Brussels: A city of two faces

The train slowly dragged into the town. I looked out of the window, eager to drink in the sight of this unknown city but the ground next to the rails was layered with empty beer cans and skeleton of old carriages rusting under the sun. I had anticipated a grandiose arrival, an entry surrounded by historic buildings and bustling crowds. After all, I was entering the city that host the European Parliament. Surely it would want to impress and not welcome the outsider with litter.

I walked out of the station and stumbled into a mundane environment. The small regional train had landed me in the residential part of the city. There was no need to impress here. People knew the sight well and barely noticed them any longer. Things had to be practical and familiar. I smiled as I realised only me could see the beauty in those ordinary scenes. I went on my way happy to meander among the back streets of Brussels and its endless squares and small shops. There were no other tourists here and I loved it.

I walked all day, stumbling upon Magritte’s home, Horta’s house and other art nouveau buildings. I photographed them as well as the everyday view that caught my eyes. I was enjoying myself but I kept wondering how this city had gained the European Parliament? How could it boast to be a capital where all around me everything looked so ordinary? I felt I could live here and not be out-of-place in any of the areas I had seen. Where was the past from before the 19th century? Where were the big museums, shops and monuments? Where were the politicians and business men?

I kept on going trying to find my way back into a train station as I pondered those questions and without quite realising it the scenery around me changed. Coffee shops became shinier, glass and metal shadowing wood and rock. People traded everyday clothes for suits and at a turn a giant building of glass glittering in the sun took my breath way. I had found the European Parliament and the impressive architecture I had been pondering about. I giggled and jumped with excitement at the sight of such an achievement. There was not a soul around and I felt privileged to have this structure on display just for me. I ran all around it, looked up and down its gigantic walls and tried to grasp its actual size with no success until finally I stopped and simply gazed at it. It was beautiful.

I eventually continued on my journey and came upon a park filled with sculptures and surrounded by old-fashioned edifices. I had finally found the historic centre but I didn’t care about it any longer. It felt rather anonymous and bland after my day strolling into the streets of Brussels that had led me to the blinding sight of the European Parliament.

I found a train terminal and went back home with fond memories of Brussels. It had been a strange city. I couldn’t think of it as a capital in spite of the evidence I had seen. To me Brussels was a normal European city where everyday people went on about their life without any glamour. The European Parliament felt almost out-of-place there, and yet it probably couldn’t belong anywhere else. This was a city without pretension that had bade me welcome, inviting me into its back streets and alleys revealing itself as it was and never hiding its scars and wounds.

The train sped on the rails, the greens and blues of the scenery merging into one homogeneous painting occasionally streaked by roads and dots of colours provided by cars and houses. I couldn’t tell if I was in the UK, France or Belgium but I didn’t care. Sitting next to my girlfriend, I was too busy resting on her shoulder and inhaling her intoxicating perfume. I heard the train hiss and felt the wheels breaking slowly into the terminal. I peered outside but it was already too late. We were enclosed in the station and all I could see was its high wall shielding me from the city.

We stepped out into a station much bigger than the provincial one I had known on my first visit. This was more akin to welcoming international visitors. High walls of metal and glass glistened all around, broken intermittently by colourful lights of shops and restaurants. Automatic doors opened as we approached and let us out. I wanted to close my eyes and be dazzled by Brussels but all that awaited us was a giant roundabout, spreading its tentacles in every directions and spitting out an endless flow of cars. The noise assaulted my ears and I was glad to rest on a bench for a minute.

I itched to get away and lose myself in the small streets and squares I had encountered before but I knew I wouldn’t be able to. I was not alone and this time we were on a quest to explore the more historic sights of the city. A part of me desired to see them as they had passed me largely unnoticed on my first visit but this welcome made me afraid of what I would find. We walked along avenues overtaken by vehicles. This was not the Brussels I remembered at all but a city run over by motorised traffic where pedestrians were tolerated at best. I wanted to pause and observe the architecture but I felt threatened and never could admire any building properly.

It was a relief to finally penetrate inside the Magritte museum where the noise from the streets couldn’t be heard. We ambled through the layers of the exhibition at a leisurely pace, admiring the art and learning more about the artist. We eventually had to leave as the institution was closing its doors. I braced myself for the return to the roads but next to the museum we found a small alley that led away from the pulsing arteries of Brussels. The city fell silent, the building shrank and took on a personality of their own as they were finally allowed to breathe.

We explored for a brief moment before settling at the terrace of a café on a square. The circulation was still heavy but I forgot about it. I had found the Brussels I had fallen in love with, the Brussels that welcomed you and let you penetrate into its soul without effort. I laid back and enjoyed my drink before we had to set off for a railway station to catch a train to Ghent.

As the train pulled away from Brussels I pondered how different the city had felt this time. I had expected it to show me a new face but not one so unkind, raw and rumbling. Had I met the city through this angle the first time, I would have never wished to come back and roam through its streets again. Maybe I had gotten lucky on my first visit or maybe Brussels simply isn’t made to look like a capital no matter how the city tries. It is a living entity, a city to inhabit, a city that will welcome you if you do not expect it to show you pretence of a life still anchored in the past.

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