It is hard not to assume that one "knows" the great European cities even before actually visiting them, as even the most modestly educated Canadian encounters every significant European capital in his literary travels (both forced and unforced) by the time he leaves high-school.
Brussels might have remained an entirely "unimagined" entity for me had I not been an adolescent devotee of Belgian Symbolism (a taste developed through a love of the French Symbolistes and of Emile Nelligan). Naturally, reality must always overbound the frame of one's imagination, but, although today's Brussels in certainly not that of Rodenbach and Verhaeren, it has retained the quiet, restrained melancholy that I expected and that I find rather pleasing--civilised, I would say--as I have always considered melancholy (which is nothing more than an informed acknowledgment of human frailty) to be an emotional concomitant of a civilised conservatism.
I've been here for only a few days. One's initial encounter with a foreign culture always breeds superficial reactions, and I hope to get past my Ugly Canadianisms quickly. For the time being, though, they are legion. To wit, a minute sampling:
1) The Bruxellois are very much not "wired", rather odd for people aspiring to be (in fact feel themselves already to be) the Headquarters of Europe. Good luck finding places offering Wi-Fi access in the downtown core. Even Internet cafés are hopeless in this regard. Oddly, from where I'm staying, a scant few metro stops from downtown, I can detect only two wireless connections, both secured and both with ID codes beginning with "CIA". Hmm.
My host tells me that Europeans suspect the obvious, that the U.S. uses American "lobbyists" and diplomatic staff as spies, presumably under the overall direction of the CIA. On one hand, I think it would be amusing to be able to read that wireless traffic; on the other, I fear much of it would be deadly tedious. In any event, let's hope the CIA learned something from the 9/11 Commission and employs people who can actually translate whatever intercepts EU bureaucrats are providing them.
2) My God, but these people love their dogs. Ownership of a brace of toy terriers seems to be required by municipal ordinance. One cannot sit at an outdoor cafe without being deafened by the yapping of these tiny creatures as their owners march them by, often with no other apparent intention but to show them off--as if they were luxury cars. In Canada, walking the dog is a functional necessity; here, it's a liturgy.
3) My first significant "Note to Sir Francis" had to do with coffee: "Um, no. You cannot order your coffee with milk. There's no such thing as a "double-double" here. If you want a coffee with milk, you order a coffee that is made with milk--like café au lait or cappuccino--you barbaric North American oaf".
Well, I'm just finishing up a brief trip to London, where I've managed to type this post using a very fragile Wi-Fi connection (which I was deliriously happy to find, fragility and all!). Check-out time is only ten minutes away, so I'll need to leg it out sharpish and post again whenever I'm able--likely in a couple of days.
By the way, I've neither time nor inclination to keep abreast of the Canadian news. If something earth-shattering occurs, I hope someone will post a comment to inform me. Meanwhile, I shall just assume that Stephen Harper is still a rectacephalic goon, that Stephane Dion is still an anorchid Pantaloon, etc. About right?