Brussels. I had been there a few times for business reasons, but now that Karin and I are taking it easy, an opportunity presented itself to visit the city more extensively. We booked two nights in a nice, simple hotel (Adagio) in a side street of Rue Belliard, Nijverheidsstraat or Rue de l’industrie which is all official in Brussels bilingual in French and Dutch.
The city is widely regarded as the unofficial capital of Europe, ie the European Union. Unofficially because the EU is not (yet) a country. How did Brussels actually become ‘European capital’? Allowing myself some speculation, I am stepping through history in seven-mile boots. Together with the Netherlands and Luxembourg, Belgium belongs to the founding states of the united Europe and the Benelux, the first small customs union after the war, formed a sort of pilot for the later European Community. Belgium and Luxembourg had already formed a single state with the northern Netherlands (the former Republic) from 1815 until the Belgian revolt and secession of 1830-1839.
Brussels was already a royal city in the Habsburg Empire from the late Middle Ages, but the Belgian King Leopold II (1835-1909) has, from the moment he became king in 1865, as a ‘builder’ quite a household in Brussels and had numerous monumental buildings erected there. which now remind the city of Paris, especially because the streets are all paved with cobblestones or ‘cobblestones’. (Although the triumphal arch in the Cinquantenaire Park is virtually a copy of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.)
This nineteenth century eruption of royal building fever meant that when the new European institutions needed housing in the early 1950s, Brussels was a good candidate. What also helped was that Belgium is a harmless small country that is bilingual – even trilingual because German is also spoken. Strasbourg has of course also been pushed, especially by France, but that does not seem to make it as a European capital. And Liège and even Amsterdam were briefly in the picture. But Brussels is on the border of Germanic and Latin Europe, geographically central and easily accessible from both Paris and Berlin.
Some fifty thousand ‘Eurocrats’ work in Brussels and every morning they want to go to the few square kilometers where the European quarter is located. Many do this by car, so in Nijverheidsstraat – and other side streets – traffic is blocked for a large part of the day because the traffic light discharges the traffic in a dosed manner onto the Rue Belliard through which it races continuously.
Here, European Commissioner Frans Timmermans can still do some beneficial missionary work for his ‘Green Deal’ to make the European continent more sustainable and green. Here and there you see something that resembles bicycle paths, but there is still a long way to go here.
We have done everything on foot that is reasonable to do. Climbing and descending is especially tiring: Brussels is a hilly city. This occasionally provides beautiful views.
The European Information Office on Rue Belliard lavishly advertises all the charities the Union pursues
We visited the Magritte Museum in the huge Museum of Fine Arts. His paintings have a dreamy surrealism that fits so well with Belgium and Brussels in particular. A split country and city. Magritte questions the obvious when it comes to the names we give to objects and concepts. The ordinary suddenly becomes absurd. Name, meaning and the object to which they belong become separated from each other.
Now that we have admired Magritte in his ‘natural Belgian habitat’, a country with linguistic and cultural borders, we understand better his pre-occupation with language, object naming and meaning. He was engaged in communication in a conceptual way.
In the House of European History you become immersed in the absurdity of war – especially of the First World War, which left deep scars in the collective memory much more than in the Netherlands. An unprecedented mass destruction of people on an industrial scale that is poured out on you from tableaux and from showcases and which leaves you depressed. Impressive, yes.
The House of European History is located a stone’s throw from the European Parliament where an employee of the information office almost drags us in for a half-hour audio tour where we can take a look at the main meeting room.
Here we are shown the lesson Europe has learned from its violent history. The 750 delegates can each speak in their own national language and a large number of simultaneous translators ensure that each delegate can listen in their own national language.
Now we were ready for a little light-heartedness and you can find that in Brussels in the national comics museum on the Zandstraat or Center Belge de la bande dessinée, or musée de la BD for short. BD is comic in French. The former Art Deco department store in which it is housed is worth a visit in itself.
The European Union has chosen a dignified capital in which culture and nature could nevertheless conquer a little more space from the busy car traffic of hasty Eurocrats.
We close with a Brussels love song: