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Charming Brussels

Mark Mardell | 08:15 UK time, Friday, 31 July 2009

Brussels Grand-PlaceSo this is goodbye, although I hope I will see many of you, over the page, as it were. I am off to the USA in a couple of days to settle in, take some holiday and take up the job as North America editor at the beginning of September.

I wanted to leave you with a few final thoughts, which will also go out on From Our Own Correspondent tomorrow and will be posted here tomorrow morning.

But the piece didn't turn out the way I had planned it. I had long plotted that, when I went, I would write a riposte to the man I succeed in Washington, Justin Webb, who was based here about eight years ago. Justin is brilliant, and has been hugely helpful to me and my family in our move, but plain wrong in his most memorable piece from Brussels.

But writing this "FOOC," as they are called in the trade, gave me many more problems that usual. Try as I might I couldn't fit this initial idea with the colour I wanted to get in to emphasise the varied nature of Europe, and the more serious thoughts. So I took the words of the old blue's song to heart: "if it don't fit don't force it" and abandoned the script. But at our final, final farewell bash a Belgian friend showed such disappointment at this news that I have resurrected it, for his and your (this is for you,Tom) delectation:

Perhaps we write the first draft of history - I don't know. For broadcasters, our fine thoughts and words don't even get the honour of being tomorrow's fish and chip wrapper - they just dribble away into the ether. But some words have a power to haunt, and one of my colleague's pieces has been my familiar ghost in Brussels. Berlaymont building - European Commission HQ

Within a few days of arriving I was pulled aside and told: 'I hope you don't agree with that dreadful man'. A little while ago I was nobbled at a dinner party: 'You don't think that way about us do you? If you are leaving us try to say something nice'.

Brussels, Brussels, poor old Brussels. When a city becomes a synonym you know it's got problems. In English mouths the name of the place that has been a good home to me for the last four years is usually spat out, as if a distaste for what is perceived as European imposition has somehow blended with school day memories of being force-fed a pungent vegetable. Even British guidebooks feel free to take for granted a British dislike of the EU and then build on this assumption the right to sneer at Belgium's capital.

Well, I like it better than London and the suburbs of the south-east - not in theory, not on paper, not to visit, but to live with my youngish family.

But Justin Webb's piece for From Our Own Correspondent, nearly a decade ago, had a huge impact on the sensitive denizens of Brussels. Justin said the people were miserable, called it the dirtiest city in Europe, made special play with the dog mess that does indeed litter the pavements and attacked the lack of a service culture.

So why do I like it?

For a capital it is small: and that's a good thing. When we first arrived and someone asked us over for dinner to their home on the opposite side of the city to where we live the almost automatic response was to turn down the invitation. In London you simply wouldn't cross a city for an evening. In Brussels it only takes half an hour.

Our home backs onto a park and is surrounded by greenery, but walk the other way and in a few minutes you are on one of the city's main arteries, full of fast-food shops, night shops and Chinese groceries. It is a ten-minute walk to the metro, which takes me just about to the door of the office in another ten minutes. Going out of town, as I did this morning, it's a lovely slow drive through the dappled sunshine of the park and then through a magnificent forest, just right for weekend walks. Belgian chocolates

Brussels' modest size means that, unlike most capitals, it doesn't suck the life out of nearby cities. Leuven and Ghent are great places in their own right, not dwarfed by their neighbour.

The people are friendly. I love saying "good morning" and "good bye" in a lift, and wishing people a good afternoon, or day or holiday or whatever it is as you leave a shop, is charming. "Have a nice day" sounds so much better in French. When I visit Paris it marks me down as a provincial, and I am always looking for another reason to scorn Europe's most overrated city.

You know about the mussels and beer and chocolate. But the food generally is good. You can stop most places in Belgium and be sure the basics will, nine times out of 10, be cooked well. That is not something you can say about France these days and, despite all the gastro pubs and unbeatable quality at the top end, Britain still deserves its reputation for chronic grub.

Bars and clubs are not really my scene these days, but on the odd night out I've ended up at some pretty decent places and the reports I hear are good. There's a lot more to Brussels than a silly statue of a boy having a wee.

The lack of service culture is a fair point. It's partly because Belgium, bizarrely and charmingly, likes to think of itself as an honorary Mediterranean culture, and people seem more interested in having a chat while they buy their baguette than getting through the process quickly so they have more time to work. I am afraid my Protestant work ethic has me hopping madly in the long queue, but I suspect the fault is mine, not Belgium's.

There is another reason. Those long queues in all sorts of shops at the weekend is because the thought of employing a Saturday boy or girl (there is no Sunday shopping) is a non-starter: the tax is prohibitive. The price for middle-class dinner parties not being full of people whining about the local school and worrying about health care and fretting about going private is a tax system that can discourage employment and cripple enterprise. A Brussels dog

Anyhow, one can be too selective about this. I must admit on a recent trip to Washington, going into a very well-known clothes store, I was delighted to see about ten people serving - such a contrast to Brussels. But when I tried to pay, four of them directed me to the till. The surfer dude behind it pointed me towards another till, which he said was working. He continued to chat to a pretty girl while I queued. And he probably doesn't have healthcare.

The dog poo? Well the francophone love of small dogs is horrid and their toilet habits are indulged on the streets, but Brussels isn't generally filthy, just lived-in. I like my cities on the grimy side. My wife tells me that my fondness for Brussels is increased because I am rarely here, always on the road in some corner of Europe. But surely that is what home is, a safe and comfortable harbour to which you return, before setting off on another voyage. I fear I would get bored in any one place. It does not have the glory of Rome, probably and predictably my favourite European capital, nor the buzz of Berlin or the magnificence of Madrid, but it has been home. And, Justin, they even have pooper scoopers in the park these days.


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