Blue Brussels

26 Jul


Coming soon: Yellow Brussels, Red Brussels, Green Brussels, Black & White Brussels and Whatever I Can Think of Brussels…

Coaxing out the language kitten

5 Jul

Saturday was my one year anniversary of moving to Brussels. And, despite being so well-intentioned, toddlers still speak better French than I do. I am tempted to say that it’s not for lack of trying, but actually, that’s exactly what it is. The funds that probably should have been put towards French classes have instead been poured into taking up the best and goldenest instrument in the world: the saxophone. And while I can try to convince myself that music is a universal language, and could therefore help me to communicate rather complex things in any country in the world, I’m not quite sure how I would say ‘Can you please come to unclog my kitchen sink, Mister Plumber?’ in music. I can probably make someone understand that I’ve got the blues about something, but I doubt they’d connect it with the gungy pool of water lingering around my kitchen drain.

My other half suggested that I kill two birds with one stone and learn the saxophone in French. At this stage, however, my level of French only allows me to stare like a deer in the headlights when people say things like, ‘The changerooms are all empty; what are you waiting for?’, so I can only imagine how difficult it would be to get my head around sentences like, ‘Let’s play the B♭blues pentatonic scale, practise clapping on off-beats and then throw in some improvisation, shall we?’

I did try Pimsleur audio lessons for a while: 30 minute audio classes that get you started with actual conversations immediately, rather than making you plough through the alphabet and the months of the year first. 30 minutes a day probably doesn’t sound a lot, but I could only keep up with it for a few weeks. It seems that with some things my sense of discipline can be as burly and inflexible as a US Marine Corps Drill Instructor (don’t ask me what those things are, though…), but with others it can be more like a Ragdoll kitten hiding under a bed. I need milk to coax it out.

I guess one other, smaller, reason why I resisted the audio lessons was because I felt as though I was being asked to play the part of an American news anchor on the prowl for dates. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but after being taught how to say ‘je suis americaine’ (même si je suis australienne), it seemed that the second most important activity to train your attention on was asking somebody if they’d like something to drink. After this, you were instructed to enquire ‘chez vous ou chez moi?’ The question ‘your place or mine?’ is probably never going to sound neutral no matter how you say it, but with the peculiar rising and falling inflection of the native speakers on the tapes (perhaps a symptom of words being broken down into bite-sized pronouncable parts), it comes across as very… studied. News presentery, I’d call it. ‘And now for the weather… est-ce que vous voudriez boire quelque-chose?’

I can say that this is probably the longest stretch of time I’ve felt guilty for speaking practically everywhere I go. I can order fries and coffee fine, but the minute things become slightly more complicated than ‘sur place ou á emporter?’ my eyebrows crumple and my flimsy façade of being simply a non-talkative local with a newsreader’s accent promptly falls to the floor. ‘Do you speak English?’ I ask, keeping my voice low so that the people in the queue behind me won’t cotton on to my lone-language speaking situation and whisper French insults to one another as I pass them on the way out. Okay, I know this isn’t Paris. I know that my sense of guilt is disproportionate to the situation. The various waitstaff and gallery assistants and skydiving instructors I come into contact with never seem to mind speaking English for me. It’s just that I don’t want to end up like this guy:

The scene: an American event in Brussels.

The conversation:

Me: ‘So how long have you lived in Brussels?’

American dude: ‘7 years.’

Me: ‘Wow, 7 years; your French must be pretty good by now.’

American dude: ‘Nope.’

Me: ‘What, so you learned Flemish instead?’

American dude: ‘Nope.’

Me: ‘You didn’t learn either language?’

American dude: ‘Nope.’

Me: ‘In 7 years?!’

American dude: ‘Nope.’ (Voiceover from author: quite a verbose fellow, isn’t he? The way I write it you’d doubt he even spoke English)

Me: ‘Don’t you feel guilty about that?’

American dude: ‘Why should I? Everyone speaks English here anyway.’

Me: ‘I see. Um, can you please pass the pepper?’

What I Should Have Said: ‘Yes, but you’re living in Belgium! You’re permanently asking people to speak YOUR language in THEIR country.’

End scene.

Yeah, I really don’t want to become that guy. But after one year I don’t feel much better than him: instead of diligently learning French like I should be, I’ve found myself building up a posse of fluent-English speaking contacts who can do everything from teaching me the saxophone to colouring my hair. Competent English is no good: for me to be able to learn effectively and be sure that precise instructions are understood, they must be able to speak English practically perfectly for me. In Belgium.

This is the year it ends. This is the year I’m going to coax the language kitten out from underneath the bed with the promise of classes and see if it’ll finally cooperate.

