United Music of Brussels

United Music of Brussels was a day of music to launch a new season of classical music, and I heard it announced over the public transport address system

At the tram stop - house gable cartoon central Brussels“What are we going to do this weekend,” she asked.

I’m usually stumped by this question but not this time.

“Listen,” I said. Over the tannoy a message was being delivered in English. This weekend… United Music… Belgian National Orchestra… BOZAR… La Monnaie… Bourse…

“That’s what we’re doing!”

“What?”

“Listening to United Music,” I improvised. “It’s a promotional day for the Belgian National Orchestra and the Royal Theatre. The beginning of the autumn season. Musicians, singers, dancers – short concerts – all afternoon in different locations. There’s more information on-line!”

“Are you sure about that?”

The Internet can answer all your questions

It’s never easy to find information about what’s on in Brussels if you don’t read French. Even if you do read French, I think it’s probably a challenge. Belgium seems about 15 years behind Sweden in terms of Internet usage and Internet literacy. I remember how it used to be. We were just as starry eyed and innocent. Just as clumsy.

Many Belgians – individuals as well as institutions – clearly want to believe that the Internet can answer all your questions. Everyone is always making promises about how you can find so much on-line. How you can book tickets or appointments on-line. How you can easily transfer money from one bank account to another on-line. How you can check deliveries or send messages on-line.

Mmmnnno. Not really. But I remain hopeful.

This offer is unrepeatable
This offer is unrepeatable

It seems the Belgian advocates of the Internet haven’t quite grasped – yet – that design is not all. For people to take advantage of services on line, someone needs to write the software to enable the service actually to work. That if someone is to be able to get correct information out, somebody else needs first to put that correct information in. And to put it in, in such a way that getting it out is both logical and easy.

I think the truth is, most Belgians really prefer the personal touch. Face-to-face contact, human interaction, these are the things that add value to Belgian society, not digital interconnectivity and virtual reality. Which is very endearing.

Information dearth

Everything would happen in the afternoon, we learned from various sources. At 2 pm. Or maybe 2.30. But where? That remained a mystery.

Hoarding on Rue Ravenstein, Brussels
Hoarding on Rue Ravenstein, Brussels, just opposite BOZAR ticket office

Because we knew that BOZAR were involved, we took ourselves there first. BOZAR is the jokey local name for the Palais des Beaux-Arts in the centre of Brussels. (Beaux-Arts sounds like BOZAR.) The three people staffing their ticket office were sure they knew they’d heard about the event. Absolutely. Didn’t they have some brochures about it? Over there in that rack? No? Oh well they had had some brochures.

Two of them went into the storeroom behind the scenes to check. The sound of cardboard boxes being torn open, but, sadly, no. They didn’t have any left. We are desolate. Sad emoticon. They couldn’t suggest a place we could go to get more information, but we might find some brochures left in the racks at the entrance to the art gallery across the road.

We looked, but no.

So we walked down into the Grand Place and went into the tourist information centre there. The young man we spoke with said, Yes! He’d also heard something about the music event. Though he too was desolate. Are there brochures? We have no brochures. Wouldn’t you prefer to listen to the dance-band/oom-pah performance going on in the square?

We said thanks, but no thanks. He couldn’t make any suggestions about where we could go to find more information either.

United Music at the Bourse

United Music brochure and mapWhen Mrs SC and I were wrestling with the information dearth on-line, she’d stumbled across something… (Her command of French is several orders of magnitude better than mine.) Something about a concert in the Saint-Géry Market Hall. Meanwhile I remembered that I’d heard something about the Bourse in the original announcement. For want of any more reliable information, we walked down to the Bourse and thought we could go on to Saint Jerry’s after.

It turned out that the Bourse was exactly the right place to go.

Here there was a little band playing under a tent and young people in T-shirts advertising the United Music of Brussels giving out the very brochures we had heard so much about. Brochures that included maps of the city showing the different venues. At first glance they were perfect. Just what we had been looking for.

