Paris vs. Brussels: a knockout?
City of Lights or chocolate? A Parisian trip gets Emily Miller thinking about its ties to, and fundamental differences from, her first European love of Brussels – but does Paris even compare?
Experiencing Paris after intimately knowing Brussels is an exercise in mind-bending. While walking around Paris, I felt as if the whole of Brussels had been tilted to one angle, allowing the Dutch influence to tipple out and then placed squarely back flat on the ground.
I always forget how intensely French Paris is as a city. Remembering this is always my 'Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore' moment. And it always comes like a slap to the face, too. It takes a moment for my mind to capture the reality of Europe – I haven't travelled that far and yet the cultural change is substantial.
In America, I can drive 12 hours and still be in my home state. In Europe, I start driving in Belgium and 12 hours later I'm in Budapest. An hour on a train in the US gets you nowhere; an hour on the train in Europe takes you to a different world.
Reorienting yourself to a new social concept of distance and its relativity sometimes feels like the cultural equivalent of Neo bending the spoon in the Matrix.
That's what makes the city triangle of Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam so weird.
Travelling the two hours from Brussels to Amsterdam doesn't feel extremely different: there's plenty of the same architecture with Dutch brick row houses and gabled roofs, and despite the acceptance of Brussels being a primarily French-speaking city (an acceptance that is entirely debatable), the feel of the signage isn't too starkly different. There are plenty of K's, AA's, OO's, EE's crammed into word compositions so the eye is tricked into thinking it's all relatively the same.
It's similar between Paris and Brussels. The two cities are only an hour apart and share a similar affinity for café culture, chocolate shops, boucheries, and patisseries that pump out that captivating smell of warm, buttery croissants. The two cities also have their fair share of dog doo on the streets, which makes walking an exercise in constant vigilance and gymnastic leaps.
But if you were to travel direct from Paris to Amsterdam? Culturally, it's like driving from Brussels to Budapest. And yet the two cities are only three hours apart by train.
For me, it's this similar enough quality of Paris that makes it hard to judge the city as a separate entity to Brussels. It's hard to walk around Paris without feeling that something's missing, but you can't quite but your finger on it.
Instead of having public transportation stops with names like Maalbeek, Rodebeek or Defacqz, Paris has painfully French names like Réamur, Cité or Porte de Montreuil. The missing presence of K's and X's makes the language of Paris feel smoother, more round.
But as an Anglophone, this roundness of language makes me thankful for Belgian French. It's as if the Belgians removed all of the linguistic gymnastics required for a tongue to speak 'proper French' and substituted words that are plays on Dutch or Anglophone words.
There's no muss, no fuss though about Paris' identity that always surprises me with its matter-of-factness. It's not confused about what it is or which culture it needs to represent, not openinging itself to fuse with other cultures in its confusion, which might be said of Brussels. There is a specific sense of place – and confidence – in what Paris is and what it represents to its home country. I sort of admire this conviction of being, and remaining, a city for France.
But at the same time, this unflinching attitude of being French makes Paris the tippy top apex of the cultural ideal. So much so, that there's not much room to provide ground for anything else to take root within the city limits. Which in a way, makes me long for the cultural blender of Brussels.
Although, I know not everyone feels the same way. I don't think Paris would ever be looked upon by the French as the bastard child of its country, which is how some Belgians feel about Brussels. So there's something to be said for both.
I realise this is a funny way to talk about Paris, about talking what it is not.
Most people talk about Paris with a wistful sigh and a dreamy far-off look. Most cities are compared against Paris, but not necessarily favourable.
But Paris got to me too late. To me, Brussels is my Paris, that European city holding all of my notions of what it means to be quintessentially European. I will take my culturally confused city over the sweeping Napoleonic boulevards any day.
Paris can try as hard as it wants, but that sigh and dreamy look is already reserved for a city a little farther north from the city of lights.
Reprinted with permission of The Petit Four.
Emily Miller is an American expat who first fell in love with Belgium as a study abroad student and later returned to Brussels to further her exploration of Europe's capital city. Originally published 2012; updated 2017.
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