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T H E B R I E F L E T T E R F R O M B R U S S E L S
3 0 T H E P E A K T H E P E A K 3 1
Tesa Arcilla is a Manila-
born journalist now
working as a TV news
anchor in the heart of
the European Union
It might not conjure romance and luxury
quite like Paris does, or have the charm and
bustle of Amsterdam. In fact, when one thinks
of Brussels, what it evokes is not so much a
characteristic as it is about edible specialities –
chocolates, beer, waffles and moules frites.
Deservedly or not, Belgium has a
reputation of being a little staid, and some
might even say dull. Life in the capital city
has been scrutinised even more in the past
few years as tens of thousands of expatriates
flocked to what is now known as the political
capital of Europe.
The fact is, while Brussels may not quite
be the destination capital its neighbours are
reputed to be, decisions that impact the lives
of 500 million Europeans are made here day
in, day out.
Institutions of the European Union tower
above Art Nouveau townhouses in the Quartier
Européen where some 40,000 “eurocrats” play
their part in running the massive machinery
that is the EU. With 24 official languages, plus a
gamut of international media, a stroll from one
street corner to the next ensures a Babel-esque
feast for the ears.
Locals sometimes shake their heads at the
way the EU’s edifices jut out uncomfortably
in the neighbourhood, not quite blending
in with their 19th-century surroundings.
Tourists, however, look up in awe, cameras
clicking away, revelling in their proximity to
the seat of EU power.
Several times a year, roads around the
quarter are blocked to make way for the
convoys of Europe’s most powerful men and
women. When VIPs are in town, the wail of
sirens cutting through the city ensures you
know they’re in town.
Much has been written about the so-called
“eurobubble” – the rarefied playing field reserved
for eurocrats, lobbyists and all those who keep
the EU wheels turning. Thousands vie for cushy
EU posts every year, but critics have lashed out at
the invisible wall created by this bubble between
those who govern and the governed.
After-work hours find eurocrats sipping
wine or speciality Belgian beers at the à la
mode Place du Luxembourg – “Plux” for
those in the know – a square that sits right in
front of the European Parliament, lined with
restaurants and bars. But even for insiders,
this bubble is a complicated web of policies,
bureaucracy and relationships.
Martin Leidenfrost, author of the tongue-
in-cheek book, Intimate Brussels, wrote: “If the
EU is perceived at all from the outside, then it
is perceived at best as a humourless governess
… We only have to hear the word ‘Europe’ for
our eyelids to begin to droop.”
But Brussels the city is not exactly
humourless. The city of Audrey Hepburn’s
birth and home to dozens of Michelin-star
restaurants is also home to the Belgian Comic
Strip Centre. Yes, that’s right – comics.
Belgium is the land where comic art is high
art. Tintin by cartoonist Hergé (real name
Georges Remi) and the Smurfs – to name a
couple of international hits – are no trivial
matter. Comics are a serious business here, so
much so that the museum dedicated to this 1920s
art form recently marked its 25th
was celebrated in champagne-filled style by the
capital’s happy, well-heeled society.
Auquier refers to the Broussaille series by
Frank Pé and Bom. “Broussaille is a dreamer
who lives behind Luxembourg station ... where
the European Parliament is located,” he says.
“It is an album of nighttime encounters in a real
city as the story takes us through the bistros and
streets of Brussels. The cartoonist was one of
the first to look deep into the eyes of the people
of Brussels to see how they truly live their lives.”
Whether one sees the city and its denizens
from the prism of politics or comics, the
contrasts are surreal – a reminder that Brussels
is also home to one of Belgium’s most famous
artists, surrealist René Magritte. Amid the
contradictions, perhaps the fun is in being able
to choose which Brussels bubble to burst.
are a fixture
city that also
gave birth to
dour base for
opening of the
proof that the
how to laugh.
Yes, the 'eurocrats' have given the Belgian capital a reputation for dourness.
But burst through the 'eurobubble' and you will find a colourful city that gave life
to Tintin, Audrey Hepburn and the Smurfs.