Most people come to Brussels for love or work. For me, it was love. Thomas, now my husband, had started a new job there and my freelance work meant I could do it anywhere. Three months turned into half a year, and I returned to Berlin to pick up my stuff.
At first, Brussels’s chaotic pace set my OCD on fire. Things didn’t work the way I expected them to. Streets were full of dog poo, buses changed destinations half-way through the ride and I was never sure where a ‘déviation’ would take me. On buses and trams, people rarely waited for you to get out before getting in. Handshakes didn’t seem to exist. Every person I met kissed me on the cheek. I was in shock. I approached Brussels as if entering into an ice-cold lake, slowly and on tiptoes.
About a year later, something amazing happened. I visited a photo exhibition by Brazilian photographer Vicente de Mello and found: “Brussels says, ‘Decipher me or I will devour you.’” I blinked. I decided to give Brussels a chance and start deciphering it.
One by one, the city uncovered its secrets. There was the beautiful Bois de la Cambre, a park where I’d spend many hours. Then there was Wiels, a former brewery, now a contemporary art gallery. On the streets of Brussels, I discovered tiny pieces of history. Goudblommeke in papier, a café where artists would meet and Rene Magritte wrote ‘Every man has the right to twenty-four hours of freedom a day’ above the door.
I started to warm up to the city and searched for more of its jewels. My favourite one was ‘Au Vieux Spijtigen Duivel’. Centuries ago, it was an inn where travelers could eat and give their horses rest on the way to Paris. It hosted Charles Baudelaire and Victor Hugo.
One day, I admired the view from the platform in front of the Palace of Justice. The buildings, some beautiful art nouveau, others ugly (spuuglelijk, as the Flemish would say), were bundled together, as if someone had tried to Photoshop all architectural styles into one. Nothing fitted together, yet there it was. Just like my life. An eclectic mix pieces that didn’t belong, yet co-existed. This was the moment I fell for Brussels. It was no longer just a place, where I lived: it became my home.
In Brussels I also decided to give my biggest passion a chance. I found out about the Brussels Writers’ Circle by a coincidence. Twice a week we would meet at La Maison des Crêpes to share, read and comment on each other’s work, some of which has culminated in a Brussels anthology entitled The Circle, to be released at Waterstones in the fall.
After almost seven years in Brussels, life and love (still the same one), took me to São Paulo. I often find my thoughts escaping back to the European capital. I miss the kindness of the Bruxellois, their unique sense of humour, the city’s jazz marathon in May, the Brussels Summer Festival in August, the weekend markets at Place Flagey, casual beers at Moeder Lambic in Saint-Gilles.
Perhaps that’s where I’ll place one of my next novels. Apart from being the home of surrealism, Brussels is also a European nest of spies. If you’re a writer in Brussels, stories are practically writing themselves.
When I hear people say Brussels is good for working, but not living, it makes me sad. This city was always good at hiding its secrets.