Here in Brussels, I am part of a book club. We meet every month or so and select two books beforehand of which we have to read at least one. One of our most recent reads was Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. It took me a while to get into this book, but when I did I was very impressed. It’s a frame narrative in which Marco Polo tells Kubla Kahn of the many cities he has seen on his travels. The cities are presented in short fragments of one or two pages that paint an image of its most unusual features, more like poems than stories.
There is a city that was built because all of its men dreamt that they were chasing a woman through its streets, but they couldn’t catch her. When they woke up they each tried to construct the city’s streets in such a way that the mysterious woman could not escape. Though they never saw her again (good for her) they were left with a complicated maze. There is a city in the clouds, a city that is completely reflected in the water and a city of the dead.
As Marco Polo tells about these cities, each as fantastical as the next, Kubla Kahn wonders whether he has really seen all of them or whether he is just making them up.
This sparks an argument about whether each traveller sees the same city wherever he goes and whether each city is seen differently by every traveller. In our book club discussion the person who suggested this book (another Dutchie, we’ve already bonded over our biking habits) asked whether we saw any connection between Marco Polo’s cities and Brussels. We initially responded no, the cities in the book were too exotic, Brussels too normal – but then we thought about this argument in the book.
This does correspond with my experience of Brussels. To some of my colleagues it is the dangerous capital where they go to work, struggle to be served in Flemish in shops and commute out of as soon as possible. It can be messy, noisy and smelly in summer. To people I meet in the expat-scene it is a vibrant, cosy, relatively small city, with good public transport, low rent and a different beer for every day of the year. It’s all about the people you meet, the perspective you have, where you come from, and what you want out of life.