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.
“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.
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) …