I spent New Year 2010 in Brussels and had a fantastic time eating waffles and mussels and drinking Belgian beer. I love European cities and Brussels is a particularly attractive one. Jean Cocteau said that the Grand-Place is the most beautiful square in the world. During the festive period the square came alive in the evenings with the Town Hall sound and light show. It made me laugh every time I saw it, this austere building blinged up with flashing lights and blaring out Christmas tunes. I tried filming it with my mobile phone but the resulting video was rubbish. Luckily there is a much better quality video on youtube courtesy of orbitox1.
It’s probably a grass-is-greener situation but while I was in Brussels I couldn’t help but regret that I don’t live on the continent anymore. I miss speaking another language, colourful old towns and reliable public transport. I miss being able to hop on an overnight train to almost any other European destination at a moment’s notice. I miss carnivals and festivals that we don’t have in the UK. I’ll tell you what I don’t miss though: those piddly little cups of tea you get in continental cafes. I’m sorry but I like my tea in a pot. A big one. And it has to be bitter so that you feel justified in pouring in liberal quantities of milk. And another thing I can do without is the freezing temperatures in winter. Sure it gets cold in Scotland, especially with all the snow we’ve had recently, but it’s never so bad that I have to wear thermal longjohns under my jeans and two pairs of socks.
Tea and temperature aside, one thing a Brit abroad can’t fail to notice is how uptight we are compared to our European counterparts. I remember shortly after moving to Switzerland being horrified that people I’d only just met wanted to kiss me on the cheek by way of a greeting. And I developed a serious crink in the neck from staring at the ceiling in communal changing rooms until I finally got used to the unabashedly naked people milling around me. While we were in Brussels my travel companion and I went to a bookshop cafe and I was shocked when he took a book off the shelf to read while he drank his coffee with no intention of buying it. “We’re not in the UK anymore,” he said. “Look, everybody’s doing it.” And sure enough when I looked around I saw – quelle horreur! – that every coffee splattered, crumb scattered table had a pile of pristine new books on it. Each customer had a cup in one hand, a book in the other, covers bent back with no regard for the spine. But even though everyone else was doing it, and the people who worked in the bookshop seemed completely unfazed by this poor treatment of their wares, I could not bear to bring a book that didn’t belong to me within such close proximity a cup of tea, even if it was only a piddly European cup, so I took out my notebook and wrote for a while instead about the appalingly relaxed attitude of the Europeans towards brand new books.