I’m a traveller, but everyone needs a home base.
Mine is Brussels.
A city that has been in the news so much in the past year for all the wrong reasons.
Flying back to Brussels from my various trips, I always see that moment of recognition, and the expression of sorrow, when I announce my destination at the check-in, often paired with a question if everyone I know is alright. And how it feels, to live under a siege. Or lock-down.
Well, it’s not bad. So here’s the story of Brussels and me, my love-hate relationship with the Belgian and European capital, and why I love this city even more, after it’s been attacked.
The first time I passed through Brussels was on my way to Bruges, to study. Our train stopped in the three main railway stations of the Belgian capital, Nord, Central and Midi, one looking more rotten than the other.
It was grey, too, and I wasn’t particularly impressed.
About half a year later, I was on an excursion to the European Parliament, stepping off at the dark, underground Central Station. A building designed by Belgium’s famous architect Horta, but, underneath by the tracks, a grey, run-down atrocity. Berlin-East, ca. 1991, I thought.
Then, the view from the European Parliament, over Ixelles and Place Luxembourg. They had just torn down the old railway station and construction of the new underground station was in full swing.
They build the European Parliament next to a slum?, I thought, ignorant of the construction, as I looked over a wasteland with some remaining shacks and buildings.
So, me an Brussels, you can say, we got off to a bad start.
I didn’t really want to move here. But when, in the summer of 2002, my studies were finally over and it was time to look for a job, I installed myself in the empty apartment of a friend in Ixelles, sending out my résumé and hoping to find a job.
The summer of 2002 was nice and warm. I discovered Brussels lively café and bar scene, the beers, the fries, the incredible mix of cultures, languages and life styles.
Languages, culture, architecture… BXL has it all
For a city of just over 1 million people, Brussels surely punches way above its weight in terms of internationality. You have to go to London or New York to meet so many different people per square meter of a bar, a market or a public place.
In 2015, 33% of the current population were non-Belgians. But I read somewhere recently, that actually over half of the Brussels population was born outside of Belgium. Check out some more interesting figures here.
It’s a pretty impressive mix.
From the German expat bubble in Tervuren to the Congolese community in Matongé (named aver a neighborhood of Kinshasa), to the Moroccan and Turkish areas of Molenbeek or the more Flemish neighborhood around rue Dansaert…
To me, it’s a fascinating mix, and I love being confronted to it, all the time, every day.
Culturally, the city is just as impressive. The museums, from the Musées des Beaux-arts to the newly opened Musée Magritte… the numerous festivals, from short movies to Couleur-Café or the Jazz Marathon… there’s a thriving opera, a lively dance and theater scene, not to mention the countless small productions in every commune, and every language.
In the summer, every weekend when I walk over the Grand Place, there seems to be another free event. Lady Gaga giving a free performance, for example. I’m not kidding.
Then, there’s the architecture. Victor Horta. Art Nouveau. Need I say more? The number of big and little architectural gems is impressive. You can have entire city walks guiding you for hours from one Art Nouveau miracle to the next.
And then, there are the atrocities.
Bruxellisation, as the French call it, the “indiscriminate and careless introduction of modern high-rise buildings into gentrified neighborhoods” and “haphazard urban development and redevelopment”. Or, in my terms: the voluntary destruction of a city that was, thank God, spared major damage in the war.
Well, they tore parts of it down themselves and build some of the most awful things, right next to their most beautiful buildings. But then, this is Brussels, too. The impossible mix, the clash of styles, the joining of the un-joinable.
Though they try to avoid it, it continues to this day, and I saw it myself when a protected building on Avenue Toison d’or was torn down over night – oops, an error of the company – and replaced now with a shopping mall housing Mark’s and Spencer’s and the first official Apple Store.
Sigh, wonder who got bribed to permit that one, and walk on.
What I love most in Brussels though is its thriving bar and restaurant scene. In my neighborhood alone, around St. Catherine, the number of bars and restaurants to try out means I’ll have to try a few new ones every week, and even then I’ll probably take years. Parts of my streets are still covered in cobble stone, and the newly declared car free center is promising.
