Exploring Brussels: The Heartland of the EU

Exploring Brussels: The Heartland of the EU

Brussels is every city. It has the sprawling pedestrianised shopping streets of France, Germany, Austria and Spain, dotted with Zara, H&M and Calzedonia. It has streetside seating housing huddled groups drinking Leffe and laughing together.

It has bicycles chained to signposts and tourists filming on their iPhones. It has groups of teenagers popping tricks on their skateboards and billboards of Timberland.

At any moment, you could be anywhere in northern Europe. The language is indefinable. Equally English, French and Dutch. So multicultural is it that you could be surrounded by twenty people and each will be speaking something different. German, Spanish, Japanese.

The coffee menu is a mixture of languages, as Italian as usual but the sizes are English. The baristas switch languages as quickly as they make the coffee.

Half the people traipsing the streets are eating waffles as though taking part in a caricature of the nation. Everyone else is milling, wandering, eating ramen and Mexican food. Just up from the Grand Place, there’s an entire line of Greek restaurants.

It’s the same in many places but here it seems more appropriate. There’s no guilt about eating in another nation’s cuisine because Brussels feels like a great curator of nations.

It all comes together in the comic book museum. An odd place, you might think, to find true multiculturalism. But that’s exactly what it is and, in particular, that’s exactly what Tintin is.

Tintin is, of course, a product of his time. But he was deliberately created to be Every Man. Even the simplistic design of his face was designed so that the reader could relate to his expressions. Tintin could do anything, the adventures he goes on are to every country and he was everything from an astronaut to an archeologist.

Tintin wasn’t Belgian, he was every nation. A simulacrum of cultures and nationalities. There was nothing he wasn’t or couldn’t be. It’s why his adventures continue to be so captivating — this limitless global idea. You just can’t pin him down.

And you can’t pin down Brussels either. It doesn’t feel Belgian in the same way that you can wander Paris and point out things that are quintessentially Parisian. Brussels feels like Europe. A mish mash of everything European.

Even arriving in Brussels emphasised its ease of being. My train journey from the West Country to London was arduous and lengthy. But the Eurostar from London to Brussels took two hours. Two hours. A couple of podcasts and I was there, stepping out of the station into an entirely new country.

This doesn’t usually happen when you leave the UK. Leaving almost exclusively requires a plane or a ferry. It requires labyrinthine airports, endless security checks or the hours and hours on a ferry being shipped off to France across the Channel. The journey itself makes you aware you are very much going abroad.

But the Eurostar isn’t like that. Security takes a moment and there’s no faff with removing liquids and the associated feeling of borders. Both border crossings, the one to leave the UK and the one to arrive in Belgium are conducted in the same station, so when you get off the train in Brussels you don’t pass through anything more. You simply alight and walk outside.

As though it was a regular domestic station.

There is no feeling of Being Abroad that being an islander usually creates. I love it because it’s how I feel about mainland Europe anyway. I’ve always felt European. I’ve always felt at home while travelling in any other European nation, even the out islands of the Azores felt like home.

Europe has a singular flavour that is embedded through its nations no matter how strong their individual cultures are. Europe is united on a fundamental level.

And it won’t change. So many people keep saying we’re leaving Europe as though the UK were a continent of its own. It’s not, it’s a country within Europe regardless of whether it’s in the EU or not. My heart breaks to consider our self-imposed exile from the European Union, but Europe is still our continent and we belong in it as much as we ever have.

Brussels feels to me like a representation of the continent as a whole. I’m not saying it is, but it’s how it made me feel.

I left on a Eurostar early Sunday morning whilst my friends still had a day there before their evening flights. They visited mini Europe, a model village covering the majority of European countries, and sent me photos of each place.

And that sums it up really, here lies Europe, you can touch it, walk around it, feel it.

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13 Comments

  1. October 31, 2018 / 9:19 am

    I love how you describe Brussels as “a curator of nations”, and I get entirely what you mean by that. Loiter in the bar opposite Midi station by the Eurostar terminal, and all the languages of Europe surround you. Central Brussels does feel essentially European (and understandably so), although head to Grand Place and amidst the waffles and frites you’ll find so much splendid Belgian architecture with stories to tell that the Belgium-ness of the place is much more in evidence for me. I love the guildhouses there, and the tale of how the Duke’s House became the King’s House after the Duke got his promotion. Around the corner in the bar Au Bon Temps, I love the stained glass setting out the guilds of ancient Brussels. The city’s a bubbling mix of its European culture as the host of the European Parliament and its more Belgian treasures. And I have the same feeling about the Eurostar that you describe so eloquently. I love how I can trundle my bag out of my front door to the local station, catch a couple of trains and end up in Brussels. That makes me feel wonderfully European too.

    • Kira
      Author
      October 31, 2018 / 9:48 am

      So true, the Grand Place is extraordinary, it’s like a little paradise of architecture that was so unexpected!

  2. October 31, 2018 / 11:04 am

    I think when I was in Brussels which was my last stop of my trip, I couldn’t get the sense of this city. After reading your post, I feel like I should visit the city again…

  3. October 31, 2018 / 11:54 am

    I fell in love with Brussels. So charming, rich in culture and things to see and do… I loved the way you describe the city, your point of view. Thanks for sharing it

  4. October 31, 2018 / 2:11 pm

    I love multicultural cities like Brussels, and I hope I get the chance to visit this city very soon. I think I would spend most of my time there exploring the city’s diverse food scene.

  5. Sarah
    October 31, 2018 / 7:47 pm

    I totally agree with you. Brussels is quintessentially Europe. I love multi cultural cities, especially the food!

  6. Helen
    October 31, 2018 / 10:37 pm

    I love this post. I’m visiting all the EU capitals before Brexit and Brussels is the last one we need to go to. I feel like Brussels gets a bad rep for being boring, but your post shows that it’s anything but.

  7. November 1, 2018 / 12:42 am

    You had me from the first sentence. You’re a very strong writer; I could hear the music in the background, the various languages blending into one. I could almost taste the coffee. In ridiculously excited to see a place I’ve never been too, but now feels familiar.

  8. Jackie S.
    November 1, 2018 / 3:38 am

    This was beautifully written. Loved how you described Brussels and how everyone embraces various cultures. I can’t wait to see this place for myself.

  9. November 1, 2018 / 9:12 am

    I love how you describe Brussels so intricately. Makes me want to visit ASAP! Thanks for sharing this beautiful piece.

  10. November 1, 2018 / 11:01 am

    I absolutely fell in love with this line “There’s no guilt about eating in another nation’s cuisine because Brussels feels like a great curator of nations.” The way you write is so effortless, it feels so fluidy and yet so intricate. The way you have described Brussels in this post makes me wanna go there right away. Keep writing cause you are brilliant!

    • Kira
      Author
      November 6, 2018 / 10:34 pm

      Thank you so much! Brussels really surprised me, I’d heard so many things about how dull it was but I really disagree. You just need to look at it with fresh eyes. Definitely go!

  11. Thorie Hinds
    November 27, 2018 / 1:10 pm

    Thanks for this Kit. I am now going to take Eurostar and arrive in comfort; onwards to Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp. Ideas/recommendations of how to find a comfortable mid-range hotel/guesthouse in these cities not too far from the centre would be appreciated. I hope to travel in February 2019.

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