Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Perils of Walking in Brussels

Oy, I've been putting off this post, knowing it would be a long whiny one, but here goes!

Walking in Brussels takes quick thinking, stealthy maneuvers, eyes everywhere and constant awareness of the people around you. The uneven cobblestones may give you enough trouble, but then there's the dog (or horse) shit, slow/stupid people, cars, buses, trash and even the odd zucchini! God help you if it's raining, or even if you want to look up to enjoy the scenery on a lovely day! So here is my list of things to look out for if you happen to be visiting (or living) in this lovely city.

1. Cobblestones. Cobblestones are the most frequent offenders on this list. First of all, they are almost always uneven, many jutting up enough to cause a stubbed toe. This happens to me about once a day and I often see it happen to others. Irregular cobblestones are far better than missing cobblestones, or loose ones that have been dug up and vertically placed. Also, beware of loose ones when it rains or you will be muddy in no time flat. Please scroll for examples.

2. Shit. Dog shit is everywhere in Brussels and I honestly don't understand why people don't clean up after their dogs. Often you will see a big fresh one with a foot print right in the middle and smears going down the sidewalk. *shudder* Something else I've seen (though not commonly) is horse shit. Granted, that would be harder to clean, but come on, especially when it's right. In. The. Crosswalk. Ugh. People, if you have a dog (or a horse) please be responsible and clean up after it. And walkers, keep a close lookout, the moment you look up and start enjoying a lovely Art Nouveau building there will be poop.

3. People. If you read my post about the hoard of children you will already have a sense of what I'm talking about. In my neighborhood people are everywhere and if you are in a rush, you had better guarantee that they will be especially slow just for you. Many people will walk slowly and 3 abreast so you cannot pass. If they are slow because they walk with a cane they will swerve around to ensure passing is impossible. Women with hummer-sized strollers will park themselves in the exact doorway of the exact shop you want to go into. The people who are actually walking at a brisk pace will decide to abruptly stop in a random place in the middle of the sidewalk, maybe to talk to a friend, maybe to text someone, maybe just for fun, who knows.

Also, do not attempt to play "chicken" with these people. They will not move. If they see you coming and keep on walking either swerve or prepare for impact. If it is entirely their fault that you run into them they will be angry and will possibly yell at you. If it is your fault they won't even notice. Never expect an apology but be pleasantly surprised when you get one.

4. Cars. In theory, cars stay in the road, so the only time you should have to worry about them is when you are crossing the street. In Brussels this is mostly true. When on the sidewalk about to cross and a car is speeding towards you, make sure they see you before stepping into the street (seems logical, right?). There are times when drivers will blatantly ignore crosswalks and speed right through. When this happens I like to yell at the back of the car, most likely "COME ON!!!" or "JESUS!!!", I also like to gesticulate wildly.

I was trying to cross once and this slow moving car was coming towards me and I nearly stepped into the road. It's a damn good thing I didn't, because this guy (a Congolese man) just kept driving. I gesticulated, as did others, and he looked at us with this big grin and waved. I had to laugh. Maybe he had recently arrived in Brussels thought "Wow, such nice people! All waving at me!"

5. Cars+People. This may not be true elsewhere in Brussels, but here in the Matonge it is something to be aware of. People will congregate on the sidewalks outside of hair dressing shops and record shops and basically take over the sidewalk. If you try to walk by more often than not they will refuse to move, forcing you to walk in the street. If this happens, be sure to check for oncoming cars. Take my word for that one.

6. Construction. Construction is happening all the time in Brussels. It often continues for ridiculous amounts of time and closes off sidewalks for all kinds of digging and ridiculously loud processes. (Side note: this will often start at 6am the morning you can actually sleep in and stop completely at 9am, never to start again.) This may mean there are detours, large boards used to cover up larger holes and other such obstacles. Proceed cautiously. There may also be random detours with minimal explanation. Beware, people may decide that this is the ideal spot to puke. No joke.

(Of course immediately after taking this picture, in an attempt to avoid stepping in the mess I tripped over the aluminum bars and twisted my ankle. That's what I get for complaining!)

7. Zucchinis? Yep, but this only happened once. There was a giant zucchini in the middle of the sidewalk. I just thought I'd include it because you really never know what you are going to see!

So there you have it, the perils of walking in Brussels. I think it's fun to put a positive spin on it and pretend you are in a video game. +10 points for not tripping on the cobblestone, +20 points for avoiding the dog poop, etc. Those who are advanced can try this routine with an umbrella in the windtunnel that is Porte de Namur! Good luck! And remember, if it happens to be sunny and warm, the sunny side is that much more likely to smell like piss (or is that just in the Matonge?)


  1. Good Post, unfortunately true :-( This is Brussels. You should write about the sympathy, kindness and education (or the lack of it) here. Don't forget the impossible mission to walk on the supermarket, step out the metro with people getting in at the same time, etc...

  2. Brody, thanks for the wonderful post. I have never read such an insightful post about sidewalks and construction. It really brings home the dichotomy between the public good and benefits. Unfortunately 25.7 per cent of residents in Brussels pay no tax. That taxation mostly goes to hospitals so there is none left to fix public services. Those leeches on society mean that a single mother with 4 children recently broke her pelvis falling down an open manhole. She was only discovered by a passing dog who alerted the authorities by tapping on an empty beverage can. I really get sad about those contribute nothing to society. I think any non-EU person who hasn't worked for more than six months should be removed or put them working to mend Brussels streets. Anyway, how is the job hunting going? Also, do a blog how Miguel is. You should mention him more. Regards, Pierre

  3. Pierre, thanks for the comment. You're right about the number of people paying tax, and that is indeed frustrating for those of us that pay taxes (or have paid taxes). I find my frustration with taxes here in Belgium, and specifically in Brussels is indeed the lack of a return. I've mentioned the sidewalks and roads, but another problem is the police force. They show up about half the time they're called and thus have zero reliability. I also witness multiple drug deals daily with no intervention. I will not be staying here permanently and have already done my university, so I will not be taking advantage of my pension or the education system, nor will Miguel, so then where does that 55% of our salaries go? Of course I would never refuse to pay taxes for any of these reasons, but it does make me wonder where it all goes.