Brussels in Winter, or : Things to Brood upon while Riding on a Bus

Under the familiar weight
Of winter, conscience and the State,
In loose formations of good cheer,
Love, language, loneliness and fear,
Towards the habits of next year,
Along the streets the people flow,
Singing or sighing as they go
[….] (1)

An Office Clerk Looking Out Of The Window

From my desk on the 21th floor I could see the long trails of light formed by the many cars slowly advancing in the Friday night rush hour. A giant green neon X-mas tree was glowing on the office building across the road. And my own floor was rhythmically flooded by flashing green, blue and red lights, all embedded in the glass façade of our building – to produce a 449 ft high colorful tribute to the Winter Season.

An equally colorful and wintry scene, though in a rather more somber mode, could be observed at the nearby railway station, Brussels-North, where a few dozens of so-called asylum seekers camped out, huddling under gaudy sleeping bags and plaids, surrounded by a motley bunch of plastic bags, bottles and cans. Each day they could see the streams of commuters hurrying by, the latter mostly averting their eyes (and noses) from the unruly spectacle. (2)

A Friday Evening Downtown Stroll

As to me, my daily commute to work is usually done by bicycle, which , apart from the ongoing struggle with menacing cars , is in fact a less confrontational urban mode of mobility than walking or using public transports is. But on this particular Friday evening in December, snow and ice had made cycling too hazardous, so I did walk to the underground station hoping to catch a train home. At the turnstile a growing crowd of impatient people was kept from entering by a couple of policemen – “there has been an accident”. They gave no further explanations but diverse rumors spread fast … “ a desperate homeless man jumped from the platform ” or “ a woman trying to get in at the last second got stuck in the closing doors”…

It didn’t look like there would be a train coming through soon, so I left the station and started walking to the city centre, to find alternative transport.
The crowds in the main shopping streets had already thinned out, the ‘out of towners’ were mostly gone, which left just the locals. (3) There were the youths hanging out in little groups, bragging and yelling in high Friday night spirits. The earnest hand-holding couples, hurrying home, looking forward to a cozy dinner. And of course there were the giggling duos of girlfriends, with or without headscarves, comparing purchases while leaving the shops, where the doorguards stood fidgeting, biding their time till the closing hour.

With the shopping frenzy fizzled out, the street started looking a bit forlorn – no escaping from the gracelessness of the neon lit displays, from the garish uniformity of all these chain stores. A sneaking sense of shabbiness hovered around the street corners. This is not a rich part of town, materialism here is not redeemed by elegance. (4)

Music to the Rescue!

And yet , a full outbreak of closing-time desolateness was kept at bay by unexpectedly cheerful music. Not the usual bleary loudspeaker-music, but real, uplifting brass-music performed by a swinging bunch of young musicians who braved the seeping cold with their tubas, drums and trumpets. A modern secular version of the Salvation Army, saving our souls both from drab materialism and from willful sadness.

Thus cheered up, I arrived at the bus stop, not even minding the wait of 20 minutes. I'd found a window sill to sit on, and from this privileged observation post I could leisurely observe a sample of Brussels inner city diversity: young student lovers, so earnestly & innocently kissing; a sexy coquette on very high heels, caressing her shopping bags; a young urban muslim couple, she with an elegant headscarf, he with a neatly trimmed beard and a leather vest.
An older man, mumbling, reeking of beer. Three hipper than hip youngsters with baggy trousers, carrying skateboards. And your usual early evening batch of weary but relieved looking office workers, sprightly shoppers , sensible housewives and dependable husbands with groceries, all returning home, most of them happily blabbing. And all apparently equally unperturbed by the variety of ways of being on display at this bus-stop.

Dozing & Brooding on the Bus

Once on the bus, I was almost lulled to sleep by the hot air and the multi-language buzz around me. But at each bus-stop the opening doors brought in blasts of cold air as well as a change in passengers: a load of rowdy students got off at the Central station, a pack of panting tourists got in at the Royal Palace, and the European Parliament - stop was signaled by the sheer sartorial elegance of Europe’s finest & brightest getting on the bus. Apart from the gloomily mumbling, beer-reeking older man in the pathway, all my transient travel companions were conspicuously cheerful.

Friday night fever in the unlikely capital of Europe …

As round me, trembling on their beds,
Or taut with apprehensive dreads,
The sleepless guests of Europe lay,
All formulas were tried to still
The scratching on the window-sill,
All bolts of custom made secure
Against the pressure of the door.
O none escape these questions now:
The future which confronts us [now]
An earth made common by the means
Of hunger, money and machines,

But did they, my merry fellow travelers, did they then not wonder about the future of this city, about the future of this Europe of ours? The insouciant young European officials on this bus, blithely discussing their next city-trip or a trendy restaurant tip, did they not lie awake at night contemplating the possible demise of the Euro, worrying about Europe’s debt dilemma? (5) .
Did they not toss and turn at night wondering how to manage Europe’s newly dangerously divisive demographic mix : retiring spendthrift natives withdrawing their skills from active labor life and a growing reserve of inadequately skilled youngsters and immigrants, some of them full of resentment at being at the bottom rung of the social ladder, seeking alternative ways to assert their identity and sense of entitlement.

