National stereotypes are relative to your own nationality. Especially when it comes to Belgium and its capital, Brussels. Because, let’s face it, the home city of the EU institutions is rather unknown to most Europeans. You know that Parisians are snobby, Berliners are alternative and Romans are loud. But…what are Brusselians like?
The adjective you choose will most likely depend on the place you come from. When asked by a newly arrived Italian, my German colleague said they are “disorganised,” the Brit chose the word “boring,” and I, the Spaniard, just replied that the city was “cold” and “grey.” The French apparently look at Belgians as their “villager” neighbours, while everyone else agreed on the word “bureaucratic.”
It is not a very warm list of stereotypes for a welcoming… Until you realise that Brussels is an acquired taste. Like coffee and beer, you might not like it on the first try, but by the end of a long stay, you will have learned to love it. Its charm, as with most true treasures in life, is a bit hidden.
You will, however, only wonder about Brussels’ identity once you are done with the touristy stage of admiring the beauty of Grande Place and wondering about the importance of the Manneken Pis, the peeing boy that has become the city’s emblem. And when you do, you might just reach the conclusion that there is no such thing as a Brusselian identity.
After all, what can be the unifying factor of a country and city that is divided into Flemish and francophone communities? Not to mention the multiculturalism provided by the presence of the EU bubble, as well as the immigration waves from Congo and the French-speaking Arab countries. (You probably wouldn’t have guessed that the #1 name among new born children in Brussels is Mohammed.) The doubt is reasonable. But the fact that the identity of Brussels is hard to comprehend according to our own systems doesn’t make it non-existent. It is just complex. And it mirrors the complexity of the institutions the city hosts.
|Grand Place, Brussels. Image by Leire Ariz.|
In fact, on my very first day in Brussels, I walked past the European Parliament thinking how its architecture, at least from the outside, reflected the personality of the institution: sober in decoration, complex in shape and kind of bureaucratic in the organisation of the floors. It was good food for thought in terms of how Government buildings represent the authorities they house. Take for instance the Capitol embodying the USA’s power or look at the royal luxury being represented in palaces like the Chateau de Versailles. Following that idea, I also think the location of any given organisation or company has an impact on its personality. After all, there must be a reason why innovation companies locate themselves in Silicon Valley and not Kentucky. But what are those Brusselian characteristics that can affect the EU?
Belgium’s most popular dish are the frites… But these are known worldwide as French fries. The country is also known for its quality chocolate… But if you ask abroad, many would mention the Swiss first. Same goes for beer! Most non-Europeans would mention Germany as a producer, leaving Belgium aside. That is, because the country doesn’t sell itself very well, and is rather humble in terms of achievements. Did you know that it was a Belgian who invented the saxophone?
How else would you explain the small number of protests that took place during the 541 days that the country spent without a Government? As my Belgian roommates say themselves, a Belgian would do almost anything to avoid a fight. They are patient – which, looked from a negative point of view, can appear as if they were also uncaring.
Belgium is small, and Belgians are aware of that. Crossing the country from West to East could take you at the most 3 hours, and this somehow affects the country’s personality. Coming from a big or powerful country like Germany, the US or Russia, people seem to have their country’s power in mind when they argue for example about politics. This also applies to countries like Spain or France, who are now small, but once had big empires. But for Belgium, size matters. The country itself is like a little village and, as in all villages, its citizens are the most kind and familiar.
THE word for Belgium. If this blog is called the Brussels Bubble in reference to the independent sphere the EU constitutes within Europe, we have to talk about the four bubbles that can be found within the bubble. At least. The European, the Flemish, the Walloon and the immigrant one. To this, you need to add the complex history of the country, described by some as “an accident of history.” Belgians have been French, Dutch and even Spanish. And if anything, that is proof of how fascinating both the country and its capital are for those who know how to look into them.
And the EU…?
The humble, peaceful, and complex Brussels might seem the quintessential representation of the EU, but the remaining question is… Do these characteristics affect the way the EU politics work? Or is it the presence of the EU that influences the city? Oh, my friends, which came first, the chicken or the egg…
This article was previously published in Europe&Me.