Around 15 years ago I had a friend who was working as a tour guide (I still have the friend but her job, most inconviently, has changed) in various European cities. Most of the tours were coach based, and if there was a spare seat on the coach she could take someone along with her for next to no money at all. The job I had at the time wasn't very well paid but the hours were flexible, and the exchange rate was good so whenever she offered me the chance I'd go - which is how I fell in love with Belgium.
I know one trip was in November because we were in Ypres on armistice day (cold and overwhelming) but I feel like I saw Bruxelles in the spring, though maybe that's just the effect it had on me. I don't know why I had such low expectations now, but whatever I'd been thinking was totally wrong. Of all the places I've ever been, Bruxelles is quite possibly my favourite (though Islay could be a contender for that title).
It had stunning architecture, good food, great chocolate and beer, and a beguiling cafe culture - and as I write this I'm wondering why it's been so long since I was last there.
Fittingly it was the ex tour guide friend who took the hint and got me Regula Ysewijn's 'Belgian Café Culture' (though I suppose really I should have got it for her as a mark of appreciation for those trips) not least because we drank in some of the cafés featured. Primarily I wanted this book because I'm a huge fan of Ysewijn's photography - anything with her name on it is going to be worth a look (Pride and Pudding was a highlight of last year and is a book treasure), that I was already interested in the subject is a bonus.
It's easy to take traditional institutions for granted to the point that we hardly notice how fragile they've become, and sadly this seems to be the case with Belgium's cafés. Some change is inevitable, and probably healthy, but there's a real danger of losing something precious through apathy and thoughtlessness (village pubs and shops in the U.K. are going the same way) so Ysewijn's project to record some of these places is timely.
The photographs are every bit as compelling as I'd expected, the text is in both Dutch and English, and it would be lovely to use this as a guide book - there are 45 cafés featured, all look well worth a visit. For those of us who are still badly paid, whose jobs are no longer flexible, and who look with dismay at the current exchange rate, and who don't see themselves getting to enjoy the actual cafés anytime soon this is a good second best. It's far more than just a picture book, or even a history of café culture - though there's that too, and it's fascinating. It's also a celebration of the people who own, work in, and use the cafés