All posts by Claire

About Claire

Wandering (and wondering) development professional and aspiring aid worker. Contact me on anticipationofwonder[at]gmail[dot]com

Beautiful Brussels

I am quite fond of the hotel, Hotel Chambord. It’s comfortable, rather than elegant, but located close to the office in a nice area. I am living in a little room right at the top of the house with a beautiful view of Brussels. To get to the room, I take a little lift – the kind that’s made for one – to 6ème étage, walk past all the sixth-floor rooms, through a heavy door, up a final flight of stairs and through another heavy door. There are only four rooms on the floor. The light in the hallway is activated by motion censor because the hall is not used enough to justify keeping it on all the time. It feels like a tower-room from a centuries-past European children’s story.

On Saturday morning, I do a little work, then head down to breakfast. The breakfast room is on the first floor. It’s warm and cosy. Croissants, crispy French bread, ham, cheese, a little bacon and egg and good coffee. I linger over a second cup of coffee. Before I came, I was warned that Brussels would miserably cold at the end of January. Colleagues who had been here the previous week, when it snowed, were all commiseration. I panicked a little: my last northern winter was a good few years ago and I no longer own the kind of winter woollies I used then. It’s not that cold, in the end. A good coat, a pair of warm shoes, jeans, scarf and gloves and I was perfectly happy. I finish my coffee, fetch my coat and head off.

Down the street, past the designer boutiques, the road opens through an archway into a cobbled square. Trams clang by every few minutes, with cars and buses passing around them. In the centre of the square stands a monument to the crusaders. Belgium seems to have a particularly thick skin when it comes to political correctness and/or sensitivity. They recently closed (to review the collection) an alarmingly racist museum celebrating the rape and pillage by King Leopold II of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

All around the cobbled square stand stately old buildings. One is a church, with columns and a bell tower and statues, each with a musical instrument. Some of the frieze work seems rather violent but the statues carry musical instruments and the facade is stately and elegant. A reminder of the history of monarchy, a plaque commemorated coronation in 1831 of Leopold I, first king of the Belgians after independence in 1830.


By the time I reach the gardens near the palace (just a block further), the cloud has burned off and the sun has begun to shine. When I return home, colleagues and friends who know Belgium are astonished to hear my tales of sunshine in Brussels. I think some of them think I’m making it up. Like the perfect spring day I spent in Paris, I guess sometimes you get lucky. The sun is just in time to light up a statue a-top the gates of the park: a child or a cherub standing over a recently hunted wild boar.

The palace itself is something out of a Georgette Heyer novel. Elegant lines set beyond shallow formal gardens, a million windows reflecting the sun, each with curtains pulled neatly back and in some glimpses of ornaments or furniture or bookcases. I could imagine, of an evening, carriages pulling up in the lamplight and letting down the steps for ladies in silks and muslins to trip up the steps to dinners and balls.


Not far away, and of all the museums I didn’t visit in Brussels the one I am determined to return for, is the museum of musical instruments. Thousands of musical instruments from many different eras are housed here. The museum offers an audio tour, to allow visitors to hear how each sounded. One reason, among many, to return.

Past the musical instrument museum, past the “La Pharmacie Anglaise – Cocktails and Curiosity” (which must be investigated further), I came across a fascinating clock built into the side of a building arching across a street (by the Mont des Arts).  The sun glinting off metal clock hands. Choosing to “[keep] the first for another day” (yet know how way leads on to way…), I continued to the cathedral.

The gothic Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula has a long history. A small chapel has probably existed on this spot since the 9th century, with a church being constructed in the 11th. The current gothic building was begun in 1226 and finally finished in 1519. The first Europeans settled in South Africa in 1652.

I come upon the cathedral from the side, as I step out of a narrow street between towering buildings. The stonework is stunning, with arches and stone bridges between spires. I walk around the back, enjoying the statues in each niche and the sun catching a stained glass window. In the front, two huge towers loom over me as I idly listen to an Irish accent telling a tour group the history of the church. The church bells ring out over the city.

