Wednesday, July 27, 2011


352. Side by side, standing still in the middle of the cobblestoned Grand Place, watching the last five minutes of Sons et Lumières, forever one of my favourite things in Brussels.

353. Difference #24 between Gaston and me: In the two hours leading up to an away trip, I most likely would be rummaging through my closet to find half-decent clothes, telling the dryer to hurry up, wondering whom I could call to borrow a travel bag, solemnly swearing to myself that next time I would put my passport in a more easily located place, and thinking whether I could still check in at the airport without tickets or even printed itineraries. Gaston, on the other hand, would be washing all the dirty plates in the sink, wiping clean stove tops and the dining table, putting away the clothes drying rack, neatly straightening out my bathroom towel and sorting through the garbage. 

Which is a pleasant difference to find out, coming home at midnight to an empty, but spotless, apartment. Still, I would prefer a messy apartment with him being around. 

354. "Heston Blumenthal," he repeats the name. "It still does not ring any bell to me," I shrug, as we walk towards Le Quincaillerie for our first dinner in four years. In as many years, this evening is also the first time we have seen each other. When BM wrote to say that Brussels would be included in his three-week European vacation, asking whether I wanted to have dinner, I said that it would be nice, thinking that I knew some good restaurants around. Has he had anywhere to stay, I asked. "Hotel Amigo Rocco Forte," he replied, casually, and all my good restaurants went out of the window. "Because you couldn't find a more expensive hotel?" I couldn't resist the immediate response. "Is that a really expensive hotel is it?" he feigned innocent. "Woops." Ignoring the implication, I started looking for a more Amigo-scaled restaurant. It has been tempting to take him to Quick, a brilliant suggestion by Gaston, but in the end, I settled for Le Quincaillerie, with fond memories of the food and the company back in my first Brussels winter, when Victoria, Anna and I spent many hours swapping stories over glasses of wine.

"So, anyway, this London restaurant of Heston Blumenthal was really great," BM continues, trying to hide the disappointment at my lack of recognition, an understandable disappointment because name-dropping is useless if the girl is clueless about the chef who runs the consistently voted second best restaurant in the world. "And it was really expensive," he adds, almost like an afterthought. Unlike household names among the luxurious world, money is something that everybody recognizes. Half-focusing on crossing the road, I respond noncommittally. "Mmm, yes?" "You would need to take out a mortgage to pay for the dinner," BM makes some sort of laugh, perhaps in an attempt to make it clear that the comment was a joke, probably the standard jokey comparison in his circle of bankers. I, on the other hand, am a mathematician and spent three days this week so far eating canned fish and packaged spinach. Of course, the latter is not something that BM would know, and trying to keep this in mind, I continue smiling, while listening to his elaborate description of liquid nitrogen and the food perfume, sprayed in the air around the dining table in order to enhance the gastronomic experience.

Le Quincaillerie. Our table is on the ground floor, at a corner of the cozy restaurant. No longer the shop of an ironmonger dating back to 1903, Le Quincaillerie still maintains its charm by the rustic oyster bar near the entrance, the magnificent, back-lit Roman numeral clock in the center of the restaurant, hung above the wooden stairs leading to narrow wooden balconies that run the length of the walls. Seating on one of the balconies for our long winter dinner, the girls and I had the entire view of the beautiful restaurant, made even more magical by strings of warm Christmas lights. Given it is July, these lights are probably put away in a cardboard box, and from where BM and I are, we cannot even see the clock face. While still lovely, Le Quincaillerie does not seem as breathtaking it was in my memory, and Christmas lights or not, it is not run by Heston Whatshisname anyway, so I begin to look at the menu. "Oh look, they have a dog menu," I point out. Bet the London restaurant did not have that.

"Do you mind if I choose the wine?" BM wants to know, looking rather skeptically at the wine list. "Of course not," I say, though slightly surprised. Usually, my dinner companions jokingly make face when about to go through the pretentious sipping-to-see-if-the-bottle-is-OK routine, instead of specifically volunteering to be the wine selector. The first bottle of choice, while listed on the menu, is not available at the moment, the waiter informs BM. Neither is the second, I am sorry, monsieur. BM settles on Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, but not without first commenting that it is really not the best one around. "How is it?" he watches me expectantly as I have my first sip. "Good...?" is all I can do, and just like Heston Whatshisname, Ruinart Blanc de Something is wasted on me. "I will pay for it, of course," BM assures me, "because I chose it and because it is expensive." Translation: you probably cannot afford it. Which I already know. "Well, usually I would insist, but it is probably expensive..." I smile, taking another sip of my free wine, wondering how many more glasses it will take before smiling becomes more naturally.

Not many, it seems. A few glasses later, I pass a piece of delicious roast duck to BM, and in the spirit of sharing, I tell him that I am thinking of moving to Wollongong, to where BM commuted daily back during his undergraduate years, a seaside city an hour train away from Sydney with the population of a third of Brussels and the popularity of one thousandth. I say that I feel silly for being snobbish, for thinking, who would want to move from Brussels to Wollongong?, and BM assures me that it is alright to have preferences for cities. Then, a thought suddenly comes to me. "You should move to Europe!" I exclaim, exuberantly. Having spent five weeks touring mainland Western Europe last year, and currently visiting Great Britain, BM has certainly seen a little of Europe, and quite liked it so far. So why not move here? 

You can meet so many people from different places, I tell him. Travel. Expand your horizon. Get into troubles. Grow. Then laugh, hopefully, when you look back, at both great times and disastrous moments. You are young, I say, finding myself quickly becoming fond of the spontaneous suggestion and really wanting to sell it to him too. We have known each other since I was fifteen, not even old enough to have my own state library card without parental permission, in case I might use the internet inappropriately on the public computers. Ten years later, I am living half the world away from BM, and really enjoying the eye-opening experience. You have the skills to work anywhere, I smile, and you have just become single. Move to Europe. Do it now, because you will not be able to, once you are tied down, you know, married with kids. "But then I will be married with kids," BM says, temporarily confusing me because he has just repeated my sentence -- used as a drawback -- to convey a positive prospect. Then it makes sense to me. "I would love to move to Europe and see the world from here," BM tells me, "but I would also be happy living in Sydney, raising kids up with my future wife..." He smiles. "I guess you know which one I chose," I say, quietly. "I know," BM looks at me, and for the first time this evening, I recognize the boy I once knew. 

Place du Chatelain tonight is thronged with people. Squeezing through the coolly-dressed nightgoers enjoying a drink outdoor, we see a long, vintage red convertible crawling along the street, with two inebriated girls squealing and jumping onto the car, while the driver in sunglasses chatting animatedly in French. Walking away from the crowd, BM comments, "You wouldn't see that in Wollongong..." "No, you probably won't," I tell him, mentally recalling images of the empty wide roads. "But Wollongong has a university bar that serves wedges and sour cream..." "Hardly liquid-nitrogen food," I mock complain, thinking but not saying, that Wollongong also has boys who, despite the ostentatious facade, have their hearts in the right place.

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