Brussels, like Paris, unfolded as a mash-up of old and new. While Paris was a hard 24 hours, Brussels was an inviting and fun three days. The difference in my experiences was serendipity and not a reflection of these two venerable places.  This is the problem with short visits.

The bullet train from Paris to Brussels was nearly as quick as a plane. Unlike air travel, we got to see the countryside, enough that when we visited the Old Masters Art Museum in Brussels, I gasped at 17th century rural panoramas of brick villages and lush fields that looked like what I saw out the train window.

Walking out of the Brussels train station, we saw a metal sculpture high above a building, and below it in giant letters: “In Your Own Time, Migrating Together.

From there we walked into an Arab and Muslim part of town, where our home for three days, was located. Our rental was one room with a bathroom, adjacent to the owner, a warm woman of Spanish and Arab descent, wearing a tank top who left us a plate of cookies.  Her artful decorations made the place feel comfortable. High ceilings and large windows made it feel bigger than it was. Outside, we could see a brick wall, a string of apartments, and right below us, a mattress where drugs were occasionally and quietly shared.


On the main road off of our block, people were hoisting bundles wrapped in plastic or blankets onto container trucks. As far as we could tell, the contents were clothing headed for the global south.

Seeing them and trying to figure out what was going on sent me down a rabbit hole reading about the textile industry in Brussels. It has been a center of cloth manufacturing since the 13th century, when flax and wool were the primary materials. Since the 13th century then, women have been super-exploited to create cloth and profits here.  Like London, access to cotton from American slave plantations ignited the cotton revolution in Brussels. This economic revolution probably fueled the political revolution of 1830, although textile workers won little when the region broke off from Denmark and became Belgium. When Karl Marx came to Brussels (1846-49) he saw abominable conditions of workers in Belgium. To Marx, the wealth and poverty divide seemed even more stark than in London or Frankfurt.

Oulringh ven Brekelenkam
Zwammerdam, 1622|30 – Leiden | Leyde 1669
De linnennaaisters
Les lingères
The Linen Maids

We went on a hunt to find the apartment where Marx and his family lived in Brussels. To get there we left the working-class immigrant neighborhood, passed through the touristy old town, and walked through a glitzy area of EU staff homes and offices, before finding the side street and the unassuming apartment with the tiny plaque noting the Karl Marx lived there. It was not an attraction to anyone but us. We were the only people out on the entire block.

The first day we found a Syrian restaurant a couple blocks from our place that was so delicious and so comfortable and community-forward in its atmosphere that we went back two more times, eating there each of our three days. On the last night we ordered extra, took home a to-go box and ate tabouli for breakfast.

After that first delicious meal, we walked a couple more blocks and happened upon a free multi-cultural event sponsored by the EU, a full day of music and movement. We took off our shoes, put our overshirts under a bench, and joined the dancers.

Walking back to our room we passed a group of children marching with instruments and flags, chanting and singing in several languages: We migrate together…  

Children marching, singing Migrating Together

Can you forgive me for feeling a bit utopic?

I wanted to believe I had entered a place of asylum from the anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping Europe. How ignorant of me. Brussels is, after all, the center of the European Union which signed a a pact to stem migration to Europe, this past April.  A few days after our Brussels visit, right-wing xenophobes would sweep Belgium’s parliamentary elections. While we saw a vibrant community of Belgians from diverse Muslim and Arab countries, the door was closing on their brethren. For Afghans, for example, Belgium was until recently, a haven for asylum seekers fleeing war. Now that there is a  “stable government,” even youth whose parents were killed by the Taliban are denied refuge here.

But, in my defense, I think what I sensed, was a high level of fight-back in this small capital in this tiny country. When the EU signed that anti-immigrant pact, Brussels formed a broad coalition to protest. I think that is what made me feel hopeful here. Like when Marx was here 180 years ago. He found more political openness in Brussels than in Germany or England:  what he and Fredrich Engels needed to write a pamphlet called The Communist Manifesto.

Author in front of the house Karl Marx lived in 1846-49.

There is not freedom for all in Brussels or full justice for workers, but perhaps there is more room here, to gather, think, write, organize, dance, and fight.

