Views on the US election from a Brussels hospital

Overhearing two nurses in the hospital lounge

They were taking a short break from their caring duties, the empty sandwich boxes on the table testifying to a quick lunch. They briefly interrupted their conversation for a kindly nod while I sat down with my book about the 18th C painter Watteau,  cautiously handling my right arm in a sling (1).

She did seem more competent than him. More responsible. How can they trust that guy?” the youngest nurse wondered.
The elder nurse shrugged : “it’s always the big shots with the biggest mouths that win. 
The youngest nodded vigorously “yeah, like that bunga bunga guy in Italy. I never understood how the Italians could put up so long with him. “ She fiddled with her smartphone “ hey , look here , photos from his apartment in New York – 'the interior architect wanted to recreate a Versailles atmosphere'  - jeezes,  does that guy think he’s Louis XIV or what?
Flashing a weary smile, the elder nurse replied “well, he sure has the puffy pride to match. But we’d better hurry now, time’s up

Contemplating a picture of Louis XIV

I was reading about Watteau’s pictures of unheroic, introverted soldiers– an interiority far removed from the pump & circumstance of the Versailles court. But showing Watteau in context, the book also explained about his contemporary, Louis XIV, who with his reckless wars caused hundreds of thousands people to die and plunged France into a deep debt crisis.

So, sitting in that hospital lounge, plunged into art history, I was quite startled by the nurse’s comparison of a 21st Century, democratically chosen US president with an 18th Century  French autocrat. 

But contemplating the famous Louis XIV portrait (by Hyacinthe Rigaud) , I couldn’t but conclude: yes, indeed, there’s the same conceit, the same narcissism, the same strutting on the stage.The same quest for personal glorification.

Does this mean that Democracy cannot do a better job at protecting us from the sense of entitlement of these strutting males than the Ancien Régime? 

A horribly defeatist thought – which I must & will banish. (But then again, pugnacious Putin was democratically chosen, too)   

A jubilant Reagonomics enthusiast

In a financial paper I read an illuminating interview with a jubilant Arthur Laffer (former economic advisor to Ronald Reagan). At last again a man to his liking in the White House! “This is brilliant, especially since the Republicans also control the Congress. This means lower taxes, abolishing Obamacare, scrapping the Dodd-Frank banking regulation

Aha, so that’s why Wall Street kept its nerves – greed is gonna be good again! 
Elsewhere I read about how leading conservative business men are eagerly lining up to offer their services to the new president “he may have said some rash things during the campaign, but he’s a real business man, he’ll take our sound business advise”. 

It will be interesting to see what happens: lower taxes combined with higher infrastructure spending, higher import tariffs on, say , Chinese imports, higher inflation, a soaring budget deficit (with the snubbed Chinese probably  less inclined to continue financing it).  After an initial boost to growth, how can this recipe durably boost standards of living? Will this bring back factory jobs to the US? (And what about the rest of the world). Will this bring the lower & middle classes what they hope for? 
Will the new administration care at all?  Or shall we find the winners rather among the above mentioned leading conservative business men, including the new president (who, so I read, owes his fortune more to inherited wealth & relations than to superior business acumen & entrepreneurship).

On the ethical & social front, too, it will be interesting (and scary) to see what will happen.  Indeed, how convenient for the new president to buy the loyalty of the evangelicals by pursuing their agenda.

So, now what?

How to domesticate globalisation and complexity? Why can’t we have more responsible politicians addressing the current discontents & fears, without resorting to the usual political party-mantra’s? Why must reckless, self-interested, conceited politicians take the lead - irresponsible politicians who cater to our most dangerous instincts.

Can we no longer escape a clash of extreme standpoints?  Have we perhaps reached such a level of bewildering complexity & frustration that we now all just recoil and massively reject nuance and gradualism? 

But if change cannot be gradual, it will come with a bang.  We only need to look at the 1st half of the 20th century to be very afraid of that.  


           1) Explanatory Note : on what I was doing in that hospital, overhearing a political conversation and contemplating a picture of Louis XIV.

