home - colophon - about ngn -

Or, "Mongrels' Parade", though Le Soir made me smile by offering the subtitle Parade de joyeux bâtardes. A celebration, translate it how you will, of the cheerful mix that characterises Brussels. First edition May 2000, and we were there!

The Zenne is the river that used to run through Brussels. Still does, in fact, but since the end of the nineteenth century it's been ignominiously buried, because that was cheaper and easier than cleaning it. Regrettable, but it probably was pretty filthy. The word zinneke, indeed, is said to derive from the particular arm of the Zenne which was the favourite place for drowning unwanted mutts and mongrels. People lucky enough to be Brussels born and bred are quite proud to refer to themselves with this derogatory tag, though it's probably something strangers and foreigners should avoid. It's true that Brussels is a real melting-pot, an exhilarating place (at best) where all manner of colours, languages and customs are represented.

As part of the Brussels 2000 celebrations, five exuberant parades headed for the centre of the city on May 27; the one Chris and I were proud to be part of is full of bagpipers and hurdy-gurdy players. No motorised floats and no amplification, so we strolled from Place Leidts to Place Fontainas making as much noise as we could unassisted. It turned out to be part of a memorable and interesting weekend, where self-mockery could report that I paraded through the centre of Brussels in chaps, elicited a wink and almost a blush from a policeman, and collected a kiss (in the middle of a crowded dance-floor) from the only man I know whose moustaches are visible from behind‚

Now for some corrective detail. Chris and I were in the northern parade, not for any geographical reason but because this was the one with the drone instruments in; making the most of sponsorships, all the floats for our parade were made from aluminium ladders and all the costumes were lino spray-painted silver. Tall pointed hats, something between traffic-cone and flower fairy, with a CD on top; heavy circular collars like something from paintings in a pyramid, and a narrow (six or seven inches) breastplate. Then the variety – hurdy-gurdy players got skirts (a bit less than knee length) while we bagpipers got chaps, with exaggerated hips like an auguste's trousers. And so it came to pass that Chris spent three hours on top of a pair of step-ladders, wheeled through the crowds and smiling down benevolently like God in a Mystery; I just trudged along at street-level, though I'll admit that I deftly made sure I was at an edge rather than hidden in the middle of the procession.

So much for the chaps, downgraded from practical workwear or erotic accessory to purest fancy dress. As for the moustaches, this was just spontaneity during the last dance afternoon of the season; someone announced it was his birthday and was promptly surrounded by half a dozen of the women all queuing up to be continental and give him a quick peck on the cheek. "Any more?" he enquired when the rush was over, and a spirit of sheer joie-de-vivre prompted me to step forward with my face tipped expectantly to one side. Slightly to my surprise, he came briskly down the set, bestowed a neat buss on me and went back to his place. General mirth.

As for the policeman, I can abandon irony and just say quite happily that I took the chance of smiling at a stranger because he had a nice face – and reaped the reward of a wink and a shy smile in return. At the start of our procession the only separation between crowd and procession was spontaneous and incidental, but once we were on the main north-south boulevard there were proper crowd-control barriers and clumps of police lounging here and there. The procession stopped every now and then for the King and Queen (just in front of the musicians) to play their little bit of theatre, always a good time to take a look around, and I saw that a hundred yards ahead there was one policeman all on his lonesome: so, buoyed up by the confidence that comes from being in fancy dress and with a clearly-defined role in the proceedings, I decided to give him a smile and make him feel wanted. It seemed to work.