The day before yesterday, I was walking in Brussels under a blue sky that made me want to be optimistic for the whole world. I crossed a street of African hairdressers (boys of 12, seated in armchairs too big for them, watching the look of fear and solemnity at the same time, the line that the clippers drew on their necks). I stopped in front of the Dutch fabric stores run by African saleswomen in colorful dresses. Music was coming at high volume from a grocery store where someone was frying donuts. People crowded happily around makeshift counters on the sidewalk. A man, with toasted coffee-colored skin, wore a black suit studded with large golden metal buckles. He seemed to be waiting for something important to happen.
Then I walked along the high facades of bourgeois houses, and I said to myself that Brussels was one of the cities where a former colonial power reveals its heritage and its sins the most. The hotel I had been chosen was a former “meeting house” which displayed its history in small touches (a kindly licentious painting above the elevator, a book of pictures and memories of the staff of the great era placed in each room). In the room opposite mine, a superintendent had died in the middle of a frolic. Downstairs, an illegitimate couple met every day for five years to love each other, argue and drink champagne.
But I wasn’t there just to experience the charm and violence of the Belle Époque behind the falsely austere facades. I was there because two actresses had to play on stage, two days in a row, excerpts from one of my novels. In the theater where the performance would take place, the director, a Belgian in her sixties with a beautiful, wrinkled and insolent face, told me that France was very good at displaying its “positive and humanist values” on the international scene while in reality being a violent state. My patriotic fiber was piqued, like every time I hear criticism of my country abroad. But as I had just written in La Croix a chronicle in revolt against the decision of the French courts on the chlordecone affair, I could only sadly approve. There were also problems because French students, struggling to properly follow their studies in France, arrive in droves at Belgian universities, causing congestion to the detriment of local students.
In the theatre, I noticed that the population was much more varied than in the Parisian theatres. A mix of skin colors and hairstyles, young people more or less rebellious and old people still anxious to be up to date. But perhaps this was especially the case in this theater (it is the Varia Theater) and less so in other Brussels theatres. And we were in festival period with big shows in the halls next to the tiny stage where the actresses were going to say my text, and it’s not entirely true that such an atmosphere does not also exist in France ; I experienced it, for example during the Hors Limits festival in Seine-Saint-Denis or the Effractions festival at the Center Pompidou. And I said to myself that the history of Nations always provokes adaptation, resilience and joyful mixing, because peoples are always smarter than their masters.
The two actresses who, with courage, had taken hold of my text as they had done many other texts before mine, asked me enviously about the many cultural support systems that exist in France. And suddenly I was able to be proud of my country again. In Belgium, for example, there is no network of media libraries to effectively irrigate the territory. In Belgium, the libraries are poor and poorly equipped.
The next morning, the sky was leaden, heavy with a fine and persistent rain. The inhabitants of Brussels welcome this weather, usual clothing of the city, with a smiling fatality. During these two days, I had regularly thought of my 95-year-old grandmother, who has lived for seventy-seven years on the Belgian border and who hardly knows Brussels. She too adapted to the story, fleeing her native Germany which had become Nazi to marry a Frenchman with a Belgian father, and settling on the border to trade with the Flemings.
I love these intertwining stories, light and dark. Brussels reminds me of that. My hotel saw its happy hours of gallantry come to an end in the 1980s, with the arrival of AIDS. In the street next door, we find the house where the radiant Audrey Hepburn was born on May 4, 1929.
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