3 days in Brussels

Welcome to 2016! And it started with a short trip to Brussels, just when the weather turned to icy days and nights and when I’m supposed to be keeping my feet firmly on terra firma whilst I get my PhD finished. Any excuse for wordgirl not to sit in front of a computer all day right? I’m a terror for that (as I’d say)…with an innate inability to sit still. Even when I’m unwell…still fighting off pleurisy at the moment, this is when sitting still is definitely needed! I’m supposedly in London tomorrow for three exhibition reviews when I should probably be at home. Am I an art addict? A word addict? A travel addict? All three? Or something else? Who knows…

Ray ray Brussels
Wordgirl overlooking the Monts des Artes, Brussels…

ManaXi and I went to Brussels for the opening of my friend and Chinese art colleague, Alex Lebbink’s new space – SinArts Gallery. If possible, I always try to support friends new initiatives and journeys, especially big leaps like this. I’ll talk about SinArts more specifically in my next blog post (my interview with Alex for Art Radar will be published online soon). In the meantime, here’s more of the tourist perspective of a city I’ve never experienced before. I want to say a huge thank you to Alex, his family and parents for having us in their beautiful four storey beautiful Brussels townhouse and home, for their generosity, kindness, incredible breakfasts, two and a half year old chats to more grown-up conversations morning and night, Brussels knowledge and history, and insight into their very special international lives. It made the trip into something else! I promise we won’t move the sap (stop light) again.

ManaXi and I flew with Ryanair to Brussels Charleroi airport, which is about an hour by the Flibco shuttle bus from the city…not far at all and super cheap at 31 euros return. [Note, we will NEVER fly with Ryanair again courtesy of an hour and a half delay there AND back, and the latter flight was an evening flight meaning we got home at 1am.] After buying enough Kinder Pingui bars for the journey (my favourite Euro treat) and setting our internal travel compass (that’s pretty in built), we made our way to SinArts Gallery to meet Alex, then leaving him to prepare for his opening event whilst we wandered the streets of Brussels…past the grandeur of the Palais de Justice, down the huge elevator Van De Marollen to Rue Haute, then leading us to the sunset caught Grand Place. From here, we walked back through the Mont des Artes to get back to Ixelles area of the city for the (popular) opening of SinArts Gallery and Chen Xi’s solo exhibition Fabrics of Identity. Intimate, ritualistic works of ink on rice paper…beautiful Chinese rice paper.

In terms of arts and culture (in addition to Alex’s show), I didn’t want to delve too much into work-life contexts. It’s a habit I fall into when I’m away, often stopping me from seeing other things. On our list, on a very snow-filled minus numbers day, was the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) where we were blown away by the wealth of objects on show, the displays and the audio guides that gave true aural insight into instruments I’d never even heard of let alone seen before…there could have been a pinch more contextual, written material on the audio guides though. The architecture of the building is one of Brussels’ art-nouveau gems, built by architect Paul Saintenoy in 1899 with incredible city views from it’s top floor cafe. A must see.

We also managed to feed my first art love in my teenage years, that of Pop Art, at ING Art Center’s group exhibition Pop Art in Belgium, which showed how Pop Art took the Belgian art world by storm in the sixties. Weirdly, we both got in for free as students…local students. No clue why, the reception staff just asked where we were living and we said in the Etterbeek area as we were staying with Alex’s parents. It showcased international Pop Art stars with works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist and Wesselmann, alongside some of Belgium’s artists of the time including Evelyne Axell, Pol Mara, Marcel Broodthaers and Panamarenko. Mao made an appearance as usual (actually on more than one occasion appearing in an antique store too), and there was a fun photo booth with pop art-style signs and expressions to hold up…as you can see below. I think manaXi found it funny how many times I wanted photos in the booth. Nine photos later…

Park wanders were a compulsory escapade when the weather was a little better. ManaXi and I took in Parc de Bruxelles, Parc du Cinquantenaire, Parc Léopold then onto the European Parliament in Brussels where there were two slices of the Berlin Wall…seemed a little bit out of place, yet contextually relevant. I liked the ode to graffiti and street art on one piece – “Aerosol art has got rules” – very relevant to my next The Temporary project – RareKind China – opening in a few days time in Manchester, UK.

As my Macbook Air charger decided to burn out that morning, we had to waste an hour and a half in the Brussels Apple store prior to interviewing Alex for Art Radar. Time I can never claim back…and really, it should not have been that complicated to swap a cable over, thank god for Apple Care insurance though. After this short interlude, it was time to talk with Alex and further celebrate his launch success.

