces that don’t seem like much individually, but when you put them all together, it’s very impressive.”
The disco ball analogy was spot on. I spent time wandering flower and flea markets. I took a chocolate making lesson and experienced a tasting with Laurent Gerbaud , I went to both the Belgian Comic Strip Center and the Hergé Museum (home of Tin Tin). I sought out prime examples of Art Nouveau architecture and then spent an hour at an incredible new museum dedicated to street art called MIMA. There was a lot to love, but I had a hard time describing it as a unified entity. What was the overall character? It was those individual pieces that made it special. I just needed to assemble all the bits into a disco ball in my brain to comprehend.
I ran the disco ball anthology by architect Ward Verbakel the following night at the cafe Barbeton. He looked at me skeptically, then grabbed my notebook and stated sketching a connect-the-dots map of the 19 municipalities that make up Brussels then handed it over. In his drawing Brussels looked like a misshapen disco ball in the center of Belgium. We both felt it necessary to continue the conversation over pizza at the insanely charming restaurant La Belle Equipe .
Most everyone I encountered was happy to take the time to explain to me what made the city unique, including one very kind but indecorous woman who somehow thought I was interested in exploring the city’s unseemly side when I asked her to recommend some fun bars.
“A lot of people don’t know that Brussels is more sexually liberated than Amsterdam,” she said as she leaned in for the hard sell. “Prostitution is legal here. I can tell you the best places to find girls if you like. Nice girls. You should go to the brothels. Not the street workers.”
I was stammering like Hugh Grant trying to come up with excuses to leave while quickly downing the rest of my drink. I wanted to see more neighborhoods, but I wasn’t looking for merriment at the best little whorehouse in Brussels.
I found a scene a bit more to my liking the following night when I meet up with locals Tim Devriese and Siemon Leon at Damejeanne Cafe at the edge of the Sint-Jans-Molenbeek neighborhood.
“This used to be the area where grocers held their exotic fruit and coffee stock,” Devriese said. “Now it’s the place where Arab and Greek grocers sell mint, olives, pickled lemons, and wine. On the one hand there’s a gigantic Citroën showroom, built in the 1930s. On the other side of the grand boulevard there’s a military fort built late 19th century. Now it’s one of Belgium’s biggest refugee centers for asylum seekers. It’s a weird mix of old and new, of Arab and Belgian culture. It’s slowly gentrifying. So it’s a nice mix of everything. Exactly what Brussels is all about.”