What I didn’t want Brussels to be

It’s always a little strange to be returning as a visitor to a place you use to call home, all kinds of memories flash back, good ones, bad ones, funny ones, you associate places, tastes smells with different experiences and inevitably the people you shared them with. Everyone gets a little nostalgic for their past life…..a little nostalgic, however, in my case, well let’s just say that if you could associate a picture with the word nostalgia, it could easily be a picture of me (me and maybe Hemingway).  Whatever you can think of, even if it’s not my own experience, or my own history, I’ll find a way to be nostalgic about it.  I love old books, old movies, chipped china, autumn, Paris in the 20’s…. you name it.

Brussels, like many old European cities has a stroke of nostalgia at every corner, winding cobble streets, large market squares, medieval taverns, old mansions with chipping gilded paint that all bear testimony to a Brussels that once was.

When I lived in Brussels, my apartment was in the antiques and flea market neighbourhood, the perfect setting for creating my own history of Brussels.  I would spend my Sundays going to antique stores and browsing at the market at the place du Jeu de Balle, Brussels’s most famous flea market.   A space initially intended for ‘pelota games’, the Jeu de balles has since been the unmissable spot for penny hoarders, treasure seekers and true nostalgics since the 1850’s. 

It’s set in the heart of the Marolles at the foot of the of hill on which lies the 19th century courthouse that towers over the city.  The neighbourhood initially housed the household staff of Brussels’ elite during Belgium’s golden years.  It has since changed tenants several times, each of them leaving their mark and is today a potluck of flavours where you can find everything from curry, to wurst, to hallal meat, baguette and of course Belgian beer.

On Sundays, the market day ‘par excellence’, everyone shows up, old, young, rich, poor…… Jacques Brel plays on the north west corner, always the same cover and always just as appreciated. Old Moroccan and African men smoke their cigarettes and drink their tea as they unload their trucks and try to make their next sale, smiling to get your attention and frowning when you offer them half of their asking price. 

Here anything goes, useless computer chargers, broken nintendos, early 20th century silverwear, Russian university diplomas awarded by Stalin himself, anything you can think of and for the right price you could have it all.

Amidst the shouting of prices in French and Arabic, I would wander about and daydream, examining tea sets, champagne glasses, Napoleon war-time guns, jewelry, old coins…. And every time I would ponder about the tales these objects would tell if they could talk, I’d wonder about all that they had overheard, the laughs, the tears, the secrets, the love affairs, the cheating spouses, the murder plots, the War time resistance. 

What got me the most however were the old pictures, from the 20’, 30’s, 40’s, and so forth….., people’s faces as WWII was ravaging Europe, as women were fighting for their right to vote, as the stock market crashed…..who were these people and how would they feel about being bought and sold by complete strangers.

Sometimes you’d even find old wedding albums, those always made me sad, at a time when pictures were a luxury, they were once someone’s prized possession, taken out and shown to guests on special occasions and then carefully stowed away, and now they were in an old flea market on sale for 20 Euro (10 if you knew how to bargain) and thrown into the back of a truck at the end of the day.  Pictures sometimes blew in the wind like a lost memory and were picked up by the garbage collector at the end of the day, that was it, a moment of a person’s life captured and now it was gone, it was almost as if they had died all over again.

On this visit, I tried, despite myself, not to turn my return to Brussels into the ending scenes of a Woody Allen movie, where you see all the places the characters had been, empty, at night and often in the rain with a sad violin playing in the background.  I tried however I’ll have to try try again. 


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