You won’t be missed. Whoever wrote the song “Bruxelles ma belle” was lying through his teeth. I’m sorry, Angèle.
My friend Evan once told me, during our Erasmus semester in Lyon: “Cities are like people. You won’t get along with every one of them, but the ones you do, you keep close to your heart.”
That’s how I’ve looked at places ever since. They aren’t objectively “good” or “bad” – although you can compare standards of living – they simply suit you or not. You vibe with a place or you don’t. Comparing them is such a personal thing, based on your priorities, preferences, and experiences… It will always differ from person to person.
It’s safe to say that Brussels and I don’t get along. It’s not just me – I know many expats who have a hard time living here, be it because of the city’s dirt, chaos, or greyness. It lacks culture, innovation, a sense of community. Belgium is a curious country, and Brussels is just as divided as Flanders and Wallonia are. Compared to any other European capital, it is dull, and the weather only makes it worse.
Brussels perfectly reflects the bureaucracy of the EU, the pretence of diplomacy, and the inequalities across the continent. That last part is what bothered me the most: the deep divide between the EU and NATO elite who don’t pay taxes, and the homeless, migrants and working class struggling to get by.
One side of the city – the European Quarter, Ixelles, and parts of Etterbeek – is nice. Lovely, even. There's the fancy shopping street Avenue Louise, stunning Art Nouveau architecture, and the beautiful park Bois de la Cambre at the edge of the city.
But the rest of the city is… debatable. We once summed it up perfectly when talking about the city to a new friend at university, who had just moved here. Another girl and I had lived here for a while now, while my friend was new to the city.
We warned her about the southern station, Bruxelles Midi, which is infamous for its homeless population, dirtiness and general grim atmosphere. “Don’t go there at night”, we told her, “and don’t go there alone." The other girl added that the North station isn’t very safe either, and that the area surrounding it is famed for high rates of criminality. “Also”, I added, “I honestly don’t feel very safe in the centre at night either. I always try to go home together with friends. And I’m usually not that paranoid.”
The neighbourhoods west of the canal are also generally not recommended to tourists. Disadvantaged by the local government, little investments are made in these areas. And the canal itself is another reason that makes Brussels miserable; a city needs water to thrive, not a polluted canal that divides people.
So don’t go north, south, west or centre. In other words: most of Brussels isn’t very safe or welcoming.
I’ve spent a year and a half really trying to love it here. And I have good memories, of course. Brussels is a place you need to give the time. Let it simmer while you spot hidden gems and little lights in the dark.
My favourite place by far is Bois de la Cambre, where I would go at least twice a week, either with my dog, running, reading and writing, or together with friends. A beautiful, peaceful park that turns into a forest the further you go out of the city. A walk in the park would usually be combined with a visit to Café de la Presse, where the service is slow but the coffee good.
There are loads of cafés in Brussels, used by the affluent to brush off inequalities under the guise of "trickle-down economics". One that made me feel at home is Belga & Co in Bailli, a cosy place with a stunning green garden to meet, write, or work, with some of the best coffee I’ve found in the city. Another café that helped me through university is Pilar, on the campus of the Free University of Brussels (VUB).
There is event venue Reset, which regularly hosts raves, vintage markets or plant sales. You find similar energy at venues See U and Circle Park. Another cute location with exhibitions, plant sales and more is Les Halles Saint-Géry in the centre. For films, I’d head to Cinema Galeries.
Les Marolles is by far the best neighbourhood, with art, vintage shops and cool cafés abound. There are dope initiatives like the monthly brunch Matinée or reading circles in bookstores, and the Atomium is an amazing backdrop to many raves. And I obviously have to mention Belgium's beers – I never thought I'd like beer, but Brussels changed my mind.
I also really love the city's abundance of parks, and an absolute must if you’re ever here in spring are the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken and their stunning gardens.
These are the things that made life bearable, or even enjoyable.
But apart from that, Brussels and I just won’t get along. The best thing about it remains its proximity to better cities, like London, Paris and Amsterdam.
And that’s okay. I’m grateful for the time I spent here, the people I met, the opportunities I got. I did a traineeship at the European Parliament, worked in several newsrooms, and finished a master’s in European journalism. Brussels is a city that’s great for your cv. But I’d need a very good job offer to move back here.
You've made it this far into the blog post, so I'll tell you a little bit about what's next.
I’m currently staying in my grandpa’s house in the Netherlands, in the vibrant and artistic city of Haarlem, between Amsterdam and the beach. I love being surrounded by his energy and it’s more than ideal for summer. I'll be travelling between Brussels and Haarlem until October, mostly for ongoing projects, university and friends.
I’m planning to go back to Malta in winter, because I don’t want to spend another six months being depressed in the cold darkness. And I have some exciting plans and projects brewing, which you'll hear about when the time is right.
But life is what happens while you're busy making other plans, so I'll see wherever the wind takes me. I'll keep you posted as always!