BEING THERE: BRUSSELS

brusselsbakery.jpg

In the abstract the city tends to make people grumpy, but for David Rennie, who lives there, the reality is an abundance of small pleasures that add up to a charming whole ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2009

Some towns are best visited in the imagination. Real magic is conjured, in the abstract, by places like Samarkand, Alice Springs or Harbin. Yet the magic that wreathes their names and histories barely survives contact with those cities’ shabby, dusty reality. Other towns are enchanting to visit, but can be hard work to live in for years—Beijing springs to mind.

My latest hometown, Brussels, turns each of those patterns on its head. Contemplated in the abstract—as the capital of the European Union, the capital of Belgium and even as the capital of the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders—Brussels makes a lot of people grumpy. Eurosceptics loathe “Brussels” as the fount of meddlesome Euro-rules, or the seat of a federalist plot. A growing number of Belgians from Flanders (who make up 60% of the population) have fallen out of love with their squabbling, divided country, and thus feel no tug of loyalty to their national capital. And although the Flemish are determined to hang on to Brussels as their regional capital for territorial and economic reasons, few show real affection for it.

Equally, Brussels is not really suited to brief visits. At weekends, the city’s handful of famous sights is thronged with glum-looking visitors, wondering what to do next. You can see them eating overpriced mussels and frites in the tourist traps off the Grand’Place, or emerging from a new museum dedicated to the Belgian surrealist René Magritte, wondering if such a talent truly deserves a large gallery all to himself. A linguist with a sensitive microphone could collect the disappointed words “Is that it?” in a hundred different tongues, just by spending a day near the Mannekin Pis, a tiny statue of a naked boy, peeing ceaselessly thanks to a plastic hose piped visibly into his bottom.

Yet in the real, everyday world, there is another Brussels that is anything but uptight or dull: a polyglot place that is home to a million people, more than half of them of foreign origin. This city has little in common with the various abstract versions of “Brussels” that make people so cross, or bored. This Brussels reveals its delights only slowly. In short, you have to live in Brussels to love it.

I have lived in capital cities almost all my life: London, then Beijing, Washington, DC, and now Brussels. The Belgian capital has been my home twice: once as a student 16 years ago, and now since 2005 as a foreign correspondent with a young family. I have loved it both times, but not for grand, sweeping reasons. Brussels is a city of small pleasures.

There’s its modest size: a 20-minute tram ride takes you from the city centre to the Forêt de Soignes, 4,000 hectares of beech woods and bridle paths on the south-eastern fringe. It is also a spontaneous city: the opposite of London, where dinner parties must be planned six weeks ahead. Part of this is its transitory nature: because half of its inhabitants are from somewhere else or just passing through on a posting, people are not so fixed into rigid networks of family and friends. In the overlapping worlds I inhabit—the Euro-world of people linked to the EU and the world of Brussels parents with young children—impromptu picnics or weekend brunches are easy to arrange.

brussels galeryDespite its small size, the city rarely feels over-crowded. Head to a popular spot like the Bois de la Cambre, a central park, on a sunny weekend, and there is always room for one more game of Frisbee or kick-about on the lawns leading down to the lake, and somehow always a few last bicycles left to hire (at low subsidised rates) from the temporary rental stand that operates in summer months. Nothing is very large, everything is shared. Our favourite playground is a Babel with swings: the air is filled with a dozen European languages, plus Arabic, Turkish and still more exotic tongues. Inside the Euro-tribe of Brussels, children learn to try both English and French on any new child they meet: one of the two always works.

There are the nicely old-fashioned bars, where customers gather to talk, fine beers are served with plates of cubed cheese, and satellite sports shows do not blare from corner televisions. The climate is dreadful, but locals pretend otherwise. In winter it can look like Bucharest: grey, drizzly and bleak. But at the merest hint of spring, tables and chairs appear outside every café, and the city pretends to be Marseilles, undeterred by average summer temperatures of 17°C, and frequent rain.

The sights of Brussels are rarely world-class. In compensation, many are endearingly odd. I am obscurely fond of the small BELvue museum, tacked onto the (ugly) royal palace and dedicated to modern Belgian history. The BELvue’s strangest relic is a smart corduroy jacket in a glass case. It was the coat worn by King Albert I when he fell off a small but lethal cliff in 1934. The jacket has been cleaned of gore, but bears a nasty tear in its right sleeve.

It is a place to eat well, if heartily. I was an intern at the European Commission in 1993, and those student days are brought straight back by the sweet, burnt-sugar aroma of freshly baked waffles, drifting up from metro-station entrances. Outsiders will tell you that Belgians only eat their fried potatoes with mayonnaise. In fact, locals are not nearly so purist, sousing their frites with things like curry sauce (a lurid yellow gloop) or consuming them in a mitraillette —this disgusting innovation, which literally means “submachinegun”, crams potatoes, sauce, onions and deep-fried meat into a half-baguette sandwich. Belgian chips, in truth, are not my thing. My weakness is for the bakeries, the best of which match Paris for quality, but not for snootiness, and sell croissants hot from the back door, at any hour of the night.

Today, the city is a bit less shabby, though its pavements are still studded with unrivalled deposits of dog excrement. There is still beauty beneath the grime. Small public gardens fill odd corners of the city, including an entire “secret park” hidden behind Rue Faider in the district of Ixelles, reached through the coaching entrance of a house. My walk to work takes me past tree-lined squares filled with Art Nouveau gems, and cobbled backstreets as quiet as country lanes. Only the last few moments of my walk bring me into the European Quarter, a brutal zone of glass and concrete canyons, cut through by smoggy  urban motorways.

