Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Brussels Spout

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?


Aeneas the Younger said...

Nothing has changed with regard to Harper and Dion - your characterisations remain, apt.

Enjoy the more civilised pace!

Red Tory said...

It shouldn't surprise me that you're a devotee of Symbolism. Have you ever read Philippe Jullian's "Dreamers of Decadence"? That was my absolute favourite book when I was a teenager. Ah... wonderful stuff. Lots of very enchanting mysticism and Fin de siècle romance.

Ti-Guy said...

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".

Ouch! That's a painful encounter with one's parochialism, especially coming at a slightly more advanced age. You wouldn't have encountered that in the more strictly Teutonic areas of Europe, where coffee is routinely served with milk and where, when you want a tiny little sip of coffee, you order a demitasse.

Oh, well. Happens to all of us. Smile a lot or do what I do -- put on the broadest joual you're capable of and play "country cousin come-a-town" as a small performance in the drama of your life. Makes for great stories later on.

Sample dialogue: "Eh? C'est quoé c't'affére-là? J'ai d'mandé une tasse de café! Pas une gorgée de café!...crisse"...followed up with loud cackling.

liberal supporter said...

Just speak English with a 'Murrican accent and say "Café? No, I don't want a coffee shop, I just want a coffee."

Of course you might get a cup of urine...

Sir Francis said...


Enjoy the more civilised pace!

I'm too busy just trying to cope with it to enjoy it at the moment, but I'm sure I shall get there by and by.

Sir Francis said...


Have you ever read Philippe Jullian's "Dreamers of Decadence"?

Absolutely, and at about the age you did.

Between my fourteenth and twentieth years, Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud were the ruling geniuses of my little internal universe.

In fact, it was my encounter with those scoundrels that led me to discover the French neo-Catholic movement (e.g Huysmans, D'Aurevilly, Péguy, Maritain), which led me to the European Counter-Enlightenment (De Maistre, Cortes, Bonald, Lamennais), which, finally, led me to discover that Canada's foundational philosophical orientation was explicitly counter-revolutionary and aristocratic; Sir John A. and the Comte de Montesquiou would have gotten on like a house on fire.

So there you have the history of my tortuous intellectual development--as if you were interested!

Sir Francis said...

That's a painful encounter with one's parochialism, especially coming at a slightly more advanced age.

When you're done sprinkling the salt on my wound, feel free to add some mustard and mayo as well there, Ti...

Smile a lot or do what I do -- put on the broadest joual you're capable of...

It's worth a try. I might add a "tabernac" or an "estie" at the end, just for good measure.

Sir Francis said...


Of course you might get a cup of urine...

Heh. That particular beverage is quite popular in London. They call it "coffee". Ye gods, but it's wretched shite.

Aeneas the Younger said...

That's why one drinks TEA in London. Well that is one reason, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Before Lady Francis departs to look up "rectacephalic", which she greatly fears means something like "having a head shaped like an arse", she wishes to point out to Sir Francis's devoted readers that she could have warned him before his departure to stick to tea if he visited his homeland, but knows that his need for coffee is such that it sometimes overcomes his better judgment, and her own, in these matters.