At least one plus from putting saxophone first is that I’ve already seen the way that learning anything is incremental. Mistakes are inevitable. Endless repetition is essential. This time last year the saxophone was still a golden childhood dream, and now… I don’t want to brag or anything, but I can play Three Blind Mice with the best of them. I’ll just have to start with the language equivalent of the C major scale and then work my way up to deliberately displacing the regular metrical accent so that the stress is on an off-beat…

Jobs You Don’t Include on Your CV

17 Jun

I’ve had a few jobs that will never make the cut on my CV. Not because I’m ashamed of them, or because I didn’t get anything out of them, but because they were just ‘filler’ jobs. That is, jobs to fill my wallet for a while until something better came along. I’ve been taught not to include such stopovers on my CV because including them apparently sends the message that I’m just a job-hopper, bouncing casually from one lily-pad desperate for cheap labour to the next.

But really, I picked up quite a few useful things from all the lily-pads I’ve bounced across in my time. In fact, I think that some of the skills I’ve learned, truths I’ve discovered or notes for future reference I’ve… noted… are more valuable than those important looking ones in business suits that stare out self-importantly from my resumé, arms folded across their chests. You know the ones. All those banal phrases like ‘juggling multiple responsibilities’, ‘project management’, ‘interpersonal skills’, ‘fanning the boss with a giant palm leaf and being sure not to scrimp on the peeled grapes’, that sort of stuff. All of those things that everybody has usually mastered by the age of 6 anyway.

So here follows an alternative CV; a list of my stopover lily-pads, and some important things I’ve learned from each one:

1. Waitress/Cashier, 1 month

Lessons learned:

People tend to assume knowledge where it may not exist, and it costs them.

The place: a café that shall remain nameless at Sydney University. The problem: I had never used a cash register that didn’t do the sums for you before.

My manager, quite relaxed in most areas of food service anyway, naturally assumed that I could do the calculations in my head. I didn’t want to embarrass myself by admitting that I usually need my fingers to count things (although apparently I’m fine to admit it here), so I just gave it my best, erring on the side of giving people too much change than too little, and hoped that the amount of staff using the cash register would save me from capture.

I wasn’t even good enough to work out how much I must have been giving away every day. Still, I got paid the stated cash-in-hand amount, so nobody must have noticed. 8 hours at $10.25 an hour is $65.72, right?

Rules and procedures can have blurry edges. If you make sure you’re completing the task as required, you can be silly with the blurry bits, and thereby feel like you’re making a joke out of working where you do, rather than letting it get to you.

The main part of my job description, apart from taking people’s money, was to write their coffee orders on Styrofoam cups and hand them across to the staff who’d graduated to the level of swill maker.

That was the only ‘rule’: write coffee order on cup, hand to swill maker. The kind of repetitive activity that makes you start daydreaming about the life you hoped you would have by now.

To save myself from ennui, I decided to take this rule and stretch it out. Literally. When it was quiet I took to writing essay-length requests that snaked and spiralled and swooped and swerved their way around the Styrofoam cups. Things like, ‘This lovely lady is really hankering for a deliciously frothy cappuccino with an extra shot of coffee inside. Do you think you could do that for her, Bob? I’m sure she’d be very grateful. Oh, and Bob, while you’re at it, would you mind complimenting her on her shoes before she walks away? They’re rather nice shoes and people like being complimented on their footwear. I know. Someone complimented me on my brogues the other day and it filled me with an inner glow for a good 20 minutes. She might come back again, that way. ‘Not only do they make great coffee,’ she will say to all of her friends, ‘But they also throw in free compliments about your shoes.’’

2. Mobile catering staff, 3 months

Lessons learned:

People are more likely to offer money when they’re handing something to you, rather than you handing something to them.

Throughout this job, which involved serving rich people food at various fancy-pants locations around London, I discovered that it was always better to work in the cloakroom than to pour drinks or make the rounds with a plate of canapés. People tip prolifically when they’re handing you their coat. When you’re refilling their Bordeaux or serving them beetroot-cured Scottish salmon on horseradish fritters, on the other hand, they barely acknowledge your existence.

 Don’t waste money on a wedding cake.

We catered a wedding once, and instead of forking out for the traditional tiered marzipan monstrosity, the bride asked each of her 15 bridesmaids to bring a home-made cake instead. It was fantastic; all of these crazy creations started showing up, some of them sagging in the middle, some of them drowning in fluorescent green icing, some of them hosting Lego-man re-enactments of medieval battles, some of them studded with multicoloured pipe-cleaners twisted into love-hearts, some of them shaped like fire-breathing dragons and some of them just lovingly dusted with icing sugar.

That’s what I want.

