Nicola Furbisher: Brave spirit of Brussels remains undimmed

Montage by Graeme Bandeira
Montage by Graeme Bandeira
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THERE’S a poster doing the rounds on social media. It shows a photograph of the famous Grand Place in Brussels when the ‘tapis de fleurs’ – the ‘carpet of flowers’ filled the cobbles of the great, imposing square. It happens every two years and the scent is so heady you can breathe it in from several streets away.

Over the photograph are the words ‘Keep Smiling and Visit Brussels’.

There is, of course, another tapis de fleurs now. It is isn’t that far from the Grand Place. And it’s a world away from the vast, polished institutions of the famous ‘European’ quarter.

To find it head downhill. It’s that simple. Go down, down, down town. For that is where you will find this city’s true heart which beats loudly, grimly and determinedly right now.

On your way you might see the enormous, absurd, Brussels sprouts perched on long poles in the Parc Royale; you might pass the huge Smurf sitting on a mushroom, or amble past the Musée du slip: the museum of underpants (you read that correctly) and the huge white cat in black lycra shorts and clingy pink top astride a bicycle outside the bar called A La Morte Subite. These are all normal frames of reference when giving directions here... Once you’ve got as far downhill as you can get you’ll come to Rue Anspach, a once terrifying, screaming, roaring ring road that is now, thanks to some ugly haphazardly placed bollards, ‘pedestrianised’ pending redevelopment. As such, it’s eerily quiet now at the best of times; though the local police still like to holler down anyone who jay walks the occasional blinking red man at a quiet crossroads where traffic is still allowed to run.

Here, right at the city’s core, is a thumpingly big, yet elegantly columned 19th century building built to impress, to swagger, and to intimidate. It’s called the Bourse – the former stock exchange.

And it is here that the city’s hurt and angry souls gathered in the hours after terrorists struck at the airport and metro station on March 22, killing 35 and wounding over 300.

This carpet of flowers, unlike the 600,000 begonias that will grace the Grand Place again this August, is faded, jaded and shabby now. And what really captures the attention are the messages chalked across pretty much every inch of the Bourse building...

Messages of solidarity, peace, irreverence, humour and bloody-minded stoicism. ‘Mangeons des frites, buvons des bières, vivons!’ sums the tone up nicely: ‘Eat chips, drink beer, live!’

There are flags of all nations scruffily draped across the grand entrance of the old building – and every now and again a street cleaner will come along and spray around the flowers, keeping the space neat.

To those who believe this city is merely the dreary, grey, home of institutional bureaucracy, it is, in fact, none of the above. Its institutions might well make the rules but les Bruxellois are hell bent on breaking them.

The mass scrawling of the Bourse is a case in point. No jobsworths here with a power hose. There’d probably be a mutiny if any tried.

And at night people gather and light candles; a chap with a guitar sings a song of peace and couples wrap each other up a little tighter against the cold.

Inevitably it has become a place of pilgrimage. After all, that’s why I am here two years after leaving this second home to return to Yorkshire. An urge to eat, drink and shop defiantly in the face of terror. I’m with that poster: ‘Keep smiling – and visit Brussels’.

The chocolate shops, the waffle vans, the friteries, the bars, arcades and restaurants are putting on a brave face. And while the cobbles of the Grand Place still ring to the sound of thousands of footsteps, there is concern that terror, or terror of terror, is keeping people away.

“We’re 80 per cent down on trade – 80 per cent!” says a friend who owns a bar a few streets behind the Bourse. And he is not alone.

The Brussels Hotel Association recently reported that its hotels had never had so few guests, with only 20 per cent of rooms occupied, an all-time low. It’s claimed 10,000 jobs are now at risk.

Brussels has never been at the forefront of people’s minds as a tourist destination. As such, any significant drop is a disaster.

At the nearby De Brouckere metro station, one stop down from the Bourse, the two armed-to-the-teeth soldiers smile when you say hello. They have automatic weapons, a side arm. It doesn’t do to look too hard. But I’m compelled to say “thank you”, for being there.

The metro is crammed at this hour – and, as it passes through Maelbeek station where the attack happened, people chat away as normal.

As you might expect, there is no trace of what happened here. The sparse platform and white wall tiles featuring eight line-drawn portraits by the artist Benoît Van Innis seem the same as before. The only clue is the small pile of flowers at the entrance.

Normality returns. Inevitably it must.

And then, there is poor Molenbeek, pulled apart, regarded with suspicion, of being a hotbed for Islamic radicalism, it stands accused – mainly, I’d argue, by anyone who’s never been there. It’s not a “suburb”, as people think. It’s an easy walk from the city centre – and it is Brussels, and its past has echoed many parts of Belgium and wider Europe in terms of industrialisation, immigration and globalisation. It is trying to move on. That may take more time.

There is one comment that has been much retweeted and commented upon, post March 22. It is that of Laurent Joffrin, director of the French newspaper Liberation.

On the day of the attacks he wrote: “Brussels, who worked so hard to coexist among so many differences. Brussels, for whom there was 
method in the madness of muddling-through rather than in brute confrontation. Brussels, the anti-fanatic attacked by fanatics, in spite of all that, still standing…that’s the Brussels we love…”

Hear hear to that. And allez Bruxelles.

Nicola Furbisher is managing editor of The Yorkshire Post. She returned to Brussels – her former home – in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.