I Loved the Atomium in Brussels Just as Much as I Thought I Would

We first saw the Atomium from the high viewpoint next to the Palace of Justice in central Brussels. Just an angular speck on the horizon, faintly silver in the late-afternoon light. Victor, our Brussels Greeter, pointed it out. I gazed at it and thought, I am coming to you.

There are two things that brought me to Brussels.* The real reason I ended up there this summer is because Tom is a uniquely determined kind of person and searched and searched until he found us an awesome deal on American that used miles we’d received from a credit card deal earlier this year. We knew we wanted to go to Europe, and he found a way for us to get there for a mere $375 each, round trip (and the return leg was business class, mmmmm). That’s almost reason enough to go anywhere.

But the seed of wanting to go to Belgium was planted some time before. I have friends who are also lucky enough to travel, and last year, they went to Paris and Brussels. They’re also engaging enough to be able to propose a thoroughly worthwhile slideshow night to show their trip pictures. I was enraptured by their many photos of Paris, of course, but the showstopper was some silver angular thing that looked like it had fallen out when someone gave the 1950s a good shake.

“What…” I began to ask. “What is that thing?”

That thing was the Atomium, Brussels’ version of the Space Needle. Made for Expo 58, the 1958 World’s Fair, the Atomium is an iron crystal model 165 billion times larger than the real thing. It is huge and shiny and immediately, undeniably absurd, and I saw it and immediately thought: I want to go to there. Nay, I needed to go to there. But at the time, I put it in the back of my head with the other 150,000 places I want and need to go. It’s not rare for me to feel that pull of I HAVE TO BE PHYSICALLY IN THE SAME PLACE AS THAT SOMEDAY.** I’m pretty practiced with filing these impulses away for the right time.

But when Tom suggested Brussels for our big summer trip, and I accepted, my pre-trip research yielded a grand thing: the Atomium and I would be together at last.

To get there, take the Brussels Metro about 30 minutes north of downtown. You’ll emerge in what seems like the most unremarkable suburbia, until you turn around and…


Oh. Hello.

I didn’t think it would be possible, but I was even more taken with it in person. There are two qualities that can make me love something almost immediately:

  1. The thing is a model of something else.
  2. Said model is much larger or much smaller than the original.

How could I not be besotted? It’s a big, absurd relic of a strange time. It’s like it was made for me.

Brussels' Atomium, slightly closer

Things like this mess with one’s perspective in the most beautiful way. This towering, unlikely object, gradually…

Brussels' Atomium, gradually filling the frame


Staring up at Brussels' Atomium from the ground

…your entire field of vision.

(A note: I have dozens of pictures like this, because this thing is photogenic and reveals new angles every few steps. However, part of being a good writer is being a good editor, and so I have spared you. You’re welcome.)

At the base, though, the whole thing briefly devolves into the worst of Belgian tourism. A person being paid to sullenly collect 30 cents from everyone who has the misfortune to need to pee. Spendy tickets. Children running hither and thither in the not-fun way. This was our last day of the trip, and my back hurt, and I was already a couple days past my usual isn’t-humanity-neat good humor deserting me. So all I wanted – all I wanted, more than anything – was to just get my audio guide and get up in that thing and be one with the Atomium, ok.

First, this:

Security scanner in the bottom lobby of the Atomium

Apologies for the poor picture. I am American and therefore become remarkably unbrave when faced with superfluous security screens because I assume they’re staffed by unkind people on power trips.

Fun fact: the symbol for “security screen” seen here is the same one they use outside for “pickpockets gonna take your stuff.” Make of that what you will.

Once through (and once we had our picture taken with a guy in a big-headed character costume of a redheaded cartoon bellhop, something we wouldn’t begin to understand until we hit the Belgian Comic Strip Center later that day), we encountered a long, long, winding line leading to an elevator. Next to them was an escalator with no line at all. Thinking myself very clever indeed, I suggested we head up the escalator and beat the ridiculous crowd.

The elevator takes you to the exhibits, which are basically catnip to my particular kind of nerdery. 50s-style concept illustrations, the cute outfits the Brussels ambassadors (read: pretty young women, go figure) wore, the various concepts for the Atomium, and press clippings galore. Here’s a thing I learned this trip: did you know that the world does not agree on how many continents there are? Fact! The Brussels World Fair insignia is a five-pointed star, “representing the five continents,” the accompanying card breezily informed me as I leaned over, squinting at badges with the fair’s insignia in embossed relief.

