The New York Times published an article in 2015 declaring Brussels the ‘new’ Berlin, a statement one can’t help but feel has been shoe-horned in to lure readers as opposed to accurately describing its supposed cultural revolution.
If Brussels and Berlin are related, the former is the adorable, well-meaning cousin to the otherworldly, exciting main attraction. The kind of relatives that would have others questioning said kinship.
“For decades, Europe’s buttoned-up political center had a reputation for stodginess and chilliness. No longer: Brussels has quietly emerged as one of the continent’s most exciting creative hubs”.
So The New York Times pronounced. I would proffer that whilst Brussels’ buttons remain firmly fastened, therein lies its charm. Berlin might be loose, hallucinatory and brilliant, but Brussels will quietly seduce you. Here are the sights and scenes that particularly caught my eye…
Parc de Cinquantenaire
Situated in the European quarter this large, manicured public park is the site of both impressive architecture, sprawling greenery and perhaps the best spot for views of the cityscape. If you head towards the arch and turn left you’ll happen upon The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces, step inside and ask at reception for entry to the ‘Arcades’ (4 euros), you then walk past the armour and artillery and a few floors up you’ll discover a platform upon which to revel in the unparalleled views of the city.
Châtelain Area; Parlor Coffee Shop, Le Typographe
The Châtelain neighbourhood exudes an air of Parisian grandeur and certainly the businesses in the area speak to that well-monied reputation. Bespoke design and printing shop ‘Le Typographe’ is located on Rue Americaine and has a delectable array of stationary to peruse. Whilst Parlor Coffee is renowned for serving up some of the best caffeine in the Belgian capital, all in suitably serene surroundings.
On Rue Antoine Dansaert lies an establishment with an exterior painted electric blue. It’s neon sign reads ‘L’Archiduc’, an intriguingly exotic name with connotations of eminence and majesty. Ring a bell on the street and you enter a steel bubble swing door like entering a bank, or an ornate hotel. This spins you out into an art deco room replete with high ceilings, a half-moon balcony, pillars to the roof, a piano in the middle and a tiny corner bar, a quixotic, beguiling establishment where jazz and cocktails coalesce. When you rotate once again through the door and reacquaint yourself with the pavement, you’ll be surprised to find yourself in the modern day.
La Grand Place, Café Aroma
Like the Trafalgar of London or the Piazza San Marco of Venice, La Grand Place is Brussels’ central square, surrounded by ornately-gabled buildings and enlivened by the perpetual throng of tourists. After craning your neck towards the sky and doing the customary 360 intake of your surroundings head towards Café Aroma. You’ll pay astronomical prices for any beverage and pastry in this location, but head up to their third floor for a wonderful, window-side perspective of the ongoings down below.
Antiques Market at La Grand Sablon
Because I really am 60 years old at heart, no trip is complete without a stroll through an antiques market and a search for some black & white postcards of wherever it is I’m visiting. Le Place Du Grand Sablon, a sequestered, cobble-stoned square is home to such an antiques market every Sunday. Though small and sedate, you’ll be charmed by the curious array of collectibles and if that doesn’t float your boat, the square is ensconced by chocolate shops, so you can search for treasure elsewhere.
Egmont Park, La Fabrique Café
Egmont Park is a little-known haven not far from La Place Du Grand Sablon. Amid arches and ivy-lined pillars, compounding the air of seclusion, you’ll find a small patch of greenery, a statue, a fountain and a friendly cafe by the name of La Fabrique. Not that you really need an oasis in Brussels, the city in general has a somnolent atmosphere that perfectly accommodates Sunday brunches and brooding strolls. But were you in the market for one, Egmont Park has you covered.
Rues Haute and Rues Blaes
On a rainy Sunday in a Brussels, I couldn’t think of anything more enchanting than dipping in and out of the antique warehouses peppered along these two parallel roads. The shops are often multi-storied havens, packed to the rafters with kitsch paraphernalia like cigarette dispensers, typewriters, cassette players and brightly-coloured, curved sofas that could easily belong on the set of Mad Men. You’ll lose hours as well as decades as you pore over regalia of times gone by.