Maybe that is in part because of the jurisdictional jumble that rules Belgium. Within this small country, there is a national government, a government for the southern French ½ of the country, a government for the Flemish northern 1/2, a government for the German eastern corner of the country, and a government for the multilingual Bruxelles region ( of which the city is a center). That is five jurisdictions. Then there is the EU, and NATO. Six and seven. Perhaps all these jurisdictions provide wiggle room for an eighth governing body: the organized political and working class.

We got a message on our phone that there was going to be a national strike that might interfere with our travels. A national strike?! I googled national strike Belgium and ½ a dozen dates come up. National striking is a regular occurrence in Belgium!

We did not see strikers. The June 3 call did not happen as far as we know, though our bus was an hour late, but reading about the history of their worker actions was inspiring, and helped to explain the persistence of the social welfare programs in Brussels. People organize and speak up here. EU climate actions are common. A few days before we arrived there was a Pride event that focused on Palestine. We saw posters and graffiti left over from these recent events.

Photo by Bob Reijnders


The only protest we aw, was a Critical Mass event, no more or less rebellious than the monthly pedal street takeovers in Minneapolis, Minnesota USA. It made me laugh, seeing the same characters—and I say that with love. A few riders held signs or flags to note their solidarity with Palestine. There were children, old people, and youth in gay costumes. Stalled drivers did their part, adding a horn section to the boom box music carted on bicycles.

The BELvue history museum covered the struggle of workers a bit, mostly lauding Belgium’s robust social welfare state, where injury, illness, disability, job loss, and/or parenthood do not leave anyone destitute. Unless you are an immigrant not covered by the enlightened system. In Brussels, it seems, the wealthiest class— those who work for the EU— and the poorest, are immigrants.


The museum taught respect for migration, pointing out that for the first half of the twentieth century, Belgium was an emigration country. Poverty caused many to leave for work in the Americas. The tide turned in the 1950s and since then Belgium has been a destination for people migrating from other parts of Europe and the Global South. “We speak 184 languages here,” one museum plaque boasted.

Being from the United States, Brussels still seemed quite homogenous —not diverse like Oakland, California, Brooklyn New York, or London, England, or even Minneapolis, but compared to Paris or Madrid, it felt like a more cosmopolitan place.

Having three official languages opens things up, I think. It made it easier for us to get by with our 25 words of French. We understood more. It was fun and not strange to mix languages in a single sentence. If you can mix French and Dutch, why not mix French and Syrian, or Dutch and Afghani?

We visited the Jewish Museum in Brussels. It had been the site of a terrorist attack in May of 2014. Four people died. In the foyer, between two security doors and a metal detector, were wreaths from Muslim, Christian, and secular groups, marking this tragic 10th anniversary.

It is one of those exhibits put together by a few people, a family maybe, representing what interests them. There was a long video that introduced visitors to the practice and tenets of Judaism. It used the rites of one family to show how they celebrate holidays and observe birth-to-death rituals.  World War II and the Holocaust were a small but poignant part of the museum.

Display, Jewish Museum of Brussels

(Near the museum we found plaques on the sidewalk noting that in this apartment lived someone who was killed in a Nazi concentration camp.)

There was a temporary exhibit on Tangier, and the Jewish community there, which quite confused us since we had been in Morocco in December. This was the last place we expected an echo of that experience.  I was beautiful to have this connection to our experience visiting the Tangier Jewish Quarter, cemetery, and synagogue.

The Tangier exhibit emphasized Muslims and Jews thriving together.

I was arrested by the clarity in this description (above) of Jewish ethical and moral tenets.  Of course, all religions have been interpreted to justify opposing political positions and actions.  In my mind, however, no wiggle room in these words would allow one to justify a state that represses other people. There is no room in Jewish ethics, for support of Israel’s occupation in Palestine or its genocidal rampage of Gaza.

At a moment when many in the United States and elsewhere face job loss, removal from universities, and other forms of persecution for such statements, I’m grateful I had the space as a retired traveler, aging on the run,  to think and write such ideas in Brussels. But manifestos without action are just words.