Someone said to me yesterday “Brussels is that place you pass through on the way to France, it’s hardly somewhere you’d expect a major terrorist attack to take place”. For me Brussels is a second home, it is the city I grew up in, it is one of the safest places on earth and somewhere I have escaped to over the years for a bit of family time and peace and quiet. It is far more than ‘somewhere to pass through’ but I would agree that until recently, it is the last place I would have expected a terror attack to be staged.
Brussels is a vibrant cosmopolitan city, with a different language spoken on every corner, a colourful blend of cultures down every cobbled street; its centre sprinkled with just as many cultural attractions, architectural feats, history, entertainment, parks and forests as it is the EU institutions everyone associates with the ‘capital of Europe’.
It has, in my opinion, an unfair reputation for being a dull and grey hub of European bureaucracy. In my experience that view is often held by visitors who swing through for a few hours on business, or those who are en route to France and see nothing more than the ring road. You would hardly judge London on a fleeting meeting, a stay in a big hotel chain or a few hours spent in traffic on the M25, would you?
For those of us who have lived there, the city devastated by yesterday’s attacks has far more to offer.
Brussels is today the crossroads of Europe and has been at the centre of some of the greatest wars of recent decades and some of the most momentus peace negotiations. It has survived invasions, continuous decades-long internal clashes between its multi-lingual and proudly different Flanders and Wallonia regions. In recent years, it somehow maintained its integrity and a functioning economy through nearly two years of political chaos when the leadership was incapable of forming a government – a record outdoing even governmental procrastination in Iraq.
Belgium’s history and its colonial past as a melting pot of cultures and languages has left a rich legacy of Renaissance architecture, beautiful medieval old towns jostling with Art Nouveau quarters, immaculately maintained memorials and historic battlefields, the unmissable ‘Atomium’, the lavishly ornate towers of the Grand’Place in central Brussels and a vast array of nationalities living side by side. And whatever you may think about the European Union, Brussels nurtures the story of over 70 years’ of our history as Europeans, the incredible journey of our continent from a fragmented collection of battered, bloodied and penniless battlefields to a (relatively) united and serious player in the global arena.
The mix of cultures has also left the country with what I think is some of the best food in Europe. I like to think of traditional Belgian fare as having the quality of French food, but served in German quantities – the perfect combination. Whether it is seafood – the traditional ‘moules frites’ – or meat – slabs of it served practically still ‘moo-ing’ all the way to ‘bien cuit’ depending on your taste or stewed in a Flemish ‘Carbonade’, or game hunted in the Ardennes – it is all served with a hustle and a suitably brusque waiter. In the most traditional of eateries, he will scribble your order on the table cloth, memorise the list, disappear and return with every dish memorised perfectly.
If you are not careful you could spend just as long picking which beer to sample, many bars routinely supplying pages and pages of varying strength and flavours brewed in different regions and all served in their own specific glass. And to finish, if you can manage it, there is always a mountain of chocolate and vanilla ice-cream lathered in hot sauce and crème Chantilly – the ‘Dame Blanche’ – and mouth-watering Belgian chocolates to savour with a glass of Calvados and ‘un petit café’ to finish off.
Clearly growing up there gave me a well-developed appreciation of gastronomy. But more importantly, Brussels was one of the most colourful but also safest places for a child and then a teenager to grow up. My siblings and I had the freedom to find our own way, without our parents worrying about violence or crime to the same extent as they might have had to in another capital city. That’s not to say Brussels does not have its issues, its crime rate, its poverty.
But on the whole, Brussels provided us with big-city cosmopolitan exposure with a feeling that we were in the thick of global events, but somehow also gave us a level of safety and sense of calm community that meant we could go and discover life and make our own mistakes without running any great risks (or giving my parents a heart attack). Having lived and worked in a number of other European capital cities since, I have yet to find another one that offers that unique environment. I still consider Brussels a home and every time I go back, I breathe a contented sigh of relief that it has not changed.
Tuesday’s cowardly attacks on Brussels have left people frightened, shocked, angry and grieving. But there is also a sense of community and defiance. Let’s face it, Brussels and Belgium have seen it all over the decades and are still standing strong. It will no doubt take some time to recover and those affected will not be forgotten, but the ‘Belges’ and the cohort of multi-national multi-cultural adopted ‘Belges’ like myself will not allow cowardly attacks like this to change the country or its capital city. It is far too strong for that.