Some people who’ve been to Europe will either drop their jaw or raise an eyebrow when they read the end of this sentence, but I love Brussels. Yes, I do. With as much love as can be accorded a great Northern capital. It has everything that typifies the modern European capital city: age, history, and diversity. It’s embracing and open, a city of culture, refuge and transit. It is also a dirty, sloppy and sometimes incoherent city; it can be positively difficult to get around its traffic and frequently misleading street signs. Many of its buildings are in various stages of decay, mismanagement or growing ugliness; the footpaths are badly cracked and finding a parking spot can be a trip all its own. But the baggy, honestly scrappy feel of Brussels is key to its charm.
Brussels also has more diverse culture than you can throw a stick at. Walking from block to block, you’ll experience alternations of flavour from Brazilian to Greek, Turkish, Portuguese, African and Vietnamese, and all the culinary possibilities they imply. And then Dutch, French and German mixed in, like colours in a multicultural flag. By then you’ll have to sit down for a crepe with real chocolate, take a restful moment to think about a beer, preferably one you’ve never tasted before, order and then drink it. Beer, you see, is as cheap as a softdrink in Belgium, and almost infinitely variegated.
So much for the superficial, er, “charms” of the city. There’s enough history and noteworthy buildings and museums to keep the average tourist satisfied. And for a traveller like me who’s spent too much time in the relatively insular monoculture of Ireland, it’s exhilarating and humbling at once to experience such a force of multiculture: to walk through (arguably) the largest markets in Europe and be able to buy, taste, and sample a staggering diversity of fresh produce and product; to really mingle and interact with these maligned “others” the rest of us call “foreigners”. Belgium has its own problems with racism and prejudice the right-wing Vlaams Blok party is becoming disconcertingly vocal but the friendliest service I received was from Muslim olive and smallgoods vendors at the weekly markets behind Gare du Midi, who made delicious crepes with ricotta and honey and the requisitely sweet glasses of mint tea. It was a true sense of welcome.
At times it’s also clear that compared to London or Paris, Brussels feels like a poor cousin to these former centres of empire. It’s tempting to say Brussels might be the heart and capital of the next great empire, that of the European States. Maybe not now, and not for several decades, but several generations hence; when it’s cleaned up its superficial wrinkles and built itself up to something bigger, culturally, than just a pretty town square which also happens to be the administrative centre of the EU. It’ll happen when all that ethnic diversity becomes a strength and a symbol of welcome, because Brussels has the seeds of something larger, yet.
After spending three days in a three star hotel (with a suspiciously third-rate feel why are the walls so hot? Why is the breakfast room called “Inferno”?) a different feeling started to creep into my sensory range. It began during my stumble through the flea markets on the Vossen Plein, not far from the fresh produce markets. The stuff on offer was like a huge generational spring clean, a treasury of junk: brass figurines and tarnished jewellery, coal jars, silver spoons, grandfather clocks and old china, chandelier bits, old family portraits and photo albums (one filled exclusively with pictures of Mannekin Pis in various outfits). Maybe it was the sunny weather and the surrounding cafés with all their comfortable drinkers, or the quiet dusting of forgotten stories on all that memorabilia, or maybe it was the two vendors I saw patiently hocking junk over a game of checkers, not too bothered if they didn’t sell as much as a trinket or a busted piece of period furniture . . . The feeling found here was found in Antwerp several days later, barely 50 miles north and a language away (Brussels is Francophone to Antwerp’s Flemish). Rather, what I experienced in Brussels was the feeling of expressive depth that hides in novels; the surprising details of hidden alleys and secretive streets, the combination of old and new, indifferent and frank honesty written on faces and buildings, the occasionally generous accidents of communication with people making an honest living, a strangely positive mix of character and place.
As I walked through the boulevards and narrow lanes, stopping for a building façade here, a crepe there, and even for a dramatic-hysterical suicide attempt at the Hotel Métropole (she was finally cornered and rescued), and with the words “scrappy, baggy” running a loop in my head, I got to thinking about the grand, bookish idea of the capital city expressed in Dickens’ living, breathing London and Joyce’s Dublin; an idea of the city as a kind of contextual model for character and narrative depth. Lawrence Durrell made Alexandria the reflective frame of his characters, Saul Bellow cast Chicago in novelistic history, and both Honoré de Balzac and Henry Miller envisaged Paris as a grand and imposing woman/whore whose blood of humanity runs through arterial boulevards and sewers. They all went for massive solidifications of the city as an enlarged physical characterisation, a map of the full gamut of human expression and suffering. It’s the city as big, heavy metaphor for humanity, capture in big, heavy novels. I started looking at Brussels as a city waiting for such a literary work.
The ever-prolific Georges Simenon set a few of his Inspector Maigret detective stories in Brussels, and there are quite a few Belgian writers who’ve used the city as backdrop, but these rarely make it into English translation, let alone French and Flemish (maybe published in one language, but seldom both). But there’s a definite work in the wings, waiting, ready for the English-speaking world. I think it’s the honest migrants trying to make a basic living who constitute the real drama of our times and of Brussels especially. It’s the balance of traits, old and new, local and foreign, which is quite distinct from the relative aggression of London or the illicit cosmopolitanism of Amsterdam; a feeling which might appeal more to wannabe writers and culture vultures. It’s novelistic and humane. It’s an air of future potential, breathed up from the junk and the fusion of bazaar-like diversity; it’s the possibility a new literary scene.
Physically, the city of Brussels is a loose, baggy monster. The phrase is from Henry James and his description of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, another heavy and solid book. And it sticks. Brussels is a veritable novel of trilingual proportion; roughly grouped into ethnic and social quarters, occasionally decaying, nonsensical, broken and bent, but encyclopaedically novelistic. It’s big enough to leave in all its mistakes; it’s roomy and rich in character and the flesh of a thousand stories. It’s slow, deliberate, and rewarding for all patient readers.