Sobering. After a safe and secure life in Friesland and Groningen, this was what the Germans so nicely call Unheimlichkeit. Lonely and unsafe. Exciting and new, but very scary. I had said my farewells to the North in a festive way. Farewells to friends, my favourite pub, Hazes (A Dutch folk singer), beer. Farewell to homeliness. I sobered up in one blow.I stood at the Fish Market in the heart of Brussels. In the old days, fishing boats dropped off their catch here at the Steenkoolkaai. My father’s Daihatsu was parked there, with decorative lamps in the back. My mother had arranged some practical stuff like soup and towels. She always did this. In a newspaper, I had found a tiny studio apartment. Rentable per month. Which was very unusual in Belgium, but for me a necessity as I was only going to stay here for three months. Or so I thought.
An internship in the capital of Europe was my childhood dream. Yet, I felt totally lost. Everything was in French. I waited for the landlord to come. Tour of the studio, paid the deposit, signed the contract, unloaded the car. A mini-loft next to the market. Small kitchenette and a mini-toilet. The apartment was full of light and with a view; something that would come back in all my future homes. I had an old black and white TV, but, could only receive the French channels. I was literally secluded. Adventure? I felt more like crying. But I had to go through this, it was the price to pay. My salvation came from two unexpected sources: Gays and Dutchies, not so far from that same Fish Market.
During the daytime, I went to ‘Key to Europe’, a sort of event agency where I was an intern. The three most important things I took away from this were the name – which I later on pinched for my first company -, a foothold in Brussels, something that later boosted my career (see 2.2); and access to the Dutch community in Brussels because my boss was active in Nedcafé, a club for young and ambitious fellow countrymen.
‘Key to Europe’ was located in a kind of living room in Jette, or was it Molenbeek? To make a long story short, the metro travels to and forth, were at least as adventurous as the internship itself. This was literally and figuratively a detour or better said, a springboard that you so often need to climb in Brussels. To either crawl further, or to be smacked off with brute force. I will get back to this.
My boss was a woman. At the time that was not that bad because I did not know what was still install for me. On good days, she was willing to introduce me to everyone at Nedcafé. The “members” gathered every month in an Irish pub. The famous Wild Geese, right in the middle of the EU institutions, this was perfect for me! I could feel it; this would be my new biotope. And so it happened. Many more predictions came true during that time.
The Dutch had a drink there every fourth Thursday of the month, but that left twenty-nine evenings empty. These get-togethers invariably led to luncheons, new drinks, dinners and eventually, something I can confirm after twenty years – friends for life. They took me out of my isolated life in Brussels. In Friesland you could not network, there you only had cows and cows do not tend to carry business cards. So, I learned how to network the hard way. I did not have internet, but I did have the Spartacus guide. The Bible for homosexuals, anywhere in the world. I was browsing for a decent pub (no disco) which was also frequented by youngsters and where people would speak Dutch. The Steenstraat, was where I had to be, according to Spartacus. Going out with a map, it turned out that the Steenstraat was quite close to my apartment, dangerously close even. I actually do not have a thing for gay bars. I find most gays effeminate and annoying.
Twenty-three, blond, slender and virginal new in town, I gathered all my courage in my two hands. My loneliness gave me the final push. I entered. The thing about speaking Dutch was true, but that of youngsters was a lie. It felt like walking naked over the catwalk, that was how I was being looked at. Weighed and inspected. Like a fresh piece of meat. I quickly ordered a beer and almost had to throw up. I stood there with sweaty hands. It really felt like being in the lion’s den. I did not reply to the old men. Ok, another beer then. What a bad sissy joint. Fortunately, and finally, a young man sat next to me. A Latino and a pretty one as well. In English, he said: “you are clearly in the wrong place. This is a pick-up bar for gigolos. You need to go to the CanCan, a little further down the street. I am going there now, want to join?”.
Saved by a pretty Peruvian, away from this disgusting jerk-off place, we made our way to the CanCan together. I think it was a Tuesday or a Wednesday. In any case, a day where nothing was happening from where I came from. But this was different: packed, loud music, beautiful men, dancing, partying! One big fiesta and that during a weekday. Did not all these guys have to go to work the next day? It was as if there was no tomorrow; this could turn out to be dangerously fun.
The toilets were upstairs and when I went up, two men followed me. Standard procedure. From three sides, I was offered a glass of Champagne. The CanCan did not make a big dent in my tiny budget in those days. That changed later, but fortunately I was working then. Only a smile, sometimes a kiss on the cheek and there I had another glass of Champagne, sometimes even a bottle. You could call it my gay-lobby, this was the Brussels version of Studio 54 in New York, where a 23-year-old country boy had a difficult time feeling lonely. I felt alive again and thanked my Peruvian guide, who had an early start the next day. So, he was not a hairdresser, I stuck around, muchas gracias.
From that moment on, I became a regular at the CanCan. I got my own bar stool so to speak and after some time I got to know quite a number of men. Di Rupo was a regular. At that time, he was minister of transport. I noticed that every week he came in with a new ‘driver’ because that was how he introduced the young gentlemen.
What an atmosphere: with transvestites on Fridays and Karaoke on Sundays! The whole Beau Monde turned up. They did have cameras at the entrance and before you could enter you had to ring the doorbell. The police raided the place every month. When that happened, the lights were turned on and you had to show your ID. A typical case of gay bashing; it was, after all, 1994. I found my first Belgian partner there, as well as my lawyer, hairdresser, florist and even my real estate agent. Mission accomplished; my loneliness was (almost) gone, Yes, I Can (Can)!
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