If you want to get a small insight into the psyche of Brussels look no further than a small hollow in the Parc de Bruxelles, the glorious central park across the road from the royal palace. Descending into the wooded hollow the crowds fade away and you’ll find yourself alone, face-to-face with a statue of Peter the Great. This marks the spot where the notoriously hard drinking former Tsar of Russia vomited.
There can be few places that, centuries after the event, continue to celebrate the drunken antics of a head of state. The park itself wasn’t there when Peter was visiting Brussels in 1717, it was the site of a fountain where he was sat when the previous night’s revelries got the better of him. The park was designed some years later, and in 1830 its tranquility was shattered by the bloody battle for Belgian independence.
The park is close to my office and I often walk through it on my way home. It was the music that initially caught my attention on a warm summer evening a few weeks ago. As I looked for its source, a flash of pink caught my eye. A woman in a pink wig, topless apart from some discreetly placed glitter, was being filmed dancing in an old wrought iron bandstand. This is also Brussels.
Today marks the year anniversary of our arrival in Brussels, and fittingly I find myself returning to Brussels from a visit to the UK. If you want a small insight into the psyche of Belgium, at the start of the runway at Charleroi Airport, where I left from and return to, there is a cemetery. That’s right, the last thing you see before hurtling down a runway in a plane loaded with aviation fuel, is a cemetery. Belgian’s have a sense of humour.
It would be fair to say that, while we have come to enjoy the many odd delights of this offbeat country, we are far from understanding it. It has not always been an easy transition from Berlin – two more dissimilar cities are hard to imagine – although, the months of delays and bureaucracy to get registered made German bureaucracy look efficient. Is this what life will be like as a post-Brexit European Briton?
So, while some get to spend a year in Provence, some pass their time in Belgium’s infinitely more disorienting neutral zone. There’s only so much Provençal rose you can drink, after all. Betwixt but apart from both Flanders and Wallonia. Neither Dutch or French speaking, Brussels is it’s very own enigma. And that’s even before you consider that Belgium has a German speaking region as well. Not one, but two language borders.
It is often said that Brussels is a city that is underrated by tourists who prefer the history of Brugge or Antwerp. But it’s also a place with charms that grow on you whether you want them to or not – a bit like the food and one’s waistline. This is a human-sized city of pleasant squares, parks and tree-lined streets; a diverse and multicultural town; quirky, going on weird, with a great food culture and a lively artistic scene.
In short, there is the very real danger that Brussels may soon burst forth from the shadow of more glamorous European rivals to become a ‘destination’ in its own right. Not that you’ll notice that in August. When we arrived a year ago, we found swathes of the city depopulated by the summer migration. Restaurants and bars were closed for the month, tumbleweed rolled down the Rue de la Loi.
It was disorienting and we found ourselves wondering why we’d moved from Berlin. This year, fully prepared for the exodus, Brussels is ours to explore.