Trip Start Jun 22, 2012
21Trip End Aug 08, 2012
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I'll begin by saying that one of the major themes I have discovered will be underlying the first two weeks of this summer is the juxtaposition between seeing these places for their overall historical and cultural significance, and viewing these places through the lens of someone retracing my family's escape journey from WWII Europe. I think these past couple days in Brussels have been an excellent embodiment of, and have highlighted, that sentiment for me.
To expand on this idea, I'll say that my vision for these postings is to not necessarily recount the exact details of everything I have done and each place I have visited. These postings are rather an attempt to tie the "touristy" attractions, places visited, and people met to something larger.
My mom and I have definitely experienced what many would call a classical tourist experience. We have been staying at a hotel near the Gran Place, and have subsequently spent much time walking around this majestic, albeit tourist-magnet, area. We bought a hop-on-hop-off bus
pass, which enabled us to explore many of Brussel's most famous attractions including the Atomioum, the Cathedrale Des Saints Michel et Gudule, and the underground Coudenberg Palace, which has parts dating back to the 13th century. I've had my Belgian waffles and chocolates and learned how to ask "where is the bathroom?" in French (ou est la salle de bain). But perhaps the greatest experiences these past couple days have been learning how people truly live nowadays, and what life was like in the period my grandmother lived.
We arrived in Brussels Saturday morning, and I decided to go to the Grand Place that night and treat myself to my first legal beer in a bar where everyone was of course watching the Euro Cup's Spain v. France game (Spain won 1-0 to all my fellow Americans reading this who have no idea what is going on in the Euro Cup). I went to another bar tonight with a friend from Georgetown, where I again experienced the European hype and atmosphere that goes into watching soccer (or football as they call it). The fact that I am writing this at 1am after returning via Metro from this scene is another testament to what I feel has been getting an ever so small insight into what life is like for locals here today.
My mom and I have also been fortunate enough to gain a small insight into what life was like here in the 1940's. The house my grandmother grew up in--29 Rue de la Montagne--is located smack in the middle of Brussels, very near the Grand Place. As my Uncle Boris said in his interview, the street has been rebuilt, with buildings replicating pre-WWII structures. The house itself is currently a tourism office called "Navibelgium," and it has unfortunately been closed these past two days (hopefully it will be open on Tuesday when we return to Brussels for the day).
However another valuable insight we had into pre-WWII local life was off a side street of Rue de la Montagne. After becoming disappointed discovering that 29 Rue de la Montagne was closed for the weekend, we decided to ask a local shopkeeper if there was anyone old who lived in the neighborhood who might have been around before the War. He pointed us to a house next to his shop and told us there was an old woman who lived there. We knocked on this house's worn out, dark wood door and after a minute or so we saw an old woman appear in the upstairs window. Following some hand motions, she came downstairs and opened the top-half of the door for us. She didn't speak any English, however was very kind, and we soon learned (through the help of the shopkeeper who acted as the translator) that she had moved to the house 50 years earlier, following the War. It was clear though that she knew most people in the neighborhood, so it was disappointing when she said no one currently lived in the area who had lived there before the War. Everyone had left.
It is now ten minutes to two, and in six hours we will be waking up to bike to Dunkirk as the Beizers did 71 years ago. We will be making the 100 km or so trip in two days. Until then, I can legally say...