I stood straight up, pressing my audioguide wand to my ear. “Five continents???” I hissed to Tom, who was a couple display cases away. “Did you know we haven’t settled this bet yet?” He was unaware as well. This basic fact, this elemental thing we teach tiny children to let them feel that they can quantify the world and hold it in their hands even a miniscule amount, this is something we can’t agree on. We have regular trade talks with countries that inventory the earth differently. God, I love traveling. This is not the kind of stuff that comes out in casual conversations with people you’ve known forever.***

The interior at this point was perfectly 50s-innovation thematic, original to the event. These stairs are so charming you’d practically dance on down them to your basement nuclear shelter.

Awesome mid-century Atomium stairs

But after that, it got perfectly… wonderfully… weird.

The Atomium's Cylon escalator

The lights dimmed. People grew quieter.

And suddenly… we emerged into this.

Pulsing red lights and LEDs in the Atomium

Hold on

More of the Atomium's Cylon room

No, let’s discuss this

The core of the Atomium's Cylon base

Ok, what the hell is that?

Along with the sudden switch in décor, which moves from Tomorrowland’s rich pastels to an angry teenage nerd’s bedroom as decorated by Cyberdog and Spencer’s Gifts, the sound changes. It’s an immersive experience, this thing, with throbbing bass and enough moving staticky sounds to leave you feeling quite off-kilter.

And then we ascended one more escalator and found an explanation. It was a two-month art installation, an experience based on a short story about a ship’s AI system fighting off an invading virus while ending up unavoidably changed.


Here’s something I like about Europe: there are so many old, wonderful things there that they can do things like this in stride. It’s not that the US doesn’t do out-of-the-ordinary things with our Approved Historical Landmarks and Such, but I can’t imagine the White House covering a room in mirrors and simulating rain. I can’t even imagine the Space Needle, the philosophical sibling of the Atomium, attempting something like this. Yet the Atomium harbored a Cylon rave, and, last year, Versailles welcomed a variety of modern art, including lining the wall of one stately room with a 12-foot-tall brick of fallen leaves encased in chicken wire. They’ve existed long enough that they know that most ordinary things clean up just fine, in the end.

And then that’s the conclusion of part one of the tour. The audioguide informed me that it was time to head back downstairs… to the elevator line.


On the way there, winding down stairs (there are quite a lot; the Atomium is hard on people without a lot of mobility), we glimpsed this through locked glass doors.

The Atomium's adorable nap room for lucky children

In addition to I will someday share physical space with that thing, I occasionally get flashes of That is a thing I will do or have if I ever possess a ridiculous amount of money. I experienced that here. You, I thought at these little pods, you will someday be where I rest my eccentric, rich, weary head.

This is their daycare. Because the Atomium has a lot of spheres, and some of them are conference space. This is true.

Back at the ground level, we joined the elevator queue. Standing still did my back no favors, so I leaned on Tom as I pulled my heel toward my bum, hoping that stretching my angry, tightening muscles might get me through the rest of the day. I weighed whether it made sense to stand in this line, to go to the top of some tall thing that overlooked stuff I wasn’t familiar with. I have a resistance toward tall things; people spend their valuable vacation time going to the top of them without weighing whether it’s really the most interesting thing to do.

And then came a new piece of information:

The Atomium, glimpsed from inside through a rain-covered window

We’d been lucky enough to have pretty great weather throughout the trip. It had felt a little close and humid out earlier, but I’m still jaded by 18 years of Midwestern summers. It turns out that I don’t recognize the indications of an oncoming European torrential rain.

“Will it even be worth it to get up there?” I whined. “What are we even going to see? We’ll be inside the thing I want to look at.” The first part of me that gets chased away with pain is my sense of casual sure-why-not adventure.

It took about an hour, time I was afraid would be better spent looking at artifacts from the Belgian comic book industry.

But in the end, we made the right choice by staying.

We crammed into an elevator like Vienna sausages, and the guide blithely told us about how fast it was and how impressive it once was… in about six languages. As Belgians do.

And then… oh.

The rain had stopped, but the sky was still thick, grey, and surly. The rest of the world was left with the intensified colors a good dousing can give them.

The Atomium over the Belgian landscape

At certain angles, the Atomium’s spheres and their recently added steel plates blend in with the horizon while still reflecting and distorting it. It’s a beautiful thing – and genuinely, absolutely worth seeing from within. It may be nearly 60 years old, but it’s still capable of inspiring awe.

The Atomium, blending into the horizon

Also of inspiring weird little neighbors.

Mini-Europe from above

May I introduce you to Mini-Europe? Part of a neighboring complex of attractions meant to inspire tantrums in the children of visiting families, Mini-Europe is the centerpiece of a property that also includes a waterpark. Tom and I leaned over and identified the various places represented. We identified the Arc de Triomphe and the Coliseum, but we got stuck on “some airport, I guess?” and “is that a prison?”

I love miniature things, but I don’t understand the desire to pay 14 euros to walk around small buildings that are within a couple hours’ drive or train ride. I contain multitudes.

