Saturday, 11 October 2008

Dear Brussels

Dear Brussels,

I am really sorry I did not choose you as my favourite city in that meme recently. But because you are so preternaturally relaxed, I know you won't actually mind. This is why I love you. You have no pretensions, no mystique, you aren't buying your own hype, mainly because, er, there isn't any. You know that you are grey and a bit shabby in places. Lots of places. And you can laugh about the fact that it takes you ten years to build an underground car park, only to discover that the site you have chosen is susceptible to catastrophic flooding. You just stick an oversized bench on the top and shrug your shoulders.

Whilst you are not my favourite city, there are many many things I love about you. Here are some of them.

1. The metro, because it smells of waffles and diffuses puzzling music. Also, since only foreigners like me and very poor people use it (since most Brussels residents are surgically attached to their cars and assume if you go down into the hole of death, you must be desperate), it is pleasantly quiet, if statistically skewed in favour of very crazy people. It is also free! Well, almost. I like to think so.

2. When I walked past the ice cream parlour at the end of my street at 9 o clock last night, on a chilly mid October evening, it was crammed with dating couples, very well dressed elderly ladies in their good coats and twin sets, gangs of stoner students, families and single crazies all cheerily tucking in to enormous ice cream sundaes and waffles bigger than their heads. This, for me, is very Brussels. You people are absolutely unapologetic about pleasure. There is no age, no time, no situation that does not merit a treat. I love that. And I love that eating on the street is positively encouraged. Who cares if it isn't dignified; it is fun, and delicious, and some things are made to be eaten on the street. Like fritjes. By the way, even though it's objectively terrible, I rather admire the fact that there are sometimes DEATHS in the queue for frites at Place Jourdan, because they are so good that even mad killers go there. And mad killers hate to wait for their fries.

3. At a first glance, you look grey, prosaic, a slice of soulless mitteleurop. But anyone who persists more than a few minutes will stumble on something fantastic. It's not even that you hide your treasures - you just don't shout about them. Look up and see an art nouveau frieze of peacocks on the grimiest house. Stumble into one of the awesome, half-empty bars, like Le Cirio or Le Falstaff, full of sepia toned stained glass, dark wood booths, smoke (still!) and nineteenth century plumbing, and marvel at the tables of elderly ladies companionably sharing a "half and half"* and slipping their small dogs small biscuits under the table.

Le Cirio :

Or you might wander into a sparse, elegant café, contemplative as a library, with chamber music, proper Moroccan mint tea and free chunks of chocolate fondant. You don't even have to try - there are corners of delight in every part of the city. Just walk around and you find something amazing - I've tested this theory all over and I've never been disappointed. At the very least there will be some demented jumble sale where someone will try and sell you a giant tin of beer bottle tops.

4. When I watch the only cultural events programme on Belgian tv (which I rather love, since it's just a bunch of lively unpretentious Belgian people chatting cogently and with humour about the arts - Hello? Melvyn Bragg, did you get that?), and I see something that looks good, I can just ring up, or turn up, and see it. I don't have to fight with seven hundred thousand like minded people, all more determined than me, and with better hair. And then, when I get there, I am sure to see at least five people I know. Which could be awful, but somehow isn't, because they're all tremendously laid back. I haven't managed a half decent falling out with anyone since I moved here. All the fight has gone out of me.

5. In the two years we have been here, we have spent a deeply puzzling afternoon with thirteen Icelandic father Christmases and their string of sausages, taken a giant stuffed crocodile to chase Captain Hook around an art gallery, been to countless strange plays, marvelled at the institutionalised weirdness of the Zinneke parade, listened to accordeon jamming sessions in the Portuguese allotments, admired tractor demos, seen about fify St Nicolas of varying degrees of strangeness, watched the construction of a giant Loch Ness monster out of water bottles, listened to people playing traffic cones, had our picture taken in flamenco costumes and so many other bizarre things I have already forgotten. Your residents have weirdness hard wired in their DNA. This city is a shrine to surreal and for that I absolutely love you.

6. I made up this list sitting in a virtually deserted park, one of Brussels' largest, with giant mature trees, a lake, and a lively group of what appear to be chinchillas gone native. It was a bright, warm autumn day but there was practically noone there. The space in this city! It's intoxicating for a battery chicken Londoner. No wonder you can all manage to be so civilised and chatty. I know more about the local shop keepers than I know about some members of my family by now. Oh. And I was flanked on every side by a waffle van - with not a shred of exaggeration, I could walk 100 yards in any direction and buy a waffle. That pretty much sums you up for me, Brussels.

