How did Brussels grow into the European capital with the highest number of infections? A Saturday night in the streets around the Grote Markt provides an abundance of explanations. In this city there is always someone who knows how what is not allowed ‘and stoemelings’ is still possible.
During the First World War, a seller of birds on the Grand-Place in Brussels thought that a good rub on the brass relief of Everaard t’Serclaes would bring you luck. You do have to rub the entire relief, from his head to his foot, and then you can make a wish. It is stated that way in all tourist guides. The relief from 1902 is the Brussels equivalent of the locks on the Pont des Arts in Paris or the coins in the Trevi fountain in Rome. In 2011, the Brussels city council was obliged to replace the artwork with a copy, because it was in danger of being rubbed to pieces.
It’s Saturday evening, just before ten thirty. The night clock will start in 48 hours. Nicolai (27) and his friends are from Moldova. They take turns rubbing t’Serclaes. After seven months of pandemic, no one is still pointing out to tourists that this may not be the best of ideas right now, and you could end up with something very different from luck here.
Nicolai and his friends are lost. Their cheap airline tickets initially took them to Paris, just when all the bars and restaurants were closing. “So we came to Brussels and it turns out to be the case here,” says Nicolai. “Now we don’t really know what to do. Returning home is not an option, because then you have to be quarantined and we don’t want that. Maybe we should travel to Amsterdam. ”
What to do on a Saturday night at 10:30 in a city with curfew in 48 hours? This was announced earlier in the day by Prime Minister Rudi Vervoort (PS), who already tested positive himself. Brussels has emerged as the most contaminated capital in Europe. This achievement was achieved in the weeks after all Brussels cafés, banquet halls and tea rooms were closed on Thursday 8 October. At the time, these were said to be strict measures. All restaurants have also been closed for a week.
The streets around the Grote Markt are not very busy, but they are by no means empty. What to do, on an evening when, except for meal deliverers and the homeless, no one can have a clearly motivated destination?
In the Italian restaurant Bocconi in the Amigostraat, behind the town hall, all tables are still occupied around ten o’clock. The people are ready for their digestif and are taking their time for it. “We belong to Hotel Amigo”, explains an employee. “Restaurants associated with hotels may remain open. Even after the new measures, by the way. ”
Hotel Amigo belongs to the British group Rocco Forte Hotels. Chutney’s restaurant, a few blocks away, is also experiencing a busy Saturday night. It is adjacent to the Warwick hotel, belonging to the American multinational company of the same name. According to Yves Fonck of Brussels Hotel Association (BHA), the back gate is only temporary. “Only half of the Belgian hotels have their own restaurant. During the first lockdown, they also had to close and the last remaining hotel guests had to have meals brought to their rooms. Not now, but this will not last long. For October we have an occupancy rate of 3 to 5 percent. November will be the same. Most hotels will close automatically in the coming days due to a lack of guests. That applies to the whole world, including Brussels. ”
Pieter De Crem and Joachim Coens demonstrated that after the national closure of all restaurants you can still go to a restaurant unabashedly. They had lunch at the Thon hotel, near the party headquarters of CD&V. With a nice glass of wine. They were caught by twitterer Jeroen Smets, who wondered: “Did they have a room together?” Joachim Coens afterwards freely admitted: “It was stupid.”
The annoying thing is that every resident of Brussels only needs to look around for seconds to see that everyone is doing something stupid. There is a loophole for everything. If, as expressed in the Brussels dialect, you do ‘en stoemelings’ what is not allowed, then it is still possible. Between 1940 and 1944, the Brussels sense of improvisation made the city the best place in all of occupied Europe to hide as a Jew or a resistance fighter. But in times of corona, you’re better anywhere than here.
To gamble or to the whores?
“To be honest I have no idea why we rubbed that image,” says Nicolai. “It must be some legend. It kind of feels like the Mona Lisa and Manneken Pis a few moments ago. You have enormous expectations, but once you are there, you are like: is this it? What shall we do now? ”
Gambling, possibly. All cafes are closed, almost all restaurants are in take-out mode, but somewhere in the decision-making process in Brussels at the beginning of October it was judged that electronic slots, roulette and blackjack are more necessary than cafes for social cohesion. Normally, the Brussels Zenith casino on the De Brouckère square is open 24 hours a day, but according to the young woman at the counter, this sector is also suffering from the measures. “We are obliged to close at half past eleven. It is now close to eleven, you can still enter, but then I have to create a pass. Can you smile at the camera? And take off your face mask? Sorry, that is mandatory. ”
Inside, about thirty men and a single woman are frantically pushing buttons where someone else has just been doing that. Some players literally cling to each other. The money machines only accept cash. There is an alcohol pump at the entrance, and nobody uses it. Brussels smokers also have a hard time, without night shops. But don’t worry: there are cigarette machines in most casinos.
The fact that it is so busy on this Saturday evening has a double explanation, says the young woman: “We have also been affected by the new measures. Tomorrow evening, Sunday, we will close for a month. For most people here it is one of the last times they can play. ”
Behind some showcases in Aarschotstraat there are still prostitutes on Saturday evening around eleven.
The plant market
And what to do on a Sunday morning? To the market? For five months they have been organizing their own Rock Werchter every Sunday morning around the slaughterhouses in Anderlecht. With thousands of people who do everything that is advised not to do: squeeze as close to each other as possible, eat together from one box of fried fish at the Foodmet and buy cheap counterfeit cigarettes from Eastern European healers at Clémenceau metro station.
A seller of hats complains: “You can hardly do anything anymore. Not at a café, not at a restaurant. You are not allowed to exercise. I’ve had it completely. ”
Operator Abattoir reports on his website: “Fortunately, the new measures allow us to continue our weekend markets. Although we will temporarily have to do without flea dealers. ” Brussels logic, again. No flea markets, but food markets.
And plant markets. There is a whole line of people queuing up at the indoor plant market on the Sint-Goriksplein. These types of markets have become extremely popular lately. Until a month ago there was also one in Au Bassin at the fish market. Not anymore. Now it is a cafe.
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