3. English teacher, 1 month

Lessons learned:

3 hours is a lot longer in a classroom than it is in your head

So when I first arrived in Brussels I took a job teaching English over the summer. It was 3 hours a day (9am-12pm), 5 days a week, and the day before I started, I sat down to work out my first lesson plan. I should mention that I have absolutely no teaching qualifications whatsoever, and this probably explains why I thought that getting all the kids to introduce themselves would take 15 minutes. Oh yes, I was very liberal with my time sprinkler. Talking about our favourite things would take 10 minutes, playing the ‘Guess What I Am’ game with pictures of carrots and bananas stuck to our foreheads would certainly take at least 20 minutes, and discussing the local flora and fauna where we’re from would take about 20 minutes, too.

Foolish, foolish! I thought I’d come prepared with a bountiful basket of games to keep the kids’ eyes sparkling for 3 hours, but it turned out that I’d used up every last conversation starter within the first hour. And then I was faced with a class full of increasingly bored and insolent 10 year olds, including a Hungarian boy called Bruno who started swinging back in his chair to bang his head repeatedly against the wall, wailing ‘aaaaaaah, aaaaaaaah, aaaaaaah’ louder and louder before turning to punch his younger brother in the arm and then tackle him to the floor.

Of course after that I panicked, went into overdrive, and prepared enough to potentially cover a 24-hour lesson every day. And, while looking for time-eating ideas, I picked up a new skill (or, more accurately, re-learned an old one). Which is:

How to make an origami frog that jumps

It’s pretty easy, actually. And it keeps kids occupied for a good half an hour or more, especially if you ask them to decorate them and then have races with them across the tables afterwards.

4. ‘Client Advisor’ for a luxury brand, 3 months

Lessons learned:

People can react to the exact same problem in completely different ways

Okay, so ‘Client Advisor’ was the official job title, but that was just a euphemism for ‘Call Centre Wench’. The job involved answering phone calls from the UK’s rich folk, or wannabe rich folk, so that they could check whether a certain store had that £750 pair of shoes in their size, order £11,000 worth of goods in 7 minutes, or enquire about the repair of their £6000 handbag.

The main issue we hapless call-centre wenches (and he-wenches) had to contend with was that, since luxury brands have this gloss of being smooth and flawless, customers naturally expected the company to actually run that way. Not so. The company procedure for exchanges and refunds, for example, was only slightly less complicated than the invasion of Normandy.

After handling 50+ calls a day, I swiftly discovered that, although the company could be counted on to cock-up consistently, callers’ criticisms of carbon-copy cock-ups could be like chalk and cauliflower.

One person would say, ‘Oh no, that’s no good! I’m so disappointed. But these things happen, I guess. What do you think you could do to help me? I’d really appreciate anything you might be able to do.’

And another in an identical situation would say, ‘WHAT?! What are you saying to me? Oh, I just cannot BELIEVE this! This is sheer and blatant incompetence! I DEMAND compensation! Put your manager on the phone right now. What? He’s not there? Well what are YOU going to DO about it then? I’m not hanging up until this is fixed. I’m a busy woman, you know. I don’t have time for this. You’d better tell me what you’re going to do about it right this instant or I’m going to contact the press and talk to everyone I know until this company is unmasked as the satanic cesspool it really is. Come on, ANSWER ME!’

This isn’t even an exaggeration. Well, I don’t think anyone ever used the exact phrase ‘satanic cesspool’, but I did have one woman who interspersed her tirade with my name until I felt like I was sinking into one. Which leads to my next lesson:

How to not take it personally when people are yelling at you

It’s really difficult to distance yourself from a problem (that you did not create) when someone attaches your name to it. Like this: ‘We are living in the 21st century, aren’t we SARAH? Why is this company so incompetent, SARAH? Don’t tell me ‘I understand your frustration’, SARAH; you don’t understand ANYTHING!’

I’ve always had a problem with accepting responsibility for things that aren’t my fault, but somehow, after this gargantuan torrent of abuse (to which I could not effectively fight back, since I believed that doing so would lead to me being given my marching orders), it was easier for me to take everything with a grain of pepper.

I’d had a few horribly abusive phone calls before this banshee came along, but the overblownness of her abuse really helped to solidify my sense of indignation. The thing about this job was that practically nothing was ever my or my co-wenches’ fault. We weren’t causing problems; we were solving them. But then, people who are having a crisis with their handbag don’t like being told, ‘It’s not my fault’, so I learned that the best approach was to become a frozen lake. That is, to keep my feeling fishes safe underneath, and let the people with more dollars than sense tear long scratches into the surface with their ice-skates.


So there you have it. My alternative CV. Provided you have a cash register that does the sums for you, would you hire me?

