FACING BRUSSELS – Luxury is a burden

Around the same time her thin strip of bright-red lipstick comes into view, her approach is announced with a waft of perfume. Call it her shield against a merciless world.

She looks close to ninety, according to my estimate, although her choice of wardrobe seem to be resistant to age. Spindly legs are clad in expensive, fancy stockings and pretty but slightly worn shoes. Over that, she wears classic skirts, white blouses with an upright collar, jackets from better times and antique jewellery.

This walking anachronism would not dare leave home without a hat and at every opportunity she discretely checks to see whether the feathers or other ornaments have not been tilted out of balance. With an economy of effort, she declares she is Bruxelloise. At least, she became one. She sighs. Her heart, history and half her fortune were left behind in the St. Petersburg of nearly a century ago. With an embroidered handkerchief, she regularly dabs her eyes, subsequently reassuring herself with the aid of a mirror that her make-up has not been compromised.

Luxury is a burden, so goes the saying. But less so, when it can stare in the face of its own downfall. The story of the Russian dame meanders from the realm of the tsars, mowed down, their blue blood flowing a deep red, to a Brussels biotope of elegant establishments and well thought out arrangements.

Things never came good again, she proclaims in expensive French, despite the fact that she spends much of her time in the patisseries of the Sablon and the restaurants of the Avenue Louise. On rainy days she orders delicatessen and wine by telephone from the supermarket “Chez Rob”. From time to time she enjoys 17th or 18th century repertoire pieces in French at the Théâtre Royal du Parc. And weather permitting, she will buy fresh cut flowers from a florist on the Place du Chatelain. However, she is still only a countess in her own mind and in the reflections in shop windows along the Rue de Namur, where she is sometimes inclined to go shopping.

She shakes her head. For people of social standing, these are tough times. She should know. It is an arduous task to manage the remnants of a fortune wisely and who says that the current crisis is to be the last? It is not easy to greet today’s society with a well mannered smile and at the same time distinguish friends from the endless array of opportunists. Greed, deception and envy are king. The old countess puts it gently but decisively. She tells me that some of her acquaintances leave their identity card at home when they go to a party, while others deliberately leave without money or bank cards. A question of avoiding abuse, you see. One must always be wary.

Even though the battle has been lost, the noble lady belongs to an endangered species with frail shoulders and an even more fragile ego. They crack under the pressure of history, more so than under the weight of a family tree to which she alone ascribes distinction. Luxury is indeed a burden. To be born by such spindly legs in fancy stockings.