International Writers Magazine: Europe
Irregularities: A Brussels Beyond Bureaucracy
a slate gray sky, an equally gray stone dog perpetually lifts
a hind leg over a fire hydrant near Place St-Géry. Sprinkled
liberally among the colossal monuments celebrating Belgiums
colonial pastnot to mention its present, as the seat of
the European Unionare the most roundly-drawn, utterly ridiculous
comic book characters you could ever imagine; here a rastafarian
angel drowses in the shadow of the Palais de Justice, there a
three-dimensional Astérix jauntily surveys stern Léopold
I, from across the street.
Welcome to Brussels,
the European city that charms in spite of its grandness. It is very
popular for both native Belgians and homesick expats alike to
mock Brussels as a tedious little city, one that fell into the good
fortune of becoming a diplomatic capital solely due to location and
politics. By all rights, it really should be only another large
Flemish town, of moderate interest, overshadowed by the more dynamic
port city of Antwerp to the north, or the true Flemish showcase town,
little Bruges, which is virtually an open-air museum. But yet,
as the home of most of the major instruments of the European Union,
NATO, and a slew of other international NGOs, Brussels has been revitalized
over the past 50 years by infusions of cash and foreigners. Fresh
coats of paint, plaques, and general refurbishing is a constant affair,
and construction hums throughout the city.
Outside the famed Hôtel Métropole in Place de Brouckère
a multinational crew of snobs sip their coffee and look out onto the
street. Filtering out from under the discreet shadows of the hotels
awning, you may hear, all at once, French, Dutch, Italian, German, perhaps
Latvianalthough you will not realize it, because its Latvian,
for heavens sakeand best of all, to an errant Canadian,
unmistakably American English being spoken.
Scuse me, but dya know where that lil peein
boy is? asked the bearded American man, accompanied by a teenager
daughter as tiny as he was gargantuan.
By that he meant Manneken Pis, of course, either one of Europes
most asinine tourist traps, or the charming symbol of Bruxellois insouciance,
depending on your viewpoint. My companion gave directions in his
heavily-Spanish-accented English, causing the friendly bear-man to lean
in closer, an expression of intense concentration on his face.
The hordes of Eurocrats, mingled with a number of American tourists
such as these, as well as the globe-trotting Japanese, and some Africansoften
the results of old colonial connections, of course, or visiting their
Belgian-citizen relativesform a good third of the citys
population. Its a city of Eurocrats really, men with dark
suits and expressions. Their locus, the Berlaymont, in fact, the
whole European Quarter, is about as awe-inspiring as a New Jersey strip
mall, and just as authentically European. They are part of Europes
bold new political idea, the EU, and as such you would expect them to
possess a certain dignity befitting their roles. Not sothe
rumpled Brit sitting next to me on the tram, like many of them, gave
off the impression of harried junior salesperson, not statesman. He
nervously scanned his morning PowerPoint presentation and I read the
words integration, harmonization, and dynamic
unity over his shoulder. His glasses were quite dirty.
gray bureaucrats scurrying under an overcast sky. This is
the dreary picture imagined by the Bruxellois fellow Europeans
when they express dislike for the city. But its not
the entire picture. The half-hidden details of the place are
actually its most likable elements. Very often surprising
fruit is born out of this mundane environment. Besides being
home to a number of famous comic strips, most notably Hergés
Tintin, Brussels is also a center for Art Nouveau, and the birthplace
of the popular surrealist, René Magritte.
Magritte is perhaps the key to understanding the core personality
of Brussels. His images are famous for their questioning of
the nature of reality, by taking the most mundane objects, an apple,
an umbrella, or that celebrated pipe, and inverting or distorting
them in some way. In doing so, he creates in the viewer a
profound feeling of unsettlement. Order is destroyed as locomotives
charge out of fireplaces; a beached mermaid has the audacity to
defy convention with its fish head and female legs; and a tuba blazes
furiously in a dark room.
The painting Golconde,
of dozens of raining, bowler-hatted businessmen, could have very easily
emerged from the feverish daydreamings of todays Brussels
citizens. Simply replace the bowler with a more 21st century-style
businessperson accoutrement, like a BlackBerry, and the picture becomes
contemporary. This is because Brussels today is still the Brussels of
Magritte, only more so. His pictures continue to mock modernity,
the bourgeoisie, and the pettiness of the age. Only a city like
Brussels, so very ordinary that the human heart rebels and creates out
of its ordinariness a sublime distortion, could an artist like Magritte
come into existence. The explosion of Art Nouveau there in the
late 19th century can be explained the same way.
Go almost anywhere in Brussels, and hidden among the ordinary are touches
of not the extraordinary, but a charming irregularity. One day,
while aimlessly walking along shabby Rue Royale, I happened upon a bar
I later discovered was an Art Nouveau masterwork. Appropriately,
it was called De Ultième Hallucinatiethe ultimate
hallucination. I mentally placed it third place on My Favorite
Brussels bar names, right behind Bonsoir Clara and
It contained a grotto-like bar, and a dining area with seats stolen
from a railcar, among other delights. The requisite Art Nouveau
ironwork and curving stained glass were also in evidence. But
I was neither hungry or thirsty, and I was alone. So I continued
up the street. Evening fell stealthily, and I felt suddenly aware of
the eyes of strangers, mustachioed North African men (Brussels
bêtes noirs, the victims of racism, and the symbols of crime).
The street had gone from shabby-chic to decrepit.
Later I was to discover that I was in Schaerbeek, described by my guidebook
as a deprived and run-down area with a large and poorly integrated
immigrant population. I was to spend the next two hours
hopelessly, stupidly lost, without my cell phone or wallet, but before
that I looked up and saw a miracle.
Just ahead in the distance, the dome of a church loomed grotesquely
This turned out to be Saint Marys Church, a dilapidated Byzantine
nightmare, floating bizarrely in a sea of Muslim inhabitants. Out
of all proportion to the street, it was like the corpse of a giant,
overrun by hostile ants. I was too apprehensive of the neighbourhood
to stand in one place very long and observe the scene, but I didnt
need to. It was typical Brussels, the surreal faintly superimposed
over the mundane.
© Stefanie Stiles Oct 17th 2006
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