The infatuation with Brussels
“When is the time to leave a country that is your temporary home? When is the enough really enough? When is the point when you have to let go instead of trying? “
I have been living in Brussels for five years now. It was love at first sight. I loved the freedom that the city brought to my life: the endless lines of events, the pass to the European Institutions, making the names from my University books come alive right beside me, breathing the air of something new, something unknown, something exciting.
I spent my first three months mesmerised by each step I took. I was hungry for all what the new culture could give me. I loved that each interaction was an adventure whether my minimal French would make me go through or I needed to use all my body parts to pantomime what I want. I loved the mix of cultures that passed each other in seemingly flawless manners. I loved that no matter which street I turned into I was analysing the new snapshot with fresh eyes and fresh heartbeat.
I also loved that I understood nothing really about the things around me. Language barriers are blissful: they effortlessly censure the news of world for you. You only get to know what you really need to know or what you really want to know. For long I was telling my friends back home, how Brussels is the dream for me since people mind their own business and they don’t even gossip. Sweet naivety – sweet negligence of reality.
I was in love. Thus, I was blind.
I was 26 and I was a diplomat. I had a red passport with VIP pathways at airports and CD car plate and free parking, if only I would have had a car. I was excluded from taxation; my healthcare was taken care of. My paycheck was beyond the comfortable enough and my flat was right in the heart where all things happened. It was one type of Brussels.
Though, at this point my (real) love relationship was downgraded to act on a distant manner, I got new friends, many and quickly. And the contingent emptiness was easily filled by the novelty of each day. I was content, or at least this what my diligently written diary says to me now. This diary became my walking stick during the last years. I am reading it as a compulsory reading material from 4th grade. I go back and forth, analyzing the words, the sentences but above all: the traces of feelings. I am trying to understand the nature of my love; or rather the roots of my love.
Divorce from Brussels
After five years, I want a divorce.
I am not in the blurry, painful thinking process anymore. I am not asking my friends and family member for their opinions just to get the answer I am looking for. I am not in dilemma anymore. I arrived to the stage when I know for sure: I want a divorce. And I want it ASAP.
During the last years, I was hoping that we, me and Brussels together, could save this relationship. I hoped that we could revive what once was ours. I tried so hard to fall in love again. But the problem is that I did not even realize when was the point when we fall out of love. While I remember clearly the day when I knew for sure I was in love, I lost to trace the moment of detaching. It is as if one day you open your eyes and all you want is kiss the cheeks of the face lying beside and then the next day you open your eyes and all you want is to get up and run away.
Does this make sense?
Can we lose the attachment in a moment of blink? If so, I blinked.
It was three years ago, when I first felt that I don’t want to kiss Brussels on the cheeks anymore. Though at this point I stopped writing to my diary – and how much I regret it now– the only valid explanation I could come up with was: ‘I don’t want to raise my children here’.
Needless to say, my once distance love relationship has ended shortly after I made love to my new home, Brussels, but a year later my heart was taken again, and this time I was happy to share it between Him and the City I loved. However, no one can hold two hearts for long. When He and Me knew we were heading somewhere, the City I loved made sure: ‘I know about you two’. Growing closer to Him triggered the thoughts of ‘what it he is the One?’, ‘am I to stay here forever?’, ‘can I imagine having a family here?’, ‘do I want my children to speak a language I don’t understand?’
The waves of gentle panic started to overrule my senses and soon I knew that apart from question number one my answers are no, no, no and no.
I realized that our marital status and our tenderness towards the city we are living in are absolutely interrelated.
Being single made me enjoy the liberal freedom Brussels stands for. It made me enjoy the multicultural ambiance. It made me feel great about listening to a language I don’t speak. It made me feel special about having a status of a foreigner. Being at the verge of marriage makes me dislike all the above; and more.
