Category Archives: Brussels


Have I mentioned lately how much my brother sucks?

So, there I am, in Brussels, minding my own business with a good book in front of the fireplace when Chris arrives with camera bags. “We are going to the Christmas Fair. One Leica for you, one for me. Let’s do it!” A film camera? How very… retro! I have not used one of these since 2001. I can’t even remember off-hand how to load the film! My brother is in fact completely passive aggressive on this one: totally setting me up for failure while giving the appearance of being the good brother who shares his toys.

Not being naturally mechanically inclined, I struggle loading the film while keeping all the parts in my little hand. My brother looks on, acting as if I were the biggest idiot he has ever seen. I may be, but no one has to rub it in.

As we drive to downtown Brussels, I resume the situation in my head. It’s dusk (very little light). We will shoot against the Fair’s lights (exposure compensation guesstimate required.) I’ll be using manual focus on moving targets for the first time in a gazillion years. I also happen to be as blind as a bat. I remediate this small impediment for a photographer by adjusting the diopter on my camera, but here… I’m shooting blind.

If that’s not setting up someone for failure, I don’t know what it is! Have I also mentioned how cold it is? It’s FREEZING out there! Have I mentioned my inner wimpitude? If it’s less than 55 degrees outside, it might as well be Alaska and I stay put in a heated house where humans are supposed to remain if they possess an ounce of common sense (which is obviously not the case for my brother.)

74130001The accordeon is popular in winter because it allows the use of gloves. Guitarists must be starving.

74130002Real cheese cut by an elf!

74130003Yummy! Durum! Turkish Sandwiches. Expensive Turkish sandwiches!

74130004Smoking warm wine and skinhead (either that or planetross took his shears to the poor fellow’s head.)

74130005Two photos of the warm wine because I like the smoke and I was hoping the little girl would get warm wine too and I could get a scandalous photograph. She got a soda. I was sorely disappointed.

74130006My favorite merry-go-round in the whole wide world: le Manege Magique.

74130009A little out of focus but I wanted to show the cool submarine. Chris thinks I’m fixated on getting technically correct images and I need to let loose a little. He calls me a stick in the mud basically.

74130008The pterodactyl seems to be one of the kids’ favorite rides.

74130010Poor kids that ended up in the hot air balloon instead of riding a dinosaur.

74130011After parents fought over the octopus, ungrateful little girl of the winning mother yawns and looks bored. She is not coming back to the fair anytime soon.

74130012The Eminem shirt is ruining my ambiance!

74130013This could have been taken decades ago. No Eminem shirt. No outward signs of modernity.

Then it was time for serious business. Messy business. Smooltebollen. Delicious beignet-like five minutes in your mouth five pounds in your buttocks type of deliciousness covered in powdered sugar. We put the cameras away. “Seven for both of us?” my brother asks. “Try fifteen!” I reply totally offended by his lack of good judgement. After we ate seven Smooltebollen each and fought for the last one, we drove home not feeling very well.

So I completely fell in love with my brother’s Leica and I bought his Hasselblad. I needed a light camera for traveling and ended up with massive studio equipment. That’s what I do. Chris never brought back the Leica. He likes to give me a little taste of something then take it back… So the M6 is on the list, right after the 5D Mark II, right after paying the bills and all the other stuff you have to pay.

A Family Affair

Before the blossoming of home computers, families still took time to make photo albums. I take time to raid the family albums. It’s my family too, after all. If you look up on the menu bar (the one that’s… up, not on the side), you’ll notice a new section called Album de Famille. That’s where my crazy family is tucked away. I’ll update my album with new photographs often so if they amuse you, check again in a few weeks!

my-crazy-auntsMy crazy aunt Tita and My crazy aunt Nanou in the sixties

The Very Hairy Christmas Card

My sister faked cancer.  She faked not one, but two cancers. If you are going to tell a big lie, you might as well fabricate an even bigger one for maximum effect. In the end, it turned out that her stomach and esophagus cancer surgery was in fact a gastric bypass to rid her of her obesity.

My sister and I are not on speaking terms. Blood may be thicker than water but when you put your 75 year old mother through the ringer with imaginary health problems, my blood thins out considerably. Seriously. She even attempted to turn the situation around by claiming that her lies were a cry for help and that my failure to recognize her anguish denoted a clear lack of compassion on my part. Nice try.

With my habitual  Christmas foreigner abandoning me to go frolic in the Argentinian Pampas this year, there would be no Christmas dinner with my sister and I sitting at the same table. Instead, she gave her son a card for me with the strict instruction to open it only the next day, on Christmas.

The card was in a white envelope with a small golden bow.


It was a pretty thick envelope and all evening, I kept wondering if perhaps it contained a letter of apology (way overdue.)

The next morning, in bed with a good book and my morning coffee (it’s unbelievable the number of books you go through when not blogging!), I looked at the envelope on the night table begging to be opened with its cute little bow.