My cycling days are over (my heart sinks as I type this).  Neither caution nor a fluorescent yellow helmet & vest could shield me from another accident. It happened on a lovely autumn Saturday, while I was cycling on a quiet road along a park. All of a sudden a car materialised where it shouldn’t have been – cutting a corner. So I braked violently, my wheel slipping on one of those lovely gleaming yellow autumn leaves. I was projected forward and made a brutal smack on the tarmac, right on the tip of my elbow. Then a second smack on my head, luckily amortized by the helmet.
 I sat on the ground, dazed for a moment. Then I did manage to scramble back on my feet. The car driver had braked too and got out of his car, apologetic & full of concern.  Picking up my bike, he inquired whether I was ok.  I thought I was, hoping it was just a bruised elbow, just a matter of pulling myself together. I let the chauffeur drive off and tried to mount my bike again  – a sharp pain in my elbow signalled this was not a good idea. I called C, whose phone battery was apparently down.  So I walked all the way home, an hour’s walk, a miserable walk, bike at hand.  Home at last I took off my jacket and saw a swelling the size of a giant premium pear. 

Only then I realized I had to concede defeat.  Again a broken limb, only 4 years after the previous accident. No way to escape from the rational conclusion: henceforth no more cycling for me in Brussels..

Arriving at the hospital, I felt crushed and most of all ashamed, having to call upon their services again with a broken limb.  But praise be (again, too) to this hospital staff – friendly, professional, efficient.  They gave me a provisional plaster on Saturday and swiftly arranged for an operation the next Tuesday so as to mend me again. 

Despite all the inevitable pain & discomfort linked to the accident and the surgery – this hospital stay was also an uplifting reminder that diversity doesn’t need to be the fateful menace to social cohesion, as it has come to be perceived in these perplexing times. Far from me to pitch the Ixelles hospital as a social Utopia in the middle of “hellhole Brussels” (infamous epithet coined by the future US president). But the fact remains that I’ve been treated there (again) with outstanding kindness & professionalism by a staggeringly diverse hospital staff, all working together harmoniously.
Apart from the swift action of the emergency doctor with an Arab sounding name and the unflappable calm of the surgeon of German descent , I’d like to mention specifically the hilarious sense of humour of the anesthesiologist – a black female doctor who managed to make me shake with laughter while I lay helplessly on the operating table, waiting to be put to sleep.

And heartfelt thanks, too,  to the quiet male nurse of Mediterranean descent who all along a miserable night refilled the drip with glucose and painkillers and assuaged my worst nightly fears. Not to forget the Asian nurse who taught me how to put my arm in a sling without breaking it again. 

vignettes of vanishing

“Press 2000”

It had been optimistically named like that in the early 90s : “Press 2000”.  A competing newspaper shop close by was called  “Euro Press”. Yes, those were the days that millennial & European enthusiasm was at its peak. And those were the days that people still smoked ‘en masse’,  and read papers & magazines. 
I used to be a regular customer at the “Press 2000” -  for cigarettes, The Economist and Vrij Nederland (its literary supplement!) – torn, as always, between left & right politics and between left & right brain parts. On Sundays the “press 2000” counter was manned by a young guy who looked like he’d landed there straight from some heavy duty nightclubbing. His off-beat humour and defiant attitude might have one worrying about his use of certain substances, but in any case never failed to  lighten up an otherwise dull Sunday.  

Since then I have moved to another neighbourhood, have quit smoking and the literary supplement of Vrij Nederland has turned into a faint ghost of what it once was. But last year, after an interval of maybe 15 years, I happened to drop in there again.  The shop was still called “Press 2000” and, lo and behold,  the young guy was there at the counter, still looking, well yes, young & trendy. He recognized me too, and we greeted each other as if we were long lost friends.

For days I felt happy at this unexpected continuity - not everything vanishes without leaving a trace!  

But then, this summer, riding by on the bus, I saw the place was boarded up, some left over magazines starting to yellow in the shop window. 

And today, when I cycled past, only gaping voids where left – a demolition company had taken over.


“Service, Quality  - Guaranteed!” 

The lady in the photoshop was a walking encyclopedia of photography know how. From analogue to digital, from automatic compact cameras to sophisticated reflex cameras – she knew every button and functionality. And she did her utmost to guide her clients to the single best camera suiting their needs. She was not going to be beaten by some stupid on-line camera buying wizard, oh no!  Service and Quality , that was how she was going to compete! 