There were sixteen different venues scattered across the town with small groups performing concerts of all sorts.

The Tanners’ Studio

United Music of Brussels Philip Defranque, tenor
At the Tanners’, tenor Philip Defranque,

Glancing through the brochure Mrs SC saw The Juliet Letters. That was for us! A place called Atelier des Tanneurs, so we took ourselves there.

Do you know The Juliet Letters? It’s a song sequence for a string quartet and a strangulated voice. A co-production by Elvis Costello (punk hero) and The Brodsky Quartet (classical music heroes). The singer at the Tanners’ Studio was the Flemish tenor Philip Defrancq. I thought he was pitched a bit high till I got home and listened to Elvis Costello’s performance again and realised – Defrancq nailed it.

United Music of Brussels: In the Tanners' Studio
In the Tanners’ Studio – the string quartet and tenor perform The Juliet Letters

On the way to the Tanners’ Studio we discovered that the map in the United Music of Brussels brochure was not really as accurate as it might have been. However, with a certain amount of guesswork and asking the way, everything worked out. Not only did Defrancq sing a couple of The Juliet Letters, he also sang an aria by John Cage (brilliant and weird and involving at one point the singer gargling with water).

The Tanners’ was an interesting space – presumably a former tanning factory though there was no evidence of the industrial process left. Just a two story interior space with a wrought-iron or cast-iron colonnade and a bridge across the middle. Acoustically rather good.

The swimming pool at Jeu de Balle

Which was more than you could say about the next venue.

From the Tanners’ we took ourselves to Les Bains de Bruxelles. An interesting experience in itself, just trying to find it. I’ve heard about this public swimming pool. It is an architectural feature, not least because of the pool itself – on the second floor of the building with views from the window out over the town.

United Music: Panorama of Jeu de Ball swimming pool
Panorama of Jeu de Ball swimming pool (Les Bains de Bruxelles)

The performers had a stage at one end of the pool in front of the windows and a drummer and a violinist played while a woman danced a wild modern ballet.

United Music: Jeu de Ball swimming pool performanceThe acoustics were – interesting perhaps is the kindest word. There were a lot of echoes and a lot of foot stamping as well as drumming. But it was an experience to sit there on the tiled benches enveloped in a faint cloud of chlorine to watch and listen. There was quite a crowd at this venue – possibly because of the building rather than the performance.

The lap of victory

At the end, after the performers had taken their bow and the applause, they dived into the pool. Well, the dancer and the violinist dived; the drummer jumped. And they swam the length of the pool to even more applause. The dancer and the violinist racing one another (the dancer won.) The drummer kept his glasses on and did the breaststroke and came in last. Mrs SC and I reserved our special cheers for him.

Halles Saint-Géry

United Music: The pianist at Saint Jerry'sAfter that we took ourselves to the Saint Jerry Market Hall and were in time to hear the United Music’s concluding performance. A pianist played in the main hall and a choir sang in the market’s upper level. As it turned out, the choir were from the Belgian National Theatre, La Monnaie. The venue was crowded and the choir were a bit of a surprise as they were dressed like the rest of the audience. We only realised who they were when they started to sing. It was a good way to end the day.

In all we saw and heard three concerts (plus a little bit at the Bourse). And I’m not sure we’d have managed more than one more even if we’d had the brochure-map and got into town for when the whole event actually kicked off at 14.30.

United Music: Members of the choir of La Monnaie National TheatreBesides, we had all the pleasure of our initial face-to-face human interaction with the good people in the BOZAR ticket office and at the Grand Place TI centre.

More than the music, the exercise was interesting for the opportunity to see the different venues. To see parts of the city we might not otherwise visit. I’ve kept the map and will, later, try to see some of the other sites.

Afterwards Mrs SC and I took ourselves to the Cuban restaurant La Cantina on Rue du Jardin des Olive for our evening meal. (And she continued her dogged search for the perfect iced-coffee.)

