To most people travelling to Brussels, the city is one of two things.
Either, it is the daily life of the machinery that is Europe. Here are the central institutions of European integration; the European Union, NATO and representations of anyone who wants to deal with Europe be it East or West, North or South. This is where Kissinger and later Obama should call when they claim that it confuses them to call Europe. It is +32 2!
Or, it is a small provincial French town placed in a partly French country. It is a cozy little city where the café life resembles Paris while Christmas is celebrated by countless of German inspired markets. As all small cities of small nations it has promoted itself on certain products; le chocolat, la bière, et une petite statue qui fais pipi.
It is Europe in the past and it is Europe in the present.
But shame to those who only see this, shame to those who go to Brussels and spent a day looking for a small guy peeing or hold meetings near Place Schuman from they come to they leave.
Brussels deserve better. Because Brussels is as many other capitals of old and forgotten empires filled with a plurality of cultures and ways of life that makes it unique and exciting.
Once upon a time the Belgian Empire was one of the biggest and most industrialised in the world. And as so many other empires it held colonies around the world and most notably in Africa. Without discussing the terrible history of colonisation and colonialism, it stands to say that Brussels has flourished from this period in a cultural manner. The areas of Brussels are as diverse and interesting as the day is long.
In particular a lot of African neighbourhoods have made their print on the cities development. In the Southern parts of the city, you can find a world wholly unconnected to the busy and often pretentious networking of the European Quartier or the tourist traps of Grand Place.
Here are hair saloons where women sit for hours to get their hair done – African markets and stores and restaurants from any culture in and outside of Africa.
To the North lies the different worlds of Gare de Bruxelles-Nord. As one tourist guide so truthfully explains, the direction you choose to exit the station at your first visit will define your opinion of Brussels. Either you end up in the dead business district or in the street where windows are filled with halfly dressed women.
Brussels is not Manneken Pis, nor his hidden-away-in-an-alley sister Jeanneke Pis. Rather the peeing figure that symbolises Brussels the best must be Zinneke Pis. The dog on the corner that no one notice. The mixed breed representing the mixed cultures of Brussels.
I am a Eurocrat or a EU geek or whatever might be the trendy name for someone who studies and works within the EU setting. I shall never be ashamed of that and I will forever think that it is both fascinating and important. I will take part in the networking and will be stressed with a briefcase under my arms and five meetings for which I am already too late. But I hope that I will forever remember who it is that is really Europe and what reality we actually work for.
And should I ever fear that I might forget, I will go to Motangé and sit at a café and watch what is truly United in Diversity.