 But fear did flash up in her eyes when the camera she had guided me to, was not in store and could only be delivered 10 days later. Would I perhaps be ready to make an advance deposit? Reluctantly she admitted that, yes, sometimes people did come in for a lengthy advice session, only to walk out the shop and buy on-line. I duly bought my camera there, picking it up 10 days later. When I entered, she was serving an elderly client, explaining enthusiastically some very advanced function of his camera.   While waiting, I took in with pleasure the many shelves that were crammed full with photography paraphernalia – from expensive lenses to humble rain covers, from protective bags to tripods, from printing paper to albums – everything a photographer might ever need. 

Except that our world’s recording frenzy is now catered to by smartphones – allowing a real time flooding of the web by millions (billions?) of images.
So, in August, there was a sign "Liquidation Totale” – "everything must be gone by September 30th" !

And yes, when I walked by today, everything was gone, systematically gone, vanished without a trace -   the shop window empty, the logos and publicity signs gone – only, high up there, the remains of a bleached poster promoting the printing of digital photos and faded letters promising Service - Quality – Guaranteed! 


Musical Messengers in Brussels

“why is it that we are unable to say – as we must have expected to say – Poor Miss Marsalles?  It is the Dance of the Happy Shades that prevents us, it is that one communiqué from the other country where she lives.”(1)

Perhaps it is not even that outrageous, the fact that I secretly consider them as urban angels.  After all, amidst the urban stress & struggles, they do are messengers from another country, a country where harmony rules.  I’m referring to musicians here, musicians travelling about town in particular, transporting their instruments, carrying cases betraying the form of their instruments.  

You can sometimes spot them, struggling to get on the tram through narrow doors, cautiously handling a bulky black case with the sensual contours of, say,  a double bass.  Or you can see them cycling, one hand on the handle-bars, another hand used to balance their instrument.  Some musicians can move around more discreetly, clutching an elegant violin case, or one of those slender oblong cases that leave the on-looker guessing: maybe a clarinet? 

They always look happy, or perhaps it’s me, always imagining musicians to be happy, having their music.  In any case, they always console me, these messengers from another country, magically removing all cares & perplexities, like a sudden happy whiff of Mozart drifting through the air.

So what a marvellous otherworldly gift it was for urban flâneurs of all stripes, this joint initiative of three musical organisations (2),  to have musicians & ensembles popping up & playing at unexpected venues in the city : a shopping arcade, a swimming pool, a home for the elderly , a cellar, …. 
The lack of decorum gave a paradoxical, moving intimacy to the music, creating a secret understanding between musicians and listeners.  None of the classical musical rituals or dressing codes, only musicians and their haphazard audiences, grateful for the unexpected enchantment.

Leaning against the wall of a shopping arcade, I was captivated by the joyful intensity of four  young people so manifestly enjoying making music together.  Tourists & shoppers were flowing by, audiences formed and dissolved while the music worked its wonders.  Only the security guards remained impassive, dutifully scrutinising all passers-by (a by now familiar sign that not all is well in the world).

Musicians never seem daunted by ordinary language problems. The Japanese double bass  player put up quite a show with just a couple of French words and an immense talent on the contra-bass, the Japanese and European pianist duo played a vigorous quatre-mains without need for translation. 
Neither were the musicians taken aback by their irregular audience in the old-fashioned chapel of a catholic home for the elderly : lavishly adorned wooden statues of saints &martyrs, blissfully smiling painted angels, silently staring exceedingly old people in wheelchairs, still vigorous elderly people oozing loneliness (poignantly excited by the unexpected excitement), young families with kids, hipsters, ...

And then – a concert in an indoor swimming pool, on the third floor of an inner city building.  Climbing the stairs I heard vague intimations of paradise  - the deep sounds of faggot & contra faggot, the alternately mellow  & pizzicato sound of strings. But little was I prepared for the magical marriage of music with the echoes & smells of an indoor swimming pool. The melodies gracefully bouncing off the water & the walls. The melancholy vision of musicians on a raft in the pool – their graceful silhouettes against the Brussels sky. 

So yes, what a blessed gift, what an amazing grace it is, this reminder of music & harmony in an imperfect world.

(1)    Alice Munro – dance of the happy shades
(2)    United Music of Brussels  (Belgian National Orchestra, La Monnaie, Bozar)