The International Writers Magazine: Europe

Charming Irregularities: A Brussels Beyond Bureaucracy
Stefanie Stiles

Underneath 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 Belgium’s colonial past–not to mention its present, as the seat of the European Union–are 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 hotel’s awning, you may hear, all at once, French, Dutch, Italian, German, perhaps Latvian–although you will not realize it, because it’s Latvian, for heaven’s sake–and best of all, to an errant Canadian, unmistakably American English being spoken.

“’Scuse me, but d’ya know where that l’il 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 Europe’s 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 Africans–often the results of old colonial connections, of course, or visiting their Belgian-citizen relatives–form a good third of the city’s population.  It’s 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 Europe’s bold new political idea, the EU, and as such you would expect them to possess a certain dignity befitting their roles.  Not so–the 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.

Little 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 it’s 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 Hergé’s Tintin, Brussels is also a center for Art Nouveau, and the birthplace of the popular surrealist, René Magritte.
Understanding 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 today’s 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 Hallucinatie”–the ultimate hallucination.  I mentally placed it third place on My Favorite Brussels’ bar names, right behind “Bonsoir Clara” and “Drug Opera”.

 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 large.

This turned out to be Saint Mary’s 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 didn’t need to.  It was typical Brussels, the surreal faintly superimposed over the mundane.
© Stefanie Stiles Oct 17th 2006 Bruxelles
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