Monday, April 7, 2014

Concentric Circles- Lille, Paris, Leuven, Bruxelles

Belgium has a privileged location. Ask any Belgian- they'll quickly tell you how the country's geographical position attracted the Spanish, Austrians, French, Germans, Dutch, Vikings, Romans, etc., each of whom claimed the country as their own at one point in history. Or maybe it was the beer that drew them here, whose to say (or to judge)?

Location has a been a focal point in my selling strategy, meaning the sales pitch I use to coax friends and family to visit. Why just visit Brussels when you can visit Paris, London, Amsterdam and six other cities all in one fell swoop? A travel itinerary of this nature is certainly for the ambitious traveler, but US vacation days are limited as are the paychecks to pay for leisurely global galavanting. 

If we adjust the map so Brussels lies in the center,  we stumble upon myriad cities and sites within concentric circles of one hour, 1.5 hour, and 2 hour train or car journeys. Big names top that list- Paris and Amsterdam fall in the 1.5 hour circle, Cologne and London lie in the 2 hour ring- and these are certainly the most appealing for multi-city, once in a lifetime ocean skippers. These are also the places friends and family back in Chicago imagine me sipping wine and eating pain au chocolates each weekend. 

The thing is that, much like friends back in the US, a weekend trip of any distance is often difficult to sandwich in. The life more settled comes with responsibilities or commitments and free time is a precious-but-scarce luxury (yes, even in Europe). And that's a weird prescription for travelers, expats, anyone outside their city or country for an extended period of time: when do we stop traveling and start living somewhere? When does a place become your home? And if it does become your home, does adventure take on a new meaning?

About two and half years into these Transatlantic escapades, I started longing for engagement, a sense of connection to Belgium and Brussels. In all reality, the place was arbitrary- I'm sure the same sentiment would have prevailed irrespective of the locale (though Brussels really tugs on my heartstrings). I needed engagement, I needed a meaningful use of nights and weekends, I needed people that helped the city come alive, people that were more than circumstantial friends.  

Plaisirs d'Hiver- Christmas Market in Brussels

 Museum Night Fever - Brussels

The internal debate wages between traveling more often and digging the roots a bit deeper. With Brussels, in particular, the latter is a finicky thing. A large cohort of expats here are the fair-weather type: tied to the idea of international careers or the promise of something better back home post-international experience, most stay but two years on Belgian soil. Most of  that time is spent with mates from the motherland- no need to hunt down the allusive Belgian to fill in the friendship gap! And though my Belgian-tracking skills are more refined (hint: don't start in Brussels), natives are usually quite engrained in their hometown  and most add few friends to the mix post-high school. But the  backpack rife with patches from the 37 countries visited during a two week Eurotrip has been retired and my hostel-hopping, over-night-busing-to-squeeze-in-one-more-country trips are in the rearview mirror now.  I want places to cull memories beyond exhaustion and missed flights and I don't want to struggle to remember routes of daily treks. I want to remember strategically analyzing the best way to order cakes at Meert in Lille, deciding between squeezing in with the locals early morning or holding out till end of day, when crowds and selection dwindles; that we sat for two hours below the Sacre Cour watching an acrobat control a football on a platform (and sometimes a lamppost), hanging above Montmartre. 

Cakes from Meert- Lille, France

Notre Dame, Paris

 Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris

Above Montmartre, Paris

I'm wielding the brush on this #FOMO picture better than Rubens on a Biblical scene - so glad to call myself a Gen Y-er!- the point is that making a life and making the most of that life is complicated no matter the location. But as I sink later into my twenties and longer into my stay abroad, I'm realizing that these are not inherently conflicting realities.  Being settled is a boon for knowing and loving Brussels; its here that weeks are peppered with football games, attempts to find new or clandestine restaurants, whiskey clubs, concerts, races, and an (un?)healthy dose of meaningful work. It also means that long weekends or random days off (thank you, Catholic Church, for diffusing your social culture across Western Europe!) often mean train tickets or Ryan Air reservations. If it also means Sunday  jazz and people watching at La Brocante instead of Sundays sipping exotic brews in more exotic locales, that's ok, too. 

When it comes down to it though, its not just geographical circles that surround us, but these are concentric circles of a life we build and are building. Think Wilder's Our Town: why speculate about life or life after death when there is so much value to be found in daily life. Shooting for the outer rims of the proverbial dart board will score points and help win the game, but the places and things and people worth the greatest value are those right in the center.  

Ladeuzeplein, Leuven

Beurse, Brussel