Here we go again. Relocation number three is approaching and the boxes are piling up in the attic. Left ‘must go to Balkans’. On the right “can go to the dump”. After the first one, from Amsterdam to Budapest, like any immigrant I went into the black hole looking for something that felt like ‘home’. Preferably a brown café with billiards, old grain jenever and a dish of old Amsterdam and liverwurst. A bit banal, but the displaced hand is quickly filled. The closest came the kocsma: not a specific café, but a collective name for Hungarian drinking places where people talk, drink and fight. Not to life and death, but just to round off the day appropriately.
Here I was ‘at home’ as a reporter. The stories came to me reeking in the haze of third-rate cigarette smoke and locally-fired pálinka.
So it hurt when I had to leave after eight years of traveling through Hungary and the Balkan countries: a new post as an EU correspondent was waiting in Brussels.
Gone with the pretty stories, boy. Do you already have a blue suit? And start sticking nicotine patches quickly!
With satanic delight – which will return due to deadly boredom in the Eurocrat city with drooping legs – friends waved me off on a hungover New Year’s morning.
What had I started?
I tried to focus on the road, my head full of cotton wool. In the back seat the two cats and Schillie the turtle. Of course they all had to go, my son thought. And in the passenger seat, Zorra, the Hungarian labrador, sniffed the Walloon air greedily through the open window. We were approaching our new destination.
Deadly boredom? Brussels turned out to be the ultimate dream and nightmare for a correspondent. Headache files merged seamlessly, from euro to migration crisis, from terror attacks to concrete rot in tunnels, from Brexit tears to pandemic. In between, the Belgian political theater on the Wetstraat and the Red Devil’s seuforie provided tender intermezzos.
But what about ‘home’ in Brussels? As a wandering Dutchman, would I ever find my cocsma in this elusive metropolis? “Brussels are the nicest people in the world”, wrote Willem Frederik Hermans, who spent his last years in Brussels. And Hermans was always right.
“Sjenkan shenk!” Behind the bar, barmaid Adeline pulled out paper and pen. She had already said ‘sjènkan sjenk’ five times, and I still hadn’t understood it. Now she wrote it down: “55.” For so many years, the Spanish served her customers here, in Bar Llanes on the Kolenmarkt. In 1966 she had emigrated from Asturias to Brussels. “And what brings you here?” asked Adeline in French. I looked around. Yellowed travel agency photos from the 1970s hung on the wall. Adeline didn’t do anything fancy. I was a bit ‘home’ again.
All I had to do was search for the same merry chaos as in the streets of Belgrade, Tirana or Pristina. Could the street scene in Brussels match that?
The image of the gaping hole in front of my hotel in Kosovo loomed. All the years I went there during my Balkan days, no one had bothered to cover it. Around it was a barrier of posts and red ribbon. One day I knelt on the edge, stuck my head in the hole and screamed. Ten meters deep, I guessed, judging by the echo. I had become addicted to the deficiencies of daily life in the Balkans.
That will be kicked off in Brussels, I feared.
But on my city walks in Brussels I learned that the narcotics were there for the taking. The same holes, posts and red ribbon everywhere. Everywhere the same congealed inability to turn the abnormal into something normal.
Who is responsible for this?
“We do not know.”
Is someone going to fix this?
“Excuse me? Another pint?”
From the Brussels expression je m’en fou – “I don’t care” – I hadn’t heard as a newcomer, but what did it matter? Brussels turned out to be the most generous dealer a junkie could wish for. And best of all, the madness and the imagination were everywhere at eye level, casually displayed behind the windows of houses. In the absence of a designation recognized by art critics, I call them showcases. My Brussels municipality of Sint-Gillis is full of them and the most beautiful can be found in the Metaalstraat. You have to zoom in quite a lot – see photo on the right – to discover a piglet family at the bottom right. In the top right corner, a fox’s head hangs next to a red shirt that reads SEXY. Prominent in the picture: a meat grinder and a rickety leg prosthesis.
Why do the residents bother? What are those battered barbie dolls doing in the collage? And what should I do with the laughing gnomes on a piece of artificial grass behind the neighbor’s window?
Thousands of photos of these bizarre scenes roam on the laptops I’ve worn over the years. It became obsessive, with wanderings through all corners of Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia.
Some confrontations with infrastructural conundrums became philosophical torments. I was left cramped at the intersection with the signs for the diversion to the left and deviation to the right. And what meaning was hidden behind the warning road sign in the fields of Pajottenland: “Beware: singing children”?
I consulted the grandmaster, the German David Helbich, philosopher and author of a photo book Belgian Solutions (2013). His photos of houses without windows and dead-end staircases are now famous. “Shaking your head in disapproval if a non-Belgian is completely wrong,” Helbich taught. “The Belgian is proud of the humor behind those so-called failures.”
