I recently read my esteemed colleague Laura Francheschin’s article ‘Brussels Bummers’, and felt compelled to do something deeply un-Belgian… and respond to the criticisms levied on the city of my birth. I recognize that they are commonly held beliefs by many expats, and being somewhere between an expat and a local myself I get to see both sides. I’ll try to address the issues brought up by my colleague one by one, but I don’t intend to rebut Baudelaire. I’m quite happy he published a tirade, and we can chalk up his illusions of grandeur to a syphilitic hallucination. I’m sorry, that our badly dressed women didn’t want to shack up with a poor, sick, contemptuous French guy with STDs. Thanks for sharing your opinions Chuck.
So first off a complete misunderstanding of Brussels’ history predicates the entire article
“… 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…”
Is this to suggest that Brussels’ was somehow not ‘European’ or even ‘Aristocratic’ before the mid 19th century? Yes there was an investment in public works in the late 19th century by Leopold II, the same king who ran the notoriously atrocious and ironically named Congo Free State, but Brussels had a fairly rich history before then. The fact of the matter is that the Duke of Brabant had already held stewardship over the city for 900 years before Leopold. That congested little ring road around Brussels city center has represented a city wall for the better part of 700 years.
How’s the weather? Is there a more mundane way to strike up a conversation? Imagine a planet of linguistic hairless apes sitting around talking about if it’s hot/cold and wet or dry around them. Yes the weather is bad. It’s horrible. It’s capricious and an unforgiving sky hangs from the top of the cathedrals, and a darkness befalls the entire country for a span of months. Personally I don’t mind the rain. I’ve lived in lots of places, and sunshine is nice. But I noticed something when living in a desert that is best encapsulated by this quote from André Gide: “there is nothing less conducive to thought than this perpetual blue sky”.
The sun is hypnotizing, and pleasant. It slows you down and takes away any sense of urgency. Most importantly it causes pleasant daydreams, and while I love daydreams what I like more than pleasant day dreams is escapist daydreams, and nothing gives your imagination more fuel than darkness.
So yes the weather, but oh god do we have to talk about it again.
Ride a bike/moped or plan ahead. The line of black mercedes with a single passenger going into the Commission buildings every morning surely doesn’t help.
Again, a topic that Belgium is roundly criticized for. Perhaps this is due to the fact that people here haven’t ever had to do bureaucracy in a non-european country. It took me a month to get my ID when I moved back to Brussels, and I’m a citizen. An American friend of mine got hers in two weeks without a visa. So be it, it’s something that happens once every couple years and it sucks. Bureaucracy sucks. A functioning government with social systems that protect people is awesome though, and our social systems are more comprehensive than most of Europe. Not to mention that Brussels has 180+ nationalities living here, and strict linguistics laws rooted in the eternal struggle between North and South, as well as a sense of transience for many people. It could be better but let’s not over do it.
Belgium is Northern
Well yes, yes it is. I’ve heard this critique a thousand times. Southern Europeans want Northern Europeans to act like Southern Europeans. You want red wine philosophy and proclamations of eternal friendship. You want masterpieces, and silk curtains, a constant ocean breeze and your skin to be dry from salt water….
You’re not going to find it. Things are different here. We eat herb infused cream sauces, Rabbit in kriek and plum sauce, and have a deep appreciation for bitterness in our food and in our people. We are inventive and private, this is after all where the beginnings of classical music and oil painting took root. Without Desprez or Van Ockeghem you would have never had Palestrina, and the Roman Catholic church may have never allowed two sounds to be played at the same time (great job Rome). Without Van Eyck, Van der Weyden or Bosch there would have never been Caravaggio, The Italian renaissance artists would be painting with egg yolk based temperas. The Magritte you want regaling you with stories of his greatness isn’t there either. Magritte, Delvaux, Permeke were quiet people. Magritte hated going out, and thought that city folk were obnoxious. You would have never seen him at the bar, he would have been with his wife whom he loved dearly at home.
While our beaches aren’t picturesque they do possess a mysterious sexiness. Don’t believe me? Ask Marvin Gaye, whose classic song ‘Sexual Healing’ was inspired by the waves hitting the beach in Oostende, where he lived for years and recorded his critically acclaimed comeback album.
We are Belgians, a non-urban people without the imperial ego of our neighbors. We are one of the few Western European countries that didn’t try to take over the entire world, I’m looking in your direction England, Germany, Holland, France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
Perhaps this environment encouraged Karl Marx to write the communist Manifesto while living in Brussels from 1845-1848.
So yes we are northerners, in the sense that no one cares what you’re doing, and that may be unpleasant and lacking warmth. But you’re here now, and you can enrich yourself with the experiences of the locals not fortunate enough to want to broaden their cultural horizons, by assimilating and observing and being open and curious, or you can sit at a bar full of expats wondering why the Belgians simply don’t care.
The last point, making friends anywhere in the world is hard. Making good friends is damn near impossible. It would be just as hard to develop deep bonds anywhere in the world where you speak a different language or see yourself as belonging to a different culture.
I apologize if I got defensive, next beer is on me.