Cities in silence: Brussels

I’ve done this short series that I called “Cities in silence”. It’s the silence of cities devoid of people, withdrawn, turned towards themselves. There is a certain nostalgic beauty to it. The last in this series is Brussels.

This is the place where it can rain for a whole week and winter winds chill you to the bone. It’s the place where – depending on your mood – local administration and politics can either make you laugh hysterically or drive you crazy with its absurdity.

But it is also the place where you can meet people from all over the world. Where you sit on ancient oak benches and savor a Trappist beer, produced by the monks themselves. Where you can watch the night sky laying down on the pavement of Grand Place, the central city square, around which the whole city developed through centuries. Where you can discover little bits of the old city in unexpected places.

These places have known plague, war, famine and despair. They have known joy, endless evenings on the terraces, couples making out, groups of friends celebrating something, doesn’t matter what, people walking alone with the wind in their hair.

The crowds will eventually return. The students, the rich, the tourists, the loners, the freaks, the drunk and the lovers will cross each other again along these old streets.

For now, the city still lives its silent life. Still breaths its hidden breathing. Barely moving but alive. I can hear its breathing beneath medieval pavement stones and rundown building fronts.

You can also read the other two posts in this series, about Paris and Lisbon.

Cities in silence: Lisbon

Home is a state of mind. I’ve never lived in Lisbon but everytime I go there I feel like I belong.

Maybe it’s the light. There’s a special quality to the light of this city. The way it gently embraces everything. The lightness and openness it creates. I miss waiting for sunrise somewhere in Alfama, as the locals slowly start going about their day around me.

Maybe it’s the people. From my first visit, I felt this easiness of relating to people on the street. Like going back to the place where I was born and wandering around. Nobody would know me after all this time, but I would still feel at home. Strangely enough, I feel the same here.

Or maybe it’s the narrow back streets of old Lisbon. The calm joy of a summer afternoon, when everything seems deserted but, if you stop and listen, you will hear the humming of life all around.

Being at home away from home.

Cities in silence: Paris

Paris wasn’t love at first sight for me. There was something about it a bit too imperial and well-to-do for my taste. I felt it was lacking humility.

But I learned to love its silences, shadows, and hidden beauty during long walks. Without the usual tourist crowds, this subtle beauty of abandonment and ruin became even more visible.

Abandonment and decay reveal the vulnerability of things, just as they reveal the vulnerability of people. I don’t take any pleasure in seeing the pain that comes from vulnerability, but there is something honest and raw in showing your wrinkles and bruises.

The steep streets of Montmartre in late afternoon
Wedding photo shoot on the banks of the Seine
The back garden of a house in Montmartre

On the path

Late morning. I walk towards the rising sun. There’s a huge concert of birds all around me. The first bluebells are here, early heralds of what will soon be a deep blue forest cover.

I stop for a drink of coffee and I watch the play of light and shadow.

Being on the move means relaxing into change and transformation. Hiking is learning to enjoy the way things come and go.

I’m a pretty anxious person. There are many things that can get me off tracks. But my anxiety dwindles to almost nothing when I’m hiking. There is something about a forest footpath opening into the unknown. A gentle, subtle energy.

I don’t know where this path is leading and, frankly, I don’t care. I don’t want to arrive anywhere in particular. In fact, I have already arrived. I keep on moving just to stay there, in this space of lightness and flow.

Failures of kindness

I was bullied in primary school by a boy who seemed to really enjoy controlling and humiliating people. I wonder now what his life might have been at home. Did he witness abuse? Was he abused? We find it difficult to believe that kids can be cruel for no particular reason.

A few years later, I turned into a bully myself. It happened one time and there was no physical abuse, just words.

“Just words” – how sadly ironic. I was deeply wounded by words so many times since then.

There was this girl in my class, very shy, always pulling down her blouse as if she needed to cover something shameful. Something invisible that could never be fully covered. She spoke with difficulty. When she did speak, she sounded like a girl much younger than her age. She was never at ease among us.

I don’t know how it came to be but I started making fun of her. Of her speech difficulties. Of her habit of pulling down her blouse. At some point, her mom came to the school and talked to me. She wasn’t aggressive. She asked me why I did it.

I don’t think I was doing very well at the time. I felt lonely, out of place, clumsy, inadequate. I felt unloved. I desperately wanted to be accepted.

I was probably scared too, because I couldn’t make sense of what was happening to me.

Every time I remember that girl, there’s a wave of shame and self-contempt washing over me. It seems inconceivable. I never saw myself as a jerk preying on people’s difficulties but for her I surely was one, back then.

