Brussels: A travelogue
Ada and Alexander from the USE-IT Oslo team travels to Brussels to attend this year USE-IT Europe meeting. This is their story.
Thursday 27 October 2016
We are on a train from Brussels Airport to Gare du Midi/Zuid Station, the southern train station in central Brussels. The bilingual Belgium is so confusing. With 300 USE-IT Oslo map in the luggage, we are headed to the annual USE-IT Europe meeting, where anyone who makes the USE-IT maps meet up to socialize, swap maps and explore a new city. We can’t wait to hang out in Brussels for a few days.
Outside it’s already started to get dark. The train is slowing down and we prepare to leave, but we hear familiar voices. Behind us sit the two guys from USE-IT Utrecht who we meet at the USE-IT meeting last year. Back then we learned to kiss on both cheeks when greeting people you know. To avoid any awkwardness we go all in with pouting lips and widespread arms. It ends, of course, in disaster. Before we reach a single cheek, we get pushed back with a handshake in between. No hard feelings. Luckily.
We tag along with the Dutch to the hostel we are crashing at this weekend. The conversation gets weird fast due to the Dutch Santa Claus, who apparently have have “between 6 and 8 black men” as little helpers. Previously, this implied slaves, but because the political climate changed, they are now only known as “his friends”. Moreover, they believe Santa lives in Spain. Crazy indeed. Everyone knows that he lives at the North Pole (or Finland).
Suitcases and bags are thrown into the hostel room before we join Utrecht to find dinner. They have been tipped by the guy at the counter about a place with good food that locals like. It turns out to be a pretty tepid and very standard fast food joint, but because of the time pressure we order something nasty that we squeeze in us in record time. Not exactly how to eat like a local. But more time for beer.
The rest of the USE-IT people from cities all over Europe, are at the bar Café Les Brasseurs, located right in the middle of the city centre, right by the Beurs/La Bourse. We meet up with some of the people we got to know at last year’s meeting: The President of USE-IT Europe stands outside welcoming everyone. The first thing he does, after a few kisses, is asking for a snus (the preferred way to enjoy nicotine in Oslo). We obliged offers one. There is the tall guy form USE-IT Charleroi, the graphic designer from USE-IT Porto and the hyper active dude, let’s say he’s from USE-IT Brussels. Plus all the new and old faces from the USE-IT initiatives throughout Europe. It’s cool that there are so many of them.
We greet everyone and still gets embarrassed when the French and Belgian people kiss us on the cheek when they say hello. We drink some belgian beer to limit our Scandinavian intimate restriction. Europeans are not as afraid of physical contact as we Norwegians. This is something we learn early. We try as best we can to accommodate us. Belgian beer is as good as we remembered it.
Friday 28 October 2016
After receiving a croissant from the USE-IT editor in chief, we meet the others at De Pianofabriek, a weird working community what looks like a mix between a library, café and work collective for meetings and conference. After a cruel cup of coffee, they are not that good on coffee in Brussels, we go to our respective rooms for the workshops.
On the workshop Kill your darlings the two girls from USE-IT Zagreb laugh of our text Picking up a Norwegian in the Oslo map, and ask us what snus is. We show and explain as best we can without breaking the Norwegian Tobacco Act of 1975.
After two different workshop sessions we meet up for lunch in the basement of De Pianofabriek. All participants of the meeting sit in a awkward horseshoe formation. We can’t seem to get rid of the feeling that we are at a Norwegian confirmation dinner while we eat our leek soup.
The USE-IT herd walks north towards Grote Markt/Grand Place. We’re about to receive a guided tour inside Brussels City Hall and we must go in half an hour to get there. The combination of piss and waffles sits in our nose all the way there. We think it’s super fitting that Manneken Pis, a sculpture of a boy peeing, is the informal mascot of the city of Brussels because it was originally a drinking fountain. There will always be something funny about the idea of drinking imaginary piss.
We stop at the Grote Markt/Grand Place and try to take a group photo. USE-IT is all about giving travellers the opportunity to experience a city like a local. We quickly see that no locals take group photos here, just tourists. We survive thanks to our ironic distance we Osloite depend on in awkward situations.
Brussels City Hall: the building looks relatively small and the entry hall is rather narrow. We leave our jackets and must go through a metal detector before entering. Another security bottleneck, check. On the inside it’s very grandiose, full of busts and huge paintings of ancient kings and conquerors. A middle-aged lady follows us around and explains the history of the things we see.
