The city of Brussels takes itself pretty seriously. It devotes itself to the tricky business of holding together a quarrelsome bilingual country, to projects like the 28-member European Union and to the colossus known as NATO. The city bristles with all-work, no-play diplomats, soldiers, journalists and lobbyists. Whatever sunshine might be left under such dour overcast is smothered by weather off the North Sea.
But the Bruxellois – bless their plodding, everyday souls! – have come up with clever diversions from adult preoccupations. Case in point: there is something uplifting – even metaphysical – about waffles. In particular, ‘gaufres’, Belgian waffles. If you have ever been beguiled by the fragrance of Cinnabon in some airport hallway, you can have only the faintest idea of the alluring whiff of a fresh Belgian waffle. It will cause you to stumble, even fall on your pleading knees in a cobblestone city street. It will render you insouciant to daily trials and oblivious to even rococo monstrosities like the Palais de Justice and the winter chill. Can it be mere chance that the generous proportions of the Flemish Masters’ models came from the land of such street-side delights?
Or, crack a Tintin comic book, and you’ll be looking straight into the impish face of the humor and errant imagination required to stay alive in a sedate northern capital. That face would belong to Tintin’s prolific creator, Hergé, whose decades-long string of tales of adventure, mystery, wit and sophisticated sarcasm built a global empire of visual storytelling.
Such a tale – a riddle, really – befell us one day in the working-class quarter of the Marolles, not far from the Manneken Pis ‘fountain’ and the Grand’ Place. It had been announced that the religious scholar, Harvey Cox, would deliver a lecture on faith and urban distress, the event to be hosted at the Eglise de Notre Dame de la Chapelle on a winter morning. A considerable crowd had gathered in the adjoining square including journalists. Upon entering, we met a hubbub not common to worship venues or lecture halls. A number of bodies were sprawled on the flagstones in contorted forms. The organ began roaring with dissonant music. From the pillars, glaring down upon us were human gargoyles, as other young folk mingled with the crowd passing out communion wafers. Over the high altar floated a balloon-like phallic symbol. Interlaced in this mayhem were the parishioners of the neighborhood furious that their sacred place was invaded and desecrated by strangers.
At one point, someone hoisted Harvey Cox to shoulder height and he shouted above the din, “This is all very interesting. Please continue what you are doing.” No sooner was this scant lecture delivered, but the doors to the church were slammed shut, and we could hear timbers outside being nailed across the doors to seal us in. Panic seized the crowd that had come to hear academic discourse, now imprisoned in bedlam. The stained-glass windows began to look like escape routes.
Police cars siren-ed into the square outside. Crowbars pried the giant doors open and we gushed out gasping into the winter wind, there to learn that a guerrilla theater troop had hijacked the event. Their purpose: to say there had been more than enough cogitating and blathering about the poor of the city. It was time to act – and act they did.
Word of mouth informed us that Cox’ lecture would rather be delivered at a nearby Catholic community center. We sat there cheek-by-jowl waiting – as activists seized the moment and the microphone to explain their social causes. Hours went by with no sign of the good professor. Finally, a Catholic brother stood to say, ‘This is all powerfully reminiscent of Beckett’s play. We’re all waiting around for ‘Godot’, for someone to come and tell us what to do. Well, he’s not coming. It’s for us to set out in conscience, faith and calling to give our answer in service to our neighbors.’ And with that we all stumbled out like drunks onto the city cobblestones.
Should such a moment of bewilderment ever overtake you, I can recommend that you find, as we did, a humble café in the Marolles. Order some ‘moules-frites’ (stewed mussels and fries) with a measure of unhurried quietness. And on the way home at evening, be sure to stop for that metaphysical – but, sweet – waffle. All will be well.