Three Brussels Quirks and Three Delights (at least for a Londoner)

Quirk No 1: The Milk Issue

“I don’t think we’ll be getting any semi-skimmed milk this week.”

I stare at the sales assistant of our local Carrefour supermarket.  I am suddenly propelled into a parallel universe of Surrealism where I am struggling to make sense of the information I have just been imparted.  The lack of semi-skimmed milk in a refrigerated section otherwise provided with several types of buttermilk, on a weekday morning, feels strange enough but that a large-ish supermarket should not even stock such a simple, everyday product on a daily basis sends my brain into freeze mode.

An Englishwoman we met a few days ago shared my experience and explained that fresh milk – an absolute birthright for us Brits – is not viewed as such by the Belgians, who tend to use the long-life variety.

Given this cultural difference, it is hardly surprising that my requests for goat’s milk, goat’s butter, goat’s yoghurt and goat’s cream – readily available in most London supermarkets – are met with  a look of disbelief, as though I were asking for something alien to this planet.

*   *   *

Quirk No. 2: Cough Sweets

H. and I, suffering from a very tenacious cold, go to the pharmacy in search of cough sweets (you cannot buy any kind of medicine in supermarkets here).  The pharmacist informs us that she has run out.  My face locks, once again, in an expression of disbelief.  She adds, with some impatience, that it’s not her fault, that the supplier has run out.  H. drags me out of the pharmacy before my croaky voice can muster enough volume to ask Are you trying to tell me that a pharmacy stocks just ONE brand of cough sweets?!

*   *   *

Quirk No. 3: Coats in Museum Episode

Still cold-afflicted, we decide to take in the Neo-Impressionist exhibition at the ING Cultural Center.  At the ticket desk, we are told to hand in our coats.  Once again, my brain cannot process the information.  I am not about to go through the metal detector arch of the Eurostar but into a museum, right? “But I’m cold,” I protest.

I am told it’s the museum regulations.  “Yes, but regulations have to make sense, don’t they?” I say.  “Why do I have to take off my coat?”

The explanation I receive is as follows.  It is to avoid the risk of my getting too warm, taking off my coat, carrying it over my arm, and then brushing – and potentially damaging – the paintings with it if I come too close to them.  I am then informed that the museum temperature is 20ºC.  I don’t care what the temperature is.  The air conditioning blows on my legs and I am too cold to appreciate my visit to the museum, but cold enough to leave with a sore throat and in a foul mood.

*   *   *

 Delight No. 1: Gift-Wrapping

We buy a book at a central Brussels bookshop.  It is a birthday present and we ask if they sell wrapping paper.  They don’t, but offer, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, a free gift-wrapping service.  How delightfully civilised.  Something you don’t get in London.

*   *   *

Delight No. 2: No Chains

Yes, there are chains but these are so few and far between that you can easily live in Brussels without ever setting foot in one.  Whether you want to go out for coffee, a beer, dinner or to buy books, Brussels has an abundance of individual businesses, each with its own very distinct personality.  Each café and bookshop could be a character in a story.  Unlike England, where all the High Streets blend into one anonymous row of identical chains, Brussels streets are an adventure, a treasure hunt.

*   *   *

Delight No. 3: Lait Russe or Kaffee Verkeert

In Italy, they have a wonderful hot drink called latte macchiato.  It is for children, the elderly or those, like myself, who love the taste of coffee but cannot tolerate its kick.  Basically, it is hot milk with a dash of coffee.  In the UK, I am forever asking staff in coffee shop chains to make me a latte with half a shot of coffee.  In Belgium, you don’t need to launch into lengthy explanations.  They have, depending on whether you order in French or Flemish, lait russe or kaffee verkeert.  A tall glass of hot milk with a head of froth and a dash of coffee, just enough to flavour the milk.  And it is always served with the Belgian  ‘finishing touch’ – a biscuit, a chocolate or a piece of cake reclining on the saucer.


Scribe Doll


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14 Responses to Three Brussels Quirks and Three Delights (at least for a Londoner)

  1. hopesquires says:

    I’d have a tough time transitioning away from milk and cough drops and coats, too. I love a bookstore that wraps books. We have an independent bookstore here where I live (U.S., South) that has six different kinds of wrapping paper you can choose, usually one with exotic tree frogs on it. I’m always delighted when a friend pulls out a gift with the paper and gift sticker from that bookstore. There’s nothing like the service that comes from a non-chain store. I look forward to hearing more about your adventures in Brussels!

  2. Anna says:

    It’s so interesting amd fascinating to explore another country and the habits of its people. The dofferences may annoy you or make you love them. During the 8 monthsthat my daughter has lived in Italy (the country she got to love with all her heart) she shared her likes and dislikes (very few indeed)) and I was very interested in learning many things about this wonderful country. The same goes with you, Katia, as I read your stories about Belgium. Go ahead!!

    • scribedoll says:

      Thank you, Anna. I share your daughter’s love of Italy. A truly wonderful, rich, beautiful place. Thank you for reading and commenting – and your steady support.

  3. Liz Stanford says:

    Who could observe so cleverly these odd disparities, yet also manage to seek out the little pleasures? Please post more when you have the chance. I love hearing about it all- not the milk though!

  4. Fascinating to hear about the differences – I despair of the homogenisation of our high streets. But no fresh milk!

  5. My goodness, before long you’re going to be so acclimated (except possibly for the cold museums) that you won’t ever want to come back! I know what you mean about milk differences and etc., though. The last time I was in Canada (a country very like the States, and so very close in distance that you could almost overlook differences from the upper U.S.) I was unable to find fat free yoghurt, which is very readily available here in the States all the time. They had the usual commercial brands with fruit in them that you can find in the States, and the Astro yoghurt full fat version that I had no trouble eating when I was first in Canada in grad school some years ago (and Astro for taste is one of the best yoghurts going!). But no even half-skimmed yoghurt. These things differ, I guess. But you sound like you are dealing with really far more aggravating things. I guess each country will be a little different when you’re not just touring, and can easily dismiss differences, but are actually living there as you are, and trying to fill out a daily life.

    • scribedoll says:

      As you say, things do differ from country to country. I’m just a spoilt Londoner who’s used to getting any food in the world I want, pretty much anytime I want it.
      Thank you for reading and commenting :–)

  6. I envy you the opportunity to live in a different country for a time. And I love the fact that you so politely call a “quirk” what a less tolerant person might call a “complaint.” No chains and free gift-wrapping sounds wonderful. I wish the States were more like Brussels, but it would require creating a parallel universe, I’m afraid. I hope your cold is better soon. You’ve probably already tried honey in your tea. That helps me. I hope you are able to keep posting your essays. I love learning about Brussels with you!

  7. Eva Natiello says:

    Spectacular! I loved it all. The ups, and the downs.

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