Amid handsome facades and refined gentility, its worth noting that there are small traces of the terrorist attacks that occurred in the city back in March. Etchings in concrete and soldiers bearing rifles standing watchfully outside choice Metro stations serve as reminders that despite the cobbled-streets and chocolate shops, terrorism penetrated a tourist’s paradise. It may have shaken the city out of its lackadaisical surveillance, but the air of calmness pervades.
Moderate, historic and the scene of pastoral loveliness, whilst the flourishing café/art scene has given fuel to its rebranding fire, beneath rumours of its hipness, Brussels remains the kind of place you’d happily bring your parents to. Whereas Berlin is still, very much, the bearded, pierced, tattooed boyfriend you’d rather they weren’t aware of.
An exploration of Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip and Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour.
In film criticism, the term ‘a definitive [insert genre] movie’ is frequently bandied about, placing its subject on a pedestal because it exemplifies the very best of it’s type; thereafter held up as a litmus test for all its successors to borrow from and be inspired by.
New York is a city so iconic, cinematic and beloved that it has become a genre itself. To set a film there is to immediately bring to mind such classics as Taxi Driver, Manhattan, The Naked City, Goodfellas, Breakfast at Tiffany’s – so on and so forth.
Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is a recent example of a film that has been lauded as “a modern New York classic” (The Playlist), whilst Little White Lies called Appropriate Behaviour “an original and charismatically honest New York comedy”. But what is a New York movie? Can a city so multifarious and dynamic ever be pinned down?
I took it upon myself to explore what it means to make a film in the most illustrious concrete jungle.
In City That Never Sleeps: New York and the Filmic Imagination, Wheeler Winston Dixon argues that,
New York has a hold on our imagination because it is so compact, so violent, so energetic, so full of possibilities, a place where neighbourhoods change from one street to the next and strangers can become intimate friends or deadly enemies on the slightest of whims. (p. 243)
New York is a breeding ground for possibility and heterogeneity, and the films which emerge from and about it can mean almost anything to almost anyone. By accepting the impossibility of creating a definitive vision of New York, it becomes a place where you are free to project your own vision.
In his maker’s statement, Alex Ross Perry explains that Listen Up Philip reflects “what [his] New York looks like, and it is one I seldom see depicted with any honesty in cinema….Listen Up Philip is a summation of all I’ve observed, lived through, laughed at, narrowly avoided and absently longed for during my time in New York”.
Similarly, in a behind-the-scenes interview with her producer Cecilia Frugieule, Desiree Akhavan states that she wants her film “to reflect [her] morals and [her] tastes”, thus Appropriate Behaviour’s rendering of New York is very specific to her.
A native New Yorker herself, Akhavan argues that too many movies about the Big Apple are “like a love letter – and I feel like the love letter I want to write points out all the flaws and is like, ‘I love you, despite all those flaws’”.
Both films are set in and around Brooklyn, using locations in Dumbo, Park Slope, Red Hook and Bushwick. Of the locations he chose, Alex Ross Perry, in the director’s commentary says he wanted to capture “a New York that isn’t identifiable or modern”, whereas Akhavan has deliberately chosen, played up to and satirised a very recognisable and hipster Brooklyn.
New York is a breeding ground for possibility and heterogeneity, and the films which emerge from and about it can mean almost anything to almost anyone.
As Shirin tries desperately to win her ex-girlfriend Maxine back, we watch her manoeuvre the absurdities of life in Brooklyn. Though her new roommates in Brooklyn are tattooed artists who met at Occupy Chelsea and she encounters a hair model named Tibet, this is a feat most notably achieved in the sequences where Shirin teaches 5 year olds (the likes of which are called Kujo and Blanche) how to make movies: “I could lock them in a room with a half-eaten apple and a tic tac and come back to The Mona Lisa”.
Speaking of this satirical tone, Akhavan says “Each neighbourhood [in Brooklyn] changes identities so quickly that jumping through them is like trying on personalities for size sometimes…I was writing from what I knew. I knew what it was like to come of age in those particular neighbourhoods — in Bed-Stuy or Williamsburg or Cobble Hill…. So it was about figuring out where was the right location for the character [Shirin] to undergo whatever experience she had.”