Below the cathedral is a little park – just an island at an intersection really – complete with spindly winter trees and odd public artwork covered in graffiti. Graffiti seems to be as much of a feature of Brussels as a church on every corner. It’s the thing that scares but also attracts me – the hint of an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and desire for something better. This is not sanitised and perfectly controlled Amsterdam – this city has a mind of its own.

Towards Grand Place are streets lined with Frite stores, waffle houses and chocolate shops. Up one street, I wander around another pretty church – Madelaine chapel.

Nearby is the central station – Gare Centrale. I duck beneath an archway, drawn towards the station entrance by the sound of music. I stand for a moment, entranced. A man is playing a violin near the main doors. He smiles and gestures towards passers-by. His violin sings and soars. The music is beautiful. I often give a donation to people who share their music in public, who busk. Not normally in Euros. He greets me in French. His complement leaves me blushing into my red coat. I find a place further a little further off, struggling to drag myself away. Three times during the day, I return to Gare Centrale. Always just happening to pass by with the whims of my wanderings; always to listen to his music again. In years to come when I remember Brussels, as I’m haunted by memories of all my travels, my heart with long for that music.

Further down the hill is the central square Grand Place, complete with unsymmetrical Town Hall. No really, the clock tower is not in the centre and the windows on the two sides are different. A group of women of Asian descent practice their dance for the evening’s Chinese New Year celebrations. Brussels is a very, sometimes uncomfortably for itself, mixed city. Across the square is the dark, looming shape of the museum which houses, I am told (presumably among other things), the clothes that are used to dress up the Manneken Pis statue on special holidays.  The other buildings around the square glint with gilt in the sunshine.

I wander a little more – past chappels and houses. Down a quite street, a tall building rises into the blue, blue sky, raising a weathervane in the shape of a ship in full sail. The sky is that deep winter blue that goes on forever. I don’t remember seeing that in places other than South Africa. It is one of the things I love so much about home – the winter sky. Today it is a gift from Brussels.

Night Flight

A long flight across the night. You know why late flights are good? Because we cease to be earthbound and burdened with practicality. Ask the impertinent question. Talk about the idea that nobody has thought about yet… Be poets.” From The West Wing

It’s a long time since I flew across the night. This trip was making me anxious. A rushed, last-minute work trip to a far away, cold place. Until I got to the airport. The minute I walk into the airport, I remember the thrill of travel. I still haven’t overcome my anxiety about leaving, being away, coping with admin and  visas and borders. Somewhere deeper is the thrill of movement and flight and the anticipation of wonder. I hope one day the thrill will overcome the anxiety. For now, I need to get better at anticipating to calm the nerves. It all disappears at the airport. I grab dinner, drop off my bags and head through security.

I’ve checked in early and have a window-seat. The plane beside ours is British Airways. I watch them load the luggage. We taxi slowly towards the runway and lift into the air. The lift is slow and gentle, steady. It’s a while since I’ve flown in a big plane – this one is a B373-800. The ride is smooth and steady. I have an empty seat beside me. I sleep on and off.

Somewhere above the coast of Libya, I lift my window shade. Below, settlements glow with light. They’re spread in all directions, along what look like roads. Like drops of water on a spider’s web. Bright lights against the dark ground. At the coastline, the lights stop abruptly and pitch dark laps against the line between dark and light.

Above, the sky is filled with a million bright stars. I see constellations that are familiar and some which are different, nothern stars. Orion fills the centre of the sky. It’s a breath-taking sight.

The next time I wake, we are over the pitch black hollow of the Mediterranean Sea. I try to spot boats in the Mediterranean or lights on the land in Europe. I sleep on and off and the world outside remains dark. Just that one glimpse of magical geography for the night.

We land in the early morning cold in Frankfurt. Stepping from the plane onto the sky-walk, our breathe is visible in the morning air. It’s just below freezing.

Second leg of the trip – Frankfurt to Brussels. We board in the dark. It’s minus 3 degrees and raising. We sit on the plane, waiting. Raindrops roll slowly, sadly down the window pane beside me. A short delay and an interminable taxi. Why is it that Frankfurt’s runways seem so far from the airport itself?

