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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Brussels


It’s hard to beat someone to death, its brutal and bestial, it’s bloody and barbed, its base and bastardly. I did it in a videogame once and this is how it looked.


I never wanted to do it for real after that, it puts paid to all those who say that games provide incentive to do this. When I played this game I felt it, I could feel the rage needed to do it, the pain as his body was bashed against rock, his brain ripped through rained on by punches and headbutts, kicks, loss of blood, eyes and finally life.

On my second day in Brussels someone beat to death a traffic controller. Maybe it wasn’t this brutal, but someone still beat a man to death, there was an accident and in the middle of negotiations anger turned to action that turned  to anarchy and finally to another state of life. As a result there was no public transport in Brussels for the whole of Easter.

Make no mistake Brussels is a tourist town. The most common sight in our days there was people peering into maps and trying to make sense of the mazes therein.
“make the map look like the world”
I would say once meaning turn the map around so that everything was properly aligned. You see it would be a walking trip my trip to Brussels. I used the bus and the metro two times or something. Once at night when we were already drinking and we felt immune from the fine promised for not paying. As we sat at the train going to this karaoke place we fell into conversation with this Liberian, fell into because I have no idea how we began to talk just that we did, his English was wanting a lot of things but somehow we communicated and my friend being the kind of person he was offered to buy him a beer at the store. 

Near the place we were living was this corner store run by an Indian and his ten year old son. The son was the friendliest shop assistant you ever met; smilingly correcting us “bon jour is for morning, bon soir is for evening.” He was pleasant and engaged us in conversation about cricket and French, smilingly shaking his head whenever we went for another beer run. How could I tell him they weren’t all for me when I was going there for a ten pack the third time running. Once in the store I ran into this really drunk Belgian, he was happy to see me but I spoke English.
“Fuck the British,” he said.
“Am not British, am Kenyan.”
Then he went on to state an obvious fact,
“You’re black. And I’m…” then he looked at his skin, it hadn’t been tanned by exposure to the sun, paled by lack of it, but yellowed by steaming in alcohol “… well I’m yellow.”
I laughed.
He laughed.
Now we were friends because that’s how it is in Belgium.
“I live just around the corner come to my place have a beer, a cigarette we can talk.”  the logical way I am writing his speech does away with the fact of the speech impediment that alcohol had served him.
He was maybe 50 years old, maybe more maybe less, when skin has been yellowed like that guessing an age is a blind man’s game and so I did not. I went to his place and he woke up his French friend to say hi to me. This guy was Obelix with Asterix' moustache. He was a Gaul and he was hangover. Bitching about his bitch of a sister the whole time we were there until after 5 minutes I left the place.

The European parliament is found in Brussels, the EU commission is found in Brussels. The people working for these institutions are referred to as Eurocrats. There is such a glut of foreign influence in the city that only over half of the people who live there are from Belgium. And even if they are… Belgium seems a divided country, divided by language. There are three official languages. They speak French, Dutch and German. With this many foreigners from this many places it makes sense to know English too. People from one side of Belgium can travel within their country and have a harder time getting directions than I did. The street names in Brussels are in both French and Dutch what happens if you're from the german side? Better learn English.

I had a conversation with this Brazilian and he felt that the people don’t really own their city. It’s too mashed up. Too much foreign influence, too much division and import of cultures that you can’t really say what someone from Brussels is. Where else is someone beaten to death over a traffic accident? He also told me about the world cup preparations and that he feels the people there are taking the government and fifa for a ride, they wait till the last minute and say they need more money if the stadiums will be up on time. If this happens in February for a June world cup the money will flow in.