One of us asks her why she shows off a bust of Leopold II of Belgium, without saying that he was a mass murderer. Doesn’t the guide have an obligation to give us an accurate picture of historical figures depicted in the Town Hall, he asks. The guide gets obviously uncomfortable and changes the subject before we move on. We shake your head and think it’s outrageous indeed. This was the most exciting thing about the entire visit at City Hall. We’re not history buffs. It’s not until we look up Leopold II of Belgium on Norwegian Wikipedia that we discover that he was a bit of a Norway enthusiast. We are ashamed and do not tell anyone.
Saturday 29 October 2016
We miss breakfast and must hurry. The next meeting is at VDH coworking space, which is located near Moeder Lambiek, the bar we were the night before. The President is about to do his State of the Union presentation and we must be there. Oslo is after all one of the two members of the board of directors of USE-IT Europe, which involves a bit of pressure on us to be on time. We do not break under pressure, but we do pick up the pace a bit.
Finally we arrive at VDH coworking space. Someone is shouting at us. We look up and there we see a lot of smiling and laughing heads out of the windows four floors up. We blush and walk inside what looks like a bar being cleaned, and up to the 4th floor.
The President does his thing, and he does it well, even though the state of the union is so so. One of the most motivating thing was to see all comments that young travellers had written to us in the user survey. Such as:
Keep it up. Its so amazing these maps. Overtime a friend comes to visit me I pick up some maps to give to them – they are so up to date and give a different perspective that the standard Lonely planet stuff. More REAL!
I planned my trip according to existing USE-IT maps and it was worth it.
Keep up the great work and try to expand as much as possible, always keeping integrity. PLEASE, don’t sell out.
Thank you just for existing.
We look around us in the room and everyone nods and smiles. We are proud of all of the USE-IT maps, and it looks like all the other USE-IT people are too. There is a lot of hard work in a USE IT map.There is a lot of hard work in making every single map, and this is a nice pat on the back.
For lunch we get sandwiches and we sit down on the 2nd floor at VDH coworking space. It stinks of cigarettes, sweat and nice shame throughout the venue. The USE-IT Editor of Chief tells us that this place is a work collective, but that many of those who use it smokes inside and sleep on the floors. We look around and thank both the old gods and the new for the Norwegian Tobacco Act.
After a small repair visit to a local saloon, we hurry along to Galerie Ravenstein and the USE-IT Brussels info desk. We arrive just in time to say hello to all the others before splitting up into smaller groups. We’re going to see the city of the typical tourist trail. Ada is going on the pipi walk and Alex is doing urban biking. We are replacing the face of each other with Brussels. It might be good with a small break.
Restaurant Pin Pon is located south in Brussels, and the walk from the hostel only takes about 10 minutes. We do a walk and talk board meeting with the President on the way. God, how efficient, love it. We get guided up a staircase and to a separate room at the restaurant with as much space for eating our dinner as at a Salvation Army soup kitchen. The food is as uninspiring as anything we’ve eaten so far, but there is a lot of it, so we don’t complain. We haven’t been able to eat real French fries, oh sorry, we mean Belgian fries, in Brussels yet.
USE-IT Brussels tells us that if we are going to act like a local we must not order the same thing every time, but try something new. We do our best on the bike repair shop/bar two of the volunteers from the USE-IT Brussels team opened not that long ago. We also do our best at the second bar right next to the metro stop Sainte-Catherine/Sint-Kathelijne that we don’t quite remember the name of, but believe it is Viaria. On the small karaoke bar (aka. The Worst Place in the World) next to Viaria, half of the Oslo team gives up acting like a local and split a taxi with the President. Good riddance.
Sunday 30 October 2016
A hangover evaluation about the meeting is the first thing on the agenda this morning. Fresh croissants and automatic coffee really saves the day. After much positive and something constructive feedback, we have to go to catch our flight back to Norway. We say goodbye and give out free hugs. We throw the bag over the shoulder and walk back towards the Gare du Midi/Zuid Station.
The armed police at Brussels Airport moves around while we try to find the baggage drop point. Despite the terror fear, which clearly characterizes the place, Brussels Airport is a delight. Everything runs smoothly and quickly we find ourselves a canteenlike place to have lunch. We are not surprised that these Belgian Fries also is kinda crappy. We have clearly eaten at the wrong places throughout the trip.
The USE-IT Brussels map we’ve used the whole weekend is almost disintegrated. We’ll definitely return to the world’s nicest ugly city, Brussels.
Thanks to all the USE-IT initiatives for your pictures: Check out USE-IT news on Facebook here.