I wanted to like you the first time we met. Really. I did. I tried to revel in your vacuous corners and diplomatic-inspired boulevards. I tried to wrap my head around the idea that you didn’t appear to have architecture worth oohing and aahing over. I also made attempts to forgive you for your lack of culinary culture. Your early inability to provide a meal beyond waffles and over-fried fries, the sort of dishes that would make me first squeal with delight and then groan with pleasure.
I forgive because I realize how young and innocent I was then. Naive. Unknowing.
Yes, we know Paris will always be the city of light and that London takes the lead in terms of mod and funk. We’re aware that Berlin is the emerging star of urban grit and Amster-be-damned wins the award for hipster cool. Don’t worry about them Brussels, because you have become something entirely different to me. You have a little bit of what all of those cities have to offer, which means you defy a concrete label. You’re a shapeshifter. A game changer. You’re the fat lady who finally sings. And though it took a four year hiatus (hey, cut me some slack, I needed the distance) for me to revisit you and receive a proper tour, I finally figured it out after receiving the right kind of introduction.
The sort of introduction that teaches you the importance of second chances.
When we encountered each other that second time around I found myself charmed by everything you revealed over the course of a weekend. Wandering down narrowed streets in your downtown core I gazed up at century-old buildings and I admired art-deco accents. I received an overdose of street art as I moved between neighbourhoods and took in your sights. I was won over and smitten. Even though your skies were dreary, and your streets were dirty, and I had to force my through throngs of hyperactive tourists salivating over a peeing boy sporting an outfit that cost more than my own. Despite this I began to love you anyhow. I allowed myself to fall under your spell and have been tumbling, rollicking hand over foot, ever since. It’s a fatal attraction that causes me to stand up for you when no one else will, and sing your graces even though I know how small, raucous and divided you were.
Will continue to be.
Brussels, you deft and sly rogue, you sure put on one hell of a show. You dressed the right way and said all the right things. You let me take advantage of you and storm across your surface until I saw everything that needed to be seen. On that particular trip I ate food that made me weep…with joy: salted tears that dripped onto porcelain and migrated down the edges of my beautifully decorated plate. I ate those tears. Recycled them and turned them into something new. That trip was the one to lead to the many that followed. Journeys of wanderlust where I was took the lead and grabbed your hand while we saw the sights, ate, drank and dabbled in art and design. Follow-up meetings where you taught me about Horta houses, open air markets, Belgian labels and how fashion forward you are. Occasions where you showed me your quirky underbelly. Took me to places where the tourists don’t normally go.
I want thank you for the experience even though it hasn’t been all rainbows and roses. I will thank you because it has been one hell of a journey. Not only have you been transparent in showing me your best side but you’ve allowed me to scratch at your veneer so I could get a glimpse at what lay under the surface even though you feared I might uncover nothing but grime, shadows and a beautiful bureaucratic mess. (*Clarification: which was totally not the case.)
And since that time, almost seven years gone, you have grown on me. You’ve gotten under my skin. Our relationship has evolved to the point where I can’t imagine life without you. How boring would that be? You’re not at all ostentatious and yet you have that je ne sais quoi about you.
It’s like you vibrate at a lower frequency, flying under the radar, because you know you can’t compete with Europe’s bigger centres and so you don’t even try. Instead you adopt a flippant attitude where you shrug your urban shoulders and infer with a wave of a hand: I really don’t give a fuck what you think of me.
Now while all these things draw me to you there are two qualities I admire most. The first is that you don’t harbour any jealousy when I go out in the world and have love affairs of grand proportions. You encourage my shameless dalliances in fact: those rowdy and effete run-ins with Paris, my personal (r)evolution in New York or the licentiousness and debauchery that takes in places like Beirut, Barcelona and on the margins of Bangkok. Encouraging of such episodes, you take on my hedonistic depravity. You wait patiently. You’re forgiving. You accept me as I am.
You know there’s no point in trying to keep me in one place because I’m not that kind of girl.
The other quality I admire is that you always seem to be transitioning. You’re trying hard to transform and figure out who you are. Taking steps to reinvent yourself, you’re sorting out what it is you want and where you belong. You sit quietly in the centre of a country that erects walls and draws knives over things like identity, belonging, language and allegiance and yet, in the center of it all, you remain calm and collected (unabashedly indifferent even) while you wait for the fates to decide on what side of the fence you’ll eventually fall.
Brussels, my darling, you’re a city on edge. Of what? I’m not all that sure, and though you’re moody, abrasive, unpredictable and rather unromantic, I’m wholly committed to sticking it out for the long haul and taking a leap of faith–to standing at the edge and looking out over the fringe to capture anything we might have missed while biding our time in the center.
**A version of this article was posted on For the Intolerants.