Brussels is an intriguing and confounding place, simultaneously familiar and alien. Not for Brussels the showy resplendence of Paris, Rome or Madrid, but what it lacks in grandeur and majesty it replaces with many subtle charms and a sense of intimacy that its bigger rivals can’t hope to replicate. Parochial and cosmopolitan at the same time, it has very many things to commend it. The weather, though, is not one of them.
Even though Belgians will tell you that there’s no bad weather just bad clothing choices, the weather has often been appalling. The whole of winter seems to have been no more than grey skies and an unbroken streak of rainy days. Normally, that is compensated for by indoor activities: restaurants serving famed cuisine, snug wood-paneled bars with magical beers, and cultural hotspots aplenty.
These times are not normal. Indoor activities just aren’t as much fun in a pandemic. It’s fate that a recent spell of what must be a record breaking six days of sunny weather – it does happen, even if it only highlights how wet, grey and often miserable the weather has been – coincided with the easing of health restrictions and a sense of life returning to normal. Our first Brussels spring is definitely in the air.
Even if we can finally look forward to better weather combined with the optimism of having got the pandemic under a degree of control, it’s hard to forget we’ve moved to a place where it rains on over half of all days each and every year. Neither the weather or pandemic have prevented us from exploring Brussels though, or trying to get a better understanding of this truly confusing place.
It’s not a little ironic that a city with this much water doesn’t sit on a major waterway. There is the River Senne, or Zinne in Flemish, which flows for a paltry 103 km and was once so monumentally polluted with industrial and human effluent, that it was considered to be an open sewer. French poet, Charles Baudelaire, described it as a “big open-air toilet”. Today, like some cheap magic trick, the Senne has vanished.
The chronic pollution was a major health hazard, and the arrival of canals did away with the Senne as a means of transport. So city authorities paved over the whole river with roads and buildings in the 1860s, changing the cityscape forever. Entire, mainly working class, districts were also destroyed. It’s unimaginable that Paris might cover the Seine, Berlin the Spree, London the Thames. Not so Brussels.
There are rumours of plans to uncover the Senne once more and return it and nature to parts of the city – albeit the ambition is limited to about 650 metres of the former river. Whether the river sees the light of day again is much debated. If it ever does, it will run close to where I live and where its name lives on in the local brewery, the Brasserie de la Senne. Their Zinnebir is a Brussels favourite.
The Senne may now be invisible, but its influence lives on and not just as beer. The good folk of Brussels are nicknamed Zinneke. Originally, the name was applied to Brussels’ many abandoned stray dogs that were allowed to breed unchecked. Many were drowned in the river Senne. Over time, the name for these scrappy mongrels was transferred to the city’s human inhabitants and is now worn as a badge of honour.
It has even been turned into a festival, the Zinneke Parade, to celebrate the diversity of a town that thinks of itself as a European and global crossroads. In a country renowned for its weird but traditional carnival events, the Zinneke Parade is known for being surreal and not just a little raucous – not unlike the town it represents. It takes over the city in May, when the weather should be suitable for a carnival.