Sunday, 18 March 2012

Long weekend Brussels and Maastricht in early March


One goes abroad to encounter ones sub-conscious mind which is always the real undiscovered country that one dreams of at night. But Belgium though foreign is less dreamlike and more earthbound than many countries and I know it pretty well by now, having a dear old friend whom I visit in Brussels once or twice a year. Still it is abroad, the eternal other.

The  Grande Place. The turn of the 17th and 18th centuries still has something of the Renaissance and even the Middle Ages to give it power. The dazzling beauty of the facades somehow cannot be looked on for too long. Uncle Toby I always reflect when I am in the Grande Place fought in one of these wars against Louis XIV in which the original Grande Place was razed to the ground. This make it closer to home though I never got beyond the first ten Pages of Tristram Shandy a book I know I would love very much if only I could read it.

I talk to a man in a pub who is 33 and undecided about whether to aim to marry or to remain single and I have no advice to offer except that it is pointless to make a decision which I see was bad advice. I say I think Belgium seems unhappy and he assures me Belgians are very happy despite their political differences. Only in Brussels will I meet real Belgians who speak both French and Flemish. I suppose I thought Belgians were unhappy because the place depresses me somewhat. But it seems modern man can live very happily without God or without a sense of nationality.

Dinner in a Portuguese restaurant full of Angolans, the women with very large bottoms juddering on high heels which push their buttocks outward, with hair dyed mid-brown and large, dangerous, liquid eyes. But the restaurant was too noisy to talk. Brendan who lived in Africa for many years says that whenever Africans meet the noisy is very great.

I rose early the next day, caught the train to Liege and changed for Maastricht. A Belgian woman on the train also assures me Belgians are happy and really why should they not be? Things work, people have money. It is a good decent country and makes very fine chocolate. Harry Lime might not approve but he was an amoral psychopath. She says things ran better in the two years when there was no federal government, which I am sure is true.

And so I am  glutting on 17th century architecture in Maastricht twenty years (can it be?) after the treaty that did for us all. Holland is too cutesy for me, too Dutch but I have to admit I like Maastricht very much on a grey March morning. Light rain. Grey cobbles. Bicycles of course but not thankfully too many as they annoy and frighten me.

The quay. The 17th century buildings the style of which was so much copied in the England of the period and in the Edwardian houses of my native town Southend-on-Sea and much of Edwardian England.

I come to Kruisherenhotel a very fine mediaeval monastery and church turned into a hotel in the centre of Maastricht. It could be the scene for some debauched parties a la Sade but actually the feeling inside is too churchy for debauchery. What a strange monument to Holland’s post-Christianity.


Two wonderful squares, as beautiful as baroque music. The market square is dominated by the town hall, a very fine 18th century building, on which the EU flag flew above two others which I suppose were the Dutch and city flags. The whole place breaths republicanism and civic virtues not the absolutism of other 18th century societies.

The other, Vrijthof Square, is full of tormented, pollarded trees which look like a very fine example of modern art. Somehow prisoners in a concentration camp come to mind. Vrijthof Square abuts the two cathedrals, one Catholic and one Protestant, which are very fine (especially the former) but I was more interested in a gaggle of people in cheap suits and dresses standing outside the Catholic Cathedral. They looked Middle Eastern or Southern and not Greek or Spanish or any physical type I recognised. I wondered if they were possibly Armenians. The first two or three I spoke to did not speak English and the tough looking men in shiny suits were unfriendly but finally I found one who spoke my tongue. She said yes they were Armenian. There are she said 10,000 in Holland and they have come here for the wedding which the Cathedral allows them to celebrate according to their rite. They gather there  because the cathedral is dedicated to Saint Servatius  the Armenian who converted Holland to Christianity. She would love to visit her homeland and like me but with much more reason having spent her life there finds Holland boring. Suddenly my desire to return to Armenia is stiffened very urgently. To get there and to get away from affluent developed Western Europe.

A good meal – beef cooked in beer – in the restaurant where Brendan and I inadvertently drank too much last time. It felt like Belgium unlike his street and immediate area which feels like Morocco. 25% of Brussels population are Muslim and it may by 2030 be 50%. Brendan is unperturbed and says this is only because Belgians do not want to live in Brussels.

Mass on Sunday in English at the lovely St Nicholas’s church near the Grande Place, gothic with baroque furnishings a combination I always love. I receive communion (on the tongue of which he does not much approve) from Brendan, then what is remarkable for an English Catholic a very good sermon in English.

I wandered and finally found in the very smart St Hubertus Gallery (they managed shopping centres like so many things better in the nineteenth century) a poster advertising Albert Nobbs. One of my very favourite short stories, from a wonderful collection Celibate Lives (actually other stories in the collection are even better). Read George Moore people. 

I get out of a lunch party to see it. My biennial trip to the pictures.  Quite good. Not nearly as good as I remember the book. But I suppose the silences of films nowadays are true to life which is unexplained and full of silence. Unlike the films of the 30s which are chatty and full of plot, derived from plays and novels. Albert Nobbs was played by Glenn Close, whose androgynous name and face seem appropriate for playing a woman pretending to be  a man but the part requires no acting and she simply moved through the film without much expression.

How sad the lives of the poor were in the 19th century. And how I identify with Nobbs in some ways.

Then I decided to take the train the twenty minute journey to Malines the charming cathedral city which is the seat of the Metropolitan of Belgium but it was closed. At least the cathedral and churches were, but the town is full of lovely buildings and feels far away from the capital of the EU In the town square the carnival was winding up, music was playing, men in strange hats like Transylvanan shepherds were dancing. The whole country has a beery Northern English flavour- unaristocratic, brick terraced houses, vulgar, intelligent.

Four cathedrals in 24 hours - a perfect weekend.

Finally and best moment of all the weekend, a very good lamb cous cous last night in Brussels, much better than in Tangier - with good unbottled Moroccan pink wine and good company. My priest friends do themselves well, an old Catholic tradition. Now back to Lent.

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