19 February 2015


La Condition Humaine.....

The wallpaper in the care home dementia wing where my mother now lives consists entirely, repeatedly, of images of Audrey Hepburn, some with a long, black cigarette holder.  Quite what this does for dementia sufferers I don't know, though I imagine the thought behind it was to present an iconic image from the inmates' salad days, and to repeat it to enhance familiarity.  

What came as a surprise to me is that Audrey Hepburn is ranked as one of the five most famous Belgians in history (at least on www.famousbelgians.net)!  This website is presumably frequented by keen pub quizmasters seeking to baffle the otherwise intelligentsia on quiet weeknights.   What is perhaps most surprising about this is that Audrey Hepburn was not Belgian; (of complex ancestry and born in Brussels, but she was actually half British and half Dutch) ......

Jacques Brel. A la Mort Subite

For those who wish to keep up with the times, I would hazard that the most famous Belgians are, in no particular order, Jacques Brel, Hergé (Georges Remi), Georges Simenon (creator of Maigret), René Magritte, Peter Paul Rubens (actually Flemish), Hercule Poirot (OK not real), Eddy Merckx, Adolphe Sax and Plastic Bertrand.....

René Magritte

Anyway, I am not in Brussels to seek fame (though I do bump into Waldemar Januszczak crossing the road outside the Musée Oldmasters Museum).....  I am here for a flavour; a flavour of Belgitude (to quote Jacques Brel).

Mort Subite (Sudden Death) is a Lambic (a Belgian speciality using wild yeasts) Beer brewed for the bar, A la Mort Subite, which has been on the rue Montagne-aux-Herbes Potagères 7, Brussels, for over eighty years.  If you can take your eyes off this cyclist, the bar is to the right....

Inside is all mirrors and wood, with yellowing bar staff who curl at the edges. It is Paris in the sixties, Strasbourg in the seventies. Jacques Brel is still here, looking a little tired, despite his reported death in 1978. 


Knitted wear and felt hats are de rigueur.  It is the perfect antidote to Belgian weather. The perfect place to be anonymous in a crowd.  I think I will live here.  I think I may die, suddenly, here, one day....

Brussels is a city of contrasts, however. The skyline is part skyscraper, part gothic spire. The heart of the city beats with the choked arteries of hundreds of years of smoke and glasses, but the frilly outergarments sparkle with sequins of euromillions.  

Shiny surfaces reflect the old in the new, and shelter the less fortunate....

Near Bruxelles Central, the crack of cans and the shrouds of smoke embellish the pavement,

Ça sent la bière

De Londres à Berlin
Ça sent la bière
Donne-moi la main

While inside the early 1950s Galerie Ravenstein, the tables are empty.....

There is much to admire in Brussels, from the rooftops,

To street level,

It's a catholic city, so the churches are full of statuary, 

Compassionate tombs, 

And curious memorials

The museums range from the ornate,

To the surreal,

Within the convolutions of the Magritte Museum (opened in 2009) one is not allowed to take photographs.  In keeping with Magritte's own instructions, this is not a photograph.....

In the Rue du Marché aux Herbes, Charles Karel Buls (Mayor of Brussels 1881 - 89) sits with his dog in the rain,

Near the Stock Market, girls laugh and cats make eyes at me from a shop window,

A young Jacques Brel shelters in a bookshop in The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert,

While a barman studiously avoids me on the Grand Place,

And in the Church of Sainte Catherine someone has stolen (I jest not; therein lies a plaintive note) baby Jesus from the crib.....

It is a city of contrasts; from old-fashioned, black and white Rubens....

To the muted gothic colours of the World Heritage Grand Place, which preserves something of its 12th century origins although it was largely reconstructed after Louis XIV bombarded it in 1695....

Away from the grand, much of Brussels feels lived in.  I stay in an attic room above a soap shop in Les Marolles.  


N.A.I.S Bar

The streets are full of bars and shops dealing in bric-a-brac, and not far away, under the shadow of the Palace of Justice and other muicipal buildings, 

there is a flea market, busy with a cosmopolitan crowd.

Cafes line the square, easy with beer or coffee, and cigarettes,

And when the day is done, fragments of different lives will be swept up and recycled in some way.  Bits of Tintin and Plastic Bertrand will find their way into a reconciliation with Hepburn and Brel.  Maigret will argue with Poirot in the depths of a glass of 9.5% proof Trappist Beer, and then Maigret will become Magritte and the snows will fall outside as night rises from the cobbled streets, and Adolphe Sax will serenade the last man standing outside the European Parliament Visitors' Centre, while Eddie Merckx rides by.....

As Magritte suggested, one object makes you think about what may be behind it.....

I don't claim to have discovered the essence of Belgitude, but it doesn't take long, with a head full of Brel and Lambic Beer, to begin to uncover what it is that lies behind the veneer of Brussels.  

And I like it.  

It's called, La Condition Humaine......

La Condition Humaine, 1935

C'est dur de mourir au printemps tu sais

Mais je pars aux fleurs les yeux fermés ma femme

Car vu que je les ai fermés souvent

Je sais que tu prendras soin de mon âme

Je veux qu'on rie, je veux qu'on danse
Je veux qu'on s'amuse comme des fous
Je veux qu'on rie, je veux qu'on danse
Quand c'est qu'on me mettra dans le trou

Le Moribond
Jacques Brel

Une autre condition humaine....

C'était au temps où Bruxelles rêvait

C'était au temps du cinéma muet
C'était au temps où Bruxelles chantait
C'était au temps où Bruxelles bruxelait

Jacques Brel


  1. Really loved the post - wonderful images and photos as well.
    But you missed Louis Paul Boon, most outstanding writer.

    1. Thank you. I will look for Louis Paul Boon. Any recommendations?