Was it the same for my bully from primary school? Was he, above all else, a scared boy hiding from the monsters under his bed? It’s almost impossible to think about him that way, but I simply have to admit the possibility. No matter how outrageous it feels to compare myself with him, I have to at least envisage the possibility that I once was, in somebody’s eyes, exactly what he was for me.

There is something liberating in accepting this possibility. I doubt there can be self-forgiveness or acceptance as long as we remain in the cocoon of our own suffering, disconnected from the suffering of those who were hurt by us.

Alternative stories

The same facts can be the subject of different stories. It matters what story we choose to tell.

Old puppets hanging on the wall in a puppet theatre (Brussels, 2019)

You may think that stories and storytelling are not your thing, but I am not talking about fairy tales. There are many kinds of stories. What do you tell yourself when things don’t work out the way you wanted, despite your best efforts? Is it about you being a failure? Is it about blaming others? Is it about feeling incapable and helpless? Well, this is also part a story. Maybe the most important story there is.

What is the narrative that we keep on telling ourselves (and the world)? Is it a story of helplessness or one of empowerment? One of fear and denial, or one of acceptance?

Are we even aware of the story we are telling? It may be difficult to cut through the smoke of self-deception and wishful thinking.

Self-narratives influence the way we perceive ourselves and the world. They can lift or undermine us. We can become their prisoners, despite having created them. They become so ingrained and normalized that we have a hard time recognizing them for what they are: products, artifacts. Something that was made and can be unmade.


Take Rashomon, the 1950 film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. The movie focuses on telling and retelling the same event (the murder of a samurai) from different perspectives. The storytellers are a bandit, the samurai’s wife, and other accidental witnesses.

What is interesting about this is not simply the presence of different narratives, but the fact that these narratives can be wildly different. Sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradicting themselves. They highlight the personal circumstances and interests of each storyteller. The bandit does not deny killing the samurai, but claims it happened during a duel over the samurai’s wife. The wife tells everybody she has been raped by the bandit. One of the witnesses, a woodcutter, contradicts both the bandit and the samurai’s wife. However, his story has its own shadows and inconsistencies.

Everyone is a suspect. And everyone has their own story.


The presence of alternative stories does not imply relativism. It simply shows that there is more than one possible way of looking at what happens. It reminds us that stories do not offer accurate descriptions of facts, but interpretations and assumptions about those facts.

In fact, the possibility of having alternative stories is liberating. Both as individuals and as communities, we can question our received stories and we can modify or replace them.

There may be things from our childhood that crystalized themselves, long ago, into a story we kept on telling ourselves. Maybe it’s a story about not being loved. Maybe it’s about being somehow defective. Obviously, the story is rooted in things that happened back then. But there is nothing inevitable or necessary about this particular story.

As long as we keep on telling ourselves the same story, we will continue to behave as if the story were true. The possibility of change appears as soon as we start taking distance from our default narrative and recognize it as a story, not a necessary state of fact.

This is, after all, what different forms of therapy try to do. This is also how most people heal, with or without external help. It all starts with taking distance from what seems to be written in stone and recognizing that it is us doing the writing.

A storm is coming

The high tide has covered almost the entire beach. Strips of sand are showing up here and there, surrounded by shallow water. I walk across shades of blue.

With each minute, the shades grow a bit darker. It’s late afternoon, but it feels like evening. Only a few people are left on the beach, and they are rushing to get back to their cars. Soon it will be all deserted.

I watch the storm clouds approaching. There’s something hypnotic about the way they move. Incredibly soft, like jellyfish, insinuating themselves ever closer. One moment you have the impression they’re completely still; the next moment you realize they’ve made another leap towards the shore.

There’s silence, as if a sonic wall would stand somewhere between the land and the sea. I can see the electric build-up in the clouds. I can see the heavy curtains of rain. But no sound reaches me.

Soon this space will all be mine.

I will be the king of sandcastles broken down by the rain. Of seaweed strips covering the beach like the innards of an unknown sea animal. Of deadwood brought by the storm, across the waters, from faraway places.

There’s a storm coming, from inside and outside. And I cannot tell anymore where one finishes and the other begins.

Revealing and hiding ourselves

Writing and photography are ways of revealing ourselves. We’re longing to make ourselves known, but we’re also frightened to reveal too much. As if this would make any difference in the world.

Sunrise in Foret de Soignes (Belgium, 2020). Photo by the author.

Some things cannot be said directly because they would expose us too much. Some others cannot be said because we don’t know how to express them, although we know there’s something worth saying. So we play in the foggy marshes of fiction, metaphor and allegory. We use words and images that uncover a bit and hide a lot.

I would like to be able to take off all the masks and, for once, just say who I am. You know, like handing a business card to somebody: this is who I am. But it’s not that easy. No matter how open I’d try to be, I would probably end up telling a story about myself. I would still remain hidden beneath it.