Pity your coffee tastes like crap and your trams are driven by serial killers. You're still great though. Now I'm going out to get a pancake the size of a cartwheel with hot chocolate sauce and I'm going to eat it as I walk home.



*Half wine, half champagne


Iota said...

I lived in Brussels for 6 months a lot of years ago. It is a fabulous city. I mean, what other city could be famous for a statue of a boy peeing?

I had a favourite waffle stand, in the metro station whose name I can't now remember. If I shut my eyes, I can still conjure up the smell. Any city that has deliciously smelling underground stations is pretty impressive.

Are the parks still full of dog poo, or are people obliged to clear it up these days? There was one park which was known as the Parc du Kaka.

justme said...

ok......I think Brussels will forgive you! And do you know what? I have never been to Brussels.......but if I do, I shall be kindly and forgiving and think of all the good points.....

Lulu LaBonne said...

Well I was planning to drop my tripods and come straight over and then I saw that half wine, half champange thing eeuw

KSV Woolfoot said...

I went to Brussels once, for a few days when I was 19, and I loved it. It was my first (and nearly only) trip to Europe. I had the single best meal of my entire life there, at the Holiday Inn, of all places. Also, when I asked the waiter at that spectacular meal, as he swept the crumbs away with (to my eyes) an exotic crumb-sweeping implement, what was for dessert, he said: "Does Madame like strawberries?" I never have felt more exalted than I did at that moment. Also, we hung around the Grand Place for a long part of a rainy day. It was beautiful in the rain.

Dani said...

I think Brussels should employ you to write travel brochures.

Jaywalker said...

Iota - I wouldn't say it's caca free. That would be a lie. But there are some caca free areas.

Justme - Not the first choice for a mini break, but if does have many many compensation. And I didn't even mention chocolate...

Lulu - Oh, go on. I won't force you. You can have cherry flavoured beer if you like.

KSV - Yes, that sounds perfect. It should be like that all the time, no?

Dani - I might have to tone down the tram comments, no?

A Confused Take That Fan said...

I heart Brussels.
Had a lovely romantic weekend in a 5* hotel in the red light district one Christmas pre kids.
Ate steak in bed. Fish at a great bar/restaurant, saw the pissing boy dressed as a pimp, got some great boots from Zara.
Also went there with college and it was -10 and the hostel smelt of shit. Still managed to have a complete ball.
Does it still have a C&A??

Anonymous said...

I went there years ago when I did a french exchange visit. The twin town was Valenciennes and the family couldn't afford the trip to Paris so they took me to Brussels instead so I saw a european capital! They kept going on a bout mannikin pis and frites! I thought Brussels was grey and a bit odd but funny - I was 15. We got lost on the way home because no one realised everywhere had two names - one french and one flemish. Strangely, we only saw french ones on the way there but there only seemed to be flemish ones on the way back. I shall have to visit it again.

Jaywalker said...

CTTF - Am so glad you liked too. Even in a hostel that smelled of poo.

Alienne - My street has THREE names - German too. Getting lost is thus a given.

zoe said...

I love Brussels/Belgium. I've been here over 20 years now and STILL love it.

The caca situation is much better than it was.
CTTF, C&A still exists over here.
I managed, without any persuasion, to get a man to leave the LAKE DISTRICT to move here and live with me.
He loves the madness, the (violent) demos, the chaos of this country. More so than the Lakes. He is mad though.

I love this country, I really do.

katyboo1 said...

I have never been, but I am a total foodie and it is on my list of places to go because I have heard that the food is so good you can eat yourself to death in an afternoon. How cool is that?!

Fat Controller said...

What a glowing tribute! I have never been to Brussels, just driven round it on my way elsewhere.

We were thinking of taking a break somewhere different in the spring - Dublin or Prague were front runners - but now we might investigate Brussels instead.

Helga Hansen said...

Found you via the Black Boxes - hurrah!

I adore Brussels, and have spent many a fun weekend. We dump our bags at the Metropole, head down to the cafe, drink a beer or three, and then head off to find chocolate! The best time I had was when they had the Cow Fest, along with the summer rock concerts scattered all over the city.

I'll be back!

Jaywalker said...

Welcome Helga - you found me in a black box?! Were there cushions? Small chocolate squares? Reading matter? I do hope so.

Katyboo - totally true. This weekend I might bring my tape measure to the waffle shop to show you how vast they are.

Helga Hansen said...

Yes, it was all very welcoming. Now I'm wondering whether I had lost my marbles!! No matter - yours is a lovely blog, and I shall be back to read more of it! Thanks for the chocs, by the way - Belgian chocolates are certainly up there with the best!!

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