One last fun fact: the US Pavilion is one of the last buildings left from Expo 58.

The US Pavilion in Brussels, seen from the Atomium

And the US was kind enough to make a building that’s worth seeing, even more than 50 years later. The grandeur at most World Fairs was equaled only by how incredibly temporary and disposable the attractions were generally made to be. (Read The Devil in the White City for some insight into this, or consider the strange missing Ferris wheel axle from the 2004 St. Louis World’s Fair. Things were built to dazzle but not to last for very long, an interesting shared quality for events that were meant to showcase the future.

So it was good to see that the Atomium had company, and that it shared an origin with me. And it was good to see the Atomium at all, to spend part of my last day in Belgium at the first glimmering thing that had attracted me to it. Even if you don’t like novelty and relics as much as I do (a high bar to meet), it’s worth a stop. Particularly if you follow it with Belgian comics and one last beer outing, as we did.

I didn’t love Belgium. But I swooned for the Atomium, and so I ended my trip on a very satisfied note.


*Who am I kidding. There’s also number three: BEER. But more on that another day.

**Other recents: that green inflatable buttplug in Paris, the Santa Claus holding the black buttplug in Rotterdam, Mont St. Michel. I don’t lack.

*** A quick Google tells me that six or seven are the most common answers. Lots of people (quite reasonably) lump Europe and Asia together. Belgium, at least at that point, considered the Americas to be one long, spindly continent too. Fair.

The Fear of Opening One’s Mouth and the Difference of a Year

A deviation sign, but in Dutch this time in Bruges

Once upon a time, I felt it necessary to be “correct” all the time. Necessary – and vitally important. To know how to smoothly maneuver any situation, to say some polysyllabic constellation of words to dazzle and open doors. It was my own small way of manipulating the world, a strange skill I learned to rely on early.

I have never considered myself charming, to be clear, but I felt that, through my hyperarticulateness and apologetic tone, I could deal with whatever I had to. I would show people how good I was, and through impressing them or saying the right thing, they would help me solve my problems.

It’s a difficult thing to keep up. Even if you are naturally polysyllabic and hyperarticulate, it takes a lot of energy. It’s not a sustainable tactic.

Mouth and teeth street art in Brussels

I began to walk away from being this way a couple years ago. It changed everything – it lightened my heavy introversion, because being around other people wasn’t such an energy suck. It paved the way to easier and more genuine interactions with everyone from my nearest and dearest to the cashier at QFC. I embraced it, and I opened myself to being awkward (once a life-bending fear) and incomplete. I opened myself to actually being real with people. I congratulated myself on being past this old hindrance. Haven’t I done so well.

In Paris last year, I realized how far that was from the truth. I may not try to dazzle people with my glittering utterances anymore (or not all the time, anyway), but I am made of words, and to have to get by without them left me unprepared for anything – and panicked at times. My first two or three days were spent with at least a mildly elevated heartbeat. What if something happened? What if someone misunderstood me?

Beginner’s mind: it does not come easily to me.

It was easier this year. Because we went to a trilingual country where it’s in everyone’s financial interest to speak at least business English. Because my French is somewhat better than nonexistent now. But mostly, really, because I calmed down. Once upon a time, that the housekeeper who checked us into our Brussels studio didn’t know English would have left me stricken. What if we missed some vital detail? What if we have a question or an emergency later?

What if she doesn’t know how smart I am?


Octopus street art in Brussels

Instead, I was able to admire how she was able to pantomime everything from how to work the complicated locks to where the coffee is (and how good it is) to how to work the TV. Her job is to deal with Frenchless foreigners; she performs it beautifully and with good humor. And instead of feeling mortified at being inadequate, I was able to enjoy the particular skill she’s had to cultivate and to marvel at how much I was able to learn without words – and how happy I was to pick out the French I understood.

It was a great welcome to Brussels.

I think what makes a person able to travel and really enjoy it is the skill to laugh at these shortfalls. To enjoy the gaps that exist between people and cultures, but also to celebrate when they’re bridged (perhaps using a mix of French, English, and Spanish, which happened to us at the kaiten-style Spanish tapas restaurant in central Brussels – a good meal, enjoyably delivered by lovely people).

At the end of a trip, yes, I confess I’m glad to return to where I know when the bars close and what’s sold at a pharmacy vs. the grocery store and how to pay the check in a restaurant. But it’s a flush of gratitude, a fluency returned, and there’s pleasure in that too. I know this. I can do this right.

I hope that, one day, beginner’s mind comes naturally to me. I admire it so in other people.

In the meantime, if I can look past my panic in a moment, I can see a crossroads. And I choose, over and over, the path of laughing and laughing, and trusting that most of us just want everything to turn out ok.