There is a place in Brussels called Delirium with over 2,000 beers. That’s a lot of barley. There’s a down stairs and an upstairs, there are taps into every conceivable corner and a line round them all. Here you can just walk up to someone and ask for a recommendation. And I don’t get it but it seems mandated that everyone will give you some of their time, a minute or 5. They will tell you where they are from and ask you the same. They will be interested and maybe it’s the fact that so many people are away from home. Here we are all strangers in a strange land except that Flemish dude over there and he’s a stranger too, the only city where the locals are actually celebrities one of my friends told me. She was from Madagascar but had grown up in France and so she spoke in the sexiest French accent you ever heard, it evoked images of a feather duster and stockings even as she rolled her own cigarretes in preparation to face the cold. One of her roommates was from India, he told us that he learned and loved English because it meant money, he said that we had to settle down in Europe, "you know you do." And as we said goodbye he told us, "we may never meet again but here's hoping we do."

The guy we were staying with has a Hungarian girlfriend and she spoke on the subject of ugali. She said that hearing about it from Kenyans it seems like a dream, a wish on a plate, the best thing you ever tasted and the last you will ever want to. Then you have it and it has no taste, nothing at all. It feels rough in your mouth and squishy in your hands and really is that it? She said it must be some kind of home fulfilment it probably is because when I eat ugali out here, when am making the bowl and I can feel the grains in my palms it doesn’t feel like food anymore it feel like home.

We spoke about the self-destroying tendencies of the great minds, the dreamers, the artists, the people with the power to make all of us happy but who are unable to heal themselves. Unable to bring themselves down from the cross of suffering on which their great talent has left them hanging. That’s why there are so many addicts among artists, so many heart attacks among CEOs. I don’t understand it fully. Maybe seeing the world as clearly as the best of us can makes you not want to live in it. Maybe it’s easier to be looked at as someone who could have had he tried than someone who tried but couldn’t.

In Delirium a Spanish guy was so happy to be speaking Spanish to this girl and finally he burst out in astonished speech he just couldn't believe that “I am talking to an Indian girl from Dubai who spent a year in Colombia.” Brussels will make you believe that things like that are possible.

I always felt secure in my course, happy I studied law. It meant no matter what group of people I was talking too I could sound like an intellectual. I don’t have to be smug about it, just certain and that was ok. Then I met this Russian couple, what are you doing in school?
“A masters in aerospace engineering.” wow, I fumbled the three letters in my mind and in my mouth but I felt better when she said, “that’s why am going to Amsterdam next  I need space cookies.”

“Being cool may work in Paris but here the word chic is an insult.” One of the rules in a handy guidebook that tells you how to act like a local. A guidebook that tells you to try this beer that feels like you are puking beer instead of drinking it, but that’s what you have to do to be a real brusselsian? Am not sure what the name is. On the next to last say as we are buying bread to eat who do we spy from across the road but the Indian guy from earlier, we hastened to say hallo and marvel at the coincidence that is life

Oh and it rained all easter. It rained as we walked from place to place, it rained as we talked to face and face, it rained the last night when we had to say goodbye to these girls from New York who after making fun of my phone(i love it to death) made fun of how young we were. Its nice when people do that, makes me feel fresh. It rained as we searched for the bus to the airport,us along with dozens of other tourists trying to find their way home

I loved Brussels it’s a place to finally grow up, to come into your own without feeling like you are being rushed into responsibility. It’s the last respite from the rat race. You live in an international community doing all these internships and jobs. You can lay down roots but most people don’t, many see it for what it perfectly is, a holding space. The apartments tell you so. They are not homes just places to lay your weary head and sleep. No comfort aimed for, no permanency achieved, this is a city on the move and you will fall in love. There is no question about that but for many she is the girl who got away, the one who you can always say what if? about and we all need that fork in the road when the road not taken is surely the one we should have. She is that period in your life when you were stuck between studenthood and the last real job you have. It’s the time when you live in a place where you will meet such a multiplicity of nationalities, ambitions and expressions, feel such an upward surge of energy that you never want to leave, but most have to.

Eurocrats get transferred; interns move to real jobs and only the crazy try the delirium of 2,000 bottles of beer. That’s part of the magic of the city, not a university town but a young professional town. And not a town where people pretend and give airs, remember being cool is not cool. This is a town where you can start. 

So to Brussels, hope we meet again.