Ten reasons why you must visit (messy) Brussels now.
These days, all you read in the newspapers about Brussels or Belgium is bad. And mostly true. Indeed, our administration is a mess. Our integration policies have failed to a dramatic extent. Our police and intelligence services have not been able to prevent brutal terror attacks. And our politicians still fail to recognise the scale of their responsibility.
The Belgian people itself is partly responsible too. Belgians complain a lot about politics but never get involved (enough). Even when the country seemed to be doomed to split, it took over 200 days without a government before a small crowd finally decided to demonstrate in the street. Most citizens did not care, they kept working, saving to buy an apartment or a house of their own, going out, shopping, discussing football, having a beer or having sex on saturdays.
And that’s the first reason why you must visit Brussels right now: if we don’t care about politics, it’s because chocolate is more important to us. Or chips. We can argue for hours on which friterie is the best in town. Antoine, Clémentine, Flagey, Miroir? We have fierce discussions about the right place to buy a gâteau des rois. We’re able to quarrel for days on the origin of our famous (but infamously small — not to mention his penis) national monument, Manneken Pis.
But whatever we squabble about, it always ends around a good Belgian beer, mint tea, wine or coffee. Cuz after all, what we love most is to be loved. And as we are in need of love today, our famous hospitality is even warmer than usual in shops, hotels, restaurants.
You may think that we are a little depressed these days, hence a citytrip to Brussels would be a potentially sad experience. After all, thirty-two people died recently in two terror attacks in the city and its airport. And business was bad since then. Indeed some of our hotels have lost up to 80% of visitors. But that would be the second good reason to come over immediately: even in the most dramatic circumstances, we can be surrealistically funny. For instance, last week, hotels offered you a 50% discount if you checked at the reception in… pyjamas !
A third good reason would be to show your solidarity with a city in despair. And to visit the memorial that citizens of all origins built-up spontaneously with flags and flowers on the steps of the old Brussels stock-exchange, la Bourse. So, a place of monetary values became a place of moral values when citizens from all communities organised what politicians apparently did not care to think of.
Besides, even when under attack, Brussels is still less dangerous than many cities abroad. Yes, you can walk around in Molenbeek and discover that it’s nothing close to the so-called no-go-zone that the media described. It’s lively and exotic.
The fourth reason to visit Brussels is to discover our Witloof-technology in administration. We are the only country that reforms itself every ten years to be less efficient than before. Brussels is the most wonderful example of bad governance. In fact, no other country or city has ever even come close to us in this matter.
Look at our world record: our longest political crisis ended after 541-days without a government. But the country survived for a nearly incredible reason: it’s virtually impossible to have ‘no’ government in Belgium: we have too many ! Even when the federal government is absent, we still have at least 5 other gov’s to do most of the job. They come with 8 parliaments, of which one has no power (the Senate) and another isn’t called a parliament (the COCOM — don’t try to understand what it is if you care about your mental health).
Not less than six of these parliaments have competences in the Brussels area : the Chamber of deputies, the Flemish Parliament, the Parliament of the French-speaking Community of Belgium, the Francophone parliament of Brussels, the Parliament of the Brussels Region, and the Common Commission of Brussels. Add the European Parliament to the collection and you have your fifth good reason to visit Brussels: we have the world record of parliaments and MP’s per square meter! Plus 19 communes, each with powers nearly as wide as those of a normal capital.
Now does it work ? Not really. But not really not either.
So, there’s a sixth great thing about Brussels: everything you may say about the city is true, and so is its opposite! You can say that it’s a failed city. True. Or you can say that it’s a very successful city. Also true. You can call it incredibly poor as its residents have the lowest median wages in Belgium. And you can consider that it is hugely rich as its GDP (gross domestic product) is the third highest in the European Union!
You can believe it is a nordic city, looking at its Christmas market, the taste for privacy, its architecture. Or call it Mediterranean because of its dirty streets, its anarchic traffic, the fact that you can negotiate your taxes. Brussels is hyperactive when it snows or rains, and laid-back as soon as the sun shines. Brussels is the contrary of Brussels, all the time.
Brussels citizen hate their city, and they love it. There’s even a word to describe that strange relationship: abruxellation. We criticise our public services all the time, but quickly become nostalgic when we are abroad. We are jealous of the beauty of Paris, or London, but spend hours in the green alleys and parks that make Brussels so pleasant. We want the city to be grand and we do everything to keep it small.
Then we have our language quarrel. And unity. The metro station that was targeted in March is spelled Maelbeek in French and Maalbeek in Dutch. But it is pronounced the same way in both languages. That would be the seventh reason to come around; to discover that we did not succeed to conceive a simple way to deal with our two main language communities. And that it nevertheless kinda works, too.
The eighth reason is obvious, practical and a bit cynical: too few people visit us these days, so rooms are cheaper.
The ninth reason… well, pick it up yourself. Languages? Most people can show you the way in English. Peace in arms? Our soldiers who patrol everywhere these days are gentle, smiling, and therefore popular. Bruxellisation? Next to a horrible building, you will see an exquisitely beautiful Art Nouveau facade. Cosmopolite gastronomy? You can eat great food in Thai, Indian, Chinese, Tunisian, French, Belgian, African restaurants — the choice is limitless.
Or will it be contrast? You can have a beer in an intimate, low-ceiling 17th century brasserie just before going to a Moroccan-like market in the heart of Europe. You can dine at the Comme chez Soi, the most elegant two-star restaurant around, and find it is placed in a very popular neighbourhood. You can visit the amazing Dieweg cemetery, abandoned in 1958 and see how beautifully nature claimed its rights on luxurious and elegant family graves.
And if you organise your city-trip in the traditional cultural way, you will necessarily visit one of our national museums. And perhaps come across water buckets in the middle of a room full of precious artwork! That’s because our government does not invest in rooftop repair even when there’s a Brueghel below. But museum staff work hard to keep artwork safe, moving buckets and paintings in function of the weather.
The tenth reason will then be evident to you: visiting Brussels is the only way to understand what a failed country is: a system that makes everything more complicated. But that also reveals the best in us, as we keep on doing all we can to make it liveable, visitable, loveable. And the most incredible thing is: we always succeed!
So come over now. And discover a great small city. A failed successful country. And you will find out that whatever politics do to a city, a smile is the best cure. And in that matter, we never fail!