I recently shared a piece about one of my favorite discoveries during my time, living in Belgium: brocante. My neighbor told me she thought it was funny and wonderful that I would get so excited about this element of Belgian life.
Oh, I found this amazing thing in Belgium: brocante!
Of all the things a foreigner might find intriguing about a foreign land, this element of daily life would likely not be it for most people. But then, if the events of my life have taught me anything, I am certainly not most people.
In case you didn’t read the post, here is a link:
If you are not at all interested in reading further, that is also totally fine. There are plenty of other pieces to read and watch online that may hold your attention: cat videos, memes, late night comedians impersonating Trump, etc. Take your pick.
If you are finding yourself drawn to read more, and you are just tuning in now, let me share with you the magic (in my humble opinion) that is a Belgian brocante.
A brocante (or rommelmarkt in Dutch) is essentially a flea market.
So what’s the big deal? I mean, there are flea markets all over the world, right?
Well, I’m glad you asked. The difference (for me, at least) is the personal, intimate element of the Belgian brocante. These are flea markets that happen in small neighborhoods. They are often annual events, typically taking place on a Saturday or Sunday in the spring, summer, and early fall.
People living in that neighborhood can post a sign in their window that says, je participe (i participate) in advance. On the day of the brocante, they can then setup a little temporary sale spot in their front yard with anything they wish to get rid of from their house.
I love it because the items are often one of a kind, plus there is the added element of surprise. It’s not like going to any kind of commercial store. You literally never know what kind of unique treasure you might find.
My husband is always on the lookout for old typewriters. I am always on the lookout for old, wooden, wine and beer boxes, antiquities, and anything that comes with a story or memory from the person parting with it.
Now that we know we will be leaving Brussels in the spring 2020, we have been trying to find as many brocante as we can to fit a lifetime of brocante into our dwindling time in Belgium. I have already missed a couple of favorites on weekends when I have other things scheduled, and the clock is ticking on our expat life (for this round, at least).
This weekend, my husband found several brocante and a “vide maison” (empty house) in neighboring communes.
Side note here to explain the concept of commune. If you are from the United States, this term might make you think we have moved to Belgium and joined some kind of communal hippie cult, but this is not the case. A commune is essentially a county or city district in Brussels. We live in the Watermael-Boitsfort commune on the Boitsfort side. Don’t ask me why they hyphenated these two municipalities to make one. All I know is that if you want to send something to us by post (which I don’t recommend if you are living in the states because it is crazy expensive and Belgium customs suuuuuucks?!?), you can put either Boitsfort or Brussels or Watermael-Boitsfort on the line for the city and the package should eventually makes its way to our door. No guarantees. Of all the wacky places I have lived, Brussels is one of the two most ridiculous for getting mail.
Back to brocante. Yes. I do digress a lot. It’s how I tell stories, which my neighbor also told me she found fun (or funny?). I guess after being on the planet and also living all over the world, an experience one place brings up a whole bunch of other stuff. Plus, I like to share it all because it helps me to begin to weave together a tapestry of my life like I am putting all of the pieces together into a kind of marieke puzzle; maybe to make sense of it all. Or perhaps just to be able to step back and say, “huh, so that is what all of my life experiences look like when placed together on a large canvas.”
But I digress from my digression.
Have I mentioned I love brocante? I believe I have. Check.
This morning, my husband and I set out on a brocante adventure. We brought with us the following essentials—shopping bags, cash, earbuds in case people were annoying on the tram, and hand wipes—and one not entirely essential item: our big, white husky, Atticus.
We have joked that we could probably charge a fee for people to pet our dog and have their photos taken with him. On occasions when we have had friends and family come to visit from the states, we have taken them to the main tourist attractions in Brussels proper—Grand Place, Manneken Pis, etc.—and we have literally walked a few steps and been stopped for photos and requests to pet the dog, over and over and over again.
