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  1. 1. T H E B R I E F L E T T E R F R O M B R U S S E L S 3 0 T H E P E A K T H E P E A K 3 1 TESA ARCILLA Tesa Arcilla is a Manila- born journalist now working as a TV news anchor in the heart of the European Union machinery PHOTOGRAPHYCORBIS It might not conjure romance and luxury quite like Paris does, or have the charm and bustle of Amsterdam. In fact, when one thinks of Brussels, what it evokes is not so much a characteristic as it is about edible specialities – chocolates, beer, waffles and moules frites. Deservedly or not, Belgium has a reputation of being a little staid, and some might even say dull. Life in the capital city has been scrutinised even more in the past few years as tens of thousands of expatriates flocked to what is now known as the political capital of Europe. The fact is, while Brussels may not quite be the destination capital its neighbours are reputed to be, decisions that impact the lives of 500 million Europeans are made here day in, day out. Institutions of the European Union tower above Art Nouveau townhouses in the Quartier Européen where some 40,000 “eurocrats” play their part in running the massive machinery that is the EU. With 24 official languages, plus a gamut of international media, a stroll from one street corner to the next ensures a Babel-esque feast for the ears. ‘EUROBUBBLE’ Locals sometimes shake their heads at the way the EU’s edifices jut out uncomfortably in the neighbourhood, not quite blending in with their 19th-century surroundings. Tourists, however, look up in awe, cameras clicking away, revelling in their proximity to the seat of EU power. Several times a year, roads around the quarter are blocked to make way for the convoys of Europe’s most powerful men and women. When VIPs are in town, the wail of sirens cutting through the city ensures you know they’re in town. Much has been written about the so-called “eurobubble” – the rarefied playing field reserved for eurocrats, lobbyists and all those who keep the EU wheels turning. Thousands vie for cushy EU posts every year, but critics have lashed out at the invisible wall created by this bubble between those who govern and the governed. After-work hours find eurocrats sipping wine or speciality Belgian beers at the à la mode Place du Luxembourg – “Plux” for those in the know – a square that sits right in front of the European Parliament, lined with restaurants and bars. But even for insiders, this bubble is a complicated web of policies, bureaucracy and relationships. Martin Leidenfrost, author of the tongue- in-cheek book, Intimate Brussels, wrote: “If the EU is perceived at all from the outside, then it is perceived at best as a humourless governess … We only have to hear the word ‘Europe’ for our eyelids to begin to droop.” But Brussels the city is not exactly humourless. The city of Audrey Hepburn’s birth and home to dozens of Michelin-star restaurants is also home to the Belgian Comic Strip Centre. Yes, that’s right – comics. Belgium is the land where comic art is high art. Tintin by cartoonist Hergé (real name Georges Remi) and the Smurfs – to name a couple of international hits – are no trivial matter. Comics are a serious business here, so much so that the museum dedicated to this 1920s art form recently marked its 25th anniversary and was celebrated in champagne-filled style by the capital’s happy, well-heeled society. COMIC STRIP HousedinahistoricalbuildingdesignedbyVictor Horta,oneofthekeyfiguresinArtNouveau architecture,theimpressiveBelgianComicStrip Centrewasoriginallyawarehouseownedby textilemagnateCharlesWaucquezintheearly 20th century.Thejuxtapositionofcomicarton displayandthedecorativestyleofthebuilding’s interiorgivestheimpressionoffantasy. AChinesetouristwandersaroundandtriesto takeanartsyphotooftheSmurfsdisplaythrough amirrorreflectingtheartwork.Shelingersin frontofTintin,acharacterknowninChinaas “Dingding”.TheBlueLotuswasthecommercially successfulfifthvolumeofTheAdventuresof Tintin,setin1930sChinaundertheJapanese. Likethemuseum,theBrussels-Capital Regionhasjustalsomarkedits25th birthday.An exhibitionentitled“PicturingBrussels”wasput together,featuringworksbysome40cartoonists thatcapturethesoulofthecity’sinhabitants beyondtheeurobubbleandotherstereotypes. “WorksillustratingBrusselshavelongbeen givenshortshrift.Comicbookheroessetoffon anadventureinNewYork,ParisorAmsterdam... andonlypassedthroughBrussels,”saysmuseum directorJeanAuquier,happilyacknowledging thatthistendencychangedsome25yearsago. Auquier refers to the Broussaille series by Frank Pé and Bom. “Broussaille is a dreamer who lives behind Luxembourg station ... where the European Parliament is located,” he says. “It is an album of nighttime encounters in a real city as the story takes us through the bistros and streets of Brussels. The cartoonist was one of the first to look deep into the eyes of the people of Brussels to see how they truly live their lives.” Whether one sees the city and its denizens from the prism of politics or comics, the contrasts are surreal – a reminder that Brussels is also home to one of Belgium’s most famous artists, surrealist René Magritte. Amid the contradictions, perhaps the fun is in being able to choose which Brussels bubble to burst. BRUSSELSTHECITYISNOT EXACTLYHUMOURLESS.THE CITYOFAUDREYHEPBURN’S BIRTHANDHOMETODOZENSOF MICHELIN-STARRESTAURANTS ISALSOHOMETOTHEBELGIAN COMICSTRIPCENTRE.YES, THAT’SRIGHT–COMICS Known for their blue colouring, the Smurf characters are a fixture in Brussels, the capital city that also gave birth to Tintin, another comic classic. The reputedly dour base for the European Union recently marked the opening of the Belgian Comic Strip Centre, proof that the city knows how to laugh. Yes, the 'eurocrats' have given the Belgian capital a reputation for dourness. But burst through the 'eurobubble' and you will find a colourful city that gave life to Tintin, Audrey Hepburn and the Smurfs. COMIC RELIEF