Brussels Bummers

Perfection is not of this world. There are no perfect people, perfect places or perfect shapes. Everyone, and everything has its own smudges, flaws and blemishes, that may be more or less evident.

Cities, as people, have their own character, their own story, a proper process of growth and development that are not immune to imperfections. The atmosphere and the rhythm of each city is different and may attract you and enchant you, as well as disgust you or not correspond to your taste.

Brussels is a great city, full of opportunities and options, but there are some aspects of it that sometimes make you question your decision of moving there. The poet Charles Baudelaire lived in the Belgian capital for two years, from 1864 to 1866. During this period, he cultivated an inner hate and disgust for the capital and the country, that eventually led him to write a resentful pamphlet called “Poor Belgium”, in which he described the city, the society and the elements he despised the most about them. Moved by anger towards the population -who, apparently, did not recognize his talent and art-, financial instability and a precarious health, he poured on paper his feelings and opinions about Belgium.

In the exhibition dedicated to the pamphlet, in Brussels City Museum, the poet’s opinion come up pretty clearly: Baudelaire complained about the Belgian weather, the architecture and the religious heritage and traditions permeating the city, for him too heavy and superficial. He was annoyed by the “provinciality” of Brussels and by the reduced size of the city, that he felt restricting and lacking of entertainment. He was perplexed about the meaning and artistic value of the famous statue of the Manneken Pis (as probably some people still are nowadays) and did not enjoy certain aspects of society, like the behavior and dress-code of women, the different language -for him, a sort of contaminated and impure version of French-, the general jovial and trivial character of the population and the poor, medieval-like urban setting and bars. Most of the complaints and annoyed comments come from a constant comparison of Brussels with Paris: the poet was trying to fit his Parisian standards, preferences, memories and ideas in a context that was not the original one. His frustration was due, probably, to the fact that he was not recognizing Paris, and the aspects of it that he loved, in the new city. It is clear, from his notes and quotes, that he had not forget the French capital and that he was not putting too much effort in understanding and discovering the new city.

Things have changes since Baudelaire’s visit to Brussels: the city completely transformed itself, getting rid of a good part of the Middle Age alleys, restoring the buildings and adopting a more European and aristocratic appearance. Most of the places visited by the poet no longer exist and the city adjusted and evolved thanks to the influence of the internationals arriving.

I can’t agree with Baudelaire on many of the complaints he did: the architecture and the urban conformation are beautiful and unique to me, they embellish and improve the atmosphere and character of the city. I can’t say anything bad about women too, here, or about the religious heritage: many buildings, traditions and celebrations are kept alive and bring together Bruxellois and foreigners many times during the year. They add a special connection, between past and present, that enriches the city and its culture.

Nonetheless, there are some aspects of Brussels that sometimes make me wonder why I moved here and I even decided to stay: the weather, for instance,  drives me crazy. It’s not just about the grey and gloomy sky that covers the city during autumn, winter and often spring (and summer, dang it!), nor just about the disgusting and almost omnipresent thin rain that makes hair frizzy. No, it’s about the continuous and sudden weather changes you can experience in just one day. It may rain, snow, be sunny or extra-windy in just one day, without any signal of the imminent change and the golden rule of clothes-layering may not apply. In Italian the word “meteoropatico” describes a person whose mood changes depending on the weather: if you were not meteoropatico when you moved to Belgium, you may quickly become it, just for the atmospheric instability.

The second element that annoys me terribly is traffic. I know, it’s a common plague of big cities, but in Brussels it kind of feels endless and spread everywhere. There are some crazy moments during the day (especially when you are in a hurry), in which it seems like everyone in the city decided to go out, take the car and queue in the streets for no reason. A trip by bus that usually takes 20 minutes ends up taking at least the double. The good thing is, though, that you have a break from traffic in summer, and that’s mostly because no one is in town. Brussels becomes a sort of ghost-town from June to August, making it easier to move around, but more boring to spend your nights out. Yes, there are festivals and events, but they’re usually all around the country and you may still be working. August in the city center is a sort of paranormal experience: any night of the week in Brussels is calm and quiet, with few, chill people around.

Burocracy is another deal-breaker: just to subscribe to the commune, get the paperwork and collect your Belgian ID may take several trips to the commune, with different documents all the time and with quite a lot of people already waiting in front of you. Make sure you have no appointments that day, because you may spend all your morning in the offices.

Lastly, sometimes Brussels feels too much like a “Northern city”: people mind their business, they don’t bother you in streets or clubs and have a sort of self-centred attitude. Not that they are selfish or cold, but Belgians don’t necessarily want to start a conversation or establish a sort of sudden, conspirational friendship if you meet them around. Italian or Spanish people, for instance, are different in this: you may be out with your friends for a drink, meet a new group of people and decide to chat or spend the night drinking together like old companions. It’s a warm and ephemeral contact that may last a night, or even a whole life, but it’s normal to reach out to other people and be friendly. It’s a social element that sometimes I miss and I wish I could see more often, but I don’t get too sad about that: the expats in the city make up for this small, secondary lack, connecting people and making everything more fun.

Brussels is not perfect: it lacks some elements and has its flaws, but it is so rich and varied that it kind of re-equilibrates everything, making things more interesting and unexpected.