Or, in other words, the next trendy capital in Europe. A few weeks ago, I posted the idea on Twitter as I was leaving the new Fin-de-Siecle museum in Brussels.
“Quite a stretch for Brussels at the moment. You know something I don’t?” @wefoxter replied.
It was indeed quite a stretch after a harsh year of Belgium bashing. First, Libération correspondent Jean Quatremer wrote “Bruxelles, pas belle” summarizing the various urban disasters in the frites capital. Then, Wall Street Journal’s Frances Robinson caused a bit of a national stir with an article about the European Commission’s economic recommendations for Belgium. Some time in between, the hilarious “Things People in Brussels Don’t say” was created. And all along, I too kept cursing the city and telling my friends about the rain, the greyness, the nonsense. “Like coffee and beer,” I kept saying “it’s an acquired taste.”
And just like that, two years, five months and a few days after having moved in, I began to actually enjoy the taste of Brussels. Why?
1. It is a Melting Pot
I had a colleague who used to say Brussels, and especially the EU Bubble, is multinational but “monocultural.” People may be Romanian, Italian, or Latvian, but they are all likely to share an interest in politics, a strange job title that is hard to explain back home, and an international lifestyle. There is also a chance that they have a degree from Bocconi University or the London School of Economics. I used to find this homogeneity annoying and actually quite damaging for the diversity of the EU. But when you leave the bubble behind and mingle the expat community with the Flemish Belgians, the Walloon Belgians, the Congolese Belgians, and/or the Arab Belgians, things get exciting. As these communities go beyond the borders of their original neighborhoods, there is a lot of potential to unleash.
2. It is attracting people that get tired of London and Paris
It was hard for me to understand this when I arrived, but people actually get tired of Paris and London. Especially when they consider the prices, the long commutes, and the tourist:citizen ratios in those cities. I keep meeting more and more people that come to Brussels not only for the EU jobs, but also for the benefits of living in a small city whose cultural life is growing.
3. It is full of design and art schools
And this type of student life is key for the development of the vibrant cultural life mentioned in the previous point. There is Sint-Lukas, the Académie Royale des Beaux Arts, Rits, IAD, INSAS. Just like in Paris, London, and Berlin, small cinemas, galleries, and forums of all sorts are flourishing. We have events like Nuit Blanche, the Museum Night Fever, and the Brussels Film Festival that sometimes hint at the progress the city is making.
4. It has Magritte
Magritte was Belgian, and yet survives in people’s minds through his links to The New Yorker and the MoMA. If NYC has managed to capitalize on this artist, it is only a matter of time that his legacy becomes the symbol that his home-country needs to revitalize its image.
5. It has Stromae
Perhaps like Magritte at his time, Stromae can be a pioneering symbol of the Belgian evolution I am trying to convey in this article. He is a son of the multicultural Belgium and has learned to make use of his country’s artistic traditions. In the words of Scott Sayare at The New York Times:
(His music is) a reflection of the disillusionment and restlessness that have supplanted the self-assurance of an earlier generation in Europe.
Add this to the long list of festivals like Tomorrowland that are already iconic in everyone’s minds and… voilá! You get music as one of the other elements hinting at a revival of Belgian culture.
6. It is decadent
And there’s nothing that a Hipster will like more than that. Besides being the symbol of a generation, the decadence that Stromae conveys is similar to the apparent poverty represented by places that have later become icons and epicenters of arts. See the Soho in New York, the current movements in Portland, Oregon, or the whole city of Berlin itself, once as criticized as Brussels is today. One of the first requirements for something to become trendy is for it to be uncool enough to attract hipsters and trend setters that will claim to have loved it before it was mainstream.