Of course, the creation of the pietonnier in the center has caused a huge debate in the city. Dying commerce and restaurants vs breathing space and silence. I am curious what the area will look like.
They just only started the works to turn a barred road into a true pedestrian zone. If Strasbourg with its car free center is any example, I hope Brussels will follow it.
… and its nightmares, too.
I can get desperate with the level of services here. The number of times you get ignored in a restaurant… the grumpiness of the person ignoring you while you try to buy some of their overpriced stuff.
The general mood that is – how do I say this politely – not too inviting, but rather a leave-me-alone and I’ll-leave-you-alone attitude.
The run down public transport system (even though it has been improved a lot in the last few years).
The sad state of infrastructure in general. Walking by the same holes in your sidewalk without them ever being fixed. Or even secured. For half a decade!
At one point, I needed a break. And when I left for my 18-month trip around the world, I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back.
But I did come back, and tried to discover this city anew.
Lots of things had changed, and improved. But also my view on them had changed. Brussels and I, we had our second honeymoon.
Sure, since the attacks on Charlie in Paris, the Belgian military was there, visibly deployed in front of main public buildings, and the EU institutions where I work. You get used to it. The hot Belgian soldiers eat in your canteen. Nice!
Then, the lock down after the November attacks on Paris. A city, closed off. I didn’t feel it too much. The week-end of the famous lock-down I was in Brussels. But is was grey and rainy. I just stayed in. The metro was partially closed, parties cancelled, but all in all, this was just a minor glitch in my life. I refuse to panic. #memepaspeur, as they say.
Somehow we all knew, it might hit us next. with police hunting down terrorists in Molenbeek, it had just become too close to home.
I was on the other side of the world when it happened, enjoying holidays down under in Australia. Spending time with friends as the news trickled in over Facebook, I checks if people I knew were safe. And then tried to ignore it. There wasn’t anything I could have done. I answered all the messages, but then stopped reading.
I did not want to know details or see any pictures. This is my hometown. I use Maelbeek metro twice a day at least. and the airport about 4 times a month… the last thing I need it to have an awful picture in my mind each time I pass the metro or the airport, for the rest of my life.
With the airport closed and my flight back cancelled, I had quite a trip back, being rerouted via Zurich and Paris and hopping on a TGV for the last leg of my journey. But no complaints, this was easy to manage.
In the city, I found things not too disturbing. Sure, there was military and police everywhere. The metro only ran a limited service only during daytime, with many smaller stations closed, and entrances guarded. Security in our buildings at work was heightened. But nothing that would freak me out.
Passing the Bourse, the main ‘memorial’ so-to-speak, with all the flowers and candles, I didn’t approach it too close to study it. All I noticed was that there were flags from all over the world displayed, a nice symbol of people living together peacefully in this city, from all around the globe. This was not just a Belgian memorial, it was a human one.
Sure, the massive presence of military and police was noticable. In the first weeks, the metro was pretty empty. By now, things have come back to normal more or less, even though there are still colleagues who will bike to work, not take the metro. Well, I respect that, but at one point, here or in some other city, you’ll take the metro again. Might just was well do it now.
When Maelbeek station reopened 10 days ago, I just used it. I haven’t looked for signs of the explosion. The station looks new and clean as it always has.
Up at the exit, there are a few flowers, and a little copied poster with faces. I haven’t looked, yet. None of my close friends or acquaintances was killed. But maybe someone I vaguely knew.
Call it denial, for me it is important to carry on with my normal life. To use that metro station as if nothing had happened. #memepaspeur. #notevenafraid. Otherwise, they won.
On top of all this, in the past weeks I have decided to buy an apartment here in Brussels, finally, after 15 years. In the city that I loved and loathed sometimes, and in the aftermath of the attacks.
Brussels is suffering, that’s clear. The lack of visitors, the closure of the airport, the missing guests and cancelled meetings, it must have left a major dent in the city’s economic life.
But the thing is: it just carries on.
And it will rebound.
As runs the current campaign by Brussels Airlines: