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.