Neighbourhood Shopfronts

21 Apr

A first for me: a blog post with no words! (Well, apart from these ones…)


























The Subterfuge of Cats

8 Apr

Directly across the street from us, in three separate apartments, there live three cats. Divided by a wall and a roof (there are two that live next to each other, and one below), sometimes you’ll see all three of them perched on their windowsills, eyeing off the pigeons that taunt them from street wires or watching the people walk by below.

When we carry our cat to the windowsill, he seems like he doesn’t notice these three other cats across the road. He looks up into the clouds or gets distracted by a car driving by.

But although it may seem like they couldn’t care less about each other, I think this may just be a cover. I have a theory that not only are these cats aware of each others’ existence, but that they have devised a very subtle and human-proof method of communicating with one another. What’s more, since our cat is the only one that can be seen by all of the other cats, he must be the one passing on the majority of the messages.

They know all about each others’ tastes and interests. The white and ginger one to the top left – let’s call her Matilda – likes chewing shoelaces and reading Voltaire. The other white and ginger one to the top right – let’s call her Judy – likes Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga and creating abstract divot-pictures in the carpet with her claws. The grey striped one downstairs – let’s call him Bernard – likes drinking water droplets from the leaking bathroom tap and building model ships. And Bidule, the black cat who lives with us, likes licking olives and chasing the corks from wine bottles. And singing.

It’s while we’re all asleep that they get most of their message-passing done. During the day they saunter around and nibble on houseplants and pretend that they’re bored with life, but at night, when the breaths of the humans grow longer in the bedrooms, they take up their posts on the windowsills, ready to continue yesterday’s discussion about Scarlet Macaws and Peregrine Falcons.

Bidule, as the primary message passer, must be the most alert and managerial of the bunch. It’s up to him to tell Matilda to shut up when it’s Bernard’s turn, and to come up with an abridged version of Judy’s rambling anecdotes to share with the others. With their own sophisticated sign language, involving a series of winks and blinks, tail flicks, stretches and yawns, they argue, laugh and empathise. And while Matilda, Judy and Bernard have never seen one another, Bidule is such an expert impersonator that they sort of feel like they have. He blinks and flicks and stretches and yawns out their messages with Oscar-worthy precision, only occasionally, as mentioned, having to reign in Judy’s long-windedness.

Sometimes the discussions get a little rowdy (ancient Egypt is a sensitive subject), sometimes Matilda and Judy fight over which one of them Bidule likes more (this is kind of a complicated topic for Bidule to translate), and sometimes they don’t really have much to talk about (because they were sleeping all day, and so didn’t get a chance to read up on their Voltaire). But every night, the four of them are there, chatting silently away.

Right now, in the middle of the day, they’re all keeping up the act. The windowsills across the way are empty. And Bidule, there he lies, curled up in a ball on his favourite chair, looking for all the world like he’s dreaming about nothing in particular.

But I know the truth. Really they’re just saving up their energy. Tonight, when the lights go off and the street grows quiet, there they’ll be: four cats dancing on the windowsills.


Bidule also enjoys sitting in boxes.


The Brussels Skyline is Like a Heart Attack (in a good way)

26 Mar

A sure-fire sign that you’re in London is those long streets of identical terrace houses, like this and this. On the train past Clapham, you see row after brown-tiled row of them, the same terracotta chimney clusters repeated over and over again, the same white-framed windows and tiny rectangular gardens, the streets lined with trees spaced out at precise intervals and blobs of glinting-roofed cars. The houses curve and slope across the landscape like a magic-eye blanket, most of them crammed full of identical groups of drunken Australians. Well, maybe not completely identical groups. Some flats have 10 Australians in them, some only have 8.

If it’s possible to find something both appealing and unappealing (F. Scott Fitzgerald thought it was a sign of intelligence to be able to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time, but I’m pretty sure when he came up with this idea he wasn’t thinking about how people might judge the state of housing in the UK), I think that’s how I feel about these rows of sameness. I can’t lie and say that my sense of symmetry and neatness never sighed with satisfaction at the sight of such set-ups. It’s not even true to say that these places are completely unmodifiable; when I lived in Maida Vale (one of London’s heavens of terrace housing) there was a lady down the pea-pod street whose tiny front garden was an oasis of fluorescent fake flowers and fairy lights. In Notting Hill some of the houses are painted in rainbow colours (though I’ve heard that the owners don’t have a choice in what colour they are, so if you’re lumped with brown you can’t pull out your fuchsia and lime paint buckets and go for it).

Terrace houses can be undeniably classy looking, but in certain areas you can fall into the trap of believing that the people living inside of them are pretty much interchangeable too. In Notting Hill you can imagine countless glossy black front doors opening and countless mothers-who-lunch pushing their black prams out onto the sidewalk. In Clapham and Shepherd’s Bush, it’s the inebriated antipodeans spilling out onto the street.

