Sunday, 13 December 2015

No, Brussels is not the new Berlin

People move to Berlin because they want to. People move to Brussels because they have to.

Given that I live in both cities, a lot of people have been asking me this weekend about Friday's New York Times article, 'Why Brussels is the New Berlin'. My first reaction after seeing the headline was to scoff. The article itself left me rather perplexed and annoyed.

These "________ is the new Berlin" articles are becoming a bad cliche. As Jon Worth pointed out in his blog today, this has been written about Warsaw, Leipzig, Zagreb, Krakow, Vilnius - the list goes on and on. The only prerequisite for the comparison seems to be that the city is cheap and has at least some artists in it. The Brussels-Berlin comparison is not itself new. Deutsche Welle did a similar article in August, although their piece had a more sensible focus on artists.

As Jon points out, the basis for the article seems to be entirely relegated to night life and the arts scene - as if that's all that Berlin is about. It then lists a series of retail establishments, and I was struggling to see any relation to Berlin for any of them.

Look, Brussels is a much cooler place than people give it credit for. Its reputation as stodgy, buttoned-up and boring is inaccurate, as the article points out. But, it is nothing like Berlin. In fact it is the extreme difference between the two cities that makes me enjoy so much splitting my time between them.

Given that the article seems to be focusing on people who have moved to the city from outside, let's focus on that aspect. I'm an expat in both cities, so this is the perspective from which I can make observations.

People move to Berlin because they want to. People move to Brussels because they have to. This, to me, has been the biggest difference I've encountered living in Berlin the past six months. People are moving to Berlin from all over, often without a job, with a dream of being around like-minded, creative people. The result is a very dynamic city which, while it may not be very productive, is very stimulating. There's not a lot of jobs, but there's a lot of ideas.

By contrast, expats move to Brussels because of work. Brussels has tons of jobs, in and around the EU institutions and in multinational companies. In six years of living in Brussels, I think I've only met three or four people who moved here simply because they wanted to live in Brussels. I moved to Brussels not because I liked the city (I didn't), but because I wanted to cover the EU.

Most expats end up here in Brussels by accident, and many then grow to like it over time (or learn to adjust to its idiosyncrasies). This alone creates a very different atmosphere than in Berlin. In Brussels, when I ask someone how long they've lived here, they seem more embarrassed the longer it has been. "Ten years..." they might say, head hung down to the floor in shame. In Berlin, the answer is more proud the longer one has been there. "Ten years!" they answer with a beaming smile.

That creates a very different vibe in the two cities. People in Brussels are doing interesting things, mostly in the EU sphere. But it's just not a very creative environment. In Berlin, most people don't seem to be doing much of anything work-wise. But they have tons of really interesting ideas and stimulating conversation. 

You can throw a couple of hipster boutiques in the Marolles, but that doesn't change the overall ethos of Brussels. It's still a small place, dominated by the EU institutions. If anything, it is really the "new Washington DC" - and I don't mean that as a compliment.

So I agree with Jon on this. Brussels is a fascinating place and punches above its weight for nightlife and arts. But it's no Berlin. 

Describing cities as the 'new Berlin' seems to imply Berlin is somehow over. It is not. And even if it were, a city like Brussels has no hope of taking over its mantle.


Brian said...

I moved to Brussels by choice when my company offered me a position in either London or Brussels. I knew my salary would go further here and I would make friends easier in Brussels because of its international expat scene and also wanted to be in continental Europe. Also, I speak French and was excited to live again in a francophone city. Many, many people move to Brussels by choice -- especially from other French-speaking countries. Don't forget the largest foreign community in Brussels are French nationals. Maybe it's not Berlin, sure, but it is much more exciting than most cities its size in Europe.

Thom said...

to be honest Dave, you describe Brussels a bit from within your bubble. not a criticism just an observation with a lot of people who work for the EU and the "industry" around it. Brussels is the EU capital of dance, the gallery scene is exploding and one of the most vibrant on the continent, the universities deliver people with start-up ideas/successes etc ...I spent a hell of a lot of time in Berlin and yes, everybody has an idea there, it's just that nothing ever comes of those ideas. Berlin is a city that allows you to do close to nothing for a very long time, without feeling any pressure.

Brian said...

I agree with Dave that Brussels is not the "new Berlin" (from my perspective, thankfully so). I also agree that you don't typically bump into these artsy, creative types all over the city as you often do in Berlin (as Thom says, a city where you can maintain a lifestyle of "doing nothing" and exploring your creativity for an awfully long time). But I think Brussels punches well above its weight in terms of a creative scene, and many artists do have a lot of success here. You just need to seek out that community to really see that side of Brussels.

Powen said...

The cynic in me says you wrote this to keep Brussels under the radar and to yourself for a little while longer

Tomasz said...

Fully agree! As an expat in Brussels and having many friends living in Berlin, the description comes to me as very accurate.

Nicolae Dascalu said...

IM not sure what to think after reading your article,i have lived for about 5 months in Berlin and when i had enough of it i moved on and settled in Brussels where i still live 6 years later and let me tell you right away;i wont go back to Berlin any time soon.
It all well and good for people in Berlin to be creative (your opinion) but what good is all that if they are rude and hateful towards eastern European immigrants? I went on many job interviews and nobody bothered hiring me,in Brussels it took me less than a week to get a good job and provide for my family.Moving to Brussels was by far the best decision that i ever made. Berlin sucks!

guernica said...

Hi, My sister moved to Brussels because of work. She has any friends there, could you show her any possibilities to find some friends, is there any international community, please? thank you. my email

guernica said...

Hi, My sister moved to Brussels because of work. She has any friends there, could you show her any possibilities to find some friends, is there any international community, please? thank you. my email

Romanian graduate in IT (from Constanta) said...

Berlin is for living your life with less money, Brussels provides more money but more stress. In Berlin, people are friendly and you can pick up any girl you want since they are so open minded. In Brussels, girls are usually nosed up. I believe Berlin is the best way to start a German experience if you want to work for less and have fun. As an IT graduate, Berlin is a brilliant open-source! I chose Berlin over Brussels, sorry. I like living my life freely and without prejudice and this city is quite amazing!