For both filmmakers then, Brooklyn is a way to film New York from an outsider’s perspective. As Perry remarks in his commentary, the only time his protagonist Philip ventures into Manhattan is to interact with his literary idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), and whilst there he marches frantically and avoids eye contact with everybody. “It is ugly. And loud. It’s always moving, and I never feel still long enough to hold a thought”. Contrary to popular depictions, New York actually seems to stifle Philip’s creativity and he feels the he needs to escape the city.
Listen Up Philip expertly highlights the general alienation of living in a vast, sometimes hostile city like New York, with the film’s narrator (Eric Bogosian) pointing us towards the loneliness and vapidity of a creative hub, where an individual is surrounded by similar people all the time. Conversely, though Akhavan deals in alienation, hers is more inward. Shirin feels alienated from her own culture and history because sexually she identifies with something so antithetical to it.
Perry and Akhavan are both concerned with filming a New York that depicts their own personal experience. Philip Friedman, as played with incisive wit and acidity by Jason Schwartzman, is a distinctly male, academic, middle-class and Jewish representation of New York, whereas Desiree Akhavan’s Shirin is Persian, bisexual and female. These two characters embody the spectrum of lenses through which the New York experience can be filtered.
Whilst Appropriate Behaviour’s exploration of Persian bisexuality is strikingly original, there are moments that ring familiar. Akhavan herself describes the film as “a Lesbian Annie Hall from the perspective of Annie… if she’d been a closeted Persian Bisexual” and admits that she “grew up watching Woody Allen…There’s a sequence when they’re at the bookstore where we stole, or paid homage to a shot in Annie Hall. We were very aware of the references we were making and I wanted to make a real conscious reference to that film”.
Perhaps the seminal filmmaker associated with New York, Woody Allen became a zeitgeist for the pressures and peculiarities of modern living and urban romance. As seen in the likes of Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah & Her Sisters, Allen’s films are ultimately concerned with his characters’ failure to find happiness in the metropolis.
It’s a theme both Listen Up Philip and Appropriate Behaviour reference without ever succumbing to stereotype or convention, and their respective directors cite Woody Allen as having a direct, and indirect influence on the tone and texture of their respective films. It’s present in the intertextuality, self-reflexivity and intellect of their narratives, as well as their stylistic choices.
Perry admits to being inspired by – and in some cases – directly lifting certain iconic camera movements and shots from Allen’s movies. As The Playlist notes, “Perry borrows from several influences to make something unique and idiosyncratic, so he’s also a pricklier Woody Allen, a less fastidious Wes Anderson, and so on”.
However, Perry’s New York is also more intimate and intrusive than Allen’s, predominantly using close-ups where Allen preferred long and medium range shots. As iterated in a review by The New Yorker, Perry’s is
“A big and exuberantly gaudy directorial performance that’s delivered in a modest and intimate format, and greatly aided by the remarkable images of Sean Price Williams, whose darting, agile camera work, often apparently with telephoto lenses, achieves a blend of intimacy and distance, of perception and opacity reminiscent of the camerawork in the films of John Cassavetes”.
The frenetic and spontaneous camerawork used in Listen Up Philip perfectly captures the energy of the city; at times chaotic and disorienting, but never boring, a sensibility accentuated by the use of jazz. The jazz-inflected score is something that has recently been seen in another New York set movie; Birdman, which coincidentally also explores notions of art, ego, success and sustaining relevance in an ever-changing landscape.
Shot on super 16mm film, the aesthetic of Listen Up Philip is warm, saturated and autumnal, an artistic choice that seems at odds with Philip’s caustic persona on-screen, but which creates a heightened paean for a bygone era, vividly reminiscent of the 80s classic When Harry Met Sally or indeed the muted greys and browns of Annie Hall.
Appropriate Behaviour has a much grittier feel. DoP Chris Teague, whose CV also includes the New York set Obvious Child – discussed Desiree’s influences in Filmmaker Magazine, citing the oeuvre of Noah Baumbach. “Appropriate Behaviour’s a little bit rough around the edges, [and was filmed] almost entirely handheld… it feels very loose”. This quality corresponds with the messy, ‘making it up as you go along’ aesthetic of Listen Up Philip and perhaps reflects an attitude to life so commonly observed in recent representations of New York and its millennial inhabitants.
