Bursting the Bubble

Fifty Shades of Brussels or the story of a non best-seller

17 April 2013 | by

Review of “Intimate Brussels, living among Eurocrats”, from Martin Leidenfrost (2010)

I bought the book at the press shop next to the Justus Lipsius building, defying the grey and humid weather which was making the bumpy Bruxellois pavement more slippery than in your worst nightmare. When a friend saw the book, he exclaimed,  “it seems like 50 shades of Brussels”. I laughed. To be honest, I did not really know much about the book I had just bought.

Behind the mysterious and evocative cover…

I have to warn you: the parallel with the world-wide erotic best seller stops here. You will not read sulfurous, glamorous or exciting stories that enter by the back door of the European Capital. However, the author, Martin Leidenfrost will take you for a stroll through Brussels, from the European district to the most unexpected nooks and crannies of the city. Take a deep breath, imagine the Berlaymont building during a foggy moonless night. You see? Nothing. That’s it. Welcome to Brussels behind the scenes.

Depicting the Eurocrats, or what is happening behind closed doors?

50,000 Europeans – some estimate 100,000 – hammer out rules for 500 million.”

People tend to use the metonymy “Brussels” to designate the nearly faceless and distant European institutions. “They in Brussels are deciding, they are spending our tax money”. But who are they? Beyond this simplistic approach of public opinion’s perception of the European institutions, there is some truth. Nobody really knows – not who is driving the machine, we have some names and faces – but who is making the machine work. The ignorance keeps people at a distance. We don’t know much about our home countries’ civil servants, but somehow we have at least stereotypes, our civil servants are lazy or efficient, they retire earlier than the rest of the population, etc.

The European Union doesn’t have myths and its protagonists have no face.”

During his one year journey in the city, Leidenfrost meets, lives, parties, or simply crosses the path of many of the so called Eurocrats. Through 50 short stories, he portrays the “Homo Brusselian”, as rather young, ambitious, well-educated and multi-lingual. With lucidity and humour, he immerses his reader in the lives of these men and women living in an International hub, trying to kill the (after work) boredom by “networking” in the pubs of Plux – “the meat market”.

The writer’s curiosity seems unlimited. In the “Eurocrat valley”, Leidenfrost encounters the protagonists of the Bubble: lobbyists representing everything from tobacco to the environment, European Commission civil servants, interpreters, representatives, assistants, trainees, etc. Along theses insightful pages, he describes the nitty-gritty details of European Affairs in a way which only sounds familiar to the aficionados’ ears, such as the infamous “comitology”. Along his journey, some characters are reappearing every once in a while, guiding the author through the city, like Staszek, the lonely phlegmatic Polish translator looking for a girlfriend, or Alessia, the turbulent Italian-Belgian artist. This Alessia character actually makes the link between the Eurobubble and the other faces of Brussels.

Brussels: the Bubble and its many other realities

If you were to look down on their dealers, ladies and gentlemen of the night, pastors, cleaners, if you were to rub up against their Belgian, Arab, Congolese neighbours, if you were to observe their styles, affairs, forms of expression and describe them in brief amusing features – wouldn’t that be something new? That’s exactly what I want to attempt.”

The book does not only account for the universe of Eurocrats; it also depicts the many other realities of the European capital. The author presents Brussels as an authentic cosmopolitan capital: vibrant and buzzing. The stroll continues in the various districts of Alhambra, Saint Gilles, Schaerbeek, Matongé, etc. and among the various communities of Portuguese, Albanian, Finish or Chinese. An Italian friend, who moved to Brussels recently, told me: “I work in the European district but when I head home [Anderlecht], once I pass Gare Centrale I enter another dimension”. His comment summarizes one of the book’s main points: Brussels is not just the bubble, it has more to offer.

I personally enjoyed this entertaining journey across an unexpected Brussels. The book is not a best seller and the topic can appear aloof to most people. However, I recommend it to anybody curious enough to go beyond all the ‘myths’ and gain some insight into Brussels and its inhabitants. Moreover, this book appears as a forerunner of the trend which put the spotlight on ‘the Bubble’. See for example, the documentary “The Brussels Business” or the blog/web-series “Eurobubble”.*

 

* See http://www.thebrusselsbusiness.eu/ and https://sites.google.com/site/eurobubble/

Original title: Brüsselzartherb. Fünfzigeuropäische Expeditionen. Picus-Verlag, Wien 2010

The author: Martin Leidenfrost was born in 1972, in Austria. He writes books, columns, screenplays. He is particularly interested in Central and Eastern Europe. He has lived in Germany (Berlin), Ukraine (Kiev) and in Slovakia. His website: http://www.leidenfrost.net/

What do you think?