Couch Surfing in Brussels With a Passionate Greek
My couch surfing host in Brussels — let’s call her ‘Sev’ — was Greek, tall and passionate. When we met near St Giles station, she was huffing her impatience with the fire of a true daughter of Hellas.
We greeted, hugged, then fought, a mix of affection and anger that defines my friendship with Sev. We knew each other from years before, having both worked in Bangkok at the same time. Let it be said — 23 is a good age to be a journalist, partying with a Greek diplomat, in the Thai capital. Bangkok was our playground, and we got in a lot of trouble during our Asian recess.
My fondest memory of Sev was going to a bar to watch Greece take on Portugal in the Euro Cup final. I could give a thimbleful of olive oil for both soccer and the Greek national team, but at Sev’s request, I had donned Hellenic blue and white.
We arrived at a sports bar stuffed with some 50 angry male Portuguese expats and tourists. Most were grumbling about the Greek style of play up to that point — the Greeks were playing total defense ball, rarely giving up a goal. To say the Portuguese considered this a cheap tactic would be a vast understatement. Their disapproval was broadcast loudly and clearly thoughout the bar, wherein sat two lonely islands of blue and white: Crazy Sev and her increasingly nervous American friend.
Greece did not dissapoint. They scored early in the final and kept the score 1-0 till the end of the match, beating 150-1 odds and the host nation to win the UEFA 2004 Euro Cup. Sev’s reaction was to laugh, scream and curse a bar full of now drunk Portuguese who had murder in their eyes. Mine was to cower in abject fear, an unwitting and unwilling pawn of European aggression.
Now Sev works as a — the EU version of bureaucrats — Brussels. When she was finished lavishing hugs and rage on me, she insisted we get some frites.
“You are in Belgium. This is what Belgians do. They eat frites. You’ll love them. What the hell are you waiting for?”
This was all said in the span of crossing a block at a breakneck passionate Greek clip. I tried to take in the buildings around me.
“This city is boring. In many ways I cannot stand it. My God it is beautiful though. These balconies. That architecture. Are you paying attention? Makous, Malaka! (‘listen, bitch!)”
We had covered two more blocks. The stone balconies and handsome townhouses and elegant curves of Brussels passed quickly, in a blur of Sev-fueled speed. I was panting by the time we stopped at a streetside shack. As Sev regaled me with stories about boyfriends and jobs and school, we scarfed frites and mayo and béarnaise sauce (it works. Really), some grilled brochette (meat on a stick) on the side. You learn a nation by many ways: its language, its history, its art. In this case, I was learning Belgium by its beer-soaking drunk food. And I wasn’t even drunk. Although I wasn’t complaining.
Sev’s apartment was in a lovely old building that reminded me of the European sets where Israeli assassins took out various Black September members in Munich. Her place was a studio, but a surpassingly large and spacious one, despite her assurances she lived in a hovel. I was shown to my cot on the floor. Through the thin walls, techno music beats were thumping, raising small clouds of dust from the bookshelves in Sev’s room.
“My neighbor. He’s from here. A Brussels native. Let’s meet him.”
She knocked on the door and we were greeted by a thin Belgian who was so stereotypically Eurotrash he was almost a caricature, a mix of the Sprockets guys from SNL and Pepe Le Pew. He was nerdily handsome — curly blonde hair, thick black glasses, a dark blue turtleneck, ripped jeans and flip flops. A joint smoldered in an ash tray in front of a wall papered in vintage music posters, just next to, of course, a set of turntables.
“Wassup?” he said.
“Wadup?” I answered. He gave me a blank stare. I realized I shouldn’t have assumed a mastery of American slang based off his greeting. “Wassup” may sound familiar to a Walloon raised on American pop culture, but its more subtle, rarefied versions — yes, this is complete sarcasm — such as “Wadup” have yet to be translated across the pond.
Sev shot me a dirty look, then began talking with her neighbor in French. From what I could gather, she was getting ready to hit the town with me by her side — so much for much-needed rest — and the neighbor was invited. Neighbor looked at us, his turntables, then us again, considered the possibilities, shrugged, finished his joint and put on some shoes.
I can’t remember what part of Brussels we hit that night, although I do remember we could better communicate with the North African cab driver in pidgin Arabic then French. He gave us a friendly ‘Massalamah’ (goodbye) as we departed his car in what was, apparently, the northernmost suburb of Kinshasa.
I’m only half kidding. The Congo was once a Belgian colony, and thousands of Congolese now call Belgium home. Lingala music was pumping out of bars. There were many African men about, and hardly any women, and the men were loud and laughing and yelling, drinking with a huddled, almost boiling intensity. The walls were plastered with posters of African politicians and musicians. It all felt very vintage, as if we had been caught in the tide of some ’70s immediate post-colonial backwash.
As we got out of the car, a few big guys took a long, lingering look at us. I felt Sev’s stoned neighbor freeze up a little besides me My own hand went to my pocket, although for what, I have no idea; perhaps then to just ball my hand into a fist. Sev herself was blithely oblivious, which could be a good thing — bless her optimisim — or a terrible one.
In this case think the resolution was widespread confusion. Sev steamed through the crowd of hard-looking Congolese, who seemed so shocked she would simply walk through their posse that they sort of crumbled into wide eyed wonder, giving me and Neighbor a minute to sneak by.
In the bar we eventually settled in, I drank many good Belgian beers with many Eurocrats. Brussels, I concluded, was a weird spot. Its population reminded me of my hometown of Washington DC. Almost everyone seemed from somewhere else, ready to contribute to the EU dream, talking about their jobs primarily and slowly building a community that grounded their professional transience. I chatted with another Greek who wore 600-Euro shoes and worked for a Socialist MP and seemed to see no contradiction to this lifestyle choice, and a German who looked like Grizzly Adams who managed international aide programs who on a date with a lovely young Italian painter. The only native Belgian was Neighbor, who, due to a combination of beer and pot, was soon passing out at the bar.
Sev and I packed him into a cab, but the driver’s French was lacking. Another newcomer to Brussels. Sev looked the cabbie up and down, then said something guttural. The driver nodded, and drove off. Sev looked at me, smiling, and said “Turkish. Don’t think just because I’m Greek I won’t speak Turkish…” and I could feel her anger boiling. I shook my head, quickly.
“Good,” she grinned. “I like to defy stereotypes.”
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