capital of Europe

Brussels Bits: To Live Happily, Live in Hiding


They say you can tell a people by its adages. What you will hear in Belgium over and over again, from young and old persons alike is “pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés”, or “To live happily, live in hiding”. I can’t but reckon it says a lot about Belgians’ inner nature.

As I wrote last week, Belgians aren’t shy when it comes to enjoy life but they always make sure that this enjoyment happens with the utmost discretion. Where Italians like to show off and parade around with a new car, showering their loved ones with gifts and attention, Belgians prefer to take their riches in an over worn sack and put them under a tile. Once they are certain that no one is watching, they will pop the champagne.

A Belgian friend who read last Belgian Bits post sent me a very interesting e-mail and gave me the permission to translate it and share it here:

“The Belgians are not eager for political debate. I can see the difference – he writes – with the French who LOVE to debate and impose their ideas . Here there is no debate ! too much shame, people too afraid to lean in, fear of being judged and cataloged, afraid to be different and not blend with the crowd” .

Using some coffe-time psychology, I can imagine that this determination to live undercover is linked to the long history of foreign ruling and thus the fear of being noticed and possibly punished by an alien government for any extravagant lifestyle or behavior.

Belgium has been now independent for 182 years but that same attitude to live in hiding sort of resurfaced when the city became (unofficially) the capital of the European Union.

At the time of the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, in 1951, the founding members of the future EU considered several cities to install their institutions and Brussels quickly emerged as a suitable compromise. The Belgian government, though, sponsored the city of Liège, around 70 km east of Brussels. The other countries didn’t agree and the choice of a future seat for the newborn European Community was postponed.

The early activity of the institutions took place between Luxembourg and Strasbourg and it was only 7 years later, in 1958 that the main EU institutions were officially established in Brussels. A real estate revolution had taken place in the few years before: entire neighborhoods were burned to the ground and office buildings were built all around the city, without much consideration for the actual demand. Still today, one of the most striking features of Brussels is the profusion of impersonal, 60s buildings close to XIX century townhouses.

Once their city appeared doomed to become an international capital, Brussels residents probably felt invaded again by some foreign power and went into hiding. Taking advantage of the newly built Ring and the highway that easily connected the city center with the periphery, they went to live in the suburbs.

“What I find interesting – my Belgian friend added – is that Brussels residents never seemed able to actually understand the strategic, economic and political role of their city. There’s a village mentality in Brussels which might be charming but is also challenging for the expats living here. Brussels is not London, Paris or Washington. It was a temporary solution to a permanent problem. Today it is a permanent solution to a (still) permanent problem”.

A few years ago – during the crisis that left the country without a government for the record time of 589 days – I had the chance to meet privately, with a few other potential voters, the political leader of one of the prominent Flemish parties. One of the main issues of the Dutch- and French-speaking eternal dispute is the role of Brussels, geographically situated in Flemish territory but de facto French-speaking. Naively, as a foreigner can be, I asked him: “Why don’t you just act wisely and deliver the city of Brussels to its destiny? It belongs to the international and European people today as much as to the Belgians. Just let it go, before it becomes obvious that you have to”. A few seconds of silence followed. Then he said: ” We are not interested in an international perspective right now”.

And that finally gave peace to my wanderings. Brussels belongs to everybody who’s living there but not everybody is allowed to have a saying in that. For now.