A wedding party is spilling out of the sternly robust 19th-century church that stands on the edge of the Parvis. The eye is immediately drawn to the splendid bride, skin like molten chocolate against the white lace dazzling in the early afternoon July sun. A fair-skinned, slender groom, beaming. Families and friends with forebears from two different continents, righting history’s wrongs. United in celebration and humanity. Hugs, kisses, photographs, introductions. Passers-by stop and stare, admire, wish the couple happiness, if not out louds than in their hearts. Like many other strangers, H. and I pause to admire and bathe in the joy. Further up towards Chaussée Waterloo, people sipping a wide variety of beers crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the scene, exchange happy remarks in French, Flemish, Portuguese, English, Spanish. This is Saint-Gilles, where I’ve heard that a hundred and thirty-six languages are spoken, where over 40% of the residents are ethnically non-Belgian. Where borders and passports and colour differences have no place.
The bride walks to the middle of the area outside the church. Left foot forward, tap, tap, tap, then tap, tap, tap with her right. A three-quarter turn and tap, tap, tap again. A guest joins her, and another, and they mirror her moves. The dance formation grows by the second.
A gleaming black car is parked a few metres away, and the driver turns on the stereo. The doors open upwards, like expanding wings. A song with a strong beat spreads over the whole Parvis, where the last market sellers are packing up their stalls. When H. and I lived in Brussels, I used to shop here. You can find every kind of fruit and vegetable, from any corner of the globe. Any kind of cheese. Your nostrils are caressed by the aroma of Italian, French, Belgian, Moroccan, Greek breads.
The crowd of onlookers on the fringes of this line dance also grows. One, two, one-two. One, two, one-two. Dip, three-quarter turn, clap. Some of us start tapping our toes, letting the rhythm travel up our bodies, teasing every nerve. Others nod in time with the beat, or sway, as the female singer, a voice that rises from the gut, from the depths of the earth itself, weaves and embroiders a tune. A voice with pride in its very fibres. I don’t recognise the language she sings in, but what it communicates transcends dictionaries. My chin is wet, dripping on the front of my dress, my nose is full. I can’t find a tissue in my pocket and don’t feel like rummaging through my rucksack. Next to me, H. is also entranced, his eyes glistening. A Belgian man in front of us turns round. His eyes and nose are streaming. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my life,” he says in French.
I turn to a lady next to me. Her glamorous, colourful dress suggests she must be a close relative of the bride. She studies my face for a couple of seconds and gives me a broad smile.
“What’s this dance?” I ask.
“It’s a South African song,” she says. “It’s called ‘Jerusalema’. It’s played a lot everywhere.”
I indicate the line dance with a hand gesture. “It’s so wonderful. It brings faith in human nature back.”
She gives me a look of understanding.
I instinctively place a hand over my heart. “Please will you tell the bride and groom that we wish them every happiness?”
“Of course! Thank you.”
There’s a halo of joy over the whole Parvis de Saint-Gilles as the dancers begin to drift away to chat to the remaining guests and the driver turns down the volume of the car stereo. Joy. And an underlying sense of hope.