In the rue des Chartreux I bump into a statue of a dog lifting its leg on a lamppost. It’s called Het Zinneke, the Flemish word for mongrel, and for me this perfectly captures the soul of this city. Every two years the Zinneke Parade, a pageant of crazy costumes and fantastical floats created by local community groups, weaves its way through the crowded streets of this colourful and chaotic capital. Brussels is home to 182 different nationalities which, after Dubai, makes it the most diverse city in the world.
Bruxelles, ma belle. Often misunderstood, feared, disliked, let me sing your praises. A city of incomers and outsiders, where no one and everyone belongs. Home to Brusselaars or kiekenfretters with their own words and dialect. A mélange of languages and cultures, of graffiti and fine art and festivals, of waste land and viaducts, plane trees and potholes, live and let live. You may be scruffy and defiant but you are full of surprises. An old brewery is converted into a contemporary art gallery. A new Pompidou Centre opens in the old Citroen building near the canal.
It takes time to get to know you. After many years I stumble across Maison Autrique, Horta’s first Art Nouveau house, in a busy street in Schaerbeek. Down an alley off the Rue des Bouchers I discover theatre Toone where you can watch Hamlet acted out by puppets. On Sunday afternoon I find people baking bread in a clay oven in the Parckfarm near Tour & Taxis, where locals grow their own fruit trees and share in the harvest.
People rail at the smug, grey buildings of the European quarter with their reams of red tape and blame it all on you. You shrug your shoulders, turn the other cheek. You’re used to being a scapegoat. You know we must venture a little further, taste the börek in the Turkish restaurants of the Chaussee de Haecht, stroll beside the trellises of the Royal Park, listen to the beat of the drums in Matongé. You show us the beautiful baroque façade of the Begijnhofkerk which for years provided shelter to Afghan asylum seekers, the proud Great Mosque at Cinquantenaire, the vibrant Buddhist temple tucked away in an ordinary street in Anderlecht. There’s something for everyone here.
You host festivals like no other. Events of every size that cater for every taste, often free or at a democratic price. Couleur Café, Brosella, Brussels Jazz weekend, Belgian Pride Parade, the Fiesta Latina in the Bois de la Cambre. Every February there is Museum Night Fever when museums open their doors and stay open till 2am. In May the Kunstenfestivaldesarts with its experimental performances attracts theatre goers from all over the world. The Nuit Blanche on the first Saturday of October offers an eclectic mix of theatre and art installations until late into the night. People queue haphazardly outside unlikely venues manned by volunteers in white shirts. It appears to run on a minimum of organisation, a touch of chaos, a splash of anarchy. But it all seems to work.
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You have always provided sanctuary. A liberal, tolerant place, you have a history of offering a safe haven for people of other persuasions, like Karl Marx and Victor Hugo. More recently the Catalan politician Carles Puigdemont and the Spanish rapper Valtònyc have sought your protection. You can be who you want to be here and nobody bats an eyelid. But you never take yourself too seriously. You’re famous for your zwanze, a unique form of humour characterized by absurdity and surrealism. It’s not for nothing that your most famous symbol is the Mannekin Pis, a little boy peeing in the street.
Sometimes I long to lie in green pastures and forget the world but you call me back to you. On Thursdays I head to the market in the heart of Molenbeek to buy juicy dates and bunches of mint. Every Monday I go to Petit Chateau, the grim fortified asylum centre on the canal.
I always come away happier, inspired by the resilience of the human spirit. I sit on a bench surrounded by pigeons, share tea and biscuits, listen to stories of life in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, glimpses of a bigger picture that puts my own in perspective. I stick a huge piece of paper on the centre’s crumbling walls and by the end of the afternoon it is filled with words in Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Tigryna. It has become a poem.
Like you, Brussels, with all your crazy zany zinnekes. This one is for you. You’re a good place for me because I’ve always felt like an outsider. I used to long to belong but I have come to realise that being on the outside is a rejuvenating place to be.