Low Country … Brussels

Low Country … Brussels

Yesterday we went out to Tervuren. In the park the heat was scorching and fish were jumping in dirty green ponds linked like a canal. Under the trees was cool but the Africa Museum in the old palace was distinguished by the combination of hot weather and a myriad stuffed animals. It smelled rather like a crusty old cowshed, with a soupçon of the wild smell of fear and danger. The dubious merits of such a memorial to Belgium’s colonial past have to be balanced against the fact that they clearly had an awful lot of stuff and needed somewhere to put it.

6 July 2006

In the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels the two paintings I like the most are of contrasting seasons. One is a sunny, flax-harvesting scene by Emile Claus and the other a depiction of skaters on a frozen river, with a bird trap on the bank, by the elder Brueghel.

Ten years before the hot afternoon in Tervuren, a visit to Brussels had involved a different woman and a somewhat frostier atmosphere. TV shots of European Union landmarks had given no true advance impression of the Belgian capital. It was more like Auden’s poem, Brussels in Winter. Wandering through cold streets, the formula had escaped me alright.

“What’s wrong with you?” she snapped.
“I’m freezing.”
“Well, you should be wearing layers. That’s how to dress, over here, in winter. Don’t you know that?”

In the church of Saint Nicolas, near the Grand’ Place, I lit a candle as an offering to Job. She saw what I was doing and for a moment the old warmth and amusement seemed to return. Back in her place in the gentrifying eastern Schaerbeek, I fell asleep in my overcoat on her couch as she sat at her computer across the room. It was a strange kind of sickness, like a flu which never took hold but enveloped the gloom and left me in a daze. When I woke, she was actually smiling.

“What’s so funny?”
“You’re such a waster,” she kindly explained.

Brussels has a split personality, the French light and the Flemish shadow. By that I chiefly mean the cold reaction of the Flemish minority in the city if addressed in French. Then there are the many thousands of Eurocrats in their own bubble, from which, an ambassador once confided, shipping people home after psychotic episodes was by no means uncommon.

Belgian law enforcement can be merciless. Bernard Pivot was the literary face of French television for thirty years, chiefly on the long-running shows Apostrophes and Bouillon de culture. In his memoir Les Mots de ma vie (2011) he recalls an incident when, as a young journalist sent to a theatre, was nabbed trafficking spuds into Belgium. On his way to Brussels he stopped off to see his wife’s family in the Pas-de-Calais, where a thirty-kilo sack of potatoes was placed in his car boot by his father-in-law. A Belgian customs officer demanded that he open the same boot, whereupon a bunch of them converged to accuse him of smuggling potatoes. They asked if he didn’t know Belgium was already a great producer and consumer of chips and if the sack was a present for the director of the theatre he was about to visit. In the end he had to turn the car around and give the potatoes back to his beau-père.

In 1996 it was a city whose ghostly, dark, French facades on our walk home the night before, when not a harsh word was spoken, made me wish to return on stronger ground sometime. In 2006 I found Booze ’n’ Blues, near the Bourse. It was my kind of bar, narrow with high stools and old sounds that filled the silences from a different companion, hopelessly marooned in her own thoughts. There was a black and white photo behind the counter of Jacques Brel, Léo Ferré and Georges Brassens, all at a table covered in ashtrays, bottles, glasses and mikes. Apart from them I focused on the lethal, narrow, spiral staircase to the basement.

Booze n Blues

The next day the launderette was another quietly shared activity. I carried the black sack along Rue Dupont. “Welcome to Turkey town,” the sack’s owner said of western Schaerbeek. “And hookers,” I added, because she’d already shown me some of the nearby windows.

PS … Auden (1938) …


Auden winter

High Country … Amsterdam

High Country … Amsterdam

January 1996

The Fall is the most famous book set in Amsterdam, “a capital of waters and fogs, girdled by canals, particularly crowded, and visited by men from all corners of the earth”. Albert Camus also wrote of it “asleep in the white night, the dark jade canals under the little snow-covered bridges” and when we landed, there were snow flurries rippling across the runways at Schipol.

Viewed from the tram on the way from the station to the hotel, the snow on the dark brown stone was like a Black Forest gâteau. The cold that white night reached down as far as sixteen below. I saw the red digits and the minus on the wall of the hotel room when I woke to see a window wide open. One of my two companions had ten-thumbed the window latch.

What really made the Saturday night there, nonetheless, in the Grasshopper hash bar on Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, was the episode with the guy who came up the stone steps inside the front door and then collapsed across the table beside us, smashing cups and saucers before hitting the floor like a dead man. At least, I thought he might be dead. The most famous song about Amsterdam is also in French and Jacques Brel had put it well. Tout à coup l’accordéon expire.

The bunch of teenage American girls at the table of smashed crockery went, “Oh my gawd, is he OK?” “I hope so,” replied the cute little Dutch one who reluctantly came out from behind the counter. Sitting nearest the body, I helped her pick him up as a girl asked one of my companions a question.

“Is your friend a doctor?”
“No. But it’s OK, he’s got a Master’s in Sociology.”

The guy we hauled up and plonked on a seat rested for a minute or two before making his way unaided to the toilet. Later that same night, the Bamboo bar was where we met another young American, a chancer who came in with a Dutch mother and daughter. This chap discreetly explained the presence of his two companions.

“I picked up these two babes in a McDonalds.”

The daughter was in her early forties, a good-looking Germanic blonde, among many, among the menacing trams and bicycles. Her mother was maybe seventy. She looked like a grandmother. The American had gone up to them in the burger debris and given them a little-boy-lost story. The charm worked and later he bought them a drink or two before they all arrived at the Bamboo and squeezed in around the big, round table.

At this stage the daughter was clearly on a high, which was only added to by the fact of getting into the bar, away from the cold and the snow and the slush and the frozen canals. She was waving money and insisting on getting the drinks and laughing and seemingly telling her mother that she didn’t have to stay if she was fed up.

I didn’t think the mother looked too bothered, actually, with the lights reflecting on her round glasses. There was a crowd and a blues band down the back. The daughter just seemed thrilled to be having a bit of fun. I imagined a suburban home and a divorce. The young American looked to be on a definite promise that night.


In 1997, a BBC documentary on Camus ended with the camera on the warm, sunlit trees along the empty French road where he died in January 1960. His last four love letters, read in a solemn voice-over by the actor Brian Cox, were unintentionally funny. None winged its way to his wife. Each time, the only changes to the artist’s passion were the woman’s name and the day or time they were to meet, after he got back to Paris. How did he get time to write a line?