Visitors and residents of Brussels are never short of a friendly face thanks to a worldwide project which is growing in popularity here in the city. When you meet a Brussels greeter, you are immediately struck by how positively friendly, open and enthusiastic they are and more and more tourists are choosing to see the city in the cheerful ambassadorial company of a greeter. Volunteer greeters have been showing thousands of tourists and residents around the often hidden delights of Brussels for the last seven years now.
Brussels Greeters was adopted from the Global Greeter network. The innovative scheme was the brain child of New Yorker, Lynn Brooks in 1992 who was keen to offer visitors to her city, a deeper knowledge and understanding of the Big Apple beyond the well-trodden tourist route.
Now with well over 100 greeters here in Brussels, they are often in high demand from tourists wanting to learn about absolutely everything from the highly complex and delicate politics of Belgium to where to buy a tasty waffle in the city. Being a greeter requires a lot of all-round knowledge, an affable character, pride and passion for the city, and a good pair of walking shoes as some of the ‘greets’ as they are known, can last the best part of the day. All walks are free of charge and it is discouraged to even offer a tip though some greeters may agree to accepting a small gift or having a chat over the odd glass of wine, beer or water for those who prefer the non-alcoholic tipple.
Greeters are from a wide range of backgrounds and they represent all age groups. Some specialise in their chosen subject so tourists who wish to learn about a particular topic connected with the city such as architecture, history, gastronomy or street art, can simply request a greeter with a specialised knowledge and one will be matched with them. All that is asked of the tourist is that they are respectful and ensure they be in a group of no more than six for the walk so that cultural exchanges can be more manageable.
Many visitors to the city are immediately compelled to learn more about one thing of which Belgium is synonymous – beer. Of course Belgium is well renowned for its fine beers and so it is not surprising that some greeter volunteers are beer connoisseurs.
Frederic Simonis is one of many greeters in Brussels who provides a well-rounded and deep knowledge of beer in the city. With the emergence of Brussels Beer Project and the Brasserie de la Senne, both independent breweries in the capital, there is no shortage of interest. He is always willing to share the odd Belgian IPA whether it be a ‘Belgian Coast’, ‘Night in Brussels’, or a ‘Huge Malone Ale’, while at the same time explaining why each gets its particular taste.
Frederik a Brussels greeter with professional background in the beer industry is happy to share his extensive knowledge of the many Belgian breweries and their history.
It is not just IPA beers that are discussed on the tourist beer trail. Fred is a bit of an expert on all beers and there is not much he doesn’t know. “I used to work for a beer company, Chimay, so that started my interest and knowledge,” said Fred, who has lived in Brussels for the last 17 years. IPA beers in North America have been inspired by beers in Belgium, so this country is one of the best for beer brewing. Beer is one of Canada’s big exports and Fred said Canadians in particular like to visit Brussels.
While conducting his greeter walks, Fred also shares his knowledge on Belgium’s other great export – chocolate. “Beer and chocolate go hand in hand, and I have found that beer is not just an interest for men but more and more women are enjoying it.” He isn’t tempted to brew beer himself but does grow hops in his back garden so that he can contribute in his own way to the brewing industry here in Brussels by donating them.
Fred’s breadth of knowledge on Brussels is extensive as not only can he talk enthusiastically about beer and chocolate, but also on many subjects, including Brussels’ history and its architecture. “Brussels is changing a lot, and it is getting better to walk around the city now”, he added.
Indeed Brussels is a diverse city and changing social attitudes are reflected among the volunteers. Latvian-born David Tcherepanya, an openly gay man, has been a greeter for the last four years. He shows members of the LGBT community the legitimate gay bars in Brussels and talks positively about a more tolerant society here than in the past.
“This city is much more forward thinking today than it was when I first came”. David, 33, a resident of Brussels for the last 20 years. He speaks three languages fluently including Russian so not only acts as guide to members of the LGBT community, but also specialises in Russian links to the city.
“Russian people are very practical in their thinking so they often ask questions, not only about the city but about things here like the cost of medicine and pensions, so you are tested a lot about your knowledge.” David added that some Russian visitors to the city have shown an unusual curiosity concerning Russian Tsar, Peter the Great’s visit in April 1717.
“I often get asked by them for me to show them the spot where Peter the Great vomited! It is thought that after a night of revelry in Brussels, Peter the Great vomited in Parc De Bruxelles next to the fountain. It has often been described as the spot where “Peter the Great lost his lunch!”
Embassy worker, Maria Ivorra, 34, originally from Catalonia, also shares her passion for Brussels. “I think I was always a greeter in my deepest self as I had been showing friends and family around the city for years and I had worked for the Catalan tourist industry for a while here in Brussels so it was my job to find out about the city. I always want to give the best of myself when I do a greet.”
Maria speaks four languages fluently and is often seen escorting Spanish speaking visitors to places of interest in the communes such as Scharbeek, Etterbeek and Watermael-Boisfort. “For me, Brussels is not just one town but is several communes each with their own idiosyncrasies operating separately but coming together as one. When I do a greet, I like to share knowledge of places that I have discovered.”
