Everywhere All at Once
BY JACKSON WEBSTER
IXELLES // thoughts on home
Ixelles is perhaps the most “European” place in Europe. The young, lively district of Brussels is walking distance from the European Quarter, home to the European Parliament and much of the alphabet soup of Europe’s institutions. Its buildings don’t really fit any particular architectural style other than “European”: balconies like Paris’s Haussmannien apartments; painted in a mismatch of yellows, dull pinks, greys, and browns like German town centers; narrow and multi-storied like Dutch row-houses. Its cafés serve food as diverse as the area’s residents, with each member-state’s parliamentary staffers needing their own little culinary embassy. Everything’s the same, but different.
Like in many other areas of Brussels, you’ll hear a flurry of languages around you – French, Flemish, English-spoken-as-a-second language, German, Greek, Portuguese, Bulgarian.
Seated on the terrasse of a Flemish bierhuis on rue Bouré during a recent work trip to Brussels, I spent an evening recently talking with two friends – both of whom had recently moved to there – about the confusion that comes with frequent cultural displacement. One of my friends remarked that, after moving around enough, one becomes detached from – yet defined by – one’s heritage. In her case, this meant that amongst Europeans she’ll always be the most British person in the group, but around her friends back home she’s the fancy-pants European. This detachment is a common affliction in Brussels, with a sense of non-belonging defining one’s ‘belonging’ in a world of political advisors, researcher-expats and Erasmus exchange students. That’s to say that the shared experience of feeling like a fish-out-of-water is what allows you to ‘fit in’.
To get by in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual environment, one is always balancing between playing-down and also accentuating one’s national eccentricities.
For example, sense of humor is one of the first things to go out the window in these conversations. I can’t reference SNL Digital Shorts from the noughties as much as I would at home, just as a Frenchman abroad will have to refrain from quoting Rabbi Jacob and the Russians can’t take lines from Тимати’s latest music video. Even in a professional setting, I’ve noticed that you can pick out who studied in the French university system by how they present their conclusions during a conference speech. Partie, sous-partie sous-partie, “comme le dit Foucault”…
BRUSSELS // what is "European"
Here I’d add that I make these assertions fundamentally as an outside observer. I am not, by birth, European. I grew up in California and moved to London at 18 to study at King’s College London. There, I became accustomed to having friends who were generally more comfortable around difference than similarity – culturally, linguistically, and otherwise. London is a unique place in that the definition of what makes a modern “Londoner” is extremely broad, and never requires having grown up in the city or even in England at all. I continued my studies in Paris, where I currently live, noting a similar trend in those I with whom I became close. Paris is more of a cultural monolith than London – it has a strong local identity that even the French find hard to adapt to – but there’s a clear stratum made up of those who assimilate just enough to go relatively unnoticed, but not to the extent that their foreign quirks become fully subdued.
A sort of homogeneity emerges amongst those who’ve switched cities, countries, languages, and continents. These people are made uniquely close by their diverse set of experiences. The more places one lives, the less easily one seems to fit in anywhere.
This diversity, when channeled into a single small city like Brussels, attracts a remarkably unique yet noticeably similar type of person. That is to say, the Europeans one finds in more cosmopolitan quarters of Brussels are all the same in their uniqueness. As a Brussels-based colleague and recent mother put it to me, “the other moms at daycare are all polyglots, and everyone in line at the supermarket is a policy wonk from this or that country”. Cultural similarity all the sudden appears out of place.
To my foreign understanding, for something to be "European" in the modern sense means it must be very distinctly European, yet must not too obviously come from any one of Europe’s 40 or so major cultural groups. “Europe” is certainly a distinct cultural entity, but deciding what exactly defines “European” is difficult to say the least — in fact, defining what is not “European” is probably the Continent’s most contentious political hot button.
This kind of reverse-similarity is most noticeable in the Brussels Bubble, but it’s not unique to this city. Take any European capital, and many of the continent’s more connected second cities, and you’ll find that a class of young, mobile, multilingual students and professionals with more ties to their transnational bubble than to their home country.
