brussels: 6 posts

Stained Glass and Light : Postcard from Brussels

Among the hidden jewels of Brussels is a tiny Art Deco church called Église du Divin Sauveur. Located in the commune of Schaerbeek, it is decorated with the striking stained glass windows. On the outside it looks plain, but as is the case for most churches in this part of Europe, stepping inside reveals the true magic. As the early morning light streams in, the church is filled with an undulating rainbow of colors that makes the space seem bigger than it is. I walk through a river of sapphire blue and immerse myself into crimson and emerald. 

I’ve seen many stained glass window-adorned churches and mosques, but every new one is a special delight. The play of light never gets old. Every time it’s a thrill, awakening a childhood memory of playing with a kaleidoscope and waiting for the one special–the favorite, the unique–arrangement to fall into a place. A turn of the tube, the sound of glass fragments falling into  place, a new pattern.

These days such calm moments are rare, so I savor and seek them out even more. I especially enjoy when they happen when I least expect them. If I can capture with one sentence the learnings of this year, it would be–take care of yourself. Go for walks, pursue hobbies, enjoy your most extravagant perfumes, daydream, hope, and remember that every moment holds the promise of a wonder.

What takes you to your place of serenity? 

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

Postcard from Brussels : Flemish Chiaroscuro

Among the things I missed the most during the lockdown was going to a museum. The soft light in the exhibition halls, the scent of wood polish, and the silence add as much to my experience of the museums as the art itself–and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels has plenty of it to admire. So when the restrictions were lifted, I headed to the museum and stood in front of my favorite paintings, greeting them like old friends. It was reassuring, a reminder that despite it all beauty will claim its own space.

The reason I feel this way rather acutely at museums is because they are testaments to historical events and traumas. Positioned though they are as shrines to art, wars, conquests, and colonialism have had their role to play in the riches that famous museums exhibit. It’s enough to make one ambivalent about the whole enterprise, and yet I still like museums. I still feel comforted by their ambiance. Art still inspires me to think differently, to push my boundaries, and to seek something new. The awakening of our curiosity is one of the greatest values of art, and deriving pleasure from finding things out is part of happiness as I see it.

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Laurent Gerbaud: The Chocolate Treasure of Brussels

Brussels is a city renowned for its chocolate, but even so, the creations of Laurent Gerbaud stand out. Their flavors are exquisite, their quality is impeccable and the presentation is beautiful. The boutique on Rue Ravenstein, located close to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts–another one of the city’s treasures–is a place I return often to taste chocolates or linger over a glass of wine.

In my recent FT Magazine article, Laurent Gerbaud, I talk about this enigmatic confectioner and his craft. The range of flavors is seasonal–fig and apricot in the summer and yuzu in the winter. One of my favorite discoveries has been milk chocolate with salt and green cumin, a combination that seems unexpected and tastes addictive.

The boutique itself is a destination–charming and serene.

When I’m finally ready to step back into the real world, I leave with a couple of chocolate bars or perhaps a Mondrian set, a box divided into squares and rectangles reminiscent of the Dutch painter’s compositions. Gerbaud’s is edible art at its best. The flavors range from delicate to intense, but the experience is invariably of pure delight. To continue reading, please click here.

 

My Brussels

Brussels has an image problem. Its city planning suffered from an overly strong infatuation with brutalist architecture in the 60s and resulted in stupendously hideous constructions, which include some of the EU buildings. The tug of war between the regional governments–and the arcane laws–leave the city underfunded and disorganized, and construction projects can drag on for years. The bureaucracy is byzantine, and getting mundane things done, like opening a bank account or registering oneself with a commune, often turns into one of the labors of Hercules. The weather also doesn’t win bonus points. “Why on earth Brussels?” asked my mom when I told her that we were moving.

brussels-arch

My first impression of Brussels on a freezing winter day was unpromising. I emerged out into the chaotic area near the Gare Centrale and found myself in a grey tinted mash up of 19th century curvy facades and faceless cement boxes. By the time I reached the Grand Place, I had to pass through so many rings of tacky haunts selling cheap souvenirs and touristy trinkets that even the elegance of the Renaissance guild houses inside the central square seemed compromised. Eventually my husband and I made our way to Quai aux Briques, an esplanade dotted by baroque and medieval buildings. We drank hot chocolate as rain darkened the façade of Sainte Catherine church and turned the square into an Impressionist painting–and suddenly the city felt like a place where I could live.

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A Love Letter to Belgian Rain

I like Belgian rain. It sounds like a strange admission, but there you have it. Partly, it’s because I don’t like summer and heat. Another reason is that rain is an inescapable fact of life here, and my choices to deal with it are either to follow the lead of the Belgian Santa Klaus and move to Spain or to complain nonstop. The former  is infeasible, and the latter is tiresome. Instead, I begin to think of rain as something with beauty of its own.

rain

And beautiful it can be. The fine mist that often marks the beginning of Belgian winter has a pearly glow, transforming the familiar red rooftops of the city into an Impressionist etude of soft brushstrokes. It’s the kind of rain that fools you into thinking that you will be fine without an umbrella, but it drenches you in a matter of seconds. When you’re at home, with a cup of tea and a good book, this rain is romantic and serene. Turn off the email notifications, add a drop of an iris perfume like Chanel No 19 or Annick Goutal Heure Exquise–rooty, cool iris smells of rain, so it’s an ideal companion–and imagine that the world has just stood still, apart from the changing patterns of raindrops on the window.

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