Whenever I tell Americans that I live in Europe, there follows, inevitably, a conversation about the cities they have, or want to, explore; they speak of the romance of the Seine, the majesty of the Pantheon, or, for the more adventurous souls, the beauty of Kaplica Czaszek or the depravity of Berghain. Until this past weekend I would merely nod and smile, accepting that every place is special and unique: preference differs, and, certainly, one person’s trash is another’s treasure.
Things, however, have changed. The next time someone brings up the paella of Barcelona or the Temple of Zeus, I will, politely, cut them off and ask: “But have you heard of Antwerp’s De Ruien?” This past weekend saw me and a handful of fellow Fulbrighters deep within the abandoned sewers of Belgium’s second largest city. From the smell, which one gets used to, to the fungus that grows on rat excrement, which one doesn’t step in, to the spider nests on the wall, which one doesn’t shrink from – it was a truly singular experience that trumps all Western monuments. Don’t @ me about European cities if you haven’t explored the underground of the Flemish Renaissance.
Jokes aside: I enjoyed the tour immensely. It was a way to see a part of the city I never would have otherwise, and it was certainly more memorable than a tour around the diamond district or city center. We wore funny hazmat suits, took the world’s shortest underground boat ride, and got to hang out with a guide who was both fun and knowledgable. I recommend the tour to anyone. The experience sweetened our after-event coffee + cake, and I’ve never felt more like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle in my life. It’s moments like these that make me feel connected with the Fulbright community, and while I’m excited to see the flowering bluebells of Hallerbos in two weeks, I doubt they can match the excitement, or scent, of De Ruien.
Joshua Heaps is a 2018-2019 American Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Luxembourg who is currently teaching English at the University of Luxembourg and Lycee Josy Barthel.