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Falling in Love With Brussels

How the Belgian capital converted this small-town girl.

The famed Grand Place — Brussels’ central square — was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
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I used to think of myself as a small-town girl. I was born in Enugu, a relatively small city in southeastern Nigeria, attended boarding school in an even smaller city, and enrolled in college in a small university town.

I have always loved the quiet and intimacy of small cities. When I met my husband 18 years ago and moved to Belgium, I was happy to settle in Turnhout, a small Flemish town where everyone knew everyone else. I once received a letter addressed to me by name but with neither a street name nor a house number. And yet it was delivered to my mailbox. If a parcel arrived for me in my absence, the postman delivered it, without prior agreement, to my friend’s house a few doors away. He knew we were friends because he often saw us chatting at each other’s doorstep.

Big cities, on the other hand, make me nervous. Whenever I visited my older sister in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, the chaos, the noise and the number of people on the streets kept me hostage indoors.

However, as with everything else, there is an exception to the big-city rule. For me, it is Brussels.

Brussels is Belgium’s largest city, with a population of more than a million and a surface area of roughly 62 square miles.
ARTJAZZ / SHUTTERSTOCK

With a population of more than a million and a surface area of about 62 square miles, Brussels is Belgium’s biggest city. But if Brussels were human, she would have impeccable manners. All Please and thank you, and May I help you? The sort that parents would encourage their children to be friends with. I do not exaggerate when I say that this is a city with an air of politeness (I have met some of the most gracious random strangers here) and a genuine avuncular warmth.

Brussels is also trendy. She is welcoming. She is fun and clever. No other city I have been to in Europe is quite like her: big yet warm, with the welcoming personality of a small town (and with a surprising African flair). This is one of the reasons it was easy for me to fall in love with Brussels. And one of the reasons I keep returning.

Most guidebooks about the city will tell you of her famous heavenly chocolates (the composition of Belgian chocolate has been regulated since 1884) and beer (this is Belgium after all, a country with about 180 breweries). And they will most likely point out that Brussels is a center of European culture, a position that has earned her the nickname “The European Village.” She is the seat of many European and international institutions, and headquarters to the European Union and NATO.

Epicureans flock to the Rue des Bouchers, boasting restaurants of every type of global cuisine
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The guidebooks might also mention the Matonge, otherwise known as “Little Zaire,” on the Porte de Namur (Naamsepoort). Populated by the Congolese, the Matonge is a sprawling piece of Africa in this European city and an astonishing assault on all the senses. It is a delightful celebration of color, noise, food.

In my first weeks in Belgium, I was terribly homesick for the country I had left behind. One weekend, my husband, J., brought me to the Matonge. Tucked between the modern architecture of European Union institutions on one side and the posh boutiques of Avenue Louise on the other, the Matonge tricked me into believing I was back in Nigeria. The sheer number of Africans on the streets was mindboggling after weeks of being one of the few black faces in Turnhout. With black businesses lining the streets — from tailors to hairdressers and restaurants — I could have been at the Kenyatta Market in Enugu.

No other city I have been to in Europe is quite like her: big yet warm, with the welcoming personality of a small town (and with a surprising African flair).

I had not believed J. when he promised that he was taking me to a place “where you’d definitely forget you were in Europe.” It seemed impossible. But when we settled into one of the restaurants to enjoy a meal of rice and tomato sauce (spiced just right) with chicken fried incandescent gold (the way my mother fried her famous chicken wings for family parties), I knew I had found my home away from home.

Another delightful discovery for me was Rue de Montserrat, which — with its air of almost rural tranquility — reminds me of an Enugu neighborhood. It also possesses some very fashionable and often underestimated restaurants, including an African one that I frequent. There is some truth to my grandmother’s saying: “Homesickness begins from the stomach. Fill your stomach with the food you miss and your homesickness goes away.”

Freshly baked Belgian waffles add flavor and beauty to the capital.
TUPUNGATO / SHUTTERSTOCK

Apart from the food, though, one of the things I missed most upon moving to Belgium was the emotional “high” I got from beating down the price of items I wanted at the market.

In Nigeria, everyone knows that the set price for goods is just the starting point for bargaining: You haggle until both buyer and seller come to a comfortable agreement. The inflexibility of the local Saturday market in Turnhout took away from its coziness, and so it was pure joy to discover the flea markets of Brussels, where I could haggle just as merrily as back home.

The Place du Grand Sablon (reputed to be one of Europe’s best flea markets for antiques) and Place du Jeu de Balle (a daily market that provides the total immersive experience) are my favorite. Apart from enjoying the haggling, I am also an avid collector (on a budget), and nothing beats a Saturday spent looking for something unique and affordable to add to my trove. Except maybe a Saturday spent eating freshly baked Belgian waffles with cream.

However, the greatest success of Brussels is not in satisfying my taste buds or making me fall in love with a big city, but in making me curious enough to give other cities a try. While I’ve yet to encounter one that matches Brussels in how it fuses cultures or mixes both small-town and big-city features, I remain fascinated by the possibility of finding another like it — and the discoveries I’ve made along the way.

Chika Unigwe was born and raised in Enugu, Nigeria. She is the author of On Black Sisters Street (2009) and Night Dancer (2012).