Belgium is a young country which grew rich suddenly, thanks to coal and steel, but also, alas, the pillaging of the Congo. The boom left its mark: great swathes of the city boast streets of high-ceilinged mansions built in a 30-year burst after 1880. Many have sweeping staircases, fine stonework and marble fireplaces. Some are inhabited by ambassadors, others are chopped into tiny flats and shared by migrant Moldovans, Turks or students.

An estimated 115,000 people live in Brussels because of the EU, and this Euro-crowd can be a cliquish world, with many inside it having few or no Belgian friends. That is not all the foreigners’ fault: native Belgians are understandably wary of investing in Euro-friends who keep leaving every few years. Many Bruxellois are none too fond of Eurocrats buying up houses with their large EU salaries (which are exempt from Belgian income tax). Some say these tensions are getting worse, as EU enlargement brings new members of the Euro-tribe. Arriving for the second time in 2005 I was struck by how few Eurocrats now exercise the right to special “Euro” number plates for their cars. A different colour from ordinary Belgian plates and adorned with 12 gold stars, these apparently invite a key along the paintwork. Legend has it that the only people who embrace them are Eurocrats from France, so that when they drive home to visit Maman they are not mistaken for Belgians (the horror).

You will often hear foreigners praise Brussels for its easy links to other cities. That can betray a reluctance to put down roots, especially among young singletons left cold by the charms of playgrounds, parks and weekend cycle rides in the forest. On a Friday afternoon the fast Thalys train to Paris and the Eurostar to London are packed with French or British twenty-somethings fleeing the Belgian capital for the weekend. They are missing out.

But then, the same is true for many Belgians who work in the city. This can be a tribal town. Almost half the jobs in Brussels are filled by Flemish commuters, a quarter of a million of them arriving each morning from strait-laced towns like Vilvoorde, Aalst or Boom. Yet few linger after work, hurrying straight from their desks to their cars, or to the crammed railway platforms of the Gare Centrale.

A very different tribe is the “Dansaert Flemish” —a trendy, open-minded bunch of Dutch-speakers who live around the Brussels street of that name. Then there are the many faces of immigrant Brussels. These can be well-established, from the African district of Matongé to the Turks of Saint-Josse, or the French tax-exiles holed up in leafy Uccle. Some are brand new, like the Polish enclave in Saint-Gilles (whose territory is shared with older, less visible communities of Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Greek descent). Above all, there is the growing Maghreb Arab community, the self-styled “Maroxellois” of Schaerbeek, Anderlecht and the streets round the Gare du Midi. Theirs is a different Brussels from mine, and yet the same one: a charming, ill-kempt place that belongs to none of us and all of us.

No absolute truths apply to Brussels, as the Flemish academic Nadia Fadil wrote in her 2008 essay, “Thank God we have Brussels.” Everything said about the city is relative, she concluded, because “talking about Brussels reveals your identity, says something about the circles in which you move, the position you occupy.” She is right. Brussels should not be contemplated in the abstract, but only as a place to live. And as that it is a very fine place indeed.

GOING NATIVE:

WHERE TO STAY
Brussels is a political town, with its own ideas about status. The grandest hotels are good but not palatial (visitors with real Brussels clout stay at an ambassador’s residence).

The Stanhope  Easily the best in the European Quarter. In summer ask to eat in the garden courtyard. +32 (0)2 506 91 11

The Amigo  Luxury a short walk from the Grand’Place. The area is a bit touristy, but the hotel is calmly clubbish. +32 (0)2 547 47 47

WHERE TO EAT
The high temples of Brussels gastronomy, like Comme Chez Soi (+32 (0)2 512 29 21) or the Villa Lorraine (+32 (0)2 374 31 63) deserve their Michelin stars, but tradition may teeter into stuffiness.

For serious French food in a more urban setting, try L’Idiot du Village, a cosily decorated spot where EU commissioners dine next to local couples on dates. 19 Rue Notre-Seigneur. +32 (0)2 502 55 82.

For moules frites as locals eat them, Le Pré Salé offers the real thing in an authentically noisy, white-tiled setting. Some hate it, others swear by their carbonnade flamande (a beef and beer stew). Rue de Flandre 20. +32 (0)2 513 65 45.

STREETWISE
Despite the drizzle, Brussels lends itself to exploring on foot. The Grand’Place is a spectacular example of Flemish town architecture, and must be seen once, though the crowds quickly become overwhelming. A step away is a trio of handsome 19th-century covered shopping arcades, the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. For a relaxing drink or snack, head to the other town square of central Brussels, the Place du Grand Sablon, lined with fine cafés. A short walk uphill is the main museum district. Be selective: the Royal Museums of Fine Arts have some treasures, including fine Bruegels, but many rooms are badly hung.

WHAT TO SEE
The Atomium is a giant assembly of gleaming steel balls connected by hidden escalators, built for the 1958 World Expo, in a northern suburb of the city. It represents an iron crystal, magnified 165 billion times and has been carefully restored.

The newest museum in town is dedicated to the Belgian surrealist, René Magritte. Beat the queues by buying a timed entrance ticket for later in the day, or buy online.

For die-hard Tintin fans, a splendid new museum dedicated to his creator, Hergé, has just opened in the university town of Louvain-la-Neuve, housed in a lovely modernist building. Tintinologists will swoon over the wealth of archive material, but young children will grow skittish. www.museeherge.com

SHOPPING
Pierre Marcolini is the best of the chocolate chains (1 rue des Minimes, at the bottom of the Place du Grand Sablon). The same Sablon area houses many antique shops, including dealers in African and tribal art. A happy exception to the horrid souvenir shops near the Grand’Place is the official Tintin shop, just off the square at 13 rue de la Colline. It is a good, if expensive reminder that Brussels is the home town of the legendary boy reporter.

Picture Credit: jchong, interzone00, e3000 (all via Flickr)

(David Rennie is the European Union correspondent and Charlemagne columnist of The Economist.)