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Brussels

- capital of Belgium
- bone of contention between Flanders and Wallonia
- unfair but convenient shorthand for 'worst aspects of EU bureaucracy'
B/004

All of these labels apply, but none of them matches the way we perceive Brussels. For us, it's the infinitely various and fascinating city we work in, live near and visit with the confident expectation there will always be something we haven't noticed before.

Chris, though younger than me and less adventurous, had already visited Brussels before we met. It held the attractions of being both abroad and accessible, and had connections with teams like Anderlecht and groups like Tuxedo Moon. He stayed in a small hotel near the Porte de Namur, wandered around without talking to anyone and generally enjoyed himself.

Some years later (dot dot dot) he asked me out for a drink: and – reckless confidence on both sides – moved in soon afterwards. There came a call from an agency. "Oh, Mr Nielsen – we've got a job for you in Brussels if you want." We decided it would be a long-term investment in my cv. Chris waved good-bye from the quayside, and I tried to reconcile 'catching a ferry' – always a major pleasure – with 'going to work'. As far as I knew, Brussels was a characterless and rather grimy city, besieged with traffic and crawling with grey-suited European bureaucrats. A good thing that leaving at two in the afternoon could have me home in Sheffield by ten the next morning.

Even the first day's exploration showed me how wrong I'd been. The walk along Rue de Namur to Place Royale, the view down the Montagne des Arts to the spire of the Town Hall, the exuberance of the 'Old England' building and the continental formality of the trained trees in the Parc de Bruxelles ... Chris soon came over to visit me and we explored some more together. We found the Grand'Place was full of barrel-organs his first weekend here, with booths selling waffles and booths selling beer; the sharpness of the geuze washed away the dusty sweetness of the icing-sugar. We found a fireworks-display at the Basilique de Koekelberg, and 1920s trams running through the woods to Tervuren. We found shops selling nothing but gloves, or artists' colours, or knives, or oysters. We found fountains topped with statue groups out of Breughel paintings. We found a whitewashed Garden Suburb, and houses carelessly left over from the 1600s.

Hall & Nielsen's conclusion: Brussels, like the architect's God, is in the details. Eric de Kuyper says in his Passie voor Brussel that you need to walk along each street at least twice and preferably four times: both sides and both directions. There's always something you haven't noticed before.


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