Ultimately, New York epitomises the myth of the American Dream, and the illusion that opportunity and ambition will inevitably collide to fertilise success. Contemporary portrayals speak to an experience more cynical and fraught with anxiety than the glamour and romance oft associated with the city. One just had to look at Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture or Girls to see that feeling adrift is the main concern for New Yorkers in our era.
Both Listen Up Philip and Appropriate Behaviour – though very different in tone and humour – navigate the tribulations of being heartbroken, aimless and frustrated, with themes of isolation, belonging, exclusion and possibility at their core. They offer us perspectives of New York that feed into these familiar themes, but in altogether original and necessary voices.
To watch Listen Up Philip, plus behind-the-scenes extras, go here.
To watch Appropriate Behaviour, plus behind-the-scenes extras, go here.
At 21, it felt somewhat momentous to be venturing out to the States for the first time since being bestowed with legality concerning alcohol consumption. And flying solo, no less. Swanning through the airport I felt a certain freedom that accompanied my lack of accompaniment. I could invent a whole new story about who I was, or why I was jetting out to Boston in March. My passport may have encumbered such attempts at reinvention, but the possibility was there no less! This taste of freedom was pleasantly washed down by a Bloody Mary aboard the flight and had it not been for a swift delivery of food alongside the complimentary bottle of wine (a mini-one), I risked resembling Kristen Wiig a la Bridesmaids. But all in all it was a smooth flight tempered by excitement and delusions of maturity.
Having visited Boston when I was 18, I felt relatively familiar with it’s terrain.
It appeared to me a serene and languid city, one that rewarded those not in a hurry and whom had the time the soak up the distinctly different vibes of each neighbourhood.
That we were there for a week and not in the peak of tourist season seemed the perfect amount of time to explore without rushing. To revisit favourite cafes and restaurants, and do things off the beaten track.
With that in mind, I have compiled a list of sorts that regales the best bits of my Bostonian experience.
(Photographs are all my own).
As with any city, the skyline is often the place to look for 5 star views and Boston certainly didn’t disappoint. Especially when combined with the series of intense sunsets that took place over the several nights we were there. This is a view into Back Bay from our hostel, overlooking the John Hancock tower.
I would recommend walking along the Charles River, from pretty much any angle, for spectacular views across the city. Along the Esplanade (a 3 mile walk next to the River) you have the city behind you (or to the right) whilst surrounded by trees, joggers and pond life which can provide a tranquil respite from the hustle and bustle of taxi horns and shoppers – though this is pretty limited in Boston anyway. However I preferred walking over the Harvard Bridge, because you then end up distancing yourself from the skyline and therefore obtaining a much better perspective of the stunningly integrated architecture. The river itself happened to be partially frozen in spectacular curvatures, which gave a beautiful juxtaposition between the white solidity of the ice and the darker recesses of the flowing river. (See first picture). And it was this monochrome polarity that inspired the mainly black and white photographs I took of the city.
Equally impressive – though perhaps harder to achieve – were the views from the top of the Bunker Hill Monument. You have to travel over to Charlestown, which felt more like the sleepy, rural America of the Mid-West and of classic road trip movies, and then up 294 steps. However, it is free (for the view and the workout), and the end result is pretty rewarding. It’s never until you’re elevated above the ground that you realise the expansiveness of the city you’re in and how dense it is. Boston is a strange, but equally attractive, mix of futuristic contemporary architecture with sleek glass exteriors and older architectural styles (definite Georgian and Gothic influences), using red-brick facades and punctuated by columns, domes and lots of stairs.
Other architectural styles present in Boston – which create a lively and sometimes incongruous panorama – include Art Deco, (Paramount theatre), Modernism (John Hancock Tower), and the bizarre postmodern design of the MIT campus…
Forgive me for lapsing into a bit of motherly-advice, but definitely pack comfortable shoes. Boston is a city that you can easily navigate via foot and it’s the best way to stare up to the skies and absorb your surroundings.
