14 November 2007

The golden cage

I was forwarded an e-mail from the Mister yesterday, to whom it was forwarded from someone else, and so on and so forth. Imagine what it would be like to piggyback on the shoulders of an average circulating e-mail, not spam, but the kind people send each other because they think it's interesting (this, by the way, is highly subjective and I know I irkedly delete e-mails all the time that others consider "highly interesting").

You'd get to see a whole lot of faces peering at you from around the world, and the expressions on those faces would range from annoyed to fascinated to worried to happy. You'd find a poor girl like me coughing away with runny eyes and nose on the couch in her sweats, a guy like M. in his suit in the office, and all sorts of people in between, faces lit up by their computer screens.

Anyway, the e-mail I received yesterday was an article from the Guardian from last summer, about living in Brussels, which the author, Gareth Harding, describes as "living in a golden cage." You want to escape, but know that you have it good (more in a moment on the "have it good" part). He speaks of the embarrassment of acknowledging that you came to live here for a few months or a year or two, and suddenly discover you've been here 14 years. Oh dearie me, I hope this doesn't happen to us. I know that conversation--we've had it with many people--and I hope it is not me someday doing the apologetic begrudging thing. Yeah, Brussels.

Harding writes: "American travel writer Bill Bryson once described the city as a 'seriously ugly place, full of wet litter, boulevards like freeways and muddy building sites,' and many people still associate the Belgian capital with rain, sprouts, bloated bureaucracy and barmy laws. This is, after all, a city whose two most iconic monuments are of a sackload of suspended balls and a small boy peeing."

Kind of makes you want to move here, right? Along with my eternal griping about the weather, the capital of Belgium just sounds utterly romantic, n'est-ce pas?

The question Harding asks, after going through the myriad reasons of why Brussels stinks, is: "why do over-educated, multilingual high-flyers invariably end up staying longer in Brussels than they planned to?"

This is the crux of the issue, and I keep reading, because I think we would rather avoid staying longer than planned. Even if it ends up being another five years, please let it not be fourteen. So he goes on to list the benefits of Brussels. For one, it's a whole lot cheaper than Paris or London but only a train ride away from either. He cites the hospitals, the schools, the food, and of course, the beer. Ultimately, he concludes, it's a city to live in, not really made for sightseeing:

"The magnificent Grand Place aside, there are few must-see sights. Instead the city’s real charms – surrealist cafes, Moroccan markets, giant beech forests, comic-strip murals, Congolese eateries and cinemas showing only silent films — are either tucked away down side streets or marooned in the sprawling suburbs."

Yes, this is true. The city's charms are much more hidden. But is this really much of a consolation prize? A silent film or two, a couple of colorful murals (of characters beloved by Europeans, evidently, but I don't get much of a kick out of them). Sorry, maybe I'm being cynical. Maybe I need to get out and do more exploring. And I really do enjoy my own "tucked away" Brussels discoveries.

But it's probably time for a break, which is why it is a good thing we're going to Barcelona this weekend (which is today's thankful thing coming after a whole lot of ungrateful). It's been far too long, and it will be good to escape, at least for a few days, this "golden cage."

(The full article can be found here.)

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