“I am keen to practice my other languages such as French and English so being a greeter also helps me speak more fluently. And I have also met and made friends through being a greeter volunteer!”
Maria from Barcelona one of the over 100 enthusiastic Brussels greeters who proudly volunteer guiding visitors and residents to their favourite parts of the city.
Though no financial benefits are given to greeters, surprises could be just around the corner as street art volunteer Yves Calomme literally discovered. Brussels-born Yves snapped so much street art by one particular artist for his Facebook page, he was rewarded with the surprise of his life. Les Crayons – a prolific urban artist often known as Brussels’ answer to Britain’s Banksy – had drawn a picture in his honour complete with Yves’ name next to it. “I just couldn’t believe it when I saw it, I was so surprised, and was really honoured. I think I am one of only three who has a piece of art by Les Crayon dedicated to me”, said the 53-year-old.
Yves escorts visitors around Brussels showing them works of art at exhibitions and those commissioned on public buildings and walls but admits Brussels has some dynamic works of art which are not authorised, though he stresses he doesn’t encourage it.
Greeter Sophie, 31, an enthusiast on the subject of Gastronomy and beer, describes herself as a person who “lives to eat”, so readily volunteered to take groups on discussion walks about gastronomy as Belgians are known for producing fine cuisine as well as more hearty food such as Stoemp and the famous frites. As her walks include a trip to restaurants and bars, the duration of the walks may well run through the whole day but that doesn’t faze Sophie. “It takes a long time to get to various places of interest and we aren’t always walking, we can get to them by metro and there is a lot of sitting down and discussions”, she said.
Former Brussels Barbarian rugby player Sophie, said she is highly proud of Brussels and Belgium. “Many people like me, who were born here, may not be so patriotic but I am, and I am happy to meet people and take them round the city. It is probably the second most metropolitan city in the world as around 60% of people here are not from Belgium so I am happy to talk about all kinds of food, not just traditional dishes.” Sophie did, though, admit she enjoyed dispelling urban myths, in particular, the notion that the French invented French Fries.
“They should actually be called Belgian fries as they were invented here and I certainly tell people about the real story.” During the 17th century, it is thought that when the River Meuse froze over and locals were unable to get their fish, they substituted fish for potatoes and cut them in the size and shape of the fish before frying them. Les Frites were dubbed French Fries by Americans who thought that as Wallonians spoke French, they hailed from France. Sophie often talks about gastronomic history while showing visitors the copious amounts of friteries here in the city.
Sophie says the greatest reward she receives is when a tourist promises to return to Brussels after one of her walks and says she doesn’t have a favourite nationality. “Everyone is different, some Europeans may be more familiar with the city but I enjoy meeting people from all over world and I try to take the best from everyone.”
Italian-born Giada Risatti was one of the original greeters in Brussels when it was first established and is delighted the scheme has grown in popularity over the years. Giada, who studied tourism and still works in the hospitality business in Brussels, came here as a student 9 years ago but decided to make it her home.
She conducts walks in Italian, English and French and admits she does not have a preferred topic but can speak about an array of subjects including art nouveau, history and everyday life in Brussels. “I am not super specialised in one thing but when I meet people we tend to decide there and then on the spot what we would like to do. Sometimes I go for a coffee or a drink with them and chat about living in the city. Once I ended up going to a party with a group of tourists and if a cultural event is on, we often end up going there together. I know what is happening in the city so I like to talk about that. Sometimes we talk about our personal life with each other. I have often been given some lovely gifts by people who like to bring something along before we start the walk.”
With a busy working life, Giada confesses she would love to give more time to greeters and could not even contemplate giving up what time she does have as a volunteer. “For me, whenever I visit a city, I would love to meet a local so that I can learn more and this is what is so great about greeters, we do that.”
Philippine Nicaise of visit.brussels is product expert for greeters. She said: “We are asked for many things on greeters walks. Recently we were contacted by fans of the Bronte sisters. The Bronte sisters, Emily and Charlotte, who wrote two of the arguably greatest books in English literature – Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre – came to Brussels in 1842 to study at the Pensionnat Heger in the heart of the capital. As a result, the Brontes are eternally linked to Brussels and a greeter is the preferred choice for some to get a one-to-one insight into the Bronte’s stay here.
Philippine added: “People tend to want to be shown alternative places to eat, drink and see artists and gigs with the help of a greeter. I enjoy very much working for the greeters. They are all very different but have several things in common; their kindness, tolerance, altruism and generosity, and it is always nice for me to have a chat with them. They are passionate about so many places and things. They are inhabitants of the city who just want to show off Brussels in an original and informal way.
“The atmosphere is friendly and everything is flexible. For me it is as if you have met a friend of yours in another country.”
To book a greeter, go to www.greeters.brussels and give a preference to the kind of walk you would like. You will then be matched up with a greeter who will meet with you on the day and time of your choice. Donations are discouraged but a friendly disposition, an open mind and a sturdy pair of footwear is appreciated.
By Kim Clayton