The first time I set eyes on a Volvo P1800 was the summer of 1978. From the backseat of our family Chevrolet I watched the two door caramel coloured coupé with tan interior speed along the Pacific Coast Highway, the sun reflecting off its modern almost space-age proportions. It looked slow while moving fast, which, in my mind, gave it a level of sophistication other sports cars couldn’t match. I spent the rest of my summer imagining all the places that car could take me.
Almost forty years later, when I moved to Brussels, serendipity brought the Volvo back into my life. I saw an advertisement for a 1971 Volvo for sale: original gold metallic paint, beige leather interior, beautiful condition. All those heart flutters came racing back. As I pursued the car I learned that the Volvo 1800 made its public debut at the Brussels International Motor Show in January 1960. The same Volvo won a prize at the California State Fair one year later. Those facts may seem trivial, one car connecting my home state and my new city of residence. Yet insignificant details like these hold deceptive power. Sometimes they make or break our attachment to a place and can fuel a desire to make the most of temporary stops along life’s highway.
It was by chance that I set eyes on that Volvo at a time when I was dreaming about my first car, and it was chance that brought me to live in Brussels. Okay, it was my husband’s job, but we could have moved to any city in the world. For me, the Volvo and the emotion related to that first sighting launched me love drunk into Brussels where I expected to be swept into the city’s historic folds, embraced by wide, multicultural arms, and lured into a glittering cafe culture where music and laughter spilled into the streets late into the night. Instead I was overwhelmed by the largess of the architecture and consumed by the hustle, suffering information overload and paralyzed by a language barrier. People in Brussels moved fast and I struggled to keep pace. That first week I stumbled around trying to figure out how people lived. Where to walk my dog, buy groceries, drink coffee?
“I think we’ve made a mistake,” I lamented to my husband as he tried to soothe away my culture shock with dinner at Belga Queen. I kicked myself for falling so quickly out of love, too focused on practicalities. The following Monday morning, my dog and I set off from our apartment on Rue du Fossé Aux Loups with only a vague idea of where to find Le Jardin Botanique. After arriving nearly an hour later, my dog went straight for the grass, oblivious to the orangery, the romanesque sculptures and enormous greenhouses. Eventually she pulled me to a bench facing the circular fountain. I sat down and took everything in: the English-style boulevard, Italian garden and French baroque buildings, but most of all the people. I followed my dog’s gaze for thirty minutes. She tracked older people strolling arm in arm, children skipping their way to school, people in business attire with long strides, other dogs with their masters, birds pecking at a discarded baguette. The park was small and yet there seemed enough park for everyone.
As the weeks morphed into months my dog and I did a lot of walking and I learned that Brussels has 28 sq meters of green space for every resident. This includes Parc de Bruxelles with its formal, neoclassical design, and Leopold Park with its pond fed by the Maalbeek stream which makes a nice home for mallards, moorhens, coots and geese. It includes green patches like the one at the steps to Cathedrale de Saint Michel and neighbourhood flower and vegetable gardens. Can’t get out on the highway? Try Josaphat. Need a wildlife fix without leaving the city? Parc Leopold. If park benches and strolling paths get your motor running, then Parc du Cinquantenaire is for you.
But heed this warning: to love the city’s parks is to love the people who gather there. At the weekend you may be hard pressed to find an empty bench, but persist because the people watching is phenomenal. Cricketers, jugglers, tight rope walkers. There will be blankets and picnics spread like a patchwork quilt across the expanse of grass. Frisbees and shuttles will fly between trees while dogs run, barking, off leash. You’ll hear parrots, techno music, soft laughter, children screaming, someone crying, and maybe a quiet voice reading poetry aloud. If that doesn’t catch your attention, come back any weekday after the morning commute and you’ll find people from far away places who have slipped into a park bench for a few minutes before entering a tall building dedicated to diplomacy, or finance or commerce. From a bench they dream their way out of the chaos.
Brussels may have brought me closer to my first car crush, but it’s the parks and its people that keep my engine purring.
Check out brussels.be for a complete listing of parks.