Sunlight in the Grand Place

There's a lot to be said for anticipation. Looking forward to your trip, planning it carefully—churches and museums and restaurants and shows and rivers and hikes and tours—is almost like taking a dozen or more vacations before the event itself actually arrives. Luxuriously planning a vacation lights a warm fire in your belly every time you open a guidebook.

But I am not a planner. Not for anything, really. All my big decisions, from college to career, have been driven by financial motives. Can I afford to get somewhere or do something? Yes? Do my available funds give me any other options? Not usually.

So I go, and I do, and I've learned to make the best of that.

All this means that when I travel, I'm limited to booking ahead, taking coach seats on red-eyes, spending two or three or ten hours in airports stewing in stale, cold air for the sun to roll over the bright side of the world. I've been to Qatar (twice) and Istanbul (four times), but only in theory. I could tell you where to buy keychains of the Hagia Sofia and which specialty burgers the fast-food chains at Doha's airport serves, but the cities themselves? Nothing.

Last August, at loose ends for a month, I bought a cheap last-minute ticket to Budapest, a city I'd never considered until it presented itself to me for $600 round-trip. And, like a buy-one-get-one free sale, or a reward for so many years of thankless overnight travels, it came with a full day's layover in Brussels. I'd arrive at 7:50 AM and wouldn't board the plane again until 5:30.

Glorious.

I planned my carry-on carefully. A change of clothes always, in case my checked bags were lost. A tiny toiletry kit with wet wipes and a toothbrush the length of my pinky. Batteries and camera. Two paperbacks. Extra cash in the zip pocket inside. The whole thing no heavier than five pounds. I travel light, leaving as much room as possible for souvenirs, because I am a materialistic bitch who cannot evolve beyond an animalistic need to collect trophies.

Is it still a failing if you know it's a failing?

The plane landed fifteen minutes early, and either I found a way around customs or there was no customs check, because no one stamped my passport on my way out the airport. I changed some cash into euros and hopped onto the train to city center, leaning into the brand-new mix I'd made specially for the trip.

No plans at all. Just a vague knowledge that Brussels was famous for frites, waffles, and lace. Surely I could do something with that?

Waffles were a likely starting point. My stomach was growling and I could snaffle one while consulting Google about what else to do.

The train dumped me between skyscrapers of genteel, medium height, accented with carved cornices and wrought-iron balconies. A grayer Paris, the air was foggy, chilled and mizzling. Within a few minutes, my hair was fuzzed with a peachskin of aerosolized rain.

Over the buildings I could see a towering church spire, a finger raised towards heaven. Or a tack stuck in a map, an invitation: start here.

Smiling, I trotted through the streets, sneakers catching on cobblestones, glad to discover Brussels extends a helping hand to its tourists. Every intersection is spiked with signs pointing in every direction. Towards this cathedral or that museum. What little worry I had over an empty ten hours in the city evaporated, and I jogged up the massive cathedral's staircase, already thinking happily about the sights yet unknown I would soon see.

A cathedral is a cathedral, and I was soon finished with it. All that separated it from its many brethren spread across the world was its staggering size; I remember that as everything else has faded. As I left, the bells chimed nine, a ringing peal from heaven sending me on my way.

Street signs. Intersections. Little square European cars rattling across stony streets. A growling stomach. A smattering of be-backpacked and be-camera-ed people like myself, ambling down sidewalks. I followed the stream, thin though it was, and wasn't expecting anything when I stepped from an alley square into the Grand Place.

You'd think it would be impossible, wouldn't you, to trip over a World Heritage site like a loose brick?

I exclaimed, "Oh, my God!", and then laughed, startling a Chinese man lining up his shot. Dancing out of his way, uncapping my own camera, I laughed again, turning and turning, amazed to find myself in a box of buildings constructed of lace-like stones touched on every surface with gilding dull and flat in the gray light. If God had pinched me by the scruff and dropped me into some cosmic jewel-box, I don't think it could be more beautiful than the Grand Place.

You have to say it in French. English vowels are so harsh, so square. Grand Place in English sounds like a facile compliment, a woman walking into a house she harbors secret jealousies over: 'My, what a grand place!'

In French, Grand Place conjures the right image. Something possessed by, imbued with, of grandeur.

I couldn't run on from this so quickly. Luckily, the Place is built for lingering, faced with museums, guildhalls, and most importantly, coffee shops, bistros, and restaurants. I circled slowly, taking pictures, reading menus, until I found one with a six-euro breakfast.

My French, put away for a few years, unfolded fresh and clean. It was a pleasure to greet the waiter in his language and order un chocolat chaud et une omelette au fromage. Merci.

My table faced the Town Hall building, framed by a flapping edge of a crenelated umbrella. I sipped cocoa—instant, thin—and nibbled slowly on the omelet—rich, fried in butter—spacing bites out between searching TripAdvisor. Top 10 sights, the first of which I had already found. Bus tours. One-day itineraries. I scanned the information and closed all the tabs. Accident had worked well, why mess with it?

I paid for breakfast and crossed the plaza to an information kiosk, which provided a handful of maps built for wanderers like me. Everything of import was represented by a cartoonish icon; the map was ringed with coupons for frites, waffles, and lace.

Hours passed; I walked. Up hills and down, into churches and out, past statues and murals and Art Nouveau architectural details. The sun rose higher and burned off the fog; I put on sunglasses. After two hours, I found my trail had wound in a circle and I was back at the Grand Place.

Which was now a completely different Place. Pun intended.

Not different because it was now teeming with tourists exclaiming over displays of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Not different because the restaurants were brimming and the warm, vanilla scent of cooking waffles was heavy in the air.

It was different because the light was different.

Sun made gilding gleam, reflections lighting patches on the cobbles. Sunlight caught each crevice of stone, painted harsh shadows on statues, threw every detail into sharp relief. Flat charcoal stone was now bright, striated, glittering with pockets of mica. What had been a beautiful, flat backdrop on a studio lot was suddenly a three-dimensional, living tableau of the past.

I think I took every photo over again. I had to. Every inch of it was made new.

Over the course of those ten hours in Brussels, I crossed the Grand Place a half-dozen times. Twice in the morning, for breakfast and coffee. Once with a waffle in my hand, dark chocolate oozing veins over my fingers. Twice while changing bus to bus. And at last, limping, pushing soundlessly through layers of exhaustion, towards the metro station and the airport and Budapest beyond.

The day, so long and so varied, was no more than an appetizer of the trip still to come.

But those ten hours taught me a lesson, one I should have learned from Impressionist painters and their countless studies, or from twenty-nine years of being a human possessed with functioning eyes:

Watch the light. It changes everything.