for Jacques De Decker
who taught me to love Belgium.
My mother said « Oh ! I remember Brussels, the golden town – Brussels in the 1950s. It was so alive, so gay. Nights spent in cafes of Place Rogier. » My glamorous mother in a golden sheath of an evening dress with slippers to match, dancing the night away at Le Bœuf sur le toit. Le Grand’Place at dawn with the light glistening between the tables. Rows of dirty glasses in Le Roi d’Espagne shining like a row of fake diamonds.
My Belgian aunt was getting married… baroque, embossed photographs of my aunt and her family in their house on the Chaussée de Waterloo. Dusty, pleated lamp shades, velvet covered bergeres and faded delphiniums in tall vases. The house was opposite the bois and next door was where Charlotte Bronte lived when she taught in Brussels. That house has gone but the tree where she wrote Villette remains. My great uncle – a Belgian of the old school with whiskers, a pocket watch, stories of eating Jerusalem artichokes during the Occupation and of hiding Jews and members of the Resistance in their home during the war.
Weekends in Profondville in a pink and white villa with a garden going down to Meuse. Snapshot of my mother, in pink jeans and a matelot top, rowing across the river, laughing and smoking. My mother looking young and beautiful and happy. Happy in Belgium. I visited Profondville when I first lived in Belgium. The house is gone and the manicured garden is now an intersection on the way to the Ardennes. The white villas that line the Meuse are empty, falling into disrepair ; ghosts of a Belgium that I never knew. Are these the villas that Michel Tournier wrote about ? The villas where collectors of war memorabilia live. Sous les Glycines for Wehrmacht helmets ; Chant d’Oiseau for food coupons and tram tickets.
Christmas gifts of Dandoy speculoos, ballotins of fine chocolates and lace collars for velvet party dresses. Belgium was a corner at Christmas. Visits to my great aunt on Avenue de Messidor. Jokes about my father looking like the young Baudouin and then, many years later, I lived there.
Cold leaden skies ; winds that crosshatched cheeks and legs. Too many nights eating vanilla manons from Mary’s or watching grainy black and white films at the Musée du Cinéma. The Asphalt Jungle, The Virgin Spring, La Bête humaine, Gertrud. Le plat pays qui est le tien, pas le mien, jamais le mien. Belgium – a long grey streak of land. The easiest country to study in geography ; the Sambre Meuse depression, the Canal Albert, the Borinage. Plucky little Belgium. Brave little Belgium.
Name five famous Belgians… Jacques Brel, Eddy Merckx, Tintin, Hercule Poirot and Simenon. No, no I mean five real Belgians, not fictional Belgians. Okay, Plastic Bertrand and René Magritte. Magritte came from Charleroi, Charleroi the Birmingham of Belgium, Charleroi where the dirt stays lodged in the wrinkles of the old miners. Charleroi with its Palais des Beaux-Arts like some East German culture palace with bourgeois chandeliers and « spiessig » fifties murals. À dark flame coming from the candle at de centre of Magritte’s own mural. Even light is dirthy in Charleroi.
Midnight, 77 rue des Gra veiles, Châtelet. The sound of bare feet running down a brick alley. White toes cushioned by green moss and dust. Madame Magritte in a white cambric nightdress running away from her husband. She threw herself into the canal and drowned wrapped-up in her own nightdress. The cold, black, dirty water saturating the clean white gown. The grim reality of Charleroi breaking down her cambric membrane.
Midday, 77 rue des Gravelles, Châtelet. À street of redbrick houses. An architect now lives in the Magritte house. I traced Madame Magritte’s walk from her cobalt blue front door to the dark little alleyway, now overgrown with nettles and willowherb. The woman in number thirteen knew Madame Magritte ; she was the cousin sous germain of Georgette Magritte. Still living in Châtelet, in the house where her father had been born. Surrounded by motorways and discount stores, she lived a life of white cotton gloves and visits to the Palais des Beaux-Arts to listen to Saint-Saëns and Ravel. À life of gentility and order. « René’s mother was very scared, scared of her abusive, ruddy cheeked husband who beat her and humiliated her. The children were left to run wild. »
I understood Madame Magritte, understood her only too well. After a year in Brussels I wanted to live anywhere, anywhere except Belgium. Dull, drab, dismal Belgium – country of bureaucrats and brass bands. Weekends escaping to London, comforting silver London full of family and friends. Paris, filled with eighteenth century roses and freedom ; Amsterdam, full of light and abandoned love affairs. Berlin, my city of youth and mystery. The sun in the Tiergarten, the German bananas of Tucholsky, the crumbling facades and clematis of Friedenau and bitumen stained air of the East.
And every Sunday evening back to Brussels. Arriving at the Gare Centrale, face to face with a grey Brussels Monday morning and the smell of the first gaufres. The statues at Stuyvenberg stare at the commuters. Les Passions Humaines in Cinquantenaire. Couque au beurre for breakfast Au Suisse. À delight in the curiousness of Belgium. Complex and confusing. Baffling and enchanting
The charm of Belgium would come flooding in and after two years it felt like home. The Christmas decorations in place Saint-Boniface that were never taken down, the Parvis Saint-Gilles on a market morning. The Algerien Michael Jackson impersonator at Place du Jeu de Balle and the flea market itself. Rows of vitreous tiles and wrought iron shelves. Tea stained nightshirts and foxed prints. Pompe, Bodson, Hankar, Horta, Eggeriex, Place Morichar, Rue Defacqz.
Brussels became Jacques and Claudia, Catherine and Patrick, Henri and Virginia. It became a wonderful conservatory I saw in Saint-Gilles and never found again. The musée d’lxelles and the Palais Stoclet. The Altitude Cent and the Résidence Palace. Brussels was old, fusty, dusty shops and tarte au riz. Unexpected churches and the musée Wiertz. The Basilique de Cointe. Liège and the Peoples Republic of Outremeuse. Les Olivettes, Liège on Friday evening. Madame Sully, 75 in black satin sings Charles Trenet. The splendour of Antwerpen Centraal and the confidence of Cogels Osylei. The anarchy of René Braehm ; his plan to connect Liège and Antwerp. One long linear town, one long street from the Lange Wapper to the statue of Grétry. Braehm’s lunar module houses that can be found in the most quaint of Flemish towns and the pale green trees of John Dos Passos, the Flemish brocade of Stefan Zweig, the humanity of Henri Storck, the intelligence of Jacques De Decker and Rimbaud.
«… ça rappelle l’Henriette
Charmante station du Chemin de fer,
Boulevard sans mouvement ni commerce,
Muet, tout drame et toute comédie,
Réunion des scènes infinies,
Je te connais et t’admire en silence. »