Thursday, December 12, 2013

(Re)Discovering Christmas in Brussels

La Grande Place decked out...
Even Manneken Pis celebrates...
Christmas cheer – it’s harder to find when you’re not circling Lego sets and dinosaur action figures in a catalog to drop hints for Santa. Paris doesn't always make it easy either. Sure the windows are up and the trees are, well, kind of there, but it’s not the same as home for an American expat.

While the carols hardly started playing chez Pirolli this December, I took a trip to Brussels for an academic conference and to reconnect with a friend from the US who has expatriated there some time ago. Little did I know how much a trip to the city synonymous with tiny cabbages could ignite my Christmas furnace.

First, the displays. A real Christmas tree in the Grande Place trumped the mess of a tree in front of Notre Dame. As we walked through the square, onlookers stood in awe as the lights around the old guild buildings beamed with some sort of post-apocalyptic soundtrack. Very festive, indeed.

Making gingerbread houses....
Heating sausages with a hairdryer...
At home we decorated gingerbread houses with a team of international friends while outside every storefront was in the mood and every street seemed to have a bit of holiday flare. But we didn't't’t need to look further than the massive Christmas market that puts to shame anything we have on the Champs Elysées in Paris. 

Real vendors selling things you actually might want to buy set up stalls next to locals selling all sorts of stomach-warming fare, including tartiflette and sausages, at decidedly un-Parisian prices. And they were good. Strolling around the markets, past the skating rink, underneath the Ferris wheel, and by the inflatable ice monster (because, well, why not?), it couldn't get much more festive.

Then it did.

As we waited at St. Catherine’s Square, watching the uniquely-designed carousels  spin around, a herd of 50 or so red-clad Santas made its way, merrily ho-ho-ho-ing. SantaCon, the infamous holiday crawl, had debarked in Brussels a few years ago. My friend Megan, conveniently one of the organizers, hugged one of the Santas and we all folded into the group. I, dressed in my best elfin disguise, jollily joined the gaggle of St. Nicks as we visited the Jagermeister stand at the Christmas market for a shot of the medicinal liquor. 

This seemed right.

After a bit of mingling, the group hit up a few bars for some Belgian beers. When in Rome Brussels…

The cheer!
Ho ho!
The night waned on as glasses were emptied and local beers were sampled. Much more well-behaved than their New York counterparts, the Belgian SantaCon participants were all smiles as they fled off to their last destination, a night club somewhere in the city center. We stayed back, letting the locals do their thing. 

Slightly drunken Santas sharing abbey brews don’t necessarily replace Christmas childhood experiences, at least not for me, but it was an appropriate substitute. By the time I got back to Paris, there were a few more markets open, a few more trees lit up, and a few more lights hanging in the streets to fan the coals of Christmas cheer. Everything seemed a bit more festive.

But it’s not the same. Sure I’ll get another dose soon enough at Rockefeller Center and Macy’s, but it will be missing the smell of stale Belgian beer and hot fries that give everything that gave real holiday oomph this year…

Skating in the middle of the market...
La Bourse and Christmas market...

1 comment:

  1. Looks like a pretty good place to kickstart the Christmas cheer :)

    ReplyDelete