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Brussels beyond the bureaucrats

by Hannah Wallis | 16 August 2017

Google ‘Brussels’ and the top hits are about Brexit talks (quelle surprise), EU Summits, the ‘nest of radicalism’ and the capital’s terrorist attacks last year. Depicted as a failing, divided, dysfunctional city, the European capital just isn’t given the credit it deserves.

I’ll be honest, as a newbie on the block, mistaking Maalbeek with Molenbeek was not a good move, and I found myself on the wrong side of the canal, where crime, radicalisation and poverty are all too prevalent. Admittedly, the canal divide is reflective of other, bigger partitions in the country, namely the French/Flemmish language split, the Flanders/Wallonia divide (which makes Scotland's IndyRef2 tension look friendly), and the gulf between rich and poor; top diplomats and refugees.

But back in Ixelles, across the pond at Flagey, look up and you'll see you're walking along Rue Sans Souci (‘Trouble-free street') – a tribute to the optimism and resilient attitude that defines the people that inhabit the city, even in its darkest moments. And they’re proud to be Bruxellois, revelling in the quirky (or ‘insolite’), even launching a campaign dubbed ‘Sprout to be Brussels’, that encourages all inhabitantsto show their pride for the capital by wearing a brussel sprout badge - naturally.

The Belgians are also immensely proud of their beer, conveniently hailing it as a cultural experience which is a ‘key role in daily life’ (that all-important phrase needed to make it onto the UNESCO World Heritage list – cheers!). This light-hearted/headed attitude is what makes Brussels a welcoming and fantastic place to be.

The huge Town Hall tower is wonky and Mannekin Pis (the infamous peeing boy) is the world’s most underwhelming statue - no one really knows why it’s there. But it’s OK, because Brussels embraces the weird and the wonderful equally well. At Christmas, the market is opened by a parade of huge lit-up bears on stilts roaming the streets, and the paving of the Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has to be dug up to accommodate the Christmas tree.

This inclusiveness and flexibility extends to their French too, which has adopted certain Flemmish structures. My favourite is using ‘nonante neuf’ instead of ‘quatre-vingt-dix-neuf’, a more user-friendly version of the numerical nuisance that we grapple with at school (why should you be multiplying and adding up in a language lesson?).

My airbnb hosts-turn-flat-mates were incredibly patient with my French utterings, having struggled themselves to learn Flemish (a requirement to live in this bilingual city).

Tolerance extends to cultural and even culinary differences. Brussels’ cuisine is often overlooked or shunned and I blame the French for this. Moules-frites, waffles and the renowned Belgian chocolate are all a delicious credit to a city that is proud of and praises the authentic.

So yes, Brussels has its share of misery and misfortune. But it doesn’t hide from this fact. Rather, it’s proud that in the face of adversity, its charm and rich cultural life endures. And good for them, I say. Whilst Brexit is making us increasingly disillusioned or angry with Europe, I’m clinging onto my Europeanness and my Bruxelloise self. It’s a multi-lingual, multi-dimensional, quirky, interesting place. So, allez allez allez!

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