Braving Hail & Rain!
The weather had been capricious all day – hail storms and gushing outpours alternating with brilliantly sunny intervals. Hmmm – so think of the dramatic skies above Brussels ... Think of the whole range of light effects, the hazy counter light, the glistering & blistering refractions and reflections: on pavements & in gutters, in window-panes & on rooftops.... Think of the smells – all the lingering exhaust fumes at last vacuumed out by rainy humus vapours!
Yes!!! Exit the worn out bank employee – enter the hard core flâneur (1), ready to reclaim her city and the drowsy Sunday afternoon. So an orange rain jacket (along with watertight overshoes, trousers and gloves) was put on, chain & pedals of the mountain bike were oiled and a helmet was securely fastened on the head.
The timing was perfect – the first heavy drops started falling just when I set out, and soon enough rain was lashing out, having me sputtering & snorting while swooshingly racing down a hill. By the time the sun broke out again, I was strenuously pedalling & panting , climbing to one of the higher spots in Brussels, “altitude 100”, where a nearby park offers a grand view of the tumultuous skies above and the city below.
The City Below ...
The city below, adjacent to former industrial areas, spreading out along the railway, with its boroughs struggling against poverty and various stages of neglect. But these neighbourhoods have also been given a boisterous new lease of life by the successive waves of immigrants that have turned Brussels into such a melting pot of minorities. In these streets rooftops and balconies have blossomed into a surreal forest of white satellite discs and the air is filled with unfamiliar accents & intonations ( Arabic? Slavic?) .
Luckily, a cycling flâneur can insouciantly revel in this avalanche of urban sensations and contrasts, while a reflective citizen must rather worry about how all these different new strands are to be woven in one cohesive whole.
But no time to brood, because by then I had already reached the South station where cars honked and slalomed amongst the remains of the Sunday morning market. I slalomed likewise and took pride in beating them all in the last straight line to the traffic lights. At a more leisurely pace I then rode through an amazingly mixed part of town, in between the poor and overpopulated canal zone and the historical city centre. There you can see tea-houses filled with gesticulating bearded men as well as trendy cafés with relaxed male and female youngsters sporting i-pads. There you cycle by run-down garages with shady going ons while on the next corner you can find an über-hip contemporary art gallery.
Closer to the centre you at last get to the areas where more traditional Belgian-Brussels trades & customs assert themselves – be it fish restaurants, traditional beer-and-cheese shops, elegant antique shops & galleries or the full-blown tourist attractions at and near the Grande Place.
It was an up-market antique shop and its main window displayed a painting in a gilded frame, something 18th Century French perhaps, showing a finely dressed lady playing the piano in a lavish interior, with a man reverently gazing at her. “Contemplation” said the title-sign on the frame . It was a curiously anachronistic sight after my wild ride through Brussels’ contemporary cityscape. Anachronistic, curious – and yet, tand yet... the picture did strike a chord ....
But before I could explore whatever memories & associations were drifting up, my attention was caught by the lettering on the wall above the shop window. What kind of alphabet was that? The shop was called l’Egide and sported 2 helmeted Greek heads on its sign board ... but this was not the Greek alphabet, was it? Rather Cyrillic Russian or something? Russian letters on a Brussels antique-shop? Why Russian??? Russian owners? Or Russian signs in deference to superrich Russian oligarchs descending upon Brussels to buy expensive antiques and 18th Century frivolous French paintings? No idea.
But so, getting back to that painting – stripped of its French frivolous niceties & innuendo’s , it did remind me of another, beloved picture. A pensive, melancholy painting that was, showing a bourgeois interior in which a woman, seen from the back, is playing the piano and a man, sitting in a chair with his legs crossed and his head slightly turned, listens almost devoutly. It was by Ensor, from an early period when he was still doing these haunting interiors in which dusty light is dimly refracted, as if it were gnawing at the material world.
What was its title again...? Something with music. Musique... Musique russe? – Russian music, yes!
Russian letters - reminiscences of “Russian music”. How utterly amusing – trapped in a fragmented world which tosses up an uncontrollable variety of sensations and meanings, my own plodding mind neatly weaves correspondences (2), however accidental and unrelated.
19th Century annotations to a 21st Century post
(1) There is the dandy-esk, elegant Flâneur, gingerly leaving his carriage to stroll, armed with cane, umbrella & hat, along elegant tree-lined avenues in 19th century Paris. And then there is the hard-core 21st C urban flâneur who
a) needs to cover larger distances in sprawling cities ,
b) also passes through rougher neighbourhoods not a priori designed for bourgeois strolling and
c) must be attentive to a variety of menaces on the road: such as stray glass shards & bottles and, especially, far too many & too speedy cars.
Therefore, though still graceful in the deepest of her thoughts, this hard core flâneur has had to shed all pretence to elegance in both means of transport and clothing in order to adapt to her environment.
(2) Baudelaire – extrait de “Correspondances” (EN in note 3):
“La Nature [ou plutôt la ville, dans ce cas-ci] est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.
Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,[…]"
(3) Baudelaire – extract from “Correspondences” (translated by William Aggeler)
“Nature [or rather the city, in this case] is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.
Like prolonged echoes mingling in the distance
In a deep and tenebrous unity, [...]”