Perhaps it’s not well known but my love of public transportation, specifically subways, is so grand that I have a hard time believe it’s not apparent to friends, family, and perhaps even the metro drivers I blow kisses to every time I enter and exit. I even contemplated a metro related tattoo at one point. This love of subways has only been intensified since coming to Europe and I didn’t feel truly at ease with a trip unless I felt comfortable with their Metro system. Stockholm, Barcelona, Paris…check, check, check. I view myself as a sort of subway Napoleon, if I can conquer their metro, I can conquer their people. This in mind I knew the trip to Brussels would not be our best when Cara and I found ourselves in the middle of what seemed like a VHS tape on “Uncomfortable Subway Situations: Ride with Pride”.
After a post bus trip nap we had plans to meet up with our friend Joris, who was coming down to Brussels from his small Belgium town. Adapting our party outfits to the tundra like conditions took a little longer than expected and we were running a little late when we hopped on the metro. The Brussels system isn’t horribly confusing but it uses more trams than subways and therefore deciphering the lines on the map does take a little bit of effort. We figured out how to get to Joris’ station and it only required one small transfer; we were warm, we were ready. As with any big city on a Friday night, the metro did have a few rowdy teenagers who I can imagine just get really drunk and ride the metro all night, forgetting two hours into taking it around a loop if they ever had actual plans for that night but not caring either way. This group was a little louder and more aggressive than any I’ve seen in Paris and we were still feeling quite foreign but this group seemed to contain themselves to the other side of the car. Not interested in being too conspicuous I’d glance over every now and then to watch them shout and spill beer as they tested their reflexes with the subway doors. The only other really comfortable place to look was down at my double-socked feet for to my right was a group of young girls taking up a four-seat spot. They had ratty hair, suspiciously large breasts and seemed to be angry with everyone and everything. Had these girls spent more time on personal hygiene and less on death glares they might be a bit more cheerful. Like our language defense in every foreign country Cara and I remained silent and stoic on the subway, occasionally glancing up at each other and giving a telling eye-roll or awkward smile. Our composure was broken when we heard a woman a couple seats away from the glaring girls scream.
“HEY, you, get out of my bag! I know you were going through my bag, what are you doing?!”
The woman was leaning against the back of a four-seat section of the car and her purse naturally fell in a position that seems conducive to pick pocketing. I couldn’t see the man she was accusing but the man next to her was now getting involved, telling her to call the police.
“He was going through my purse,” she turns her head to the man, “I KNOW YOU WERE.” She was speaking in English, an ambiguously non-American accent. She was naturally overwhelmed but where as I tend to internalize my stressing and forget about motor skills entirely she was having no trouble expressing her freak-out. It seemed odd that she was constantly brushing her fake blonde hair out of her face as she flung her purse around and rummaged through it to find something missing. The intensity of her shouting and her building physical anger was making me nervous about a possible impending fight. She was now turned to the group of ratty girls who were now laughing manically.
“Hey! You little shits had something to do with it I know. You were trying to distract me weren’t you!?”
At this point I turned to give Cara my best silent, wide-eyed, “What the hell!?” expression but as I broke my gaze from the metro battle I caught a glimpse of Cara now on the station platform. Motor skills naturally failing I couldn’t manage to shout anything to her and I caught the door handle just as the doors locked shut with a dramatic clunking sound. She managed to escape the bizarre world that was taking place within the metro car. I rested against the hard plastic wall, a shade of orange that seemed to be appreciated only during the 70’s and frequently mixed with browns or anything offensively distasteful. It was just a touch off from being the color of prison jumpsuits; it seems Brussels is not without its irony. Happy to busy myself with my cell phone I texted Cara to let her know that I was getting off at the next stop, which was actually where we needed to make the transfer. Waiting for her at the platform I could catch a glimpse of the English speaking girl rummaging through her bag with one of the men from the metro; counting all her sample perfume bottles and fake-nail appliqués to make sure they were all there.
Cara got off one of the next train and explained how she just had to get off the train, that it just did not feel okay. I imagine she meant it less in a Zen-aura way and more of a “hey people are getting robbed and little girls with fake boobs are laughing” sort of way. I understood. I tried to picture how I would react if someone were stealing from my man purse or maybe just my pockets. Unfortunately I just sort of picture me realizing it, giving the person a strange, frightened look and then sort of just sighing VERY dramatically. I’d freeze up and not move; now more scared of awkward interaction with the person rather than actually getting my things back. I’d get off the metro and call someone to complain about how my iPod was stolen and now I’ll be bored during workouts, or if my phone was stolen I’d go to my house and complain about the same things but complain about having to get to the house as well.
We switched to the next line, which was significantly less dramatic but still featured that haunting shade of orange. Although we were now even more late the train got us to our destination. It was a new experience to be conquered by a new city’s metro but I’m confident that when, or if, I return to Brussels I’ll cross it off the map of conquered metros, of course I won’t bring a man-purse and I’ll keep my eyes away from easily entertained drunks, easily annoyed girls and just look contently down at my feet; if they knew I was the Napoleon of international public transit I’d be eaten alive.