As standard when I’m away for a few days (I’m better with long periods), I pretty much eat all the things I shouldn’t – gluten, wheat, cheese, meat, wine, beer – you name it, tiger tummy had to deal with it (sorry tiger), but it tasted great. I pretty much felt like the opening photo of the model with her face covered in chocolate. Fresh bakery bread can’t be beaten…especially if it has Hagelslag Belgian sprinkles (they came home with me) on top of Nutella spread. A little too indulgent for 10am in the morning right? Nope. Not for wordgirl.

In addition to beautiful bakery eats and pit-stops at an organic seasonal vegetable chain called EXKI (that fuelled me most days), manaXi and I had many other glorious eats during our adventure including:

  • Ultime Atome on Rue Saint-Boniface…a really popular brasserie spot at the weekends with a huge drinks and food menu including gluten free beers (Brunehaut Bio made my day!) and amazing Boulets la Liégeoise (meatballs with fries), in fact most food came with frites! Great local atmosphere in there too, so good we went back three times.
  • Then there was L’Epicerie…a beautiful little grocery shop and cafe/restaurant that we passed a few times before we found it open run by a lovely welcoming (we think) Tibetan man who made incredible homemade curries and the best fresh mint tea, in fact there was an unbelievable selection of Yogi teas available!
  • We spent many hours in a super cool cafe-bar called Stam, just round the corner from Alex’s gallery on Rue Boure for drinks, cocktails, beers, cocktails (yes twice), coffee and cups of fresh mint tea. They have graffiti art that I’ve not seen before…images cut into the physical brick work and wall surface. Super friendly staff there too.
  • Brasserie Du Lombard, a Delirium Belgian beer brand bar near the Grand Place…our final eat of the trip. A no frills Belgian brasserie surrounded by public art and graffiti. We actually wanted to eat at Le Cercle des Voyageurs round the corner but it was super packed and they’d just stopped serving food. I wanted to sit under it’s wall of suitcases! It had a very creative feel in there where they did music, spoken work and film screenings in the evenings.
  • Another place I wished I had time for was the Via Via Travellers Cafe that we walked past on the final day…what seemed like another creative hub, next to arts marketplace that sadly wasn’t open on a Sunday. On the list for my next trip!
  • Nearly forgot to mention this place…C’est Bon C’est Belge, a real Belgian experience where manaXi had a traditional dish of stoemp (mash with greens) with sausages that made him very happy inside…a great selection of Belgian beers there too. One VERY friendly restaurant owner who was chatty as anything.
  • And then there was chocolate…we can’t forget that moment of gluttony. We were told by a friend of mine to go to Pierre Marcolini‘s main boutique store in Brussels on Rue de Minimes 1, Sablon. Next level chocolate. Time to be overwhelmed by choice, time to be selective, so we chose only a few chocolates to try (including Earl Grey, Pierre Marcolini recipe blend, violet, ginger, cassis and a few more) and for my Mom at home. I had to have a macaroon for the road (I love almond macaroon goodness), where the shop seller gave it to me for free! I’m not sure whether it was because he could see I was freezing and a little off colour, or if it’s because I only wanted one, but it made my day! Thank you Pierre Marcolini man! One happy wordgirl.

On the final day we were there, a blissful blue sky Sunday, we went to visit the 1958 Brussels wonder of the Atomium, then built for the World’s Fair EXPO, designed by the engineer André Waterkeyn. My mom came here in 1966 on a trip through Europe with a school friend, so that made the experience for me even more special…imagining her in her late teens taking the same trip, moving through the museum in the same way. I wonder what she liked, she saw and how much had changed? Apart from the Arik Levy sculpture out front…an artist I actually came across last year during my Autumn Asia travels who provides a contemporary sculptural juxtaposition to the spherical Atomium structure.

At this stage, manaXi and I didn’t want to leave as we started to find out the city’s corners and niches, including what we think was the record shop district in the Grand Place area of the city. ManaXi had to hold back, knowing he could easily give into his reggae vinyl fixation. We also came across a great little pop-up contemporary art space, an offsite space for Centrale for Contemporary Art, where they were showing the exhibition ‘Annulment of the End of Things’ by Aleksandra Chaushova…a play, a dialogue, a set of drawings, a wardrobe of costumes, a narrative, an unknown history that I got lost in for just a moment.

Until next time Brussels…

Wordgirl…getting digital in the Atomium

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