Coming from a person who tends to buy most of their clothes online and finds the process of trying on garments in a boxy room with unflattering lighting both tedious and bothersome, you should take this advice VERY SERIOUSLY. Bring a bit of spending money with you AND some spare suitcase space, because American retailers ARE cheaper and you can get some great finds for a fraction of the price. Sorry for the over-zealous and liberal use of capital letters, but I had to get my point across. American shop assistants are also incredibly friendly and operate like wind-up merchants or the ‘Woody’ Toy Story doll spouting lines on repeat such as ‘How’s it going?’, ‘That is SO cute’, ‘Can I help you with anything at all’, or ‘This would look FABULOUS on you’. At first my aloof and taciturn British self couldn’t handle such unbridled and enthusiastic communication, but you gradually come to embrace it. I was practically BFF’s with a waiter upon my second visit to one particular bookshop.
The ‘Everything is Cheaper’ rule doesn’t just apply to clothes of course. As a literary soul and part-time paperback addict I also splurged on several books (Brattle Street Bookstore and the Raven Bookstore are secondhand favourites, rammed full of romantically antique and rifled through copies of fiction fabulousness). For this kind of a habit though you might need a whole new suitcase; I bought 9 books and was on the verge of a meltdown after repacking my case 4 times to try and fit them all in.
The main shopping district in Boston is Back Bay, with Boylston and Newbury street their version of London’s Oxford. However if you’re looking for a retail experience that doesn’t involve H+M, Urban Outfitters and a Starbucks on every corner, then venturing further out may be required. On our last day in Boston we strolled into South End where a weekly Vintage Market is held. It’s in this strange hermetically sealed enclave, with a boardwalk of boutique shops selling jewelry, hats, beads and fabric, as well as art galleries and furniture stores. At the end is an abandoned warehouse type building where sellers of all things retro gather to entice the nostalgically-inclined. It was a haven. They had pretty much everything from typewriters, cameras and copies of LIFE magazine to suitcases, coats and an enviable range of knitwear. I ended up purchasing some cute $1 postcards (I remind you, this was on the last day and I had very literally taken my advice about bringing some spending money and spending it.) Some of them had actual messages on the back, whilst most just provided an insight into how Boston and America in general used to look. I’ve scanned a couple of the postcards below… The best part of the vintage market experience however was this hilariously entertaining and effervescent black man whom seemed to work there, or was otherwise just wandering about with the sole purpose of making people laugh. Upon entering the warehouse his little face popped into the window of the door we were attempting (and failing) to enter, causing us to scream girlishly. He then reassured us we needn’t be scared, ‘it was only a black man’. Ha. Of course we laughed awkwardly and made sheepish remarks, but to me he summed up the friendliness of the people in Boston. People are not only willing to converse, but seemingly want to. I had a great little chat with a woman whilst watching ‘The Princess Bride’ about how much Claire Underwood has changed. Buttercup got mean!
Bring comfy shoes, bring money, but most of all, bring your appetite and do away with any guilt you have about eating more than one indulgent dish in a day.
$ – We frequented this friendly Irish pub ‘JJ Foleys’ which did standard American food (pizza, burgers, clam chowder, Guinness stew) but in a chilled out and friendly environment. We also came across a glorious coffee-shop-cum-book-store on Newbury Street that ensconces you in volumes of literature as you sip refill house coffee for $1.95. Even better they play movie classics such as ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and ‘The Princess Bride’ in the background. And even better than that, the menu is amazing. It offers healthier brunch cuisine, with breakfast burritos (avocados, scrambled eggs, mushrooms), fresh fruit and pancakes, alongside soups, quesadillas, tortillas and a variety of puddings. Tuck in.
