My coming to Brussels was not entirely by choice; it was driven by the need to be closer to my elderly parents in Greece and to escape the stressful Celtic tiger of the early nighties. I landed on the last flight on a snowy 31st December night, dragging my life inside two overloaded suitcases. It was the only reasonably priced air ticket I could buy that holiday period. In a city where half of the residents have families in other countries, airfares around that time of the year can be exorbitant if not booked in advance. I was the only passenger on one of the last rides of bus number 12 from the airport to Place du Luxembourg.
The friendly North African bus driver, probably feeling lonely too, began to chat with me, his eyes in the rear-view mirror. He asked me where I was from and about my plans for that New Year’s Εve. He was shocked – in the mirror I could see the pity in his eyes – when I told him I had nobody to share that night with. I told him I intended to go straight to bed in my cheaply furnished rented flat. The frozen and deserted Schaerbeek streets exasperated my loneliness. “If Brussels was good enough for Audrey Hepburn, it should be good enough for me,” I thought as I climbed into bed.
Seventeen years later, my feelings and perceptions of this curious, introvert, yet fascinating multi-layered city have evolved. Its Bobo environment and atmosphere, the dilapidated facades of its grand buildings, its crooked pavements, the indifferent, grey faces of people on the morning metro ride matching the city’s infinite, grey skies. Once you scratch the surface, a different place appears. A place that in its own ways has left a deep imprint in my life.
Brussels has allowed me to become a child again, wandering around the Belgian Comic Strip Centre. Or walking around on a balmy afternoon soaking up that Brussels summer feeling, tasting the delights of an ice cream from the eclectic palette of flavors at Au framboise doré, Chez Gaston or Zizi’s. Or being completely immersed in the Christmas atmosphere of Plaisirs d’ hiver, skating under the bright lights of the Place Sainte Catherine ice rink.
As an adult I have tasted the intense coffee at Place Saint Boniface. And yes, it might be cliché but I have managed to indulge repeatedly in the best waffles, and triple-fried frites, and chocolate in the world. And exquisite beer. In the Delirium Café and in so many other hangouts near Grand Place, probably the most beautiful medieval square in the world.
Here I have matured, evolved as an adult – discovering and learning from its amazing cultural treasures. Spending many a rainy night in its cosy independent cinemas enjoying great, offbeat films and documentaries. Admiring the priceless art that Brussels hides in its countless Museums – this city has a museum for everything – strolling around the rooms of Bozar, the Musee d’ Ixelles, the Instruments’ Museum, the Magritte Museum, the Kanal Centre Pompidou, the Maison de la Bellone – a gem of late Baroque architecture – and so many others. Listening to sublime music in the numerous classical concerts at the Henry Le Boeuf Hall, the Conservatoire Royal, The Monnaie, The Flagey Arts’ centre.
I felt lost in delight visiting the Librairie d’art in the Galleries Royal St. Humbert, among the musty smells of the myriad of second-hand bookshops inside the 19th century Bortier Gallery of Rue Madeleine. This city gave me inspiration to write: my first two novels were triggered by Brussels’ moments and experiences, while the second has the city as its backdrop. This city has pushed me to explore, to question my own personal values, feelings and emotions through writing. It gave me the opportunity to meet the Brussels Writers Circle with its contributors from every corner of the earth.
Brussels has allowed me to admire the power of seasonal colours: the bright autumn foliage of the Abbaye de la Cambre and its pristine gardens; the monochromatic bare alleys of the Cinquantenaire Park and the Bois de la Cambre on a chilly winter afternoon; the delicate and fragrant spring blooms of the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken.
And above all, it is Brussels where I have chosen to get married. This city and its authorities have, with their official seal and archaic bureaucracy, crowned one of my most beautiful, life-altering events.
Bruxelles ma belle? Not exactly. Someone has described it as, “The Good, the bad and the ugly” together. I agree. I couldn’t call Brussels beautiful. I would call it human and intriguing. A capricious old lady full of self-sarcasm: which other city would consider a statue of a little boy peeing as their key attraction? A creature who keeps aging, sometimes badly, melancholically, yet always graciously. Like a decorous old aunt who makes a huge effort to hide her expensive jewellery – its charming features, its exquisite architecture. If only her inhabitants and her governance were as gracious in looking after her. Because as Jacques Brel, one of her most genuine children, sang:
“Les vieux ne parlent plus,
Ou alors seulement parfois du bout des yeux,
Même riches ils sont pauvres, ils n’ont plus d’illusions
et n’ont qu’un coeur pour deux…”