And throw your stones at me, I will remain honest: it makes me miserable to think to raise my kids in city that is so multikulti that I hardly meet her own nationals on the street and the going to C&A would soon encourage me to wear a burqa if I was to fit in. It makes me miserable to raise my kids on languages I don’t speak. It makes me miserable to live in a city, where they keep on asking if I had a chip in my ID before each SIM card purchase.
Since these thoughts appeared, I unconsciously started to observe kids, families, and passing by schools I would spy in the windows, or just people watch the teenagers on the subway. It is so different. They are so different. The schools are different. The values are different. The education system is different. The parenting style is different.
As single I did not see these; I never had to play with the word: forever.
Brussels became a burden
But I would be lying if I would blame everything on my children, who are not even born yet. My misery is deeper. I started to spend as much as time away form Brussels as possible. The once wild romance turned into conscious neglect. Brussels became a burden. A city that makes me handicapped. I still don’t speak the language, which is surely and admittedly on my account, but apart from that I did try.
I even tried with French actually. But the city’s people turned me down. They don’t welcome my clumsy attempts. They pretend as if an adjective would make the world up. And who likes to learn something that is not appreciated; and, honestly, I just can’t get to like French (sorry, but thanks’ God we are all different).
My friends left. They were/are all expats. Fluctuating with great pace. After a while you just can’t catch up. One day they are here the next they are moving.
Once I left my comfortable job, I had to go out there and face the real Brussels, where I learnt that public sphere clerks are not allowed to speak English (or allowed but then might loos their job). I learnt that I couldn’t go through any administration work without help. I learnt that indirect discrimination is wild awake when it comes to job applications. And I learnt the question: Do you speak English?, usually results in eye rolls I used to practice as a teenager and resulted in a slap. Now, I get the eye rolls and I can’t even give a slap.
I travelled a lot; perhaps too much. Thus inevitably I started to loose my infatuation and started to see instead. I started to see that people smile less here than in other places. I started to see that even if we queue for 40 minutes in a line nobody would say a word to each other. I started to see that gestures don’t come easy. I started to see that my smile is considered as a funny face line on an alien. I stared to feel cold in the city.
I have just returned from New York after three months. My time there is a whole different story, but one thing is for sure: a week later I am back to Brussels, I am firm, confident and determined: I want a divorce.
To cure my ‘homesickness’ towards New York I am reading the essays of Never Can Say Goodbye, where one of the authors said that you know you have to leave New York when passing through Manhattan Bridge on the F line you stop looking up. Though Brussels doesn’t have a Manhattan Bridge and F line running towards the city of all dreams, this city once made me forget everything and everyone, and made love to me by its colours, its smells, and its rhythm. Once I loved the person I became while caressing each other’s skin day after day.
“Since when do I pass all these without looking up?”
I am panicking, I can’t remember. But I know that the colours, smells and rhythm is gone by now. I don’t see, feel or follow them anymore even if I want it badly. They don’t taste the same anymore. It’s the reverse example of kids and spinach, whose relationship gets better as years pass. I want to spit out the colours, smells and rhythm of the city, I want a divorce; I cant breath. I know enough was enough and I know I have tried enough and I tried hard.
“So why the self-pitiful self-reflection, you might ask, just pack and move on.”
Thank you for asking, honestly. I tell you why I am screaming silently and putting my loud pain out there quietly: I just can’t leave.
Do you remember the other part of the equitation? The guy who stole my heart for real? Yes, Him! I just can’t leave this place because He has to be here; at least for a while. Thus for now: I am stuck. I am stuck as some are stuck in a bad relationship because of financial dependency, because of kids, because of many other things. I am stuck because the city I loved once gave me a man I love and intend to keep on loving.
“Can we have a neutral relationship with the county we live in? Can we live happy without loving the streets around us? Can we keep ourselves the cheerful person we are, when everybody around us tries to wash our smiles off? When is the enough really enough? When is the point when you have to let go instead of trying? “
I am thankful for this country and city to host me. I am thankful for the great moments and chances. I am thankful for many things. But regardless of all the intentions on both sides: I remain a foreigner, when I want a home.