It is my longest relationship. I have had others, some for several years, a few months or just a weekend. I never promised I would stay, but I did, and it has been almost ten years now.
Brussels. We met the first time when I passed through as a teenager on my way to Paris. To be honest, I don’t even remembered we met. Not until many years later did I realise that two of the photos in my album was of me overlooking the Grand Place and another one standing next to Manneken Pis (a miniature statue of a boy peeing). Two of Brussels main tourist attractions.
Many years later, we had a few brief encounters. I returned to attend meetings and conferences in the European quarters. The monumental Triumphal Arch at the entrance of Parc du Cinquantenaire and the political corridors of the European Parliament were the two impressions that stayed with me.
In 2010 I returned to you. I got a job at a non-governmental organisation, in the midst of the European quarters. I wanted a change and I was excited, intrigued and curious to get to know you better. During our first year together you showed me Place Jourdan, where I stayed the first year in a small studio. You smelled like potato fries, cigarette smoke and beer but I was charmed by the cosy summer patios around the old Maison Antoine (today rebuilt) and the quirky cafes, which I took shelter in during the winter. In the beginning, I mainly stayed within the parts of you I already knew, the EU quarters. It felt safe and familiar and at the same time I still had a lot to discover. I enjoyed criss-crossing between the small streets to my meetings and learning the ins-and-outs of the lunch options around my office. On sunny summer days, I joined EU-officials and lobbyists, with a sandwich in the small park of Square de Meeus. In the weekends, I met up with friends for brunch at Flagey square or Parvis de Saint-Gilles, and in the evenings we had a drink under the rainbow flags in the city centre. I felt at ease and as we belonged together.
At some point along the way, I started to notice your flaws. Smelly, from pollution, garbage laying on the sidewalks waiting to get picked up and as soon as you think you have seen the end of an everlasting construction work, another hole is dug and the bus confusingly reroutes. Disorganised, so many inefficient and illogical papers to fill in and queues to wait in. Ugly, I hate to say it, but some parts of you are just ugly, your grey concrete buildings, boulevards and squares, lacking the beauty of both green and water. Frankly, I got a bit tired of you. When I had the chance, I left. I told you I needed space, a change of scenery. During the weekends, I travelled where it was cleaner, brighter and prettier.
Sure, it wasn’t all gloomy. There were days you charmed me with the moroccan crepes and sweet mint tea in the middle of the busy Midi Market, the amazing Zinneke Art Parade that runs through the centre each second year, and the Abbaye de la Cambre hidden at the end of the Ixelles ponds.
There were times I seriously considered leaving you. Starting over. Nevertheless, I decided to give you another chance. To really get to know you.
It was not easy. On the contrary, it was hard work to step out of my comfort zone and look at you differently. I left the EU quarters for a job in a new area. I started walking unfamiliar streets and discover new sides of you that made me curious again, excited. You opened up or maybe it was me?
You ask me, what would you like to do? And everyday you provide me with a new ‘à la carte’ of all the amazing things you have to offer that I did not know about. And everyday I picked a new flavour I have not yet tried.
Under your dirty and messy surface you revealed many layers of art, culture, diversity and history.
You speak more than 100 languages from all over the world. Although, I still struggle with understanding you and learning to speak at least one of your two mother tongues, we always manage to communicate. You master any cuisine and show me the smallest and loveliest cafes and restaurants that you would never see if you did not know they were tucked away between the facade of bigger eye-catching places. The delicious Syrian My Tannour, romantic A l’Ombre de la Ville and cosy Madagasikara, just to mention three gems. You are also musical, all year around you entertain in small bars and on big scenes and in the summers you put on a big festival with music and food trucks from all over, populating every corner of the city.
You are familiar and approachable as a small sized town, and exciting and surprising as a big multicultural city. You charm, humour, irritate and annoy me, but in the end you do not bore me.
These are some of the many reasons why our relationship lasts.
We do not take each other for granted and nor do we label one another. Instead, we keep an open-mind and continue to reinvent ourselves and discover new things together. When I go away, it doesn’t take long until I miss your quirky smile, spontaneity and craziness. When I return, I am happy to discover you all over again.
See more photos on my Instagram from Brussels and other places.