Tuesday, 19 September 2017
It was car-free Sunday yesterday, our eleventh in Brussels.
The first time, we knew nothing about it so we put our kids in the car and drove them to the swimming pool. Back then we were forever on a shark-like drive to be constantly in motion: it seemed to be central to life with two tiny people. They were 2 and 4, a barely controlled explosion of desires and emotions, everything lived and felt intensely. Forever in need of amusement or occupation, we their serfs/butlers/keepers took them to parks and museums, tiny trains and zoos and soft play warehouses on industrial estates. I spent half my life, it felt like, on moulded plastic chairs toying with a cup of terrible coffee in the strip lit, stale fat-scented play areas of Quick restaurants in out of town shopping centres, wondering if the sticky residue on the table was juice or something much worse.
That first Sunday, after a few scolding headlight flashes and a quick burst of Google, we got the message. We’ve known the next ten have been coming. The weather is almost always good - I don’t know quite how they swing that - and we’ve cycled and roller bladed and walked and run, gone to local knees-ups and city ones. We’ve queued for ice creams, petted police horses and collected conkers. I mention this because I’m drowning in nostalgia at the moment: the kind of nostalgia that physically hurts, not the soft-focus, delightful kind. This variety aches until it’s almost intolerable. I usually love this time of year; I land in September with relief, a sense of purpose and a bustle of work after summer rootlessness but this year the work hasn’t come and it seems to have left me open to this weird, achy sense of loss.
Of course our children don’t want to walk or run or roller blade with us any more, so I went for a walk with my husband and the dog on Sunday morning instead. The weather was good, as usual, after a fortnight of relentless rain and everyone was out. We crossed paths with gangs of death-wish skateboard kids, wobbly scootering toddlers, sedate cycling pensioner couples and every shape, size and colour of family on every possible variant of non-mechanised wheels. A winded “oof” of feelings hit me in the stomach on the Chaussée de Waterloo and brought me to a halt. “We’ve been here so long!” I said to my husband, weighing all those years, all the Quick play areas and slow trails around the parks. He agreed. We have. Apart from our respective birthplaces, this is the city we've lived in the longest, by far. It will be here that the boys associate with their childhood, these dozy streets full of lost cat posters, the Parc du Caca, ice cream from Zizi and spectacular Art Nouveau details displayed without fanfare above grubby corner shops.
I actually love having teenagers. I’ve loved every developmental hop, skip and jump. They can make a decent cup of tea and an edible bowl of pasta and the darker and twistier a conversation I can have with them, the better. We laugh together, often and I take a basic farmer’s satisfaction in watching them grow and thrive. But in the last few months, I’ve started, at last, to feel the wrench other parents describe as they fold away the tiny socks and hats. Because they don’t want to spend time with us any more, at least not like this and I miss them. It’s universal; it’s normal. “They’ll come back,” older and wiser people say, and as long as I don’t fuck up too badly, I’m sure they’re right.
But it won’t be how it was: nothing could ever be as intense as those early years. The boys were all-consuming and with each year, they are less so: I think about them as much as ever, but they don’t take possession of me physically now. My body remembers it all: the satisfying heft of a plump baby on your hip or a tantrumming, ironing board rigid toddler to be wedged into a car seat or carried up to bed. How F used to like to pull idly at the loose skin on my elbows. Laces tied, noses blown, pants pulled up and the thoughtless, instinctive sharing of food and space. My hand perpetually solicited and given for holding, for carefully selected stones, soggy tissues and discarded biscuit wrappers (or sick. Sometimes sick. I’m not so nostalgic for that). Hours that felt like days. The endless, spooling, maddening, enchanting flow of talk. Brightly coloured plastic in my pockets and under my feet and the lyrics to the credits to awful TV shows lodged in my brain. All the detritus of a childhood, of a parenthood, feels oddly precious at this moment, as it slows to trickle (it's just chargers and washing now, mainly).
I’ll get some work in eventually (I hope) and I’ll stop mooning around, nostalgic for Bakugans and paying €4 to watch a child scream through a 2-minute ride on a migraine-inducing technicolour carousel. No one in their right mind could or should be lost in a fog of exquisitely painful elegiac nostalgia for a foot and urine scented soft play area or Jay Jay Le Petit Avion and I’m sure my right mind is around here, somewhere.
Partly I think my nostalgia is preemptive: it’s for Brussels. We’re not leaving, not yet. We have no concrete plans. We speculate, throw ideas in the air, see where they land, then back away from them for now. It’s just that I’m beginning to think we might be heading towards done. Eventually I want more hens and less saxophone free jazz in my life and my husband wants space and peace. One day, perhaps not until the boys leave, we’ll do it. But this will forever be the place they grew up and it was pretty great, most of the time.
The city was on best behaviour on Sunday, of course. There was a lunatic folklore event on the Grand Place with prize winning moustaches and a woman dressed up as a horse and the man who wheels a portable Manneken Pis around, squirting unwary tourists.
The flea market was packed and sunny and one of the stallholders was wearing a rakish fur stole.
There were made to order Magnums with smoked dark chocolate and salted caramel at Pierre Marcolini and some excellent dogs on the terraces of the Sablon. Even the trams were working, mostly.
It has rained pretty much ever since, but I'm trying to hold onto that sense of whatever it is I'm feeling - gratitude perhaps? - towards this city. Because, it's increasingly apparent, we won't Always Have Brussels.