Finally we take off. The rain turns to cold misty cloud as we rise. Suddenly we break through the misty ceiling and we’re above the clouds. I catch my breathe. A rippling, fluffy-looking expanse of white stretches into the distance on all sides. Like virgin snow. It stretches to the horizon, where white and blue and purple fade to the gentle warm pick-orange-peach of dawn. In the distance, contrails pick out the pink against the blue-blue sky. Dawn at cruising altitude is as beautiful as ever – and universal.

After a while, through gaps in the clouds, I glimpse what looks like water. Lakes? A little later and I see it more clearly: it’s not water, it’s snow. Below the clouds, below us, we’re passing over snow-capped mountains. Above the clouds, a gorgeous sunrise; below a European winter.

All too soon, the brief announcement and a quick descent into Brussels, leaving behind the magic of the night flight and the sunrise sky for the grey, grim mistiness of early morning Belgium.

The Joy of Flying


I step from the Gautrain station into the airport and feel a little thrill of joy. A sudden sensation of well-being. I love this airport. The first of the Christmas lights are up. Twists of white lights along each railing, sprinkling the hanger-like space with sparkle.

I don’t have time to pause above the international arrivals area today. If I was here longer, I would. Just to stop for a few minutes and people-watch. It’s my secret joy, the opening scene of Love Actually in real life – meetings, greetings, love and hugs.

Today I trip past, run a quick errand, narrowly avoid a trolley-full of spinach, follow complaining south Americans up the escalator and head for check-in. Not too long to wait. I drop my bag and grab a paper.

Past security, I wonder about a little airport shopping. There was a time when Exclusive Books concluded that domestic departures OR Tambo was my “home” store  because I shopped there more often than anywhere else. They used to send me newsletters about it. No time today.

Past the boarding gate, on the sky-walk, that little thrill of happiness hits again. Up the steps, into the plane, find my window seat – always, for a Cape Town flight, especially. The plane is full but I have an empty seat beside me. I settle down and put my bag away. I’m smiling to myself.

photo-2016-11-11-9-33-14-amThe taxi and the take-off. As we lift into the air, I feel relief. Breaking away from the ground and soaring into the sky. Leaving the earth and its worries behind. I look down on Joburg – green, now the rains have come – until it disappears below drifting clouds.

Raising my eyes, I look up and out. This morning’s thunderstorm clouds. High, wispy ice-crystal clouds. Fluffy-white eiderdown clouds. We rise towards them and I wish were could go faster and be up there among them.

Then we are. Up above the cloud-line, looking out at a world of white and the incredible blue of the sky. I take a deep breathe. I feel my body relax. Below, glimpses of fields and houses still exist through the clouds. Up here we glide soundlessly, the clouds and I.

Somewhere over the Northern Cape, the cloud cover thins and I look down on a real live topographical map. A farm road angles and cuts through dry-looking land. There are a few fields near the road, stretching towards the red-grey-brown dirt. Two streams come together to form a small river that flows away, twisting and turning, into the distance. From up here, the land looks parched. A few minutes later, the earth disappears below the clouds again.


The fields in the Western Cape valleys are dark green and bright yellow and dull brown. The dams lie deep, dark blue. We begin our descent. The mountains grow higher and more majestic and more rugged as we get closer. Each ridge and valley, each farm and field become clearer, sharper. Song lyrics, nostalgic, long-not-thought-about, pop into my head:

Daar’s ‘n dorpie wat ek ken daar tussen die blou berge
En die lower van die eike oor die straat

First sight of the sea and Robben Island in the bay. From my seat on the right side of the plane, I’ve missed the sparkling blue of Gordan’s Bay on approach. Instead – a choice over and over again – the left turn reveal of the spectacular view of Table Mountain.

Durbanville rises towards the top of the hill, green and pretty. Table Bay. Lion’s Head. With an elegant turn, the striking, familiar beauty of the Table Mountain massif itself. A few wispy clouds rest on top, like a table-cloth about to fall off.

Over hostels and compounds and the plane comes in to land. We land with a bump – there is wind out there. The sensation of speed and resistance as we slow.

The grass beside the runway is Cape Town summer-dry. In the distance, from the window of my earth-bound plane, the mountains are green-blue-postcard-picture perfect.