Whether it’s Smurfs or dysfunctional national government, beer or being home to the European Union, waffles or hosting the Battle of Waterloo, chocolate or tyrannical 19th century colonial rule in the Congo, Belgium is awash with cliche. It was after the fifth consecutive day of rain though, that I truly began to believe the persistent rumour that Belgium’s weather is rubbish.
It rained so hard and for so long, I began to wonder if Brussels was in fact Atlantis which had just been going through a period of drought. In reality, on average the city receives rainfall on over half of all days annually. That’s something to look forward to.
We arrived in Brussels in August and found a city deserted. Restaurants and bars wore signs stating they would reopen in September. Desultory looking pigeons patrolled formerly crowded parks and squares in the vain search for bits of leftover sandwiches. People told me about the summer exodus, I thought they were exaggerating. They were not.
It was strange visiting abandoned squares filled with closed cafes that only a few weeks earlier had been buzzing with activity, but the rhythm of the city is orchestrated by the institutions of the European Union. Like clockwork, when they stop for the summer, so does much of the city’s life. Brussels burst back to life in early September as the political agenda got back into full swing.
We’ve spent our first weeks settling into a new flat, navigating Belgian bureaucracy, and exploring different neighbourhoods to try to get a feel for the city. For all that Brussels is a bit dirty (there is a very real dog shit issue) and run down, it also feels friendly and welcoming. The major contrast to living in Berlin is the seeming lack of rules. No one tells you off for crossing the road on a red light in Brussels.
This is reinforced by the fact that Brussels’ 19 communes, or districts, operate different rules for just about everything: from recycling to residency registration. This is the sort of disorder that Berlin bureaucracy was designed to eliminate. In a country fiercely divided on cultural and linguistic lines between the Flemish and Walloons, a bloated bureaucracy is the glue holding everything together.
One thing is abundantly clear, Brussels is a ‘car city’. There are an extraordinary number of vehicles crammed on the roads of the capital. You can encounter a traffic jam at 11pm on a Saturday night. When Belgians aren’t stuck in traffic jams, they are driving wildly and erratically at homicidal speeds. There seems to be no in between. Pedestrians and cyclists exist at their own peril.
So the arrival, one sunny Sunday morning, of Car Free Day was a chance to experience a city liberated from the daily traffic grind. Within minutes of cars being removed from the cityscape, chaos reigned. Without the ceaseless flow of aggressive driving, pedestrians, cyclists and people on e-scooters – the curse of modern city living – careered around the streets as if this was an experiment in Brownian motion.
I don’t really know what that tells me about the psyche of the city we’ve just moved to, but let’s just recall that former French President, Charles de Gaulle, said, “Belgium is a country invented by the British to annoy the French.” One of those annoyances is the claim that the French Fry was invented in Belgium. The Belgians have form it seems.
Brussels, like Belgium itself, flies under the tourist radar. Being overshadowed by its larger neighbours seems only to have encouraged a defiant eccentricity though. Where else would one of the most enduringly popular national symbols, and tourist attraction, be a diminutive statue of a small child urinating … and only yards from its magnificent medieval heart?
Of course, we’re missing Berlin, but our first impressions of Brussels only make us want to explore more. While a couple of day trips to other Belgian towns have revealed the wealth of history literally on Brussels’ doorstep. I just hope the weather improves.