But I’ll give it a try anyway.

I am a man in his 40s. An introvert. The father of a 10yo boy. A dancer. A photographer. An expat.

(You see, even some of these short sentences sound strange to me. Man in his 40s? I never think about me like this. I am a young adult frozen in time. Expat? It’s not how I label myself at all.)

I started taking photos about three years ago, as a way of recording (and then sharing) what was happening in my long walks in the wild.

I have written for a long time, but it was for an audience of one: myself. Journaling my life. I also wrote professionally, mostly academic papers. There, there was an international audience, but the writing was impersonal. The papers had some impact, but they could have been written by so many others with similar interests.

When I get tired of it all, I spend some time in the wild. It brings me back to life.

I try to be a good dad, but I often feel like a kid myself. A kid with insecurities and with a huge need of affection and reassurance.

I tend to judge myself harshly and put a lot of pressure on myself. I am often anxious.

I get more and more aware of time. Of its passing. I try to make it count. I mostly fail at this but I keep trying.

What are stories good for?

Apart from the personal enjoyment we derive from telling or listening to stories, there may be other benefits for both the storytellers and their public.

Puppeteers appearing on the stage together with their puppets at the end of a show (Brussels, 2019). Puppets make great storytelling devices, despite their deceptive simplicity.

I’ve written before about the purpose stories may serve, and their capacity to speak to us as if they were written for us.

Stories are shared fictions. In contrast with other shared fictions, such as political ideologies, we accept them as fictions. We don’t take them at face value.

What speaks to us is not their literal truth or resemblance to reality, but their capacity to transmit things we consider valuable. Such things can include an intuitive understanding of complex life situations or an appreciation of social values such as cooperation and fairness.

“The story — from Rumplestiltskin to War and Peace — is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” (Ursula Le Guin)

While the individual benefits of storytelling seem obvious, we don’t think too often about its possible collective benefits.

In an experiment conducted in 18 villages of the Agta community in the Philippines, investigators asked people to vote for the best storytellers in their group. Then they were asked to play a resource allocation game, in which they were given tokens that could be exchanged for rice. They could keep these tokens for themselves or offer them to other members of their camp.

The experiment showed that “camps with a greater proportion of skilled storytellers, were associated with increased levels of cooperation” – meaning more tokens offered to the community.

A second experiment, carried out shortly after, showed that storytellers were more likely to be chosen by community members as people with whom they would be happy to live. Out of the 857 people designated as preferred life partners by their community, those who had been identified as good storytellers in the previous experiment were nearly twice as likely to be chosen as those who were not. Interestingly, storytellers were often selected as potential life partners over people who were known as good hunters or foragers.

This resonates with our intuitive understanding of the power of stories to change mindsets and behaviors.

As a species, we know only too well how toxic stories can be mobilized to gather people under the same flag and make them do things that would otherwise seem unacceptable to them. It’s high time we focused on the positive potential of storytelling.

This door was open only for you

There are visible doors that remain closed forever. And there are invisible doors that become visible only when they close.

Once upon a time, a man from the countryside wanted to get access, through a guarded door, to law (or justice). However, every time he tried to get in, the doorkeeper told him he cannot let him in just yet. The man was being told that getting access to law was possible. Months passed, then years, but the door remained closed.

The man started bribing the doorkeeper and he spent everything he had just to be able to return to the gate with an ever higher bribe. The man got old. Just before dying, he asked the doorkeeper why he never saw anybody else trying to enter through that door, since all people seem to be seeking the law. The doorkeeper replied:

“No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

There’s something haunting about this story, first published by Franz Kafka in 1915 and then included in his novel “The Trial”. And even if you can’t quite put your finger on it, you recognize and react instinctively to its strangeness.

It’s as if looking inside a deep, endless well. As if looking inside yourself.

It reminded me of a Romanian folk tale I’ve mentioned a few weeks ago. The tale starts like many other tales, with a hero embarking on a personal quest. In this case, the hero sets out to find immortality. But as the story advances, things turn dark and unpredictable. Although the hero emerges victorious from all the fights and traps he finds along the way, he does not find what he’s looking for. When he returns home, he finds Death itself waiting for him. But it’s not the Grim Reaper of everybody and nobody in particular. It is his own Death, waiting just for him.

Like any good story, Kafka’s parable is open to interpretations. Is it about justice, state authority, the crushing power of impersonal rules? Yes, but not only. Is it about alienation? Yes, but not only. The story is richer than any particular interpretation or moral message you could draw from it.

Maybe that’s what stories do. They speak about doors – about change, transformation, passage to something different. But they are not necessarily meant to help you open that door, only to make you realize it’s your door.