Ten years ago, this very day, I embarked a Virgin Express flight from Rome to Brussels. I had plenty of dreams and very little knowledge about what was lying ahead. I had a vague idea, to start with, regarding Brussels exact position on a map. I remembered from school that Flemish were merchants and that they had a direct access to the sea, but I also thought that Flanders were all part of modern Netherlands. There was a very popular Haagen Dazs flavour in the 90s called Belgian chocolate and that was it. I was going to a place somewhere in Northern Europe where European institutions were based and where there might be a flash of coast and a lot of world-famous chocolate. I finished school with top marks but, you know, I never took geography as an A level. My parents used to say there was no point in studying it on a book, when you could travel to learn it. I obliged.
I was in my early 20s and overly excited at the perspective of building a new life in a place I couldn’t point on a chart. It wasn’t Paris, or London, or New York, well known cities where everybody my generation wanted to be. It wasn’t a place you would make a film on. It was Boring Belgium. And yet I felt so different and sophisticated and out-of-the-box in wanting to go in such impopular territory.
First thing that struck me was the bitterness of the cold air you could feel on your neck when getting out of the airport. It was a chilly day as it is today: plenty of snow, negative temperatures, iced sidewalks, silent traffic. No skyscrapers, no grandeur. Claustrophobic and dirty alleys in the city centre, elegant boulevards and parks all around. It looked distinguished and distant and at the same time messy and dirty and emotional. I was fascinated.
Years passed by and – to my greatest surprise – I gradually stopped complaining about the bad weather, the dirty sidewalks and the fact that Belgians are genetically adverse to take fast decisions, work late at night and take any initiative. It felt (and still does!) like living in 1955. A bourgeois wealthy little city, inhabited by quiet, mild and mostly good-natured people who dislike confrontation, discussion and politics. The sort of Peyton Place atmosphere I was longing for at that time.
A husband, a dog and two children later everything’s changed and yet everything stays the same. Brussels did change a bit: it is far more international now than it was a decade ago. Belgians, on the other side, never moved a step: still boy-scoutish and conservative and mild mannered, still busy in petty neighbour fights that threaten to split the country and still blind and deaf to the wind of change that the economic crash is accelerating all around them.
Someone said that Belgium is the lab of Europe: whatever happens there will happen to the rest of the Continent, some years later. Well, ten years ago, people used to say that Brussels was like New York in the 20s: bursting with ideas and opportunities. That is not true anymore. The privileged fiscal system has brought in billionaires from neighbouring France and Germany and other hi-taxed nations and it is true that you feel the crisis here way less than you do in Southern Europe. But apart from the impressive number of luxury cars you spot around the residential areas, the place is not sparkling with ideas anymore. The European dream that my generation was taught to dream on is crashing at the very first difficulties. Europe’s never been less popular and my overall feeling from Brussels, Eu is that we’re dancing on a sinking ship. You know, something like the Titanic’s orchestra director who died while doing his job.
So, happy anniversary to me. Time to jump off boat!
(to be continued)