In the heart of bas Saint-Gilles, the cobbles of Le Parvis are lined on both sides with cafés, brasseries and a couple of Moroccan cake shops. Tables are put outside at the first glimmer of elusive Brussels sunshine. People sit drinking beer or coffee and smoking until late in the evening. Some bring babies in prams, fast asleep to the lullaby of human chatter, traffic noise and music. I like it that the Bruxellois consider going out for a drink as a family occasion.
On the corner between Le Parvis, the police station and the church of Saint Gilles, stands the Brasserie Verschueren. When there is no more space on the pavement right outside, tables and chairs spill out across the street, under the swaying acacia trees, at the foot of the eclectic style stone church. Something about people drinking beer and smoking by the steps of the church seems to humanise the stern building and make it more of the world.
At one of the tables under an acacia tree, a young man with blonde hair and beard is sipping a lager, his attention and thumbs on his smartphone. Every so often, he reads a message on the display screen, laughs with visible delight, raises his head to look around, self-conscious and, for a few seconds, watches the passing cars. Then he looks down at his phone again, and starts tapping a message.
Further along, in the blazing afternoon sunshine, a group of thirty-somethings. The men are wearing T-shirts with writing across the chest. One of them smooths a square of cigarette paper, licks the edge, then arranges a pinch of tobacco onto it. He then rolls it up and puts the tip between his lips. Another is telling a story. The woman at the table is wearing a short black dress that exposes her bare white legs to the sun. She twirls her long dark hair, takes a sip from what looks like lemonade, and emits a short laugh.
The regular beggar in the stripy sweatshirt reclines on the church steps and asks passers-by for spare change.
A young father and his son are having a drink together. Their serious expression suggests a man-to-man talk. The father, sitting on one of the brasserie’s slated chairs, says something. The son, comfortably installed in his own, wheel-equipped and lower seat, frowns, ponders, then responds with an earnest waving of the arms. Their respective drinks stand face-to-face on the table, like equals. The father reaches out for his glass of beer and takes a gulp. The son watches intently and waits for the father to hand him his beverage – milk in a baby bottle. He grabs it with a manly gesture, lifts the rubber tip to his mouth and takes a swig.
A middle-aged nun in pale blue and white comes out of the church and stands on the top of the stone steps, observing the secular world for a moment. Then she slowly walks down and disappears around the corner.
A young woman in a brilliant white hijab draped around the shoulders of a long-sleeved, ankle-length navy-blue dress walks past the tables, followed by three little boys carrying satchels.
A toddler stumbles after a pigeon who picks up the pace then spreads its wings and flies off. A young woman runs after the toddler, catches him by the shoulders, turns him around and leads him back to the family table.
A couple at a table by the windows of the brasserie have positioned their chairs strategically, so that his pale skin is in the shade and her darker complexion in the sunlight. She has threads of white in her dark hair. He looks a decade or so older. Both have books open in their laps but their attention is on the life that surrounds them. She puts her hand on his arm and comments on something that has caught her eye. He follows her gaze, laughs, then smiles at her, as though seeing her for the first time. She stares at him, as though to make sure he is real, and smiles back.
A young waitress with a dragon tattoo curling up her arm and shoulder, a round tray laden with drinks, waits at the edge of the pavement for a scooter to drive by, before crossing the street to the church side.
An old man in a checked shirt meanders between the tables, playing the accordion, giving a medley of Italian, Jewish, Russian and French tunes.
A familiar, strident call streaks across the air above the church steeple. A couple of lime-green and cream parakeets whizz across the sky.