United Music: Panorama in Halles Saint-Géry
Panorama in St Jerry’s (Halles Saint-Géry)

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Tourist Information

Belgium is a schizophrenic nation, people say, at the Dutch end of the country everyone is Germanic and efficient, but at the French end everyone is Gallic and disorganised. As for Brussels – Pff! (And a gesture of hands thrown in the air.) The Dutch end of the country is Flanders and the French end is Wallonia while the 19 municipalities that make up the city of Brussels are a principally French speaking enclave just within the area of Flanders.

I heard this story about the difference between Dutch-speaking Belgians and French-speaking Belgians (or if you prefer, the Flemings and the Walloons) even before I moved to Brussels and it’s been repeated to me here by all sorts of different people – foreigners, Flemings and even French-speakers. The French-speakers are apologetic and self-deprecating when they tell it, but they tell it none the less.

Now I really don’t want to be the sort of person who goes around swallowing clichés whole and then regurgitating them, but I’m going to share with you my recent experience of seeking tourist information in Brussels, and I’m afraid it does rather confirm the above.

Last week was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. I know I’d left it rather late, but I thought it might be nice to go out to Waterloo for the anniversary celebrations. Waterloo is not far from here at all, it’s just to the south of Brussels and many people live there and commute into the city to work. Also, there is a big expatriate Swedish community in Waterloo clustered around the Swedish school (and attracted there originally following the major promotion of the town by a certain Swedish pop group).

Grand Place 3Anyway, here I am in Brussels, Waterloo is a 15 minute train ride away, it seemed a natural thing to do to go into the Brussels Tourist Information office on the Grand Place and ask for some help. La Grand Place (French) or Grote Markt (Dutch) is in the centre of the Brussels’ tourist district, a fabulous former market square surrounded by tall, 15th century Gothic to 17th century Baroque buildings commemorating civic institutions and city guilds. The TI centre is in the south-east corner of the Place, in the City Hall (Hôtel de Ville). You enter through a short corridor past the sign that tells you (I think) this used to be a police station. To the right is an office where you can buy souvenirs and tickets and to the left an office where you can get information. If you are lucky.

Need InfoI say that because, if you’re going to visit the Brussels TI office, you’d better come prepared with questions that relate just to Brussels. As the young man in the office politely explained, Waterloo is not in Brussels. It is in Wallonia and what happens in Wallonia – even if only just across the border in Waterloo – is a mystery in Brussels. The young man (who had very good English) managed without actually saying it to convey that he felt me profoundly misguided in wanting to visit Waterloo when I had all the delights of Brussels available to me.

But I was persistent. Where to find out about events in Waterloo? For that you’ll have to visit the Wallonia Tourist Information centre, he said, and started giving me directions – across the square, down that street, turn left… you can’t miss it. Having previously had experience of “you can’t miss it” directions in Brussels that somehow I did manage to miss, I asked for a map. He wrote the address down and drew a sketch map for me on a scrap of paper. The Brussels TI office doesn’t have maps of the city to give away to tourists who want to leave Brussels.

The Wallonia office, when I found it, was shut. Clearly the opening hours of the Wallonia TI centre are also something unknown in Brussels. They were displayed on the door however, so I made a note and went back the following day.

Espace WallonieThe Wallonia tourist information “Espace” is a large open room, partly given over to exhibitions (currently there is an exhibition for children about Ernest & Celestine who I must conclude are Walloons). The reception desk was staffed with two people who did not seem to have much to do. I went up to them and said: Do you speak English? Then immediately corrected myself (because this is a tourist information office). Of course you speak English!

They didn’t.

Or rather, the older man did not and the middle-aged woman with him said she could manage a little.

So I asked about Waterloo.

I’m not sure what Wallonia has to offer, but I would guess that the battlefield of Waterloo and the associated museums are quite a big attraction for foreign tourists, and judging by the coverage of the Waterloo celebrations in the British press, at least some of them are likely to be English-speaking. Well, if so, they are not expected to visit the Brussels space of the Wallonia TI centre.

