He calculates, door to door – from his own door in a suburb of Ghent to that of his office in the centre of Brussels – one hundred and five minutes. A daily eternity, one way. By bus to the station, train to Gent-Sint-Pieters, railway to Brussels and then metro or on foot through the streets of the city.
Nor are they the most pleasing pavements or the most beautiful houses that greet him on the way. But rather a tired old station quarter, battered by the haste of time-conscious travellers and above all, by the megalomaniacal office buildings recently erected according to the iron-fast principle of good accessibility. Two hundred and ten lost minutes, two and a half football matches every day. ‘Oh well, it’s not so bad,’ he says. After 19 years he’s used to it. Only phenomenal delays and breakdowns in communication are enough to tip him off balance. Then he cusses and curses as the others do. ‘The train is always a bit like a holiday,’ sneers one, to which the others snigger in reply.
At such unhappy moments, he imagines the motorways, inhabited by thousands of men and women locked inside prisons on wheels of varying grades of luxury and comfort. They get annoyed, pick their noses but don’t budge an inch.
While the landscapes scarred by cottages and subdivided roadsides glide past the train window, he considers himself lucky. He has the time to quietly read his newspaper, to find out what’s on the box later on or just peruse the main headlines. Sometimes he runs into a familiar face in his carriage, a man or woman who would otherwise probably not strike up a spontaneous conversation about the weather, work, the kids but now feels compelled to do so.
Door to door. He wouldn’t dream of swapping his door near Ghent for one in the capital of Europe. Not for all the money in the world. He will never love Brussels. (He hasn’t managed to in the first half of his life.) And how would he? His Brussels is a fusion of windswept rubbish, aggressive motorists and high-testosterone youth. A city of beggars who every day ask for a cigarette as soon as he exits the station looking for his lighter. He turns them down. They swear. A daily ritual. He shrugs his shoulders. Brussels is no place to hang around. He’ll soon be back on the train.
His Brussels only exists on weekdays. It has no nights, no standing still, no enjoyment. It is condensed into a cluster of stations that are unworthy of a European capital and depressing metro stops where the aroma of Liege waffles forms a mélange with that of old urine. Ask him which of the city’s parks he likes best and he’ll reply with an empty gaze. Or take the fairytale Chinese Pavilion, the sultry greenhouse in the Botanical Gardens, the world-famous furniture of the Horta House, the fabulous view from the roof of the Musical Instrument Museum, the panoramic public life that descends from the Palace of Justice to the Marolles. These things do not even appear on the map in his head. He comes to Brussels every day but never touches it. He thinks door-to-door but the door to his heart forever remains locked tight.