He was impeccably dressed: starched white shirt, classical club tie, shoes shined to reflecting pool standard, stylish black-rimmed glasses. A neatly cut and coiffed full head of white hair topped a typically Germanic face. He walked with determination and purpose, inviting the world to challenge him, commanding the earth beneath his feet to stand still as he trod. He crossed the breakfast room right in front of my table, impossible not to notice, and walked over to the coffee machine. A commercial Nespresso machine common in every office on the continent, with a slot for a pod and two buttons indicating different cup sizes. He selected his coffee-pod with care (matching the colours against the legend). And then, utter confusion. A man, a pod, a common usage coffee machine with a single slot and two buttons. The businessman stood there for a good two minutes, examining the pod, the machine, his cup, the pot of milk next to the machine and back to the pod; he looked up and around, terror-stricken; then back to the pod, the machine and the irrelevant pot of milk. It occurred to me that he had probably not made his own coffee this side of German Reunification – or unification, for that matter. He looked up again, seeking a helpline. Because this is Belgium, the waiters were nowhere to be found. The businessman stood there, pod in hand, puzzling over the slot-and-button contraption.
And then the shadow of a smile. Help was arriving. A woman. Then his face fell. Not that kind of woman.
She was determined, walking in fast short strides, breaking through glass obstacles. A no nonsense consultant, I thought; American. Impeccably dressed – in a manner, on the principle that even a broken clock is right at least twice a day: tight grey sweats desperately clinging to ample curves, running shoes, unwashed hair, furiously thumbing her iPhone. As she saw the Nespresso-befuddled businessman her disdain for tradition, for authority, for that sort of palpable male helplessness became visible on her face. With an air of authority that you get to have only when you are wearing too-tight sweatpants and running shoes in a sea of white shirts and polished brogues, she walked to the machine, placed her cup under the spout and pressed a button.
The businessman’s face showed deepened confusion.
The consultant looked into the cup.
No coffee there, only the bilgewater you get when you forget to insert a pod. With a flourish that could only mean, “The French can’t even get coffee right” (this was Brussels, but so what?), she set aside the grey water and turned on her heels. So did the businessman, with strides no less confident than before. Each looked convinced – or convincingly pretended – that nothing good can come out of a Swiss coffee machine in a Belgian hotel owned by an Anglo-French conglomerate.
April – sunny – 24 Celsius. If it weren’t for the cigarette-smoking cellphone-talking driver who nearly ran me over (green light on a cross-walk; I know better than to take risks here) while making an illegal right turn into oncoming traffic in a one-way street (she audibly swore at the driver who pointed out the One Way sign), I could not have guessed I was in Brussels. But as soon as you see the insouciance of the homicidal drivers, you realise where you are. Well, that, and the waffles. And Grand-Place, in my view at any rate the most beautiful central square in any European city (and yes, that includes Prague).
It has been five years since I was last in Brussels. The city has changed. I was at the hotel I had stayed at nearly twenty years ago on my first ever business trip to Brussels. The hotel has not changed – really, not even the fixtures, right down to the bathroom telephones. Or the elevators. Or the breakfast menu. The bathroom was clean but suffering from use. Nostalgia can be a powerful motivator; it is also a great disappointer. And the disappointments did not stop at the hotel. I went looking for favourite restaurants; some have already gone out of business. I ate at one; the food was not as good as I recalled. There was no way to tell if the cooking had deteriorated or my palate was more refined. Probably a bit of both.
But nostalgia is not just about disappointment; sometimes, it brings unalloyed joy. The sights were still impressive. The Belgian waffle – of the heavy, Liège variety, rather than the fluffy Brussels type – is the closest thing to orgasm you can get in a paper napkin. Even simpler: Schweppes Bitter Lemon. A concoction of tonic water, lemon and sugar, it is no longer produced in North America; good thing too, otherwise, I would be rotting my teeth preparing for “My 600 lb Life” drinking the stuff. I still remember my first night as a diplomat in Brussels, in 1998: arriving at my beautiful apartment after a long train-ride from San Sebastian, walking down to a Night Shop, buying Bitter Lemon, coming home, sitting in the balcony, sipping the drink, surveying the city that stretched beyond the 14th century Abbey right across the street from me as the sun set, thinking, “I’m here.”
Bitter Lemon is the perfect balance of bitter, sour and sweet – almost a reflection of life itself.
You can’t ever go back and it’s foolish to think you can recapture those lost moments. It does not mean you should not try. Sometimes, things are exactly as they ought to be. Like Bitter Lemon. Like old friends.
I did manage to catch up with friends old and new – one of whom I had not seen in seventeen years – though not all the ones I had hoped to see. The courses I was taking were excellent; the meetings with Commission officials were productive; despite all the walking, I still gained weight. Ah, Brussels.
My last morning in Brussels. I was sad to be leaving, not knowing when I would be back again (mostly because of my friends), still feeling somewhat nostalgic about my lost life as a diplomat. As I read the FT, sipped my orange juice and contemplated the busy months ahead, the drama between the businessman, the consultant and the coffee machine played itself out, apparently no one but me noticing. I put the juice down, got up, walked to the machine, selected my pod, put it in the slot and pressed the button. As I returned to my table, the waiter brought my hot milk – without my asking this time around. I sat down, nostalgia evaporated, vaguely satisfied with myself that at least, I can work a Nespresso machine.