In the Place du Jeu de Balle/Vossenplain, the flea market is being packed up. Small china ornaments, wood carvings, worn-in leather jackets, incomplete sets of cut-crystal glasses and frayed canvasses with oil paintings of forest clearings are wrapped in creased newspaper, crammed into crates and loaded into car boots and transit vans. The sky above the plain, red-brick gable of the church of Notre-Dame Immaculée is drifting into a tired grey after the effort of glowing with blazing sunshine all morning.
On the cobbles outside La Brocante, on the corner of the Rue des Renards/Vossenstraat, a cluster of square wooden tables is arranged beneath a large tree, crowded with people drinking beer and smoking. A jazz trio – drums, saxophone and electric guitar – are competing at who will produce the loudest, most alive sound. The drummer’s pleasure beams through his face. He beats out crashing rhythms which spark off a dialogue with the electric guitarist. The latter plucks the strings and makes them vibrate in a tone of measured irony.
Standing between them, the saxophone player blasts a cascade of notes like fragments of coloured glass. Then he lowers the sax and draws closer to the mic. A gravelly voice, a staccato tone reminiscent of Jimmy Durante and a rasping Gallic ‘r’ come out in a warm rendition of On the Sunny Side of the Street.
Suddenly, a brassy, nasal beeping sound starts to beat time in unison with the drums. A young woman at the wheel of a van stuck in traffic on the corner of the Rue Blaes/Blaesstraat is tapping rhythmically on her klaxon. The musicians grin and launch their instruments into a playful match with the van horn. The young woman throws her head back and giggles, her brown fringe flopping to the side. Encouraged by a burst of laughter and applause from the audience, she sets out to tap out her own rhythm pattern on the klaxon. The road ahead of her is clear. She waves and drives off.
The sax player resumes On the Sunny Side of the Street. H and I have been standing till now, so when I see a table become vacant, I suggest we take it. It is next to an iron fountain shaped like a wide bowl, with a pillar rising from the centre and four spouts dripping water halfway up. My attention is immediately attracted by the three figures at the top of the pillar. Three women in long dresses, aprons, lace-up corsets, loose sleeves and long, rectangular headkerchieves tied under their chins. They are carrying pitchers of water. Porteuses d’eau. The tallest of the three is holding her pitcher on her shoulder, leaning her head against it. They are standing in a conspiratorial huddle, perhaps gossiping. One of them is partly turning away from her companions, as though commenting with arch disapproval on someone across the street. The tall woman with the pitcher on her shoulder is smirking knowingly. The shortest – and perhaps youngest – of the three is cocking her head, eager to hear more.
I tell H they look Flemish. “Why not Walloon?” he asks.
I say it’s something about their features. The round cheekbones, the retroussé noses and the arched eyebrows. Like faces from a painting by Van Eyck.
A boy comes to clear our table. Shouting over the music, I ask for a lait russe. He says he doesn’t take the orders but that his colleague will be along shortly. We ask the next young man with a short apron who walks past but he says we need to order from another waiter, and that he’ll send him over. Soon afterwards, the man with the correct job description comes up to our table and, a few minutes later, my lait russe – complete with ginger biscuit – and H’s Hoegaarden are on the table.
The jazz trio ends the set with It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing. They tell the audience they play here every fortnight.
We stay to finish our drinks. When we ask for the bill, the young man clearing our table says he does not handle money. It seems we need to ask “John”.
“OK. What does ‘John’ look like?” I ask and listen to a physical description.
Opposite me, beneath the rustling leaves of the large tree, the three Flemish women carrying water start gossiping again.
I am taken into a different world when I enter yours. The words take me back to the family holidays, travelling on a couchette; the tang of the channel crossing, the wonderful warm cheese aroma of the Gareth Du Nore, the lavender fields towards Frejus, and the warmth and well-being of Menton, the tray of fresh peaches mingling with the Mediterranean soft wind off the sea. The happiness / regret of leaving in having the final breakfast croissant on Menton station. I do not think I would be at ease in France now, and like all teenagers I just saw the romanticism of the hillside villages which were crumbling away in dire poverty in the 50s.
InBelgium is the past perhaps still present and not despised? I see nothing brave in the living in the past, as the European elections have shown to be the case here (except London of course). Where is the brave face for the future? Hey ho the old will have to learn the hard way I think.
Making lace for all times stitch by stitch, the past being part of the whole.
There is definitely a derelict-but-that’s-part-of-my-charm side to Brussels. In many ways, it reminds me of London 25 years ago, except that in the UK, even back then, every high street looked the same and anonymous. I love the individuality of Brussels shops, cafés, etc. I will never get to like mussels, but the coffee, bread, cakes, frites, beer and the way they cook endives are exceptionally good.
What a lively scene ,I would’ve liked to be there. Your depiction of the three water-carrying women crowning the fountain, standing in a conspiratorial huddle, reminds me of the detail in a painting by Poussin, Rebecca at the Well (right hand side of the painting.)
Goodness! That painting does look like the fountain I describe. Actually, I tried to take a picture but it didn’t come out well. I guess, across the centuries and cultures, women all stand and gossip in the same way :–)
a finely drawn prose tapestry:*)
Why, thank you Sir Topaz.
Hi, Katia! Since you are in Flemish country, it occurs to me (and by coincidence, strangely enough, because I am reading it right now) that you might have heard of William Gaddis’s book “The Recognitions.” It’s about a North American painter who in his maturity likes to paint only fake Flemish paintings! It’s not just that he copies famous ones, which is how he gets his apprenticeship, but that he actually creates “new” old paintings of his very own, which get attributed to famous masters. It’s a hoot and a holler at the very beginning especially, when Wyatt Gwyon (the artist) is a boy and is living under the absent-minded care of his minister father and his ultra-Calvinist Aunt May. I was sorry to lose Aunt May when she died, she was such a peculiar and unintentionally funny person (that is, the author meant her to be funny, but she herself would have regarded anything resembling a sense of humor sinful). It’s a huge book, and I’m only about 60 pages or so into it, but it did occur to me that I should mention it to you, in case you might some day like to read it. I hope you are really enjoying yourself, and that you’re having some nice weather. I did really find your portrait of the cafe and the three women atop the pedestal evocative and reminiscent of the parts of Europe I once traveled in, though I never got to live there for a longer amount of time, as you are. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.
Hi! Thank you for the reading tip. Believe it or not, I am making a list of many of the books you mention in your reviews because you make them sound so interesting. As it happens, shortly after you reviewed it, I went and bought ‘Parade’s End’, which had to be packed when I moved to Brussels, and stored away. On my most recent trip to London, last week, I did, however, dig it out and bring it with me. Next on my list to read!
Thank you, once again for your lovely comments.