The trend of Europeanization here described is particularly interesting to me amongst my friends whose native language is not a lingua franca. Many young Europeans I’ve met – Hungarians, Czechs, Serbs, Scandinavians, Estonians – conduct entire years of their lives – school, work, friendships, relationships – in second, third, and fourth languages. While this won’t be a mind-blowing life-altering revelation for European readers, I’ll speak on behalf of Americans, who, coming from a nation which is continent-wide and typically limits itself to English and maybe Spanish, find this linguistic disconnect hard to imagine.
I live in France, work in French and English, speak both languages with my friends and speak English with my parents. But I use both of my languages on a daily basis. Occasionally, 24 hours can go by where I won’t speak a word of English, but entire weeks, months, and years do not, especially not if you count text messages. The idea of picking up an accent or forgetting basic grammar in my native language seems absurd, yet so many of my friends with more sparsely-spoken native tongues have mentioned this problem; being asked where they’re from by taxi drivers in their home towns, being made fun of by friends for adopting an English or a French or a German pronunciation of this-that-or-the-other word.
EUROPE // diversity vs standardization
Perhaps Brussels is the European corollary to the Airspace phenomenon, a trend by which pervasive social media and hyper-mobile millennials recreate the same æsthetic around the world. It explains how Verve in LA, Timberyard in London, and The Barn in Berlin can all be completely commercially independent, thousands of miles apart, yet resemble each other more uncannily than most MacDonald’s branches. Globalization produces a mobile elite. These young professionals are the ones buying the avocado toast and 20€ manhattans, so naturally they have an outsized market impact is cosmopolitan city centers. This group has, like most, a distinct ‘taste’, but because the influences of these preferences are located everywhere at major poles of the global economy, we witness a “harmonization” of taste across cities: the connected elites are the same people, so they like the same cafés, bars, and restaurants. We experience trends more globally than ever before through borderless social media, and so “trendiness” involves belonging to the mobile class who wants to end the night of each business trip in a place of “quality” and “comfort”, that’s to say with the same “unique” amenities as the coffee shop he last teleworked from.
A colleague of mine told me he’d studied his masters in Poland soon after the fall of the communist government. I asked him to tell me what it was like, and he responded that Warsaw in the early 90s was “still very…Polish…the EU has this habit of making things the same, like the little things. So boring.” The disappearance of small quirks like the font on street signs or the brand of sweetener in cafés – things that presence of European regulations and the single market standardize – have an outsized impact on how "authentic" these places feel.
Brussels itself is a precarious balance of these two forces, diversity and standardization. The city doesn’t suffer from the same pervasive hipster-foursquare culture as London or New York, simply because there’s less money in Brussels than in these two metropolises – the Commission pays well, but not as well as JP Morgan or White & Case. In this way, the small quirks in its diversity are actually quite well-preserved there in comparison with other major cosmopolitan cities in Europe. Cultural businesses generally only have to appeal to their base of expats – always in ready supply in Brussels – or to a class of individuals who are typically actively interested in cultural difference as a source of political vitality.
That said, interaction and policymaking at the European level require linguistic and cultural standardization. Many articles have been written about Euro-English, a phenomenon likely to become more common after the only major English-speaking power in the EU leaves in 2019. Equally, if you don’t speak German, French, or ideally both, you’re not set up for much professional success in the Brussels Bubble.
The process of standardization in Europe is equally as strong as the push for preservation, an effect transmitted by policy across the European Union. The Schengen zone decimates minority languages by making them economically obsolete, but the Union also preserves endangered forms of communication through funding and by translating its reports into all official European languages. Within Europe’s major cities themselves, the constant yet transient influx of foreigners both adds to the cities’ diversity and dilutes what’s already there. Thus are the benefits and dangers of a project whose goal is to integrate very old and very complex traditions, both harmonizing and preserving the Continent’s cultural and linguistic mosaic.
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JACKSON WEBSTER is Californian by birth and European by choice. He is fascinated by how cultural difference and technology clash, mingle, and impact each other. Mainly a sucker for a Belgian dubbel. And unpasteurized cheese.