People Who Are Not Having a Good Time at Bruges’ Memling Museum

It’s easy to go to Europe and get total Beautiful Antiquities fatigue. Between the towns and cities full of centuries-old churches, museums stocked with the riches that come with living in an old country, and the availability of these things to willing American tourists, you can become a particular kind of jaded. Truth: I realized on this trip that I actually am not all that interested in visiting old churches. They are beautiful, yes. And if there’s a certain local mythology going on, as there was in both Bruges and Brussels (more on that later), you learn about another aspect of the place you’re staying more viscerally than you could otherwise. But when I see ornate churches, lavished with riches and made with decades and centuries of labor from the faithful, I only see ruined lives and bent souls, both in the past and now. All the carved wood, stunning sculpture, and ancient gilding in the world can’t get me past that.

But the Memling Museum… that is a different matter.

The Memling Museum collects art, history, and medical paraphernalia from across the 800-year history of this hospital/nunnery/cradle of fine Flemish art.

I promise this makes sense.

Hans Memling was an adopted citizen of Bruges, and he created stunning commissions for, among others, the curiously flourishing nuns and priests of Sint-Janshospitaal.* So the museum collects some of Memling’s works, some of the tools used for palliative care of pilgrims who appeared in Bruges feeling poorly, and other artifacts from the hospital’s long history.

I was enthralled.

You should go, if you get the chance. But in case you don’t, here’s a thematic tour. I give you: a selection of people who are having a bad time in art in the Memling Museum.

Portrait of Francois de Wulf, anonymous, 18th century

Detail from Portrait of Francois de Wulf, anonymous, 18th century. The rest of this painting depicts a man who would like you to know he is quite skilled and prestigious, looking at us to reassure us of this and paying not nearly enough attention to prodding this child in the eyeball. Sorry, child. It wasn’t easy being a pilgrim in the 1700s. We get pairs of things for a reason, I guess.

Opthalmodouleia, das ist Augendienst, Georg Bartisch, 1535-1607

Opthalmodouleia, das ist Augendienst, Georg Bartisch, 1535-1607. This is a page from a book meant to instruct you of something. Mainly, it instructed me that I should take a moment to be glad that I was born when I was. But I’m always glad of that.

The Anatomy Lesson, Anonymous, Bruges, 1679

Detail from The Anatomy Lesson, Anonymous, Bruges, 1679. Surrounding this man: a bunch of other men who look disinterested as only Flemish paintings of aristocrats can make a person look.

the biggest kidney stone you've ever seen (or not)

Intermission: GIANT FREAKING KIDNEY STONES, OH MY GOD. Not included: an explanation of the long, wonderful lives the people who produced these went onto live.

Hans Memling’s Virgin Nursing the Christ ChildHans Memling’s Virgin Nursing the Christ Child. This is one of the centerpieces of the museum, and for good reason. I draw. I make art. But I’ve never worked in oils, and the colors they can produce still stun me. I stood in front of this for a good minute, drinking it in.

But I have an inescapable truth for you.


And that is why Our Lady here is included in this roundup.

Magi, The Circumcision, and the rest on the flight into Egypt, Anonymous, Flanders, 16th centuryDetail from Magi, the Circumcision, and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Anonymous, Flanders, 16th century. I like this painting because our focus here has the distinct look of someone going, “Uh, hey, can we have a word? There’s more going on here than I signed up for.”

The Good Samaritan, anonymous, Southern Netherlands, 16th centuryDetail from The Good Samaritan, Anonymous, Southern Netherlands, 16th century. At least we know this fellow has better things waiting for him on the other side. Of the story, not the great rift between the living and the dead. That too, I suppose, considering the theme of the museum.

St. John Altarpiece, Memling, around 1479

And, finally, St. John Altarpiece, Memling, around 1479.

Ah, you hate to see that.

We didn’t make it to the Groeninge Museum (though I very much enjoyed reciting Rick Steves’ transcribed versions of how to properly pronounce said museum’s name), but we made the right choice. The Memling Museum, with its wonderful collision of ghastly history, transcendent beauty, and peculiar local history, was one of the highlights of the whole London-Brussels-Bruges trip for me. I was a bit surly on my day in Bruges, but the Memling Museum made all the tourist-dodging and other bits of sourness utterly worth it.

Though having cause to dash across a museum, whisper neckboob to someone you love, and dash back away… well, that is a balm for the spirits too.

*That is: in which I learn that not all people who dedicated their lives to Christianity took a vow of poverty! Because wow, those were some hefty commissions. My favorites: triptychs where the central panel depicts a pivotal moment of Christian mythology… and the two outer wings contain portraits of the priests, nuns, and monks who commissioned the works, staidly looking on as St. John is beheaded or someone important gets circumcised or something of that nature. And, in case you didn’t catch the likeness, many had their names painted above their depictions. I learned many things that day.