Of course there are all sorts of reasons why people live where they do, and I know that choice doesn’t always enter into it. I’m also aware that there’s plenty of studies about this ‘same housing = same people’ idea (and even creative stuff. Malvina Reynolds’s Little Boxes springs to mind). Streamlined suburbs are common the world over, but I never really intended to go into all that. Really all this was just a convoluted way of making it to the point that I’m about to make it to. In about 17 minutes; I just need to talk about pre-revolutionary Russia and the two main forms of abiotic pollination first. You’ll see; it’ll be a rollicking read and it’ll all come together in the end.

No, the point was that sometimes I like the idea of living in a place where it’s not only the inside that is unique. And at the moment, I am.

In central Brussels I find it very difficult to imagine who might be living inside the hodge-podge of flats lining the streets. Tall ones, short ones, skinny ones, fat ones (the flats, not the inhabitants, but I suppose it could be both), art deco ones, brick ones, ones with iron balconies and ones with peeling plaster (that’s ours), all rammed up next to each other, with few visible height, colour or style standards. They do tend to be the same width, and they generally have big windows to let in the fleeting winter sunshine, but on the whole it looks as though the copy/paste function failed in this part of town. Okay, so there aren’t necessarily skyscrapers next to dinky cottages with wind chimes out the front or anything, but the line of the rooftops looks like that created by an ECG machine attached to someone experiencing multifocal atrial tachycardia. In other words, the irregular heights make tough going for parkour runners. See for yourself:








There’s a process called ‘Brusselisation’ which refers to a time in Brussels where historic buildings were pulled down to make way for fandangled high-rise ones, but I haven’t worked out whether this term also explains the heart-attack style of old inner city flats or not.

Of course I’m not a fan of medieval cherub sculptures being pulled down to make way for fishbowl office buildings, but – for the houses around where I live at least – I kind of like the strange mishmash.

Walking to Work

5 Jan

For the first time in my life, I can walk to work. After living in London where I had to learn what part of the billboard to align myself with to ensure the train doors opened right in front of me (for a few weeks I would stand between the kissing couple, and then after the sign was updated it would be slightly to the left of the Jack Daniel’s mailbox), and then, once aboard, trying to burrow my way through to a brightly coloured pole to hang onto, or failing that, spreading my feet out and bending my knees as if I was on a surfboard, willing my body to move in harmony with the train so that I wouldn’t have to grab onto the arm or the nose or the earlobe of the guy whose other arm is stretched over the short woman’s grey bouffant to cling with his fingertips onto the panda-ear shaped knob on the back of a chair. I got used to smelling soaps and perfumes in the morning and body odour and sweat in the afternoon, reading snippets of newspaper articles over people’s shoulders, winding my way between the forest of standing statues gazing up at the orange platform information times at Waterloo, the backs of men’s black loafers and women’s frayed heels as I blazed my way up escalators (time was too precious to stand on the right like a country bumpkin), and shuffling shuffling shuffling up to the ticket barriers like WWII-era folk lining up at a bread shop, clutching our ration stamps.

All of that is over now. Now I step out of the door, put my hands in my pockets, and meander my way up through the sleepy city without having to dodge anyone or cling onto anything. Sometimes I’ll pass a man walking his dog, sometimes I stop at a crosswalk to let a girl on a bicycle pass, sometimes I nod at a little group of people smoking outside of a chocolate shop. Okay, so maybe there’s a few more people than that, but on the whole I can chart a straight course down the wide sidewalks (and even the narrow ones).

The job is nothing special, not that the job in London was either, but the fact that I can walk there is a constant marvel to me. Well, it’s not like I walk along in drop-jawed awe every day or anything, but I do have a perpetual feeling of contentment as I pass the little art galleries, antique shops, jewellers, wine bars, coffee table bookstores and the giant dome of the Palace of Justice. At the moment the Christmas decorations are up, and storefronts have waterfalls of fairy lights tumbling down them, so at night it’s all white and glittery and when it’s been raining the cobblestones shine, too.

Apparently Brussels is one of the few cities in Europe where the plebs live in the centre and the moneyed classes live on the outskirts. Here, the richest of the rich live in Uccle, which is outside the pentagon, quite far to the South West. They’re the ones who would have to drive their Porsche to the Grand Place if they wanted to show their friends the place where Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto (on second thoughts, maybe Uccle residents wouldn’t be so interested in that…), whereas me – the person who can’t afford to get her camera fixed to show you pictures of my walk to work – can see the golden statue of St Michael slaying the dragon from my living room window.

All going well, soon I’ll be able to work from home. I’m pretty sure that’s going to keep me marvelling for a while too (no more worrying about being late and then discovering you have a huntsman in your car. True story…), but as much as I’ll enjoy being able to get up at 8:55, I think I’ll miss my walk to work.

