Late last year I reached another milestone in my quest to visit all seven continents- I went to Europe. It was a quick trip- 4 days in all with two good friends of mine. I spent a day in Brussels, Belgium and then hopped a train to Paris, France to spend three more days.
My first impression of Brussels and Europe was almost exactly like I imagined it- lots of narrow cobblestone streets, classically-styled cathedrals on every other corner, sidewalk cafes, and a sense of hundreds of years of history commingling with modern-day lives.
But Brussels surprised me as well. From their obsession with pommes frites- French fries- to the giant iron molecule dominating the skyline to the fact that most signs were translated in at least four languages (Dutch, French, English and one other that I couldn’t identify), Brussels felt unique and yet quintessentially European at the same time.
It’s not difficult to find the food that Belgium is famous for like beer, chocolates and those delightful Belgian waffles. The waffles were everywhere, being dished out from carts, takeout windows and sit-down places with giant waffle signs outside. Some of the waffle places had topping bars with all kinds of fruit, whipped cream and different kinds of syrups and sauces. When my friends and I were in the mood for a waffle, we could find them just by following the smell of freshly cooked waffle.
Brussels is a nice place to start a European trip. It’s a fairly compact city and it’s pretty easy to see the highlights in a day or two. The airport and rail lines provide plenty of connection options to other places. So after a day and a night in Brussels, my friends and I took an hour and a half train ride to Paris.
Ahhhh, Paris. The city of light. The backdrop to so many films and stories.
Paris quickly captured my heart and my stomach with a bite of a truly blissful ham sandwich. The ingredients were simple- prosciutto, provolone cheese and sun-dried tomatoes placed in the middle of a fresh baguette. But the flavor of the sandwich delighted my taste buds in the way no ham sandwich ever had before. If Paris could make something so simple as a sandwich send me into gastronomic bliss, I knew I was in for a treat. From classic Parisian staples such as croquet monsieur to reinventing common dishes like cheese pizza with goat and brie cheeses instead of mozzarella, it’s no wonder so many places outside of France try to recreate French food. Most of the dishes I had didn’t require a great deal of culinary skill to create- their power lies in fresh, quality ingredients, most likely purchased from the local market earlier that day.
One thing that surprised me was how much the city felt like New York. People were constantly moving and walking from one place to the next, often at the same hurried pace that New Yorkers do. The one difference was that Parisians enjoyed meals at a much slower pace. It seemed like the world just slowed down inside the confines of a café. I loved the convention of needing to let the waiter know when to drop the check, as opposed to the US where most waiters will drop it after the meal is finished. It makes for a much more relaxed pace since there isn’t the pressure to just eat and get out.
The Parisians have one of the more distinctive styles of dress I’ve seen. In general, they don’t wear tennis shoes. They favor boots, flats, heels, dress shoes- anything with a little style and structure to them. Parisians also tend to wear dark colors- lots of blacks and grays. But then they’d add a splash of color with a bright scarf or wrap. I also didn’t see a lot of t-shirts being worn. It’s no wonder Paris is one of the fashion capitals of the world- it seems that Parisians are just born with a natural sense of style.
Although the French have been stereotyped as being rude, I didn’t see that side of them during my trip. Nearly everyone I encountered were friendly and helpful. Only one person seemed a little annoyed at needing to speak English instead of French and even she still helped us.
Even if someone didn’t speak English, they were patient and willing to work with our sign language to get what we needed. One of my friends who spoke a little Spanish asked for directions from a security guard in English. The guard didn’t speak English, but proceeded through 3 other languages before getting to Spanish and communicating that way.
Paris is also imposing. From the sheer amount of art packed into the Louvre to the soaring Eiffel Tower to all the other historical monuments around the city, the city is jam-packed with history. The city has evolved and grown over time and it will be interesting to see how it’ll navigate the new issues and challenges of tomorrow. It’s no wonder the motto of the city is “Fluctuat nec mergitur” which is Latin for “It is tossed by the waves, but does not sink.”
Would I go back to Europe? Heck yes. I’ve only begun to explore the continent’s rich history and culture. It’s fantastic that so many countries and communities are crammed into a small continent and I hope to return again soon. Some of the places I’d like to wander next is to the United Kingdom since many of my ancestors were English and Irish. I’d also like to visit Eastern Europe to see how things have changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And for those who know my slight obsession with dragons, it would come as no surprise that I’d want to visit the city of dragons- Ljubljana, Slovenia. I’m not sure when I will return- three other unvisited continents are beckoning to me- but I suspect Europe will continue to meet my expectations and yet surprise me in ways I didn’t expect.