Brokenhearted in Brussels
Last week, I took a step back from posting about my recent trip to Belgium for two reasons. One, a big imminent life change is ahead for me, one that requires a lot of time and attention. The second and more important reason was that I realized I wasn’t telling the whole story about Belgium. I wasn’t lying, mind you–I’d never do that. But I was leaving out a big piece of the puzzle and from my perspective, it was ruining the whole picture.
Each time I’d try to compose a new post about the days I spent in Belgium, something just didn’t feel right. The tone was off, and I knew the reason was because during my time abroad, I was struggling with some personal issues that left me somewhat detached from the experience.
I wrote the post below almost three weeks ago but didn’t have the nerve to publish it. But then a pair of posts from a blogger I admire a lot (Ayngelina at Bacon is Magic) inspired me to let it all hang out. So I’m going to tell the truth—the whole truth—about my ten days in Belgium. And so it (really) begins…
From almost the minute I landed in Brussels until the moment I left Belgium I knew in my heart that this trip was a colossal mistake.
Perhaps I should have known by the way I moved forward with my plans like an automaton—no excitement, no anticipation, and hardly any thought for what I’d be doing in Belgium once I arrived. My only motivation was a to-do list of tasks I needed to accomplish before I made the journey to the airport to catch my flight.
Even en route to Brussels, I felt numb. And to be completely honest, I’d been feeling that way for a while; I was probably not in the best state of mind for planning a trip. So when I finally arrived at the airport at Zaventem and the border control asked me what my purpose was in traveling to Belgium, I hesitated.
“Uh…tourism?” I blurted. Remembering the way I said it now, my response was more of a question than an answer. Why was I spending all of this money and vacation time traveling to a country that hadn’t even really been on my radar before now?
I knew the answer, of course: I needed to get away. So desperate was my need for escape that I didn’t care where I went. The promise of chocolate and frites and beer was, of course, little more than a convenient ruse, a veiled attempt at spontaneity. I hadn’t cared any more for Brussels or Bruges or Antwerp than for the countless cities around the world I’d never even heard of. But there I was, silently riding the train from the airport into Brussels, watching the graffitied walls and abandoned train cars and mirrored office buildings slide into view against a clear sky as we neared the city.
What had I done?
My heart sank as I emerged from Brussels Centraal train station into the heart of the city. It was colder than I had expected and early still. The slightest hint of a fog hung in the air, diffusing the light of the rising sun and casting a soft glow on the city, blending its rough edges. My travel guide was buried deep in the bowels of my backpack and without the will or the energy to retrieve it, I decided to follow my gut about where to go next.
The direction of choice? Head right. I wandered, slowly and aimlessly, past le Cathedrale des Saintes Michel et Gudule, looking at it without seeing it, and through a smallish park of sorts with square patches of grass and yellow flowers—maybe daffodils?—shivering against a frosty breeze. Crossing the street and strolling down to the Belgium Central Bank, I took in the city. Brussels was an odd mix of the old and the new: the straight-edged modern architecture of the bank contrasted against the Gothic styling of the cathedral. Tiny cars moved through narrow cobblestoned streets like mice being funneled through a maze. Brussels was a city alright but not the kind I’m used to.
It was either strangely too quiet or my thoughts too loud. Maybe I’d grown overly accustomed to New York City: the energy of commuters pounding the pavement, the hum of ever-raging machines, the cacophony of car horns honking. Here in Brussels, it was well past 9 am on a weekday and the streets were empty yet, save for the occasional car rolling past and a handful of people dressed in red shirts hanging red and blue banners on the thick, black iron fences of the bank building. Music began thumping loudly from the back of a nearby truck; almost instantly, although I didn’t understand the words, I recognized it as the music of rebellion. A protest was brewing—I just knew it. Part of me wanted to stay to watch how the situation would unfold but beneath my carefully constructed confident façade, I felt the first tendrils of fear reach out to grip my heart.
I shouldn’t stay here.
Following the curve of the gently descending street down and away from what seemed to be the business district, it must have been luck when, no more than half an hour later, I stumbled into the heart of old Brussels, wandering through the Grasmarkt, shuffling heavily past the Galleries St. Hubert and finally arriving at the Grand Place. There were robust groups of people milling around the square, huddled against the cold while admiring the magnificent architecture. I stood apart, alone. Even as I lifted my gaze upward and studied the incredibly ornate seventeenth-century buildings, I felt nothing.
That was, perhaps, the moment when I recognized something was terribly wrong with me.
As a general rule, I am a shameless solo traveler, unafraid to ooh and aah and ohmygod aloud to no one at all when something excites my fancy. On any other given day, I would have been enraptured by the soaring structures, the detailed masonry, the centuries lone gone since the laying of the first bricks. Instead, on this my first morning in Belgium, I lifted my camera, emotionless, and snapped a few photographs in the hope that one day I could look back and appreciate what my eyes had seen.
Turns out I was carrying around more than just physical baggage. There was a heaviness in my heart, too, one I couldn’t shed nearly as easily as my overstuffed backpack.
So this is what it feels like to travel with a broken heart.
Snap out of it, dammit, I chided myself. I hoped the single command would propel me back into normalcy, but the lifeless mound of flesh suspended in my chest refused all attempts at resuscitation.
For the first time in my travels ever, I wanted to turn around, take the train back to the airport, and go home, but with the hefty change fees I’d surely incur, leaving now simply wasn’t an option.
I was in this for the long haul, broken heart and all.
Could Belgium–could travel–heal my broken heart?
Time alone would tell.