(Here is where I would have inserted pictures if my camera wasn’t broken. Instead, here’s a picture of the view from my living room window (taken before my camera carked it, obviously))

Papy Blues

1 Dec

Just down the street from our place in Brussels is a spot where various street performers hang out. There’s the guy who has trained his black Labrador to wear fluorescent green Ray-Bans (the dog lies down on a blanket, his chin resting forlornly on a little red velvet footstool), the violin students who only ever play Por una Cabeza and then go away again (apparently they’ve worked out that all they need is one dramatic tango to impress the tourists with, and they’ll never go hungry anymore), the drama students whose performance involves a girl with Pippi Longstocking hair, her Pierrot the clown suitor, a park bench and a rubber sandwich (I’ve never stayed to see how this scenario pans out), various break dancers and a guy who plays the didgeridoo.

I guess the competition isn’t very strong, but in my eyes, the sash for coolest busker down the street from me should be awarded to the perpetually joyful gentleman who goes by the name of Papy Blues. Most weekends he’ll be there, wearing socks under his sandals, a straw fedora, a white bushy beard and a gigantic grin. Perched on his amplifier, well-loved guitar on his knee, he strums out the most impeccable jazz and blues covers with a voice as gravelly and playful as Louis Armstrong. It’s a little strange hearing the sounds of the American South jangling their way around the cobblestone streets and Neo-Renaissance architecture of the Bourse, but somehow it works. He scats and wails about ol’ Louisiana so convincingly that you can easily imagine him back home sipping mint juleps on the front porch with Louis and Fats Domino.

It turns out, of course, that even though he sounds like he was born and bred amongst oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, he’s actually Belgian. My other half had a chat to him one afternoon and learned that he worked all his life in landscaping, but always maintained his interest in blues and rock ‘n’ roll on the side. Whenever he had some extra cash he would buy a new guitar, and any time there was a blues musician visiting Brussels he would go to see them play. Blues musicians being quite accommodating souls, he usually managed to meet them afterwards and organise jam sessions. He has now retired from the landscaping business and lives by the seaside in Belgium, but music isn’t something he could retire from. After a lifetime of experience playing rock ‘n’ roll and blues, and a huge collection of guitars, he comes to Brussels practically every weekend to play.

I would have said he plays just for the fun of it, but that’s not exactly true. The dog in Ray-Bans is something people can smirk at and walk on by; likewise the tale involving Pippi Longstocking and the rubber sandwich never attracts too much attention, but when Papy Blues is out, people always stop to listen. As he plays, the audience grows steadily larger, because people want to stay for his entire performance, not just one song. It’s not only his husky voice, it’s the permanent smile on his face, the way that he’s obviously having such a great time. As he plays there’s a ping-pong procession of people walking up to pop a few pennies into the ice-cream container by his feet.

So, he does collect a few Euros every weekend for his troubles. And so he should. He’s really the most talented busker I’ve ever come across, and most definitely the one who looks like he’s having the most fun doing it. Knowing a little more about his back-story makes him kind of inspirational, too. He managed to maintain and develop his music throughout his entire unrelated professional career, and after his retirement, it’s still going strong. He’s happy as a clam clanging out his rock ‘n’ roll in central Brussels, waggling his white eyebrows at the kids who must think he’s some sort of dressed-down Santa Claus indulging in a side interest they never knew about.

At the moment I only know how to play one song on the ukulele, but maybe if I get a little better one day I’ll go up to him and ask him to jam. In the meantime, here’s to you, Papy Blues! Apart from the oversized architectural constructions, buried rivers and parsley streets, you’re one of my favourite Brussels landmarks.

The Great Papy Blues (photo courtesy of Rima Igoseva)

As ever, the good folks of the internets have uploaded footage of Papy onto Youtube. Head on over.

There’s Always a River Somewhere

16 Oct

A few months ago, in a café off of Boulevard Anspach, I learned that in this particular part of Brussels, it is entirely possible to walk on water. No need for special shoes or a Venetian boatman for a father, I learned; all you have to do is step outside and you’ll be walking on a river. Of course when you look down all you’ll see is cobblestones, but if you nudge one of these aside and stick an upside-down periscope into the ground, you’ll see a river ambling by.

That’s right. Brussels has a river buried underneath it. Unlike most capital cities that adorn their arms of water with bridge-bracelets and other glittering accessories, Brussels decided to conceal its river beneath a long-sleeved shirt of streets. It’s completely invisible. Well, not completely. There is a particular place where you can go to see a flash of watery flesh through a tiny hole in the fabric, but other than that the river is carefully covered.

