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January 2010

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Brussels identities from A to Z

Philippos Papadimas was born in Athens, but grew up in Thessaloniki, a broiling city and the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. But that is where all comparisons between the two end. Philippos, for instance, does not have a great plan, he prefers to go with the flow. And he also allows himself to be led by nostalgia. “Ah Thessaloniki! The children used to play on the street there, instead of with Play Station… I passed twenty years of my life there, it’s a different world. A world that today perhaps doesn’t even exist anymore, except in my memory.” Having lived in Brussels for a few years, he is now on his way to Beirut. Just before his leave-taking, he offers some musings on Brussels and what enamoured him to the city: its jazz and its filth.

Philippos in his favourite biotope, at the Ixelles ponds

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come from a poor family. Not that we were hungry, but there was never the leeway to step out of line every once in a while. Mama was a social worker, dad had his own company, but that failed. As a young boy I used to dream of a better future – I was curious about the world outside of my own little surroundings; curious about other cultures as well. Still, it wasn’t until I was 27 that I first left Greece – I guess I’m a late-developer. Soon I became a good tourist, driven by great curiosity, and the idea to go and live somewhere else really took hold. I looked into the possibilities. Australia? Too far away. The US? Too many weapons. Canada? Too cold! Eventually I went with Ireland, as I sympathised with the Irish struggle for independence. Brussels I never considered, really. It was coincidence that drove me here. Migrants from Greece flee the bad governance there. I never knew anything else as a youngster. But even today I am saddened to see how badly the country is run and how slowly it develops. Watch some Greek TV and you’ll know what I mean. And the press! They’re just like politicians: all they ever do, is endlessly analyse all problems, without ever suggesting solutions – very tiring. The root of the problem in Greece is greed, which on a political level means corruption. I don’t want to talk too much about this: an emigrant who lambasts his country of origin, that never goes down too well. And I don’t want to come across as embittered, either. Of course Greece has evolved – transport has improved, for instance – but there are still painful areas, like education, and fundamentally nothing gets done. No wonder that the Greeks are dissatisfied, and are still looking for where the grass is greener. But anyhow. So I lived in Ireland for seven years. Did all kinds of jobs there, from working in department stores and nurseries to tending gardens. Learned a lot that way! Then I spent some time in East Germany: Quedlinburg. Again, all kinds of jobs, for instance as a baker. This was a fine place: people are helpful and they don’t mind if you don’t succeed – as long as you try... I’ve also learned to appreciate the advantages of German grundligkeit. Germans don’t just analyse problems, like the Greeks, they solve them. After half a year in Germany, I paid a visit to my sister, who works in Brussels for an international company. And I just decided to hang around here. From an architectural point of view, I immediately thought the city was amazing. What tender beauty and brutal ugliness, side by side! Mediaeval facades right next to modernist buildings: this really is a unique city. The buildings are not made to attract attention and there is practically no planning involved. What you see is... just Brussels. The people are friendly and hospitable, so much so in fact that it wouldn’t hurt them to be a bit more feisty. And of course, as a foodie, I really enjoy the tasty dishes from the four corners of the world, and the many types of beer. But what really bound me to Brussels, was jazz. Brussels has a tradition here, as modest as it is. Just think about Toots Thielemans. And in the centre, there are still remnants of the many great jazz-bars of the first part of the twentieth century. You don’t have many jazz-bars in Greece, and in Ireland, this tradition has just started. From Brussels I explored the whole of Belgium. Day-trips to Ostend, Arlon, Bruges, Ghent... A special little country, Belgium, quite diverse. I’ve never actually noticed much of the much-publicised friction between Dutch and French speakers, but I often got

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the story about it, from both sides.... In general, you feel a lot of tensions in Brussels, albeit more below the surface. There is an incredible mix of cultures, languages, nationalities and political convictions. People tend to hold back, but you can sense all kinds of things brewing. Fortunately, the people of Brussels manage to control themselves. Brussels is also... well, not the world’s cleanest city. In a certain way, that contributes to a good feeling. In Amsterdam, for instance, I felt uneasy throwing my cigarette stub on the pavement, in Brussels I have no such qualms. I never looked for the company of other Greeks in Brussels; they’re there, of course, but it’s a very closed, familybased community and I’m here all by myself so I don’t belong to them anyway. I’ve lived here for two years, and I have

“People tend to hold back here, but you can sense all kinds of things brewing” loved this city. Contrary to public opinion, I find Brussels quite a green city: lots of parks and flowers, all of them well kept. In Ixelles, where I live, you have those magnificent lakes, with the bird island right in the middle of them – a blissful place. But I suppose it’s my connoisseur’s eye as a gardener talking here. In Brussels, I used to be a gardener in places like Château de La Hulpe, an enormous garden, with a swimming pool – every gardener’s dream. But now love drives me to Beirut. I won’t be able to work there as a gardener – not enough major gardens. But I’m sure fate will have something in store for me. I’ll begin by learning Arabic, then we’ll see.  Interview by Veerle Devos & Kristof Dams Image by Veerle Devos

In praise of...  Archiduc at 6 Rue Antoine Dansaert A stylish bar, where they often play jazz and where a fine mix of Brussels people from all walks of life come, alongside foreign visitors. When I was standing there talking to someone from the US embassy, I was caught for this interview!  I like statues, and Brussels has quite a few of them. From Manneken Pis to Pessoa at Place Flagey. One that intrigues me is the Vaartkapoen statuette at Place Sainctelette: a little boy comes out of the sewer and trips a policeman over. A typically Brussels statuette: the joyful, soft rebellion, the urchin way of going about life that is proper to the city.  I don’t go out looking for Greeks in Brussels, and you won’t find me in any of the Greek restaurants at Place de Bethléem either. But I do love the authentically Greek kitchen of Strofilia on Rue du Marché aux Porcs in the lower city. A hidden jewel, that restaurant.

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Brussels identities from A to Z: Greek  

Philippos Papadimas was born in Athens, but grew up in Thessaloniki, a broiling city and the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the found...

Brussels identities from A to Z: Greek  

Philippos Papadimas was born in Athens, but grew up in Thessaloniki, a broiling city and the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the found...