The City of Lights or the City of Comics? A Parisian weekend trip is the dream of travelers the world over, but expats from across Europe are increasingly calling Brussels home. It may seem like an easy knockout for most tourists, but who wins the Francophone prize fight of Brussels vs Paris?
The Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam triangle
Traveling 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. Despite Brussels being a primarily Francophone city, the feel of the signage isn’t too starkly different. There are plenty of k‘s, aa‘s (or some ae‘s, the outdated spelling), oo‘s, ee‘s crammed into place names; the eye is tricked into thinking it’s all relatively the same.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. Both cities are loaded with chocolate shops, boucheries, and patisseries that pump out that captivating smell of warm, buttery croissants.
But if you traveled directly from Paris to Amsterdam? Culturally, it’s like driving from Warwick to Warsaw. And yet the two cities are only three hours apart by train. 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 metro stations with names like Maalbeek or Rodebeek, Paris has painfully French names like Réamur or Porte de Montreuil. The missing k‘s and x‘s makes the language of Paris feel smoother, more round. If you’re not a Francophone, this roundness of language will make you yearn for Belgian French. It’s as if the Belgians removed all of the linguistic gymnastics required for a tongue to speak proper French and included words from Germanic tongues.
The sartorial style of Paris is distinctly French. Parisians sport a nearly stereotypical wardrobe – darkly-hued classic pieces that remain stylish and not flashy. Nary a pair of funky modernist eyeglasses or a bright pop of color bursting from dark sweaters, those punchy visual influences from the street style of Brussels.
There’s no confusion about the Parisian identity. It’s not confused about what it is or which culture it needs to represent. Paris doesn’t feel the need to fuse itself with other cultures (arguably one of Brussels’ greatest strengths). There is a specific sense of place – and confidence – in what Paris is and what it represents to its home country; Paris is, first and foremost, a city for France.
But at the same time, this unflinching attitude of being French makes Paris the apex of the cultural ideal; there’s not much room to provide ground for anything else to take root within the city limits. Paris would never be looked upon by the French as the bastard child of the country; the same isn’t the case for Brussels. While the Parisian steadfast position in French culture is respectable, this is what will make you long for the cultural blender that is Brussels.
Nothing compares to Brussels
This is a roundabout way to talk about Paris, about talking what it isn’t. Most people talk about Paris with a wistful sigh and a dreamy far-off look. People idealize Paris, sometimes far too much. Most cities are compared against Paris, but not necessarily favorably.
But Paris gets to many people too late. For some, Brussels occupies the same mindspace as Paris, that European city holding all of the notions of what it means to be quintessentially European. Take that 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.