Created on Wednesday, 23 April 2014 12:52
Written by Maggie Lennon
To the outsider and the tourist, Brussels/Bruxelles appears as a city of two halves and I’m not, for once, talking about the language “issue”. In any event this self-governing city state in Flanders is 80% French speaking though surrounded by fiercely patriotic Dutch speaking suburbs and communities, desperate to keep the wealthy French speaking Eurocrats from moving in, and even more determined to keep the poor migrant workers out.
But geographically the division is between the Upper Town and the Lower Town. The latter settled on the once malodourous swamps which covered this plain and which can still be, on hot days, a tad “fragrant” thanks to dodgy drains. It’s where the tourists flock - to the Grand Place, the Bourse, the hustling restaurants of Ilot Sacre with their tempting and overpriced displays of seafood, to the colourful migrant area of Les Marolles and the Sunday flea market at Gare du Midi. And until now, the areas of Brussels I have been most familiar with.
But climb up past the cathedral or saunter up Les Sablons to the Upper town and you are high above what remains of the medieval city into a 19th century vision of wealth created and paid for by Leopold II (The Builder King) with what the local call in hushed tones “The Congo Money”. Not the money drifting into Belgium as a result of their imperialist actions but the huge personal sums of money coming to Leopold II himself who effectively took over the Congo Free State as sole shareholder before many years later “nationalising” it and handing it to the nation of Belgium to pillage it treasures instead of just him. Dominating one end of Rue Royale is the majestic Palais de Justice and at the other end a bizarre Baroque basillica (complete with flying buttresses from another era all together!) in the middle stands the Royal Palace, now the King of the Belgians’ work space and a museum, and its park, a welcome lunch spot for the Upper town workers.
From high above the rat run of the lower town gentle slopes lead down to Euroland; Rue Belliard lined with Commission office buildings to the European Parliament itself or to Place Schuman with its grotesquely overpowering Commission offices of the Berlaymont building, beyond which you can see more evidence of Leopold II’s delusions of grandeur - his triumphal arch a strange mix of the Arc de Triomphe meets the Brandenburg Gate.
The European Commission is often referred to as a “village”, everyone knowing everyone else’s business, cut off from the real work and existing in a self-important bubble, a village which is deserted from 6pm on a Friday till Monday mornings. But Brussels is in fact made of up of dozens of such little villages. People, you soon realise, here are very loyal to their neighbourhoods. I’m living in North Ixelles close to the “border” with Etterbeek, the Euro area. To my east are the luxury town houses around Les Etangs. To my south the arty, slightly bohemian and culturally diverse neighbourhood of St Gilles separated from Ixelles by the famous Avenue Louise with its embassies and hotels and designer stores. West of both of us, the mini area round St Boniface with its lively African restaurants, tea houses and bars. I have barely moved out of these areas in my three weeks, so far only descending once into the Lower Town in search of Tin Tin t-shirts. Nearly everyone I am working with lives in St Gilles and it’s home to lots who work in the NGO sector. Nowhere was this more evident than crossing a square in St Boniface, for an early evening beer after a meeting, my co-worker Anne hails Tom, who runs an important migrant statistical organisation that Bridges has been following for years and that I had heard address a seminar here only the week before. It turns out he is also an acquaintance of one of my best friends in London also working in this sector. He also lives in St Gilles because it’s full of “his kind of people” and round the corner from Anne. Tom offers to push her bike the 20 minutes to St Giles and drop it off when she is offered a lift home; a village indeed!
“You must be The Glaswegian”, he says on introduction. I let that pass, but suggest with his pale skin and ginger locks he might pass as one himself. “I’m a former American”, he says. He now has Belgian citizenship. My arrival has clearly been heralded in the integration community here. So the villages aren’t just geographical, but sectorial too.
To an outsider all these linkages and loyalties create a culture of gossip, intrigue and indiscretion. NGO types swap opinions on whose rated and whose not, who is to be trusted and who to be merely out up with. How often, meeting with officials in various capacities from the Commission in the last two weeks, have people stressed how things are “their own opinion”, and lowered voices at meetings are commonplace, difficult if your meeting is in a busy café or restaurant. Meetings out of offices are generally understood to be off the record; “concept meetings”, someone called one. Where things are punted to see if they will fly, where opinions are teased out and where “where people are coming from” is never really clear. And the road map to “where we are going” has long since been forgotten. Yet everyone wants to know your credentials, your background, your expertise and why they should listen to you. At the same time as being keen to stress why, they too, are qualified to take a meeting or be interested in your sector. The most bizarre being the Portuguese official whose opening gambit talking to me about third country Migration was to tell me that his wife was Ethiopian and proceeded to show me pictures of her and his 6 children. This was his calling card, and why he was the “right” person to speak to. Walking home at night, one passes groups of people on the pavements and on street corners fresh from meetings or seminars making deals, exchanging cards, forming alliances, trying to read the other one’s agenda; a process which seems constantly fluid. The most common phrases said to me in three weeks have been “let’s keep in touch” and “maybe we could do a project together”. But it’s all smoke and mirrors. It would be too easy to take yourself seriously here. Too easy to believe that people really are telling you something new and ground breaking and too easy to think that you alone are being let into the big secret. How the Commission works being the biggest secret! Maybe that’s why people keep routed to their neighbourhoods, to keep grounded.
But the indiscretions, the willingness to pass on a secret doesn’t stop there. Visiting a museum, tracing the history of Belgium primarily through its royal families, a curator, spent quite a bit of her time filling me in on some background. I heard her theories about a popular king who might have been murdered, or committed suicide, a Regent who was no better than she ought to be and an unpopular king who (and she really did whisper the word) might have been a “collabarateur”. I saw the frayed ropes from the royal climbing “accident” and the torn jacket worn by him that day and the stone originally drenched in his blood. And I felt strangely complicit in the conspiracy theories.
The essence of this large city is that it feels like small one. It’s doable and liveable in, in small chunks. It’s quite comfortable living in your little neighbourhood, whether that’s a geographical one out of office hours or a professional one Mon – Friday 8am – 6pm. Unlike Berlin, which I adore and, which I cross back and forth, side to side up and down without a second thought, something about Brussels corals you in your own limited space. I’m surprised at myself that I have not ventured further afield in the city. It’s possibly a symptom of being the “capital” of a country where, where you live and what you speak is so crucial to identity and sense of self. Or possibly a city’s natural defence in dealing with so many “etrangers” from across the 28 members States and further afield. Place defines people here first and foremost. And whatever you find in common with the people you live beside you can be sure thy will always be willing to gossip about the people in the next neighbourhood or let you into a juicy secret!