We think of it as offering a public service at this point if we bring our dog anywhere, and on this particular Sunday morning he did not disappointment. At one point, when we got on the 81 tram direction Marius Renard, Atticus literally made the rounds to greet everyone in his vicinity, almost like he was a flight attendant in doggie form:
Hello, everyone, and welcome on board this tram 81 bound for Marius Renard. I will be your personal Siberian Husky for the duration of the trip (or at least for the next 60-120 seconds). If there is anything I can do to make your stay more comfortable—sit on your feet, chew on your hands, place some thick white fur onto your black pants, sit at just the right angle so you can admire my beautiful, striking, sky blue eyes—don’t hesitate to ask. I am at your disposal. In addition, take care to hold onto your personal items. If you are standing, make sure to hold onto one of the hand rails because the ride can be bumpy at times. This has been a public service announcement by your friendly neighborhood Siberian Husky. Enjoy the ride.
Not everyone loves the husky. Some people snatch up their tiny dogs in their arms as he approaches or shriek at us to not come any closer to their toddler in stroller. But for the most part, he is quite popular.
I remember walking around Brussels one day a couple of months ago with a yoga teacher friend, and she said that it seemed like people saw Atticus and got this kind of far away, dreamy look in their eyes.
It’s like they are imagining what it would be like to have him as their dog. Going on long hikes, etc.
Well, the reality is quite different from the dream, I assured her.
But this is how western culture seems to function (or malfunction) these days. Everything we see is very one-dimensional and does not paint the full picture of what the reality of a romantic view of life with X, Y, or Z might be. Fill in the blank: a baby, an rescue dog, etc.
I have had friends on Facebook send me messages that they are all envious of our perfect life in Belgium. The reality is less romantic. Sure, we have had an incredible opportunity to live overseas. However, we also have made sacrifices.
My husband took a leave of absence from a well-paid job to take on the identity (once again) of the poor graduate student. I have not been able to find traditional work on his student visa.
Brussels is a cool city, but it has taken time for it to grow on me. The weather is pretty dismal in the winter. It has taken nearly three years to feel like I am just beginning to have a community and friends.
We are in a city, which is in a fantastic location for traveling to sites all over Europe, but we have not had the budget to actual travel.
I look at other people’s lives and imagine theirs to be much better than mine. I have friends who are very successful in academia, in finding high paying jobs, in creating startup companies, etc. while I am working as a volunteer, teaching one yoga class a week for a tiny donation per student, blah blah blah. It is easy for me to view myself as a failure in the western capitalist experiment, which does not generally celebrate accomplishments on the path to awareness, mindfulness, self-sustainability, or beyond because there is generally more karmic than financial gain.
And I digress again.
In terms of brocante mystery and intrigue, this particular Sunday was a bit of a disappointment. The first brocante we found—which happens every Sunday in Ixelles—had only about 10 tables setup in an indoor mall type of setting, and there wasn’t anything worth writing home about. The second brocante turned out to not be a brocante at all but just an open market for vegetables and food.
It was still a fun adventure and enjoyable to spend time together, exploring uncharted territory in Brussels. I took photos of street art and “faces” I saw in the architecture (remember, I did mention I am not like other people). My favorite was a face I saw in a doorway where someone had posted a sticker that read “J’existe” (I exist). I thought, perhaps someone else saw the face and wanted to establish its autonomy, which made me very happy because I often feel a kinship with inanimate objects and want to help them fulfill their object life destiny. I was less excited about the cartoon Native American children painted onto what I thought might be a preschool.
My husband and Atticus posed for photos to share with friends and family. Overall, we had a great time just being together. We had a great time without buying anything.
Who knows what we will find next time! As we walked along this on this Sunday afternoon, my husband mused, Life is but a brocante.
I have to agree with him on this point. Like life, there is an element of enjoyment in the anticipation of what might happen at a brocante. And also like life, I prefer not knowing the end of the story in advance. With so much technology and information out there, I like that there are still elements of life where we cannot predict what will happen and even more so, that this is the entire point.