Another treasure trove of a find was Grendel’s Den near Harvard Square, Cambridge. It caters mainly to the students of the area and does half-price meal deals everyday between 5-7pm. It’s got quite a quaint, cosy, hippie vibe and sort of looks like you wandered into someone’s dining room (in a good way). The staff were very friendly and the cider was delicious. You have to stroll up a few side streets to find it, but it’s well worth scouting out.
$$ – House of Siam did amazing Thai food, which we experienced in true American style by ordering take-out and slobbing about in our pajamas. (A day of walking and book-shopping can really take it out of you!) We also found this delightfully rustic Italian restaurant called ‘Antico Forno’ in North End (Boston’s Little Italy) which does decent sized pizzas for under $10.
$$$ – Our Saturday night treat was a visit to ‘Stephi’s on Tremont‘, an upmarket American bistro place which had a bustling atmosphere and cocktail bar. It’s menu combined contemporary cuisine with classic comfort-f0od favourites such as ‘Mac and Cheese’. It was definitely on the pricier side, with about $17 your average price for an entree, $9 for a glass of wine and $10 for a pudding, but as a one-off I would definitely recommend.
We also visited ‘L.A. Burdick‘, a gourmet chocolate shop, a bit like ‘Thornton’s but with a cafe attached. Their cake slices are absolutely divine and dainty enough to not make you feel like that fat kid and the gateau in ‘Matilda’ .
Other recommendations: Sonsie, Stephanie’s and Boloco and anywhere that does cheesecake.
Boston certainly isn’t the ‘Big Apple’ in terms of glitz and glamour, and in fact, most residents resent the comparison. However, something that is fantastically electrifying is the experience of witnessing a baseball game at Fenway Park. This time I went before the season begins, but upon my last visit was fortunate enough to watch the Red Sox play two home games, one against the Indians and the other against the Yankees. Baseball doesn’t reward fidgets, the easily distracted, or those not interested in sport. It’s a slow-burning game of tactics and often a frustrating one. Why on earth have you put this in the ‘thrills’ section I hear you cry?! But once you get into it, the atmosphere at the games is unlike anything I’ve experienced. Between each inning there’s a giant crowd sing-song or Mexican wave, and at the end of the 9th inning at Red Sox home games everyone stands up and belts out ‘Sweet Caroline’. Plus if the Red Sox happen to win, the crowd go absolutely wild. Like batshit crazy mental. In the most endearing way possible. It’s bonkers and a little bit scary, but simultaneously wonderful. And if you actually follow the game at the same time, then even better. Just for god’s sake don’t ask if it’s like rounders.
Walking alongside Boston Harbour (despite the ferocious wind) made for a glorious sunny morning. You can explore Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market and then cross the road for resplendent views across the ocean. In the summer (when I went last time), the Boston Harbour Hotel does free concerts wherein the entertainment perform on a stage-slash-jetty on the ACTUAL water. You have to book in advance to get a table but once that’s sorted, it’s smooth sailing. (I can only apologise).
There are also a plethora of reasonably priced yoga or pilates classes throughout the city. The Back Bay Yoga studio does $5 community classes that run for an hour and a half and you can just drop into. So if sight-seeing gets a bit strenuous, go and stretch it out.
There’s more culture in Boston than you can shake a stick at. Being a fairly academic city, with a college on almost every block (forgive the hyperbole), there’s also a great cultural scene for students. The Museum of Fine Arts and Institute of Contemporary Art are free for certain hours during the week, whilst theatrical shows and improv comedy sometimes do student prices.
Our burst of culture came in the form of a trip to ‘Kendall Square Cinema’, an independent cinema in Cambridge near the MIT campus which shows art-house or quirky films. We saw ‘Her’, the latest Spike Jonze and Joaquin Phoenix film about dating in the technological age. Visit my other blog for a review coming soon!
There was also a small art gallery near the SoWa vintage market that specialised in Cuban paintings called ‘Galleria Cubana’. At the time they were showcasing the work of Aneet R. Fontes, who depicts the urban landscape of Havana in vividly photographic style using acrylics on canvas.
If that doesn’t satiate your cultural cravings, there are plenty of others art galleries, museums and events going-on throughout the year to explore. The Harvard Bookstore does literary talks and philosophical evenings for instance, and quite a few places I spotted do ‘live jazz’ nights, so it’s definitely worth planning ahead of your trip to see what’s happening!
There are lots of statues, hidden enclaves and enchanting little sidewalks to appease keen photographers and explorers alike. I’d definitely recommend walking through Beacon Hill and Boston Common. Here a few final random photographs that summarise just some of what I saw strolling through this magnificent city.