After the publication of his first book, Helbich went back to the facade with the dead-end staircase. “Would someone have built a door in that blank wall again.” Whether that door gave access to anything didn’t matter. “It was pure poetry,” Helbich said. Hard drugs, as far as I’m concerned.
And then I still had to discover Heyvaertstraat. It was love at first sight. A cacophony blared on more than a quarter of an hour’s walk from the fashionable fashion district Dansaert. This little street in Brussels turned out to be the hub for the global trade in second-hand cars. The smoke of diesel and roast meat from the Africa Meat butcher’s shop was intoxicating.
African men hung around in groups, liter bottles of beer on the table, waiting for Eastern European trucks to deliver cars. The double-deck trailers made the sharp turn at the Slaughterhouses with difficulty. From the two-star bistro La Paix on the corner – popular with top European civil servants who enjoy the rough spectacle on the street – everyone sympathized: will the Slovakian driver make it or will he graze the facade?
“This neighborhood was impoverished, so Brussels welcomed us with open arms at the time,” said car dealer Pierre Hajjar, whose Lebanese family settled here half a century ago. “And now they want us gone!?”
I understood Hajjar’s indignation, but could hardly share it with anyone. Because my arrival from the Balkans in Brussels coincided with the start of the fight against King Auto. In order to make friends with politically correct Brussels residents, I had better not start talking about my love for diesel air.
For mine guilty pleasure I had to go underground, and that’s where Valhalla awaited me: the tunnels on the Brussels ring road.
My favorite quickly became the Leopold II tunnel. I enjoyed the hallucinatory journey along dangling cables and defective lights that flicker at unexpected moments. Dutch friends, on weekend visits, I did not send to the Grote Markt; I dragged them into the tunnels.
Then came the day when the first piece of concrete rumbled down a tunnel. I knew the infrastructural fairground attraction was coming to an end. Renovation works started, some tunnels were closed, the fun was over.
Action group Pic Nic The Streets won the case for car-free zones and table tennis tables appeared on the asphalt of the large Anspach boulevard in the center. At the annual inspection, the inspector gave me a stern look: “Your diesel car will soon no longer be welcome.” He said it as if my last Brussels days were numbered.
I had to change, and quickly. And I had to stop singing about that sordidness of Brussels – ‘false romance’ was already heard around me as a reproach.
Recently I visited my old Heyvaert love again. I had read with mixed feelings about how the traders fear that they will lose out in the fight against Koning Auto. But the trailers still squeezed through the narrow street, the noise and stench were as usual.
“This is hell, but it’s part of the neighborhood,” said manager Fabio on the sidewalk in front of his bistro La Paix.
Why did that combination of observations sound so Brussels to me? Brussels is Brussels, precisely because the devil also haunts there.
Walking along the Anspach, past frumpy planters, I reminisced about the euphoria about finding that last parking spot for pop temple Ancienne Belgique.
Was the merry Brussels chaos and, by extension, anarchic Belgium over for good?
In those moments of despair, Mark Eyskens always offered me comfort.
I ran into the old political fox, viscount and former prime minister of Belgium on a night of election results.
I asked him how to proceed with Belgium. Would the land burst?
Eyskens pierced me with a soft yet villainous look – a combination that only the very shrewd Belgian politicians master – and said: “Oh boy, my generation has put this country together in such a way that no one can pull it together anymore.”
One last time I visited the KVS, the Royal Flemish Theater in the heart of Brussels. That night the dance performance went Time, Creation, Destruction: j’ai pleure avec les chiens premiere.
Speaking of howling with the dogs: after twelve years in Brussels, I started to feel like the dalmatian I once met at the outdoor bar of my favorite shrimp croquette chip shop. Perky the dog had put its front paws on the bar – nobody took offense. Brussels residents almost never take offense at anything.
For twelve years I had done my best to fit in, in this city where everyone is a stranger and at home in equal measure. You will automatically find what you are looking for in one of the bubbles – the euro bubble, the NATO bubble, the orange hockey bubble, the Molenbeek bubble, the Dansaertmetaal bubble. I even found a Balkan bubble, including Hungarian sausage shop, Serbian slivovich specialty store, Romanian Orthodox Church, Kosovar football club and the compassionate Albanian doorman of jazz club L’Archiduc.
One day, as a correspondent, you will know: I am no longer in the overall picture.
In my own bubble, the euro bubble, narrowing of eyes was lurking. It was time to go. Goodbye Brussels.
This article is a pre-publication from the story collection to be published by Prometheus in October The Brussels swamp – Behind the scenes of power in Europe by Tijn Sadée and co-author Bert van Slooten. This summer Sadée will exchange Brussels as his base for the Balkans, where he will work as a traveling European correspondent.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 10 July 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 10, 2021