My first business trip was to Brussels, twenty seven years ago. Last week, as I boarded a plane there after countless business trips over the years, it felt like a lifetime ago.
It was in the first years of my career, when I was fighting my way up the corporate ladder and held a fairly modest position of legal advisor in the company I worked for. So far my business trips had been domestic ones, but I dreamt of the glamorous (or so I thought) life of the company’s executives, who went from Paris to London and from London to Madrid and Rome and other cities in Europe…at the time Europe was still very much the centre of the world, so it was not usual to see executives flying to the Far East and much less to Africa.
One day however luck was on my side – apparently one of the Directors had a last minute constraint and I was invited to attend a conference in Leuven, in Belgium, in his place. I accepted in a mist of excitement and anguish, but certain I would not miss this opportunity for anything in the world. Moreover, as I had never been to Brussels, then very much the capital of an Europe we Portuguese had recently joined (our country having become a member of the then European Economic Community en 1986), I decided to stay there to get to know the city and travel by train to Leuven, not far away, for the conference.
The trip turned out to be much more interesting than I might have thought, and certainly more fun.
An improbable guide
On the plane I sat next to a huge African man who barely fitted into his seat. He sat in the middle seat and looked really uncomfortable but took it with a philosophical smile. On the window seat sat a Portuguese nice looking lady, blonde and blue eyed with an aristocratic look. Soon they were engrossed in deep conversation and I after a while I joined then, so as we landed in Brussels I knew she was visiting her husband who had a position in the European Commission and he came from Angola and t meet some business partners in Brussels. I told them about my conference in Leuven and also that I would be staying at a very nice hotel in the city centre, the Metropole. The Angolan businessman said he hadn’t booked any hotel so he might as well try mine, and so we said goodbye to the lady and got a taxi to the hotel.
Now I know this seems a bit odd – what on Earth was I thinking of, getting into a taxi with a total stranger, who in addition had suddenly decided to stay at my hotel? Were it today I would never be as daring, but back then it all seemed natural and I didn’t sense any dishonourable intentions on the Angolan man’s part. He was actually quite nice; as I told him I had never been to the city and would like to have a look around, he offered to show me the centre after we checked in and I accepted.
And so we did. After quickly unpacking my suitcase I came down and there he was a huge impressive figure but far from menacing he looked very kind. Soon he was showing me the Grand Place, so grand and beautiful, and then we walked to the crossing where the Manneken Pis stands, the famous statue of a boy urinating into a fountain that is usually a disappointment for tourists because it is so small. My improvised guide went as far as to show me where the train station was – it was actually within walking distance from the hotel, which was quite convenient – and I was really grateful to him.
We were in October so even if it was not too cold night fell quite early. I wanted to eat a light dinner and so did he, so we sat at a MacDonald’s (not yet arrived to Portugal) and ate a hamburger with chips. We walked back to the hotel and I thanked him profusely for his kindness. We exchanged business cards and said goodbye, as he would be leaving the following day.
Meeting and old friend
Back in my room I felt quite pleased with myself. I had met nice people; I had had a tour of the city centre and knew where to go the following morning to get to Leuven. Now I decided to call a Belgian friend I had met in Madeira during our summer holidays there. Actually he was more my brother’s friend but he liked me a lot – I had a suspicion he was my secret admirer, but being younger than me I didn’t take it seriously. I called his home – no mobile phones then – and a lady came to the phone. His mother, I thought and I greeted her as I knew her very well from Madeira: “Hello, Madame Dupont, I am Teresa, Guy’s friend from Madeira, do you remember me?” When she understood who I was she greeted me with alacrity and shouted for her son, who was no less enthusiastic! When I told him I was in Brussels he immediately said he would come over to see me, even if he lived in Spa-Francorchamps some 100 kilometres away! I was elated of course, and we agreed he would pick me up the following evening for dinner. As I hung up I was feeling victorious – this trip was proving to be much more of a success than I might have anticipated!
At the time I hadn’t been married for long and even if I would have liked to, it would have been impossible for my husband to join me on this trip, as during those very days he was participating in a Challenger’s Trophy competition representing the company where he worked. Still, resourceful as I was, I was beginning to think I would always have some company during this trip.
The following morning I took the train to Leuven and dutifully attended the conference about European Law – after all the reason why I was there. I found Leuven a nice city and the University’s premises were very old and beautiful; I found some colleagues from other Portuguese companies and some of them were also staying in Brussels so we came back together on the train. I walked back to the hotel and took a shower and dressed for dinner. Vain as I was I wanted my old times’ admirer to see me in good shape!
As I walked out of the lift there he was, no longer the impossibly thin ungainly youth Mom and I used to call “le petit Belge” (the little Belgian boy). His face was the same, his eyes still somewhat exotic and his dark brown hair as wild a sit used to be, but my God how he had grown. He was so tall and broad had it not been for his huge smile looking at me I would not have recognised him. He run towards me and took me in his arms in a bear hug, actually sweeping me off my feet, exclaiming “Teresa, how good it is to see you!” Then he put me down and we looked at each other and burst out laughing and embraced again. It was so good to see a friend I hadn’t seen in so many years – we both felt the same.
Then we walked to the Grand Place and found ourselves a nice restaurant there with red and white chequered table cloths. We talked all the time about what we had done with our lives since those wonderful holidays in Madeira. I told him I was married, he told me he had a steady girlfriend and would probably tie the knot the following year, we talked about our jobs…soon we were ordering moules and frites (mussels and chips, the typical local dish) which we accompanied with beer. Yes, beer – I don’t usually drink beer but Guy told me I would love the bière framboise, a sweet Belgian beer made of raspberries, and I found it delicious!
As we left the restaurant– he still had a long drive back home – he slipped his arm through mine and thus we walked back to the hotel, feeling sorry that we had to say goodbye but very happy that we had spent such a wonderful evening together.
The following day was a Saturday. We still had a session in the morning but the afternoon would be free. My plane was at night so I made the most of the afternoon going to Rue Neuve, a street full of shops where I did some shopping together with a colleague from Lisbon. Back then in Portugal we didn’t have the same shops as in other countries – unlike today it was really exciting to go shopping abroad. I remember buying tons of fake jewellery that would be a huge success in Portugal, and a light pink winter coat that would make my colleagues at work sigh with envy and become a favourite of mine for many years to come. As my husband enjoyed drinking beer, I bought him several bottles of different Belgian brands to bring back home with me – at a time when there was no limitation of liquids when travelling by plane I carried a heavy bag with them back to Lisbon, only to have his disappointing comment as he tasted them “Thanks, but I must say our Portuguese beer tastes much better!” – So much for bringing him such a heavy gift, I thought!
Back to the present I look around trying to find a familiar place. I returned to Brussels many times after that first one but haven’t been back for some years now. The city centre looks orderly and nice, already decorated for Christmas. I walk to the Grand Place and there it is, majestic and impressive. It hasn’t changed a bit. I go and see Manneken Pis and I’m surprised by the fact that he is dressed up with a black jacket and trousers; as usual he is surrounded by tourists taking photos. Then I walk back to the hotel. I have to work on my laptop for some time before I attend the event I’m here for. As I look at the streets where I walked for the first time twenty seven years ago I smile to myself; the wonder of that first time is gone, but somehow the magic of those days has lingered with me, and that’s why it feels so good to be back in Brussels, where I first came as a young woman in what turned out to be the first, and certainly the most unforgettable, business trip of my life.