For we are conscripts to our age
Simply by being born; we wage
The war we are, […]
but how To be the patriots of the Now?
O all too easily we blame
The politicians for our shame
The politicians we condemn
Are nothing but our L.C.M.;
The average of the average man

Ha! “conscripts to our age”! “Patriots of the now”! We’re all more likely to be mere collaborators with whatever system we happen to find in place.

We’re all more likely to be baffled bystanders, watching events unfolding, events driven by “hunger, money and machines”. …

But the real me is, as always, snugly nested in the notes:

(1) When Winter stirs, it’ s time to get the Xmas decorations down from the attic, or , failing that, to re-read that ominous philosophical-political winter poem by WH Auden, “New Year Letter”, written in “January – April 1940” … (by the way, “Brussels in Winter”, is the title of yet another poem by Auden, written in 1938).

(2) As a rich (well, for the time being) Western country, lacking a real government to grapple with pressing contemporary issues (because we rather act out anachronistic tribal Flemish-Walloon jousts) – Belgium is invaded by the world’s economic and political refugees, who understandably hope to get access to Europe’s freedoms & filthy riches via the crumbling Brussels gate. Being a small, ill-governed country, this means ‘native’ Belgians in Winter see their cozy daily TV soap opera of native tribal disputes interrupted by news- images of asylum seekers living in the streets at minus 5° Celsius.

(3) In the mainstream downtown Brussels shopping streets , the “locals” are a mix of different generations of immigrants (mostly Maghreb), ‘native’ working classes, rowdy teenagers, a sprinkle of outsiders of all sorts, and a low dosage of trendy youngsters and yuppies spilling over from the hipper downtown quarters and the nearby mega book&CD store. In uptown Brussels the mix is more tilted towards “Core Europeans – (immigrants or EU officials temporarily residing in Brussels), university students and a few remaining Belgian bourgeois. But the richer and older strata of both Belgian bourgeois and European officials have rather moved on to the wealthy green suburbs around Brussels.

(4) “materialism redeemed by elegance” – well, it does sound good as a phrase, but frankly, my heart isn’t into it. In fact I can’t see what’s redeeming about expensive designer clothes, jewels, furniture , cars … Granted, there’s the sensual thrill of quality materials and of elegance as it is on display in upscale shops – but somehow the sheer expensiveness of it all makes the underlying primal status-seeking motive all the more embarrassing. And as to beauty, well, if ain’t got meaning, if it ain’t disinterested, it ain’t worth a thing ..? If there’s no sliver of emotional truth, no insight to gain, no sheer disinterested, useless beauty – then aesthetic qualities draw a blank with me. (See, I’m not a real flâneur, well anyhow, not in the dandy-esque 19thcentury sense of the term). And I feel slightly repulsed, both by the discreet privileged splendour of, say, a Paris upscale shop as well as by the gaudy greed in a Brussels Rue Neuve chain store.

(5) Allow me a tribute here to an anonymous small brass band which I heard & saw performing on the square in front of the Beaubourg in Paris, on a cold dull Saturday in February 2004. Neither the subtlest luminous grays and greens of Corot in the Louvre, nor the more contemporary combativeness of a Beaubourg exhibit had managed to restore my quite low spirits at the time. Even the always sublime spectacle of the bluish-grey Paris rooftops, viewed from the xth floor, had failed to produce any enthusiasm. And then, then there was that infectious rhythm, the sheer sassy joy of a throbbing tuba, a vèry trumpeting trumpet and a big fat drum. Just swinging & swaying … swaying & singing….

(6) Europe’s debt dilemma : the interests of both the recklessly spendthrift crickets and the industrious ants are so interwoven that any overly harsh punishment of the crickets might just serve to topple the entire European banking system. But helping out the reckless crickets is not only resented by the industrious ants but also creates a moral hazard of free-riding crickets always counting on their bills being paid by others. But beyond this injustice in grocer's terms, there’s the even scarier baseline that in many European countries the fundamental drivers of growth (active population, social and political stability, skills & innovation & productivity ) may have gone in reverse, which means that these countries will be unable to generate enough economic growth to repay the gigantic accumulated debt (let alone to service their pension-promises) … After about 5 decades of rising economic wealth, the prospect of a reversal in economic and social fortunes has gotten very real. And in fcat the past 20 years were nothing but an irresponsible splurging feast by generations (including my generation) in all respects too shortsighted and feeling too entitled to even realize they might irresponsibly be depleting resources, building card-houses and, in short, preparing disaster for future generations. But undoubtedly I’m being too pessimistic. Yeah, surely, everything ‘s gonna be allright! The naive utopist in me even dreams of a future in which the loss of conventional resource-guzzling, and oh so ugly, economic output, is compensated by more room for moral and cultural refinement. Concretely: less cars but more bicycles and more art and more books (on recycled paper or on iPad?).