The centre had one flyer which, to be fair, did include a few sentences in English and from which I was able to work out that there is a museum dedicated to Wellington in the town of Waterloo and a big hill overlooking the battlefield just outside the town. There are also buses from the town centre to the battlefield.

After consulting her colleague in French, the woman managed to convey to me that there is a new museum. If I understood correctly, built underground. This is a fine museum, the finest in Wallonia! But sadly the Wallonia Tourist Information space in Brussels had no information about it. The lady I was talking to went online but couldn’t find anything about the new museum on the the Internet either. However she was able to find a telephone number, which she used to call the museum. There was a long wait before anyone answered and then a long conversation that confirmed the new museum is open from Monday to Sunday, seven days a week, between 9 o’clock in the morning and 6 o’clock in the evening. She wrote this down for me and was very pleased that she knew both “Monday” and “Sunday”. Her colleague congratulated her.

How to get to Waterloo? If you don’t have a car you must take a train from the southern station and a bus. Okay. I can see from the flyer how much it costs to enter the museum and the different sites – can you tell me how much it costs to travel there? Is there perhaps a packet price? Oh dear, we don’t know. The buses are run by private enterprise and the trains originate in Brussels so that is something we can’t know about. Ask at the railway station. (Later, at the railway station, they said, Pff! And threw their hands up.)

While I was there another tourist came into the centre. This man spoke French and had some questions about Brussels. He talked with the man behind the counter – the one who couldn’t speak English – and although I didn’t understand everything I got the gist. It seems the Wallonia TI centre has no information about Brussels – not even a map – because it’s not Wallonia, you see. But they are happy to recommend the Brussels TI office in the Grand Place, though they have difficulty explaining even in French where it is. Since that was something I knew and the Wallonian information provider seemed so helpless, I almost volunteered to take the chap there myself. Almost but not quuite.

Leaving the Wallonia centre, I walked up the street about 100 metres and found myself outside the Flanders Tourist Information centre. It was open. When I saw this I thought: I have to. And I went in.

Visit FlandersThe Visit Flanders tourist information centre is even larger and more open than the Wallonia Espace, and rather busier when I was there, with seven or eight tourists but only one member of staff, an older woman, working behind the desk. I joined the queue. Obviously it wouldn’t be fair to ask about Waterloo, but I thought I could ask about Flanders Fields – surely as big magnet for foreign tourists in the Flanders area as Waterloo in Wallonia.

Standing in the queue I noticed a computer screen handily placed with “FAQ – Select your language” on it in five different languages. Under the title were buttons for each of English, French, Dutch, Spanish and German. I pressed the screen for English. Nothing happened. The screen wasn’t touch sensitive, so it was actually impossible to follow the instructions, choose your language and read the FAQ. This didn’t bode well.

Still, I waited in line. And I waited… But it has to be said, after I got to the head of the queue, that the woman behind the counter spoke good English and was able to give me brochures – in English – about Flanders Fields, a brochure about Ypres, a brochure about accommodation in the area, a tourist map and a leaflet with information about how to get there.

On the counter in front of her was a map of Brussels. The two older women ahead of me in the queue were asking about things to do and see in Brussels (in French). The Flanders TI woman not only answered them in French and made recommendations, but also gave them free tourist maps.

And so I am forced to conclude – at least in respect of tourist information offices in Brussels – it may be a cliché but the Belgian cultural divide is also alive and well and still splitting the country in two (or three).

Also, if you’re in Brussels and you Need Info – I recommend VisitFlanders on Rue du Marché aux Herbes.

Grand Place 4


I’d love to report that I got out to Waterloo and saw the re-enactment of the battle, but no. Eventually I discovered that tickets for the re-enactments (there were several days of them) were all sold out long ago. I’ll content myself with going out there some other time. I apologise btw for linking the 200th Anniversary reference to the on-line pages of the Anglo-jingo Daily Mail, but the pictures are really good.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.