How to Walk Back to the Hotel: Running the Gauntlet in Brussels

2 Jul

by Jess Rempe

The men in Brussels are paradoxical.

Our friend informed us, that in a club or at a bar, the men do not make the first move. They will scoot closer to you if they have an interest, but then it is up to you to make the first move. (Of course, that would entail knowing what counts as a making a move in this culture.) Personally, I could see myself getting around this idea. A world where a woman could make the first move and not be considered “easy,” “desperate,” or worse. Even better and much more simple, would be a cultural norm where the person with interest communicated that interest to the other person, regardless of gender.

Out on the streets though, is a completely different story.

The very first afternoon we were walking through a park, exploring Brussels. Fully engaging in our role as tourists, we saw Mannequin Pis, the Grand Place and even the Temple of Bière. Next on our list was the Royal Palace. Although it was a quick walk from the center and through a park abounds with people during the middle of the day, a guy managed to insert himself within our group and corner my friend up against the wall. Even as she continued walking, ignoring the guy, he kept following her closely until my other friend grabbed her and we continued down a different path.  Eventually, he left us alone and the other people in the park continued doing what they were doing because nobody batted an eye at the whole ordeal. (Re-reading this, I noticed I made a point to emphasize the time of day, the amount of other people, and so forth as though I felt the need to emphasize how uncalled for this event was, which is absurd because this is never okay.)  The rest of the day passed uneventfully until nighttime.

At night, the darkness makes these men bolder. Walking becomes a psychological gantlet. All which must be braved by ignoring the men. There’s the common catcalling, whistling, and shouts of  “pardon, ma fille..”  These are not too difficult to ignore, you think as you scurry past. Annoying, but possible. Then there are the men who will reach out to grab you.  You pick up your pace. It is possible to ignore this, but you do not want to give any of them the opportunity to really grab hold. Then, there is the guy, who thinks it will be funny to jump out and scare you. You jump back, (curse those reflexes), but fortunately, you don’t give him the satisfaction of screaming. You are a rock. You reach the hotel, the finish line, but one last challenge: the old man at the desk who finds it entertaining to pretend to not understand what for which key you are asking. You tiredly force a smile, hoping he will give you the key faster if you pretend to enjoy the joke. Finally, you enter your room where you can either pass out from exhaustion or review the entire walk back.

We, the girls, were told that the guys here believe they are complimenting you when they catcall and such. While this is not always the case, I have met girls who are flattered at times by the catcalls. To each their own, but the problem is there is no clear line dividing the acceptable from harassment and there never will be as each person is different.

Instead, we are taught to ignore such, exactly as though these men are children or wild beasts who simply do not know better.

Our silence, though, can be interpreted in multiple ways.  There is the person who does not find the catcall amusing.  There is the person who is secretly flattered to be noticed. Then there is the person who begins to clutch a bottle of pepper spray as the catcall leads to a sense of insecurity. There is the catcaller who finds the other to be uptight or the whole affair amusing. There is the catcaller who takes the silence as a rebuff of himself, not his actions and thus tries again with another.

Silence is not the answer, but as I only have three weeks remaining, it seems to be my option right now.

2 Responses to “How to Walk Back to the Hotel: Running the Gauntlet in Brussels”

  1. Debby July 3, 2013 at 4:34 am #

    As a Belgian, I can assure you that the men you met on the streets in Brussels, are hardly a representation of ‘all Belgian’ men… the link attached shows a young women in Brussels, and her struggle to walk the streets there… it feels that you and your friend had a similar experience http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2012/aug/03/femme-de-la-rue-sexism-brussels-video

  2. 2ssimington July 3, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

    Is there anywhere that women can just be comfortable and not worry about being attacked?

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