20 Dec 2012

Lost and confused in Brussels

The Belgians deserve their heritage of surrealism
I went to a meeting in Brussels recently and it seems that this city is determined to make orientation as confusing as possible to visitors, i.e.,
  • Many streets lack signs (did the bilingual debates end with an agreement to put up no signs?)
  • Some names are in French, others in Flemish (Dutch) but your map may not be.
  • Many straight streets change names from block to block.
  • There are "canal streets" that lack canals.
  • They have "neighborhood maps" to help you see local streets, but the maps do not include a "you are here" dot.
  • Some posts give helpful arrows pointing to sights that are at North, North-North-West and North-West when there are only two streets in those directions.
  • When you get off the metro in Brussels-Midi (the main station in town), signs point to different bus lines and the train station but not other metro lines. I had to go up to the street to find where that sign was.
  • When you're standing on the metro platform, you can see lights for trains that are on their way AND already gone. Why do I need to know about the train I just missed?
  • Some maps illustrate important buildings, with the wrong orientation.
  • I asked the concierge where to go for dinner. He drew a detailed map to one place that was not there and another one that we never found (it was "around the corner" from the x he put on the map).
  • Check out a Belgian ATM. Apparently, some people write poems to get cash.


While I wandered around, wondering how it was possible to so completely fail at communicating locations and space to visitors, I tried to think of explanations:
  • The Belgians speak 3-4 languages, so they are too exhausted to make sense in any of them. (The British are very good at speaking English to each other and LOUD ENGLISH to foreigners, but they have amazing maps and directions).
  • The Belgians set the record for the number of days without a government, perhaps because newly elected parliamentarians could not manage to meet in one place.
  • The Belgians are surrealists because their streets and maps are surreal, and vice versa.
  • Belgians stop to have one of their lovely beers whenever they get lost or confused. After a few, they think they can tell you where they've been and where you need to go, but they're actually talking shit.
Bottom Line: Bring time, money and a sense of humor with you if you're ever trying to get anywhere in Brussels