Brussels – capital of Belgium, capital of Europe, famous for its French fries – well, actually in Belgium you would just say “fries”, renowned for its amazing chocolate and remembered for having over a thousand different types of beers.
Brussels – the city where you can find everything, from local recipes to international cuisine and restaurants, fancy cosmopolitan neighbourhoods bordering alternative ghettos, different languages spoken at every street corner and finally, from my point of view, the most majestic square I ever seen: La Grand Place.
This city is also known, due to the continuously growing number of European Expats, as the “bubble”. In other words, most of the foreigners who work for the European institutions, international banks and companies, press and lobbying agencies, live in a different kind of Brussels, a parallel city with their own culture, habits and routine. The most emblematic cliché of this is the international gathering on Thursday nights at the famous Place Luxembourg. Brussels – the city where 55% of the population comes from abroad, half of which from the EU 28.
“A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country” – this is probably the simplest way of defining an immigrant. Brussels, in its complexity, has different types of immigrants. In the past year, I have discovered extraordinary stories on immigration of all sorts, from all sorts of countries and told by all sorts of people. If we get back to the “bubble” concept, each time we think about the so-called “Expats”, we imagine wealthy EU civil servants earning more than 70 thousand euros per year and living the dream. They do exist, but there is more.
In the 60’s, a huge wave of immigrants from the South of Europe came to Brussels seeking a better life. First hand, were the Italians, the Spanish and of course, the Portuguese. They were mainly working in restaurants, the construction industry, or as concierges and cleaning ladies. This generation remained in Brussels to this day.
As a foreigner living in Belgium since over three years, I have never considered myself as an “immigrant”. From my point of view, Brussels is more than just the capital of a foreign country. We are at the heart of European culture and diversity.
However, one conversation opened my eyes on what “immigration” truly can be. Let me share with you the story of David.
David is a 50-year-old man, from the region of Caramulo in Portugal. He owns a restaurant in Place Flagey, a famous location gathering the Portuguese community every weekend to watch Benfica’s football games. This is the place, at least for those who come from this country, where you can find the little things that make you feel the saudade an untranslatable Portuguese word expressing simultaneously a mix of nostalgia and happiness. David was born in Beira, Angola, and grew up in this former-Portuguese colony until 1975. Following the Portuguese revolution, he had to run away with his family to Portugal. At the age of 14, he lost everything and had to come to Europe. When he turned 18, he fell in love with a girl and decided to go Brussels, where she worked. 32 years later, they are still in love.
This man worked hard: he was a truck driver, working more than 16 hours a day. Today, he runs a restaurant all by himself in a country where he didn’t speak a word of the language at first. He had to fight to earn what he has today. If you ask David: “how was it?” he will tell you that it was hard but he’s now living a dream, his dream. He will tell you that Brussels gave him everything and that he never felt any animosity from the locals. If you ask him if he wants to go back to Portugal, he will tell you “no way”. Don’t get him wrong; David loves Portugal, his home country. However, his family, his sons and possibly grandsons are in Brussels. Why should he go back to his country?
When you think about it, the “Davids of Brussels” also live in a bubble. Not the same bubble where the others expats live in, but still. It is his bubble. According to your community, your life style and most importantly, your history you will discover various bubbles in Brussels. This is why I am living in the most exciting city in Europe that can’t surrender to brutality. We are still shocked by the moment of terror we lived last March 22. But we cannot surrender.