Brussels: Contemplations

I’ve come to Brussels about once a year for the last 20 years to visit family and friends. I’d never regarded it as an exciting city, nor would I describe it as boring. I like the understated quality of its stateliness and this is reflected in its residents who don’t fiercely claim their bruxellois-ness, but a quiet pride is still evident.

With this trip, I also came to see that I relate to Brussels in a deeply personal and therapeutic manner. It’s where I’ve experienced the spikes of romance multiple times. Not of the exuberant courtships in film or often associated with the likes of Paris or Rome, but one of complex emotions and somewhat lackluster results. It’s where I’ve put my heart out there and, in bittersweet motions, had it released back to me.

What pained me was not the unrequited, but the wall of rationality and practicality which hampers the sweetest of attractions. In movies and novels, diving head first into the excitement of new-found love yields tear-worthy happy endings or a devastating tragedy. In reality, it is just as poetic, but with mostly an audience of one pondering the foolishness of what could have been. If only I could change something… if only.

When you’re in love, words uttered by the other wiggle their way into the echos of memory. Imagine being 20 years old spending a week with someone that you’ve given your physicality and unweighted heart to, only to be told that you’re too immature to have a relationship with. That’s how Brussels entered my veins.

Even years later when I think I’m much wiser and attuned to reading situations- upon expressing my interest to that person whose gentle eyes and slight melancholy had festered in my thoughts for over a year, I’m told that they’re “looking for love” and remind me that I already had someone else. Now to be fair, that’s a perfectly valid and kind-hearted rejection. (But when you’re crushing on someone, it would be much less traumatic to hear the unchallengeable e.g. I’ve been told by a woman that I’m too short and a guy’s told me that it’d be perfect if I was a woman. Okay, you can laugh.)

Suppose though that these people had considered to take a chance. What made their shorthand calculation skew towards STOP instead of LEAP. I mean, in my head I also saw the stacked odds, yet that possibility of becoming a significant part of someone’s life seemed to outweigh the possible disappointment.

However, what really wounded me to hear those words was less about what the person said, but that I couldn’t vocalize the extent of my feelings to validate my actions and intention. In the latter situation, I wanted to tell him that I had come to Brussels, because there was a part of me that yearned to be near him and my outreached hand was an extension of unfiltered love… to be in this moment together. The point would not have been to change their minds, so much as to make sure I don’t look back in my life and regret not going for something I valued. In any case, those words never reached my tongue.

So, it was in the last couple of days on this stop in Brussels that I let my mind revisit those experiences. The highlights and low points wafted by with the city’s temperamental winter sky. Even as I lingered on introspection, I couldn’t help but also take in the profound character of this city with each footstep. In a span of several hours, I moved through the immigrant heart of Laeken, the crossroads neighborhood of Schaerbeek, the lair of hip young workers in Etterbeek, Ixelles’ cloistered calm and all the way through the standard sites of the tourist set.

The city drew me into the present instead of letting me sink into the depths of disappointment. Funny isn’t it how we want to live in the moment when in love but in heartbreak, we throw ourselves into the past or some alternate reality. Appreciation of the scene around me brought me back to the here and now. It reminded me to be content with the sum of my existence.

With more receptive eyes, I saw that Brussels doesn’t need a single-faceted hyperbole to identify itself. Sure, like much of Europe, Brussels struggles with the balance of openness to immigration and strained resources; a heaviness also looms from the domestic attacks of recent years. But come here, clear a few items from your itinerary then meander off one of the signposts and you’ll find a quietly charming city to give you clarity of mind.

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