One of the first side trips I went on while abroad this past autumn was to the Belgian capital of Brussels, a gorgeous city with a buzz unlike any other European capital. Despite being the capital city of Belgium and the home of the European parliament, there was a lax ambiance throughout the city, despite it being near to the touristic peak.
While we were there we walked around the Grand Place, the main city square. We went to the Belgian art museum and the brewery museum. We basked in the glory of the architectural marvels and intricately-done masonry that surrounded us.
But after being tourists in the past, we took a turn and soaked in the experience of just being in the city. Rather than walk towards a building or museum we felt it. The unique patterns of shade and the smells of the waffle stalls mixing with the exhaust of cars. The gentle putter of diesel engines mixing with French and Flemish and echo of our footsteps on the stone sidewalks of the city became a song exclusive to the city and the moment.
After walking around for some time, we sat on the steps of Brussels Stock Exchange catching our breath. Below us were cars and people enjoying their day, and a group of local kids with a soccer ball.
Here’s where it get’s crazy: I walked up to them and asked them “Est-ce que je peux jouer avec vous?”
Can I play with you?
After the apparent shock wore off, they broke into a huge grin and said “Oui!” The game was on. Instantly, I was a player on a team, playing on the steps of the Stock Exchange with these people I’d met just seconds ago. But just like that these people brought me into their world. Here I was, a student and tourist enjoying a friendly game of
pedestrian dodging soccer in a city of 177,307. Because of that, I stepped out of my role as a tourist and found some of the real treasures Brussels had to offer.
Life happens here
Typically, our interactions with locals as tourists is that of client-server. We pay for locals to serve us food and to maintain our hotels and to drive us around their city. In the meantime, we’re so caught up with the exoticism of it all that we forget that these people serving us love their city.
For them, as for us, a city is a place where we have our house and job, sure. But it’s also a place where we love and lose and cry and laugh. It’s where we feel at home and where we forge our memories. Every city we’ve spent time in takes up some space in our memories, forever forging an emotional tie.
That’s what cities are: not places for others to enter, cameras at the ready but stages for a cross-section of human emotion.
French author Simone de Beauvoir said it best when she said (translation below)
Nous imaginons que chaque lieu, chaque ville avait un secret, une âme, une essence éternelle et que la tache du voyageur était de les dévoiler…pas seulment dans leurs musées, leurs monuments, leur passé, mais au présent, à travers leus ombres et leurs lumières leurs foules, leurs odeurs, leurs nourritures…Les mystères de Berlin se résumaient dans l’odeur qui flottait dans ses rues et qui en ressemblait à aucune autre; boire un chocolat espagnole, c’est tenir dans sa bouche toute l’Espagne.
We can imagine that each place, each city had a secret, a soul, an eternal essence and that the task of the traveler was to discover it…not only in their museums, their monuments, their past, but in the present, through their shadows and their lights, their crowds, their scents, their food…the mysteries of Berlin can be summed up in the smells that floated in its streets and that resembled nothing else. Drinking a Spanish chocolate was taking all of Spain in one’s mouth.
~Simone de Beauvoir, La Force de l’Age, 1960.
Sure, the monuments and history of a place is important to figuring out the path a city took to become what it was now, but as a close friend once wrote:
Our origins matter to who we are, but not to where we’re going
Our cities are dynamic, breathing entities made up of thousands of others all trying to make sense of and improve their lives. A trip to a city exposes us to more than just architecture and food.
A trip to a city, if we learn how to approach it the right way, exposes up to human stories that we otherwise would never have been able to hear.
If that isn’t magical, I don’t know what is.