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Entries in brussels (1)

My small corner

Brussels has been my home now for more than ten years, but only in the last twelve months have I discovered one of its best kept secrets. 

Nestled away in the far corner of the commune of Watermael-Boitsfort at the entrance to the Forêt de Soignes, the area known as the Coin du Balai (‘Broom Corner’) is arguably one of the last remaining rural communities within the city limits of Brussels with a charming combination of character and quirkiness.

The beginning of the story
If you believe the book of legends, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that the kings of old were constantly getting lost in the forests of Europe and benefitting from random acts of kindness by naive strangers, unaware of their true identity.

True to form, this is ‘precisely’ what happened to Emperor Charles V.  He lost his way during a hunt on the outskirts of Brussels and was fortunate enough to stumble upon a local, who offered his guest a slice of meat on condition that he told no one – for fear of being arrested for poaching.

Upon his return to Brussels, Charles summoned his new acquaintance to the Royal Court.  Rather than punishing him for his crime, however, he pardoned the man and bestowed upon him and his descendents the right to cut wood in the forest to make brooms.

The man returned to his home and, in time, this corner of Brussels was to adopt the name Coin du Balai.

Where people sit out front
When the Palais de Justice was built in the second half of the nineteenth century, many of the evicted families from this part of the city centre – Les Marolles – moved into the small houses built for them that, today, characterize the neighbourhood in which I live.  With only a few exceptions, these are not the mansions of Uccle, nor the villas that pepper the landscape beyond the Ring.  At the same time, the folk that live here know that this is somewhere special.

There are signs of community everywhere.  Since moving to the area, however, there is a one single image that sticks: the benches and chairs out front.  Despite the fact that this is an area full of alleys and paths, leading up behind the houses to secluded gardens, lush vegetable plots and stylish art ateliers, this is a place where people choose to sit out front.  The wooden benches placed directly onto the street, despite our unpredictable climate, appear to be in constant anticipation of lazy Sunday afternoons and long summer evenings; of any day, in fact, that gives opportunity for local residents – both young and old – to interact more, watch more, meet more, and generally feel connected to one another.  This is a place where children still ride their bikes in the streets after dinner and impromptu street parties are apparently the norm.

People of the forest
What I have also come to understand, however, is that the story of this community, which today is made up of an eclectic mix of locals as well as short and long-term expatriate families, continues to be caught up in the much bigger, unfolding saga of the forest that wraps around it.  More than a daily recreational space for walking, running cycling, and spotting all manner of wildlife, the trees are a constant reminder of our connection to nature, as well as our responsibility to the environment.  In short, the trees dictate a way of life built on principles of sharing, respect, and the art of recycling.  Nothing here is wasted.

Walking through the streets and observing my neighbours - leaning out of their windows towards one another, walking their dogs, or enjoying the world go by from the comfort of their bench - I used to wonder how the area became such a magnet for environmentalist, New Age or ‘hippy types’.  The more I think about it, though, the more I believe that something else is going on.  At least, as I look at how the forest has changed me in the last twelve months, I now suspect that the Coin du Balai, rooted as it is in the story of the trees, simply has a habit of changing the folk who come to live here for the better.


This article was written for publication in (A)WAY Magazine in September 2012 and is reproduced here with permission.  The full article can be found here.