Friday, January 6, 2017

Travel Log 2016: Brussels

The other foreign journey I took last year, after St. Petersburg, was to Brussels, capital of the EU. My wife goes there several times a year for work, and on one such trip in June, I came along just for a bit of a holiday. 

As a destination, I like Brussels well enough. Though it doesn’t have the allure of London or Rome, it does have its share of famous attractions and museums. And maybe I have a weakness for French-speaking cities with good chocolate. And beer.

When I was there last time, in 2011, my daughter and I cruised several art museums including, of course, the one dedicated to René Magritte, surely Belgium's best-known painter. It was surreal. This time, however, I just went sightseeing, walking around different parts of the city on my own, checking out places I hadn’t visited before, such as the district around EU parliament, so much newer-looking than the rest of the city. 

In a café around the corner from the European Commission Building, I overheard a well-dressed EU official commiserating with his British colleague over the shocking decision of the Brexit vote, which had occurred only four days before. I also made a day trip to the extraordinarily scenic historic town of Bruge, about an hour away by train. It's a city everyone should see before they die -- according to the dark comedy “In Bruge”, staring Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes. I have to agree.

Much of Brussels itself seemed familiar from previous visits. I was amazed to see that the Rogier metro station, which was under construction in 2011, was still under construction. Nothing new there. What was new was the heavy presence of the military. Throughout the city, army vehicles were parked at strategic spots, while soldiers wearing berets and cradling machine guns (I noticed one with an Uzi, I think), stood around eyeing the passing pedestrians.

They are there for a good reason. Rather, for an extremely unhappy reason. This was only three months after the suicide terrorist attacks on the Brussels airport and metro, in which more than 30 innocent victims died. The city was on high alert. Probably will be for years.

Those horrific murders were sparked by police raids conducted the previous week (when, as it happened, my wife had been in Brussels) in the predominately Muslim neighborhood of Molebeek. That’s where the perpetrators of the even more horrific attacks in Paris in late 2015 had lived.

Areas such as Molebeek are often portrayed by anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim activists in the States and Europe as being “no-go zones”, immigrant enclaves where even the local police dare not enter. I’ve often been skeptical of such claims, such as those made about London by nearly forgotten GOP presidential candidate Bobby Jindal when he was visiting the UK.

Prior to the Paris attacks, I’d never even heard of Molebeek and was surprised when my wife mentioned once that it lay just on the other side of canal that runs through the middle of the city, only about a kilometer from the part of Brussels where she works when she's there. 

Realizing that Molebeek was so close, I decided it might be interesting to see what it’s really like there. I recently mentioned this to someone I know from Brussels, and his immediate strong reaction was “Why?” Good question. I guess it was mainly out of curiosity.

So, prompted by this curiosity, my wife and I very briefly ventured over the canal into Molebeek. I noticed already at a tram stop on the east side of the canal that there were several more middle-eastern men and women than you normally see on the more touristy streets of Brussels. However, after crossing the Porte de Flandre bridge and starting down a bustling shopping street, the Chaussée de Gand, the difference became much, much more striking. Almost everyone, it seemed, was dressed in middle-eastern garb.

Now, it’s nothing unusual in European cities to see women wearing what you might call middle-eastern or Islamic headscarves of various types. In the past few years, this has become increasingly true in Helsinki, as well. I’ve even seen a few women here wearing burkas in the past year or so. But, immigrant men, on the other hand, are always decked out in strictly western clothing.

Not so on the Chaussée de Gand. Quite a few of the men milling around were wearing what I suppose are thawbs, full-sleeve, ankle-length tunics. That, and the more “ethnic” nature of the shops gave the street a slightly exotic feel, maybe echoing North Africa. Perhaps I wouldn’t think so if I’d actually ever been to North Africa. Who knows?

Still, it was different enough that I did feel somewhat out of place, not quite an outsider, but still conspicuously not part of this community. Even more obviously a misplaced tourist. In fact, it appeared we were perhaps the only “Europeans” on the street, thought I wouldn’t say we attracted any particular attention from the folks around us.

We walked along for a couple of blocks, then turned down a narrow, crowded pedestrian street that led to a slightly wider square crammed with market stalls. It was a busy place, and I wished I’d looked around a bit more to see what was being sold there, to see if there was something you don't see elsewhere in Brussels.  

This passageway soon opened up into a broader square, fronted by a Catholic church on one side, and a police station and Moroccan bank on the other. A couple of old men sat on a bench, in the shade, talking familiarly. To be honest, the scene seemed no more exotic than one we ran across once on Montmartre in Paris when we passed a couple of old men helping themselves to the roasted sheep’s head sitting on the park bench between them.

From there we headed back to the canal, still only a couple of blocks away. In total, we’d spent maybe half an hour in Molebeek. Only scratched the surface, so to speak.

Is Molebeek an actual “no go zone”? I can’t properly answer that question. Not the part we saw, I would say. But of course, that was such a small portion of it, just along the edges of the district.

What I can say is that I was impressed by how distinct it was there compared to the rest of Brussels and how immediate was the change once you crossed the canal that separates the two. It is clearly a cultural enclave, such as exist in many cities, for good or ill. Maybe it’s not as insular, or even notorious as, say, San Francisco’s Chinatown was in the 1800s, and after one very brief walk there, that’s something I can’t possibly know. But it does seem segregated, distinct from the rest of the city, and to me that doesn’t seem like a good thing.

In any case, its name is forever tied to some monstrous men who took and ruined the lives of so many people in the name of a terrible, death-crazed fanaticism. That reputation may not be fair to the majority of the no-doubt decent people who call Molebeek home. It is, nonetheless, something those residents will have to live with for a long time to come.

A street scene in Brussels. Not in Molebeek.

Sign of the times. Graffitti on the side of the Bourse de Bruxelles.

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