Years ago my wife and I used to buy, very occasionally, a magazine called Wallpaper. I’m not sure why we did, as it seemed to be aimed at a radicalised wing of Observer colour supplement fanatics; the sort of people for whom weekends in thousand quid a night hotels are stock-in-trade, who spend four figures on sunglasses, who do “something in media” and whose idea of breakfast is a yoke-free goose-egg omelette washed down with a goji berry and kale sprout smoothie. Wallpaper was filled with glossy photos, not of “Darius and Petal’s new industrial rustic kitchen in Hoxton”, but – and here was the surprise – of brutalist concrete and chrome skyscrapers in Nairobi or Tblisi, places the magazine touted as a weekend destination for the seriously cool (flights “only £1,330, business class”). Wallpaper magazine was for hipsters before anyone had re-coined the term. Yes, Tblisi might have medieval streets and gorgeous churches, but fuck that, the really interesting buildings, as any self-respecting, pretentious anti-tourist must know, are the crumbling soviet apartment blocks in the suburbs.
I’ve often thought that Brussels must be a Wallpaper reader’s wet dream. Away from the small enclave of the chocolate boxy old city, where they happen to sell nothing but boxes of chocolates, Brussels is a bewildering mish-mash of the beguiling and the bloody dreadful.In front of the opera house, La Monnaie, stand two examples: big shiny lumps of concrete and black glass that are simply hideous. Like the opera house, and it seems about 15% of buildings in the city, these are undergoing some half-hearted redevelopment that will take three times as long as predicted and which will yield dubious benefits.
The main street through the centre of the city, Boulevard Anspach, is now closed to traffic to create a wide pedestrian-only artery through downtown, which sounds admirable and appealing. The trouble is that the conversion from main road to pedestrian thoroughfare happened with reckless speed, something for which Belgians are not famous. Only a month’s notice was given and the result is not only killing off the restaurant trade, it’s awful. This isn’t a tree-lined boulevard with benches and street cafés, with picturesque trolley buses dinging their way down the middle, such as you find in Denver. It’s just an ex-road, with a tarmac surface and barricades at at each intersection to stop motorists making a wrong turn. Given this is Belgium, god only knows how long it will take before anything is done to turn the ex-road into somewhere you actually want to walk.
Perhaps it was the ex-Wallpaper reader in me, but when I booked my digs for my job here I decided to look in an area that is normally well off the tourist track, especially as it had recently become notorious in the aftermath of the Brussels terrorist attacks earlier this year. I’m staying in Molenbeek. Other factors came into play, not least my eye for a bargain, but also its proximity to where I’ll be singing, in a temporary structure on some wasteland fifteen minutes’ walk from my front door.
The flat I booked is, frankly, gorgeous and far nicer than anything I could afford just a few minutes’ stroll towards the city centre. And without overdoing the smugness, the neighbourhood suits me pretty-well perfectly. Bar a mini Carrefour supermarket, all the shops are Turkish or middle-eastern, brim full of every Mediterranean food you can imagine. There’s fresh fruit, herbs and vegetables in abundance, all very reasonable, boxes of medjool dates, figs, tubs of olives and preserved lemons. There are two butchers nearby, both halal. No good for bacon, but otherwise decent. One has a spit roaster outside and I regularly buy freshly-cooked chicken, the skin nicely blistered and charred. Not once has any shop keeper made me feel unwelcome. Far from it. These are, after all, just guys trying to make their business a success. They are also open on Sundays and I see the same men working there every day of the week, so all those lard-arsed white supremacists who treasure their weekends burping in front of football on the telly and who characterise immigrants as feckless and idle can shove that idea right up their lazy, flabby bottoms.
I’m not going to pretend there isn’t a scruffiness to the area but I’ve seen neighbourhoods of Chicago and Los Angeles, some of them even quite “smart”, that are no better.
So, I’d definitely stay in Molenbeek again. The only downside has been the noise of sirens, which are frequent and loud across town, as they are in any city these days. The ambulances have a particularly odd, idiomatic siren, quivering and chromatic. It sounds like Miss Haversham practising scales on a Stylophone. I suppose someone must make a living composing the sounds for sirens. I like to picture them as a white-haired Belgian man, sitting in his flat with the window open, smoking a pipe and feeling a wave of pride and nostalgia when he hears his favourite. “Ah, Fire Engine, Opus 45. That took me only three years to compose. It was only supposed to take three days, but hey, I’m a good Bruxellois.”
And yet, when the sun shines, when the cafés and bars set tables out on the pavements or in the old market squares, wandering up streets like Rue de Flandre with its burgeoning restaurants and their drool-inducing menus, a far cry from the tourist traps on the Rue des Bouchers, Brussels is captivating and delightful. It isn’t obvious or glamorous. It’ll never be as pretty as Amsterdam or Paris, but I’m wondering if it might yet reward some perseverance.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.