22 June 2009

This Must Be Brussels

Roll out the carpet: The Grand Place
(The carpet of flowers is not a permanent feature;
when I’ve visited, there have been nothing but cobblestones here.)

Copyright (c) of the Belgian Tourist Office NYC/USA

Susan Graham’s recital Sunday night provided me with the opportunity to reacquaint myself with Brussels, a city I’ve visited only once before and still feel I haven’t got much of a handle on. As a tourist destination, it’s hardly the playground that other European capitals are: Brussels doesn’t boast a tremendous wealth of museums and monuments; outside the old quarter, it’s not particularly beautiful; and once you’ve seen the Mannekin-pis, you’ve ticked off nearly every must-see attraction the city has to offer. Yet it’s a nice place to visit, especially in good weather, when you can kick back and enjoy a beer in a café.

In a way, the Mannekin-pis strikes me as a fairly apt symbol of Brussels’ attitude toward tourism. “You don’t think we’re going to stop going about our regular business, just because you’re here, do you?” he seems to say. Yet he gives the visitor something to smile about, and how many other European monuments can say the same?

Copyright (c) of the Belgian Tourist Office NYC/USA

As the capital of Belgium (a relatively young nation, born in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars), Brussels unites the country’s two principal cultures, the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish. The city is also the birthplace and testing-ground of the European experiment, first in the creation of the BeNeLux union (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), and later as the de-facto capital of the European Union. As Peter de Caluwe, general director of Brussels’ Théâtre de la Monnaie/De Munt, reminded me on Sunday night, these three attempts at political and socio-economic are closely linked; he believes that the fate of Belgium points to that of Europe as a whole. As he put it, “If we can’t make this work here, how can it work anywhere?”

Historically, the Walloons were bourgeois and prosperous, and they snubbed the Flemish whenever they could. Recent changes in the economy have meant that, for the first time, the Flemish are wealthier, yet this hasn’t reduced tensions between the communities — to the point that splitting the nation in two is a real possibility.

The Grand Place at Twilight
Copyright (c) of the Belgian Tourist Office NYC/USA

Predictably, language is the first frontline in the conflict between the cultures. Officially, Brussels, like all of Belgium, is bilingual, and de Caluwe told me that his theater, the nation’s principal cultural institution that is neither Walloon nor Flemish, rigorously observes the parity of the languages. One year, the theater will be publicized as “De Munt/La Monnaie”; the next, it’s “La Monnaie/De Munt.” Translations of the libretto are projected over the stage during opera performances, with screens precisely parallel. One season, Flemish will be on the left, French on the right. The next season, French goes on the left, and Flemish on the right.

Fluent in both languages (and in English, too), de Caluwe seems to enjoy the linguistic balance, but he notes that, historically, most of the Flemish had to learn French in order to make a living — whereas many Walloons could thrive perfectly well without learning any Flemish at all.

Guild Houses on the Grand Place
Copyright (c) of the Belgian Tourist Office NYC/USA

I heard lots of Flemish spoken in Brussels this weekend, and there were even a couple of occasions when I began speaking French (almost on auto-pilot), only to realize that the person I addressed was infinitely more comfortable in Flemish — or English.

Happily, the casual visitor to Brussels can stay out of politics and enjoy the scenery — and the food. It’s typically hearty stuff, but who doesn’t like moules-frites (mussels with French fries — which are really Belgian, by the way), with a good glass of Belgian beer? I even had some carbonnade (beef stew) and some anguille (eel), though I didn’t have time for any rabbit, a staple of Belgian cuisine.

One random cultural footnote: Brussels is the capital of ancient Brabantia, whose legendary heroine, Geneviève de Brabant, fascinated Offenbach as well as Marcel in À la Recherche du temps perdu, and whose heirs the Guermantes turned out to be.

NOTE: Photographs used here were taken from the website of the Belgian Tourist Office NYC/USA.

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