As soon as I found out that there was a river rolling on by beneath my feet, my mind immediately saw a cool, free-flowing thing with little waves that form in meringue-like peaks as it makes its merry way along. With this vision in my head it seems quite sad to have covered it up. It makes it seem as though the river was wronged somehow; that maybe it was a pretty young woman who only wanted the chance to wear what all the other girls were wearing but whose father insisted on a head-to-toe garment akin to that worn by Islamic women of a certain persuasion.

But the truth is that the Senne in the late 1800s was a stinking cesspool of disease. Something like the Buriganga river today, it was basically an open sewer running through the lower part of Brussels. Into it went various bits of garbage tossed from neighbourhood windows, waste oozing from industrial pipes, and probably the occasional dead animal, too. As if living along the banks of this coursing cauldron of contamination wasn’t hazardous enough, apparently it also used to flood quite frequently. Imagine that: you wake up one morning to see yesterday’s gunge bubbling underneath your door and swirling around the legs of your living room furniture…

Can you imagine how horrendous it must have been for the very idea of covering the entire thing up to be taken seriously? I’m still stunned that this actually happened, but I guess I’ve never had to ride a gondola through a canal of sewage, so maybe it’s not quite as absurd as it sounds. Various solutions were proposed, of course – ‘let’s dilute it’ or ‘let’s divert it’, for example – but in the end, ‘let’s put a lid on it’ was the winner. It was decided that the best solution for all concerned would be to knock away the sprawl of working-class houses on the marshy banks of the Senne, cover the river with arched concrete until it could no longer be seen or smelt, and then plonk some fancy boulevards and posh buildings on top. This began in 1867, and the central part was completed by 1871.

The covering of the Senne was so thorough that it now seems dubious there was ever a river here in the first place. If it wasn’t for this little slice of it, tucked away in a courtyard near Les Halles St-Géry

the little slice of Senne tucked away in a courtyard near Les Halles St-Géry

the only way you might discover that this city used to be a little more wet than it is now is via the official flag of the Brussels-Capital region:

This particular kind of yellow iris grows best in wet, marshy conditions, and in the past Brussels was bursting with them. I’m not sure how many of them would have sprouted along the refuse-infested waters of the Senne, but there you have it.

By now the river has been purified (enough for fish to be able to live in it, at least), but talks of opening the thing back up to the open air again are usually short-lived. It would involve demolishing large swathes of lower Brussels yet again, and by now there are far too many pretty buildings, restaurants and shops to consider that.

Maybe I’m becoming too precious about keeping Brussels the way it is, but I’m perfectly happy for the lid to be kept on the Senne. I think I’ve even come up with a way of capitalising on the underground river situation without having to knock down all the posh buildings: glass-bottomed restaurants. That way restauranteurs would legitimately be able to claim that they can offer ‘river views’ to complement your carbonade flamande. As if this secretly watery city needed any more eccentricity…

The Neverending Palace

19 Sep

When I was a kid I used to draw architectural plans for my ‘Dream House’. I produced a fair few of these over the years, and they invariably included such things as indoor swimming pools, music rooms shaped like grand pianos, multi-storeyed libraries with spiral staircases, chambers full of pillows designed for the benefit of my army of cats, and, out front, a giant fountain enclosed within a roundabout: the first sign of opulence that would greet my friends as they tossed their silk scarves over their shoulders and stepped out of their black stretch limousines. A limited imagination, yes, and naturally my dream house had large chunks of it fall off as I got older (I do still like the army of cats idea, though), but I remember that those plans used to mean something to me. Of course I knew that I’d never be able to build such a thing, but still I sat at the kitchen table rendering aerial views of dolphin-topped fountains and blowing blizzards of rubber residue onto the floor as I tried to make everything as close to the dream as my 7 year old hands could manage.

I didn’t pursue my architectural inclinations, but maybe if I’d grown up in Brussels the idea of being given an enormous budget, malleable deadlines and the freedom to tack on as many extensions as I wished might not have seemed so far-fetched. All I’d have to do is build a church and then a column that would impress the King, and then maybe I’d be thrown a roll of empty blueprints and asked to design a new civic building according to my loftiest fantasies.

In 1861, the Belgian architect Joseph Poelaert was given 3,000,000 Belgian francs and a 2-year deadline to create the Brussels Palace of Justice. 45,000,000 francs and 17 years later, some say it was only the architect’s death that finally brought construction to a close.

Poelaert appears to have been something of a juggernaut. I don’t know how or why he was continually thrown more time and more money to indulge in his gormenghastic schemes, but evidently he managed it somehow. When the beast was finished it was the largest building created in the 19th century, and it’s still the second biggest civic building in the world (second only to the Pentagon (the USA one this time, not the shape made by the city walls of Brussels)). There aren’t any indoor swimming pools or music rooms shaped like grand pianos as far as I know, but when you wander around it, you do sort of get the impression that this guy wanted to take advantage of a once in a lifetime opportunity to create his dream house.

