Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Brussels: first impressions

This weekend my friend Lori and I took a pleasant little mini-trip to Belgium. It was, believe it or not, my first visit to Brussels. Beyond being a little getaway, it was also a chance for me to check out the city and see if I could imagine myself living there.

If you're a regular reader of this blog you of course know that I have a keen interest in European politics, particularly those of the European Union. And given that I'm a journalist, I would very much like to translate this interest into a career. At the moment here in London I'm actually covering real estate investment in Asia, which is about as far away from European politics as you can get. But I'm currently in the process of getting Italian citizenship (through my grandparents), which would give me an EU passport and enable me to work anywhere in the EU. When and if that comes through, it will be time to evaluate my career options. Given that I have a big interest in the EU and am knowledgeable about the subject given my educational background, covering it seems a natural choice.

Of course such a transition would require a move to Brussels. So I figured it would be a good idea to check the city out to see if I could do it. We even got a hotel in the European Quarter to get the full experience.

The European Quarter

We took the Eurostar train there, which is quite nice because it leaves right from the center of London and takes you directly to the center of Brussels in an hour and 50 minutes. It lets off at Gare du Midi, which is a decent-looking train station, at least in the Eurostar terminal. We hopped on a metro to the European Quarter, which is a ways to the east of the city center. As predicted, it was entirely deserted, as it is on evenings and weekends.

The architecture of the area, all purpose-built massive buildings for the union, are interesting, but it would be hard to say they're inspiring. Our hotel was next to the giant European Commission building, a huge glass x. Nearby was the IPC building containing the EU press center, which is, as our guidebook described it, "home base for the legions of hacks from around the world who earn their daily bread by reporting on the EU, a purgatorial assignment." A little harsh!

Just to the South was the Quartier Leopold, where the gargantuan European Parliament building is. It's entirely glass, almost blinding when it reflects the sunlight. One wonders whether the window-washers union had some influence in its design. Immediately behind the building is a rather sad little park with a crumbling basketball court. We imagined with amusement what a basketball court next to the US Capitol Building would look like.

Since both me and my friend Lori lived in DC for some time, we couldn't help making comparisons between the two cities. But other than both being the capital of multi-state entities, there were few similarities to observe. Instead of DC's grand purpose-built white neoclassical buildings, all surrounded by open expanse so you can get a clear view of them, the European Quarter was filled with enormous modern glass buildings crammed together in no identifiable pattern. There was really no way to step back and look at them, and in the end you were left with the feeling that you were just in an urban jungle of glass structures.

This of course is a frequent description of the European Quarter, but I wanted to see it for myself. It wasn't as bad as I had read, but still, I can't say it was pretty.

Brussels Centre

By contrast, the center of Brussels is full of charming narrow streets, interesting monuments and regal late 19th century buildings. As we explored the royal palace, the Cinquantenaire and the Galeries Royales St. Hubert, we were certainly impressed. However you couldn't help but temper the impressiveness of the buildings with the fact that these were all built by King Leopold II from profits stolen from the Belgian Congo in Africa, a process which involved the deaths of between five and eight million Africans.

One of the buildings Leopold II built from his Congo wealth is the massive Palais de Justice. Words cannot describe the enormity of this building, it is one of the biggest I've ever seen in my life, towering above the neighboring Marolles district. It houses the country's legal courts, but looking at it one can't help but wonder why the EU couldn't find a similar building to house one of the main bodies of the union. Symbolically it would be much more impressive, although also perhaps a bit frightening. The Palais de Justice is kind of a terrifying building. In any event, one could imagine it would be important for the EU to have an iconic building that people could identify with it, like the White House or the Capitol Building. It seems to me there are any number of empty palaces which could be refitted to serve this function. Perhaps for the new presidency? I can just picture Tony Blair emerging from the Palais de Justice's grand balconies.

Latin/Germanic Divide

On Sunday we took a train up to Antwerp where my American friend Greg lives. Antwerp is the second-biggest city in Belgium and at the heart of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking Northern part of the country. It was fascinating to me how different the two cities are, and it was amusing to me how similiar it was to the situation in Switzerland. When I'm in Zurich (which is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland) visiting my family, it looks very German. In fact it looks very much like Munich. But when you go West to the French-speaking section everything suddenly looks French. The thatched rooves dissapear and suddenly you start seeing iron railings outside windows. When I was in Geneva, I noticed it reminded me very much of Paris.

In fact Brussels also reminded me of Paris, and I'd have to say Geneva and Brussels are similar in many ways. But when we got to Antwerp, it looked completely different, and reminded me much more of a Dutch or German city. It was also much cleaner, which is another difference I've noticed between Zurich and Geneva (I find Zurich to be much cleaner). Who knows, maybe I'm just projecting things onto these cities based on the language I'm hearing in them. But it's odd that in both of these multilingual countries I noticed the same Latin/Germanic contrasts.

The Verdict

I left the trip concluding that Brussels is indeed a place I could live. Certainly I can see it would be a difficult adjustment. I've lived in large cities now for about ten years, and have grown accustomed to them. Socially Brussels would be difficult for me I think, given that there just doesn't seem to be too much to do on weekends. Of course there are so many great cities that are just a short train ride away. As I get older, nightlife is becoming less and less important. Perhaps it wouldn't be a bad thing for me to get away from the temptations of a fantastic nightlife city like London.

In any case, it's good to now have a clearer picture of Brussels.


Jon Worth said...

Nothing to do on weekends?! I think you've missed something during your brief stay in Brussels... There are loads of excellent restaurants and bars, plenty of music concerts, museums, galleries etc.

Plus the best aspect of life in Brussels is how sociable it is when you're here - it's much easier to make friends than in London and you'll spend plenty of time at meals and parties at friends' flats - it's second nature to go out for a meal with a Catalan or an Estonian and that's great fun.

Yes, Brussels can be a bit grey and dull at first (I hated it the first two times I visited) but having spent a total of more than 2 years here there are few places I would rather be based.

Dave Keating said...

Ah well this is good to hear! I do have to say the nightlife wasn't as bad as I had heard people say, it was certainly decent! It's good to hear you've found it easy to make friends there though, I had heard the opposite from some people.