Winter light in Brussels (or: Memories of Glamour & Grime)

A small town kid’s fascination for both the glamour and the grime of the city is hard to match. I must have been ten when I first fell in love with a city, Brussels as it happened – while waiting with my parents for the night train to France in the station of Schaerbeek, at that time the Brussels terminal for the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits . Ah, the excitement of eating a sandwich in a Brussels grand café – with its intimidating waiters clad in black, its windows half covered by little lace curtains hung on gleaming copper railings - wholly immersed in the exhilarating noises of trains & clattering cutlery.
Before boarding our train the whole family would still go for a short walk outside, in the streets of Schaerbeek. It would be a cautious walk, with all the kids holding hands and with my mother clutching her handbag, because you never knew what could happen in the big city! Especially in these rather sombre streets of the station quarter, where I particularly remember a quite daunting avenue, alongside a little gloomy park, with old stately houses covered with sooth - all exuding an air of “grandeur déchue”.

At age 24 I finally made it to Brussels for real, moving to a small apartment on the fourth floor of an old house in Schaerbeek. From my window I could see turning a big neon lit Mercedes star, which was perched on top of a high rise near Brussels North, another Brussels station. This was the real thing, a “real big city” kind of view I thought, promptly projecting all my longings for exciting urban life in this tipsily turning neon sign at Brussels North . It was there that I would take the tram from and to the city centre. And also when going on foot, my journey would take me through the North Station quarter - so exotic & unfamiliar.
I would wander through lively streets full of Turkish and Moroccan shops and restaurants, I would fixedly stare at the pavement while crossing the infamous red district street near the railway, a street filled with slowly advancing cars and with loitering men avidly looking into the neon lit windows which ignominiously displayed bored women in sultry poses .

Only a few streets further from the North station were the shops I was regularly raiding, the huge (in my provincial eyes) Fnac records & bookshop (which was still about records & books back then, now it is a stressful multi-media centre). And of course the blessed little 2nd hand record shop where people were apparently dumping all their old collections of quality LPs when buying CD’s. There I not only got Kraftwerk’s shimmering neonlights LP, but there I also started to build up my classical LP collection.
It was a true treasure trove – and coming back home in my sparsely furnished flat, I would sit on the ground, with my back to the wall, looking out of the rooftops through the opposite window, and listen listen – to those so touchingly human and humble and yet dazzlingly brilliant Bach cantatas, to Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg variations, to the divine and melancholy Monteverdi, to the gay and frivolous Mozart simmering underneath with umbral sadness.
Just as I myself was simmering with all the contradictory longings and anxieties of a 25 year old who has just arrived in the city ... .

And for a long time, even when living in other parts of Brussels , I would still go for long walks in Schaerbeek. Perhaps no other borough so encapsulates the essence of Brussels, exhibiting so many contradictory traces of past & present, offering a home to so diverse a population. Native ‘Brusselaars’, young & trendy people, well-off bourgeois (less & less though) and many many waves of immigrants .
In some neighbourhoods you can still sense the atmosphere of the village Schaarbeek once was, before being swallowed up by the big city. In other streets, with a nostalgic suburban feel, you can spot the fading traces of once buzzing small industries and artisan shops. Elsewhere you can get startled by unexpected railway beds surging out of old brick tunnels and then continuing amidst park-like bushes in the middle of a gsplendid residential lane. Schaarbeek’s rich bourgeois period did leave many grand art nouveau houses and a great park too. Some of the streets have remained neat and uppity, others have fallen victim to urban decay and grime, but always, always one is curious to see what is around the next corner.

No, one never gets bored when taking a walk in Schaerbeek, especially when dazzling winter light sets ablaze rusty tram rails and grimy windows alike.


* said...

brussels is leuk. jij heeft echt geluk in zo'n leuke plek te wonen. al die mooie huizen en zwanen en spoorwegen. harstikke mooi.

ffflaneur said...

een heel genereus commentaar over Bxl, beste A. --- niet iedereen in Europa zou het daar mee eens zijn ...

Roxana said...

i don't know which is more delightful here, the text or the photos...

i thought you might like this

ffflaneur said...

hey R - nice find indeed,"the lyric pessimism of Baerstoen"! - it captures a certain kind of early urban-industrial melancholy that is indeed quite characteristic of Ghent