If you were a kid who was fascinated with architectural styles from around the world, what would you do if you suddenly found yourself with a gigantic plot of land, bags full of cash, and the unconditional trust of the government? Maybe you’d do what he did, and throw all of your favourite architectural styles into a big cauldron, stir them around a bit, and then – slowly and meticulously, leaving plenty of time for revisions and ‘wouldn’t it be nice if I could put a statue of Cicero in there as well’s – spread them all out over the plot of land you’d been allocated. Within the Palace of Justice you can find Egyptian Pharaoh heads, Assyrian winged lions, bas-reliefs borrowed from Khmer architecture, and classical Greco-Roman columns in Corinthian, Doric, Ionic and Tuscan styles. Apparently Poelaert wanted to crown the entire thing with a giant pyramid, but after he died a dome was installed instead: someone else’s cherry on top of his elaborate creation.

Although his whims were indulged by the authorities, it seems that the townsfolk of Brussels were not as prepared to turn a blind eye on him. For a start, the gigantic patch of land on which the Palace of Justice was built had to be expropriated from the surrounding Marolles district, meaning that many locals were forcefully relocated. Poelaert earned himself the nickname ‘Skieve Architekt’ (‘crooked architect’) – a name I’m sure I would have been happy to scream out had I been kicked out of my home so that somebody else could build his bloated tangle of dreams on top of it – and even today the Palace is quite controversial.

It remains controversial mainly because of its size. It still functions as a courthouse, but it’s so big that it’s impossibly expensive to maintain. On top of that, the elaborate nature of the thing demands a small army of people to police it. The Palace of Justice does not have a small army of people policing it, so there have been instances where the building has failed in its primary function: criminals have escaped from their trials and been lost in the labyrinthine corridors, leaving the pursuing security guards scratching their heads at each of the 16 possible exits. In 2009, Frédéric Deborsu, a reporter from RTBF and his crew decided to test the security of the Palace of Justice, and only had to hide behind a statue to get locked inside. They wandered around the palace all night long, prodding and poking into things they shouldn’t have had access to, and the next morning they were let out by a cleaning woman, no questions asked. This was broadcast on national TV, adding fuel to the ongoing public debate about how the building should be used.

Although the security issue is important, I think that it would be a shame for the building to be turned into a museum or some such thing, because that would mean it would be cleaned up and opened up and its secrets would be spilled out for all to see. To me, one of the things that makes this place so interesting is the fact that it is completely deserted and almost derelict in places, and its role as a courthouse means that there are certain parts of it that are always going to be inaccessible (at least in principle). When you walk around the outer galleries, you find cobwebs fluttering in the corners, grime-encrusted windows and long pigeon-stained walkways with locked doors at their end. Outside there are plants sprouting from the blackened turrets, and as you look up at the cold layers of stone and the blank stares of sentinel lions it seems ludicrous to suggest that there aren’t secret passageways or dungeons or those paintings where the eye-holes are cut out and people watch you from behind sprinkled about inside.

The truth is that you can’t have a building this fanciful sitting on your doorstep without concocting a few stories about it. From the time it was created it has inspired various myths and fantasies that are far too twisted and entertaining to kill by opening the place up to general inspection. (I’ll use the ‘some say’ thing here so it seems like we’re sitting around a campfire together.) Some say that there are dolphins inside the dome. Some say that there’s no complete map of the place, so any time renovations are undertaken new rooms and corridors are discovered. Some say that the building is deeper than it is high. Nobody knows how many floors there are in total and nobody knows what’s on the lowest level. Some say that the Palace holds a secret portal to a parallel world. Some say that Poelaert was completely out of control while the Palace was being constructed. Some say he became so obsessed with the place that it drove him into a delirium. Some say that on his death-bed he made people swear that his long-awaited pyramid would be installed on top. This is everything I’ve heard so far, but I’m sure I’ll hear more rumours the longer I’m in Brussels.

By now I’ve come to terms with the fact that the only way I’ll ever be able to express myself through my living quarters is via the trinkets and things I stuff it with, rather than the cat rooms or the fountain-roundabouts I used my millions to install. Sure I would have been angry if my home had been bulldozed to make way for a giant architectural confusion, but somehow I still find myself on Poelaert’s side here. It may be big and impractical, it may prompt escape-plots from convicted felons, but Poelaert’s dream house definitely adds something to the overall flavour of Brussels. It’s a mystery ingredient encased in scaffolding. Who needs practicality anyway when you can have loads of superstitions and stories instead?