Why don’t you make a book about Brussels? Someone asked me on Instagram.
Who cares about Brussels really? It is soiled, polluted, messily patched together. It demonstrates little self-esteem, and doesn’t seem to manage its own protection. “Bruxellisation” is now a generic term for town-planning mishaps – past, and ongoing.
And yet, I enjoy living here. And of course, I love my city!
I started asking questions from citizens from various origins. There are 179 nationalities in Brussels Capital Region: a bounty for someone like me who likes to travel. A friend from Syria told me that Brussels is nonchalant like a spoilt woman who plays hard and works little…
Why would one love Brussels?
Because it doesn’t pretend to be likeable, or so clumsily it’s actually endearing. So many improbable encounters, so many mixes of cultures and accents, could only occur here, on this tiny territory housing merely one million people. This small city, on European terms, gathers the cultural richness of a megalopole, minus the arrogance, plus a good dose of auto-derision.
Brussels is an exception as far as linguistics, statistics, economics and even geography are concerned: an economic powerhouse inhabited by poor people, an island in Flanders where Flemish is hardly spoken, a marketplace built on top of marshland, crossed by a minor river that never carried a proper boat and has long been buried, a beech forest, magnificent and fragile.
Sometimes I don’t like it anymore. Creative neighborhoods are now gentrified, half-day tourists are clogging the historic center. Around the year 2000, Brussels suddenly, candidly discovered it could be attractive; now it seems disappointed, sulking. It has been threatened, danger has been tragically confirmed, then the man-hunt, the planetary evil reputation. We sang our bleeding hearts out at the Bourse, we lit candles, we painted on the pavement: we felt wounded, and united in sorrow and outrage. What had been our normality was now called “diversity”. Violence has since found other grounds to roam, but humans seeking refuge here, and entitled to it, still have to sleep on the streets.
And yet… I read that people at a local library broke a Guinness record by reading out loud in 75 languages. And yet, a fox trots at midnight across the Opera square. I smell hazelnut roasting at a chocolatier’s workshop, I walk out of a theater where artists from all ends of the planet made me dream for two hours and will make me ponder for a week, all that for the cost of a movie ticket.
It just finished raining; at dusk, wet, worn-out cobblestones reflect the golden baroque of the most beautiful square in the world. Truly.