After the weekend, we reluctantly left Paris for Brussels, unsure of what to expect. We took the high speed train, arriving at our destination in less than 90 minutes.
Disembarking the train, we wandered through the station.
First stop was to buy tickets, but the UI was confusing. We knew they cost two Euros each, but how to extract that from the vending machines was beyond us.
Too much French everywhere.
We wandered up to the ticket vendor.
In his best French, Brian requested two metro tickets.
‘4 Euro’ was the terse reply. Brian handed the cashier a ten Euro note. I noticed the cashier pass back the change. Four coins, one large, three small. In my mind that immediately did not equate to the six Euros we expected back.
In times gone by, I have worked as a cashier. Back then (in my day), we had no cash machines telling us the correct amount, so we very quickly had to learn how to do money transactions. An apple turnover was $1.65, and a chocolate bar $1.15, that made $3.80, and if they handed you a $5 note, that meant $1.20 change. Not only did you become very quick at doing the calculations, but also extremely efficient at handling money, I no longer needed to look at coins to know what they were.
Occasionally of course in the lunchtime bustle you would make a mistake, and your customer would quickly come back and complain. The moment they did, they didn’t even need to state the problem, you remembered the mistake ‘that’s right an apple turn over and a chocolate bar comes to $2.80, not $3.80. I’m sorry I short-changed you $1.’ Or ‘Bother, I handed you a $1 coin instead of a $2.’
So, a cashier getting a very simple transaction wrong during a non-busy period, seemed fishy.
We went back to complain.
The cashier refused to speak anything other than French, and was insisting he made no mistake. Either it was an outright scam, or he was too arrogant to admit his mistake in front of his colleague. He became rather rude, and seemed to insinuate we had put together the wrong change to swindle him.
I didn’t buy his act. Not for a minute. He knew he made a mistake, whether it was deliberate or otherwise.
However, he had the upper hand, and unable to argue in French, we conceded defeat and continued on.
Still, not a good start to Brussels.
But worse was yet to come.
Much, much worse.
We headed out to town.
Unlike Paris, here was a town unable to cope with the tourist load. Masses of people were clumped together in the stifling heat. The entire town centre was not intended for the locals, but rather contained shops set up specifically for tourists, selling overpriced chocolates, beer, Belgian French fries, and fridge magnets.
The whole town had a rather tacky feel to it.
The buildings were old and impressive, but there was no charm left.
Everywhere we looked seemed to scream ‘give me your money’, and there were hoards of people who couldn’t get enough.
Having read up on Brussels and sought advice from family, we had already decided we wouldn’t be spending the night here and would just be passing through. But, we felt we owed the town a chance, I bravely ventured into one of the countless crowded chocolate shops, but quickly backed out again horrified by the extortionistic pricing.
But, maybe we could try and get something to eat.
It was getting late after all.
We negotiated our way through the crowds trying to find a free table amongst the numerous cafes spilling out onto the street, all the while paranoid our bags were being pick-pocketed (and if they were we would have never noticed in the high flesh density).
Finally, exhausted and overwhelmed by the business of it all, we selected a random ‘authentic Belgian frites’ bar.
I ordered salad and fries for a bargain 10 Euro, while Brian ordered the same with sausage, for 16 Euro.
The fries arrived. They were average. Very average. The salad lacked certain finesse as well. Still, we decided to put it down to extreme business and started eating.
Midway through my meal my heart skipped a beat.
Alive and crawling.
Brian, forever, the engineer quickly constructed a salt fence for him, to prevent him crawling over my fries, and ruining the rest of my meal.
We pondered what the proper ettiquette was in this situation.
All restaurants here were extremely busy, food will be hastily prepared. It’s a mistake that can happen. If anything all it meant was we could be sure we were munching on organic greens.
Still, I was adamant I would point it out to the staff. I wasn’t sure what the socially accepted response was, but I would expect they offer some sort of discount on my meal, since part of it was rendered inconsumable by this vegetarian.
We finished our fries, and waited, trying to attract the attention of the staff. Eventually, a busboy came and cleared our plates. We pointed out the bonus extra. He looked and shrugged indignantly before heading off with our plates. Any proof we had of what happened with our meal, was now gone. Moments later the waiter came with the bill.
Having lost our chance to ‘complain’, we paid 33 Euro for our meal a small beer, lemonade and two very mediocre salads and fries.
Overpriced, tacky, and seemingly only there to exploit tourists, we hurriedly left the town behind.
So far, our Belgium experience was a far cry from France.
We boarded the train for Bruges, in exciting anticipation of what might await us next.
(Meanwhile, in Norway, it rained).