The card looked very average. In our family, we always go for funky and the Golden Retriever carrying Christmas ornaments definitely did not pass the originality test. Very unlike my sister. I opened the card.


Eek! Eek! Eek! Hair!!!! I kid you not. With roots! My sister cut all her hair off and stuffed them in my card. My instincts kick in. Or woman’s intuition, whatever you may want to call that special 6th sense. I think my sister is not going to apologize. I can just feel it with all my mighty powers of deduction. I push the hair aside.


What did I tell you?!  The use of English remains a mystery since French is our first language, but nevermind the semantics. This is my first hate Christmas card ever! I didn’t even know such thing existed. In retrospect, the use of the golden bow on the envelope seems quite deceiving when coupled with the nice curvy handwriting.

I’m going to take the hair and make a little pillow with it.

Just kidding. I’m going to keep this card for the day my body is found in a Belgian gutter, stabbed to death by a hairless assassin.

Bring out your Belgian dead!

Running out of place to bury people is never a good situation. In 1866, a cholera epidemic swept through Brussels and swiftly killed more than 3,000. Well, that was a bit of a problem. Quickly, the Cemetery of the Dieweg got created to palliate overflowing morgues.

Belgians being obviously deficient in cemetery planning affairs, the new death venue got rapidly saturated. After 1945, inhumations grew rare. In 1958, it closed down. Slowly, nature took over.

The crosses became one with the trees.

Ground cover swallowed the stones.

Sporadic light piercing through forests of trees gave the graveyard an eerie feel.

The neighbourhood of Uccle where the cemetery is located is home to most of Brussels bourgeoisie. Some of the tombs lie adorned with impressive monuments to the glory of the great families. Some say we are all equal in death but, I’m sorry, some tombs are way better than others.

On one hand, gigantic statues, on the other, little Jesus with no legs. Equality? Come again!

Walking around, you wonder whether you are experiencing the ultimate romantic interlude,

Or whether when you reach the end of the “Sematary”, you’ll stumble upon the “deadfall.”

While absolutely unable to deal with death on any levels, I dig cemeteries. The Dieweg graveyard falling into the category of crazy weirdness, it rates second on my top ten list. It is no wonder that Herge, Tintin’s creator, obtained a special derogation to be interred in the closed down venue.

It is only closed to the dead people, the living are most welcome to visit.

Para mi primo exiliado en Chile

My cousin Marc has always been a source of admiration for me, not because of his incredible intellect, not because of his formidable talent as a photographer, but because, in his twenties, he had the courage to look outside the box and he chose an unusual life path.

A law degree and two subsequent specializations, one from a Dutch university and one from a British university, had virtually guaranteed him a highly successful career in the legal spheres, but to my recollection, he never used any of his degrees after university.

In the 60s, my sister Odile, cousins Barbara, Marc and Gerard

After returning from Great-Britain, Marc embarked on a six-month trip to China (in the early eighties when it was still untouched by Western influence), then flew to Chile. He never looked back. He lived for photography. Abstract, crazy beautiful photography.

In Santiago, he rented a room with a single window and, for years, he photographed objects and human shapes in this square of light. Not a trace of luxury. Not even a fridge. Only art.

Gerard, Marc and Barbara.

Now, in all honesty, had I been made to wear lederhosen in my childhood, I may have exiled myself to Chile as well. Rather sooner than later. After copious therapy.

Marc makes rare sporadic appearances in Belgium. The last time I saw him was years ago. Having recently reconnected with his brother Gerard (the barbecue warrior), I wish I had the opportunity to hang out with Marc too.

Last May, we threw a surprise party for my mom’s 75th birthday, and I, of course, documented the event and designed an album for her. So Marc, this one is for you. That’s what we look like now (I understand you may have felt the need to put an ocean between your family and yourself, but, see, the past always catches up with you…)

That’s the cover. It’s my mom riding the dinosaur. She has a good sense of humor. I think. I hope. She has not seen the album yet. I might get disowned.

My brother, Chris with an h, and sister, Odile with none, whisked my mother away to the movies and I hid in the rhododendrons (with the bees) until the coast was clear. I let the caterer in and the guests began to arrive.

My mom is blind as a bat (like me.) It took her a while to realize who the 25 strange people in the driveway were.

My mom had no idea I was in Belgium! When she saw me among family and friends, she thought I was a person who resembled me a lot!

My sister Odile (the Quintessential Cat Lady) and my aunt Nanou. Not fighting. Yet. I cannot begin to tell you how long it took me to figure out how to seat people, a matter of vital importance in my highly volatile family.

Gerard and Marcel, a family friend since the fifties. These two put together have a caustic sense of humor which reminds me of the barbs exchanged during our bi-weekly family lunches back in the seventies and eighties.

Odile’s son, Nicolas, and his girlfriend. My nephew (nefiou) is quite the entertainer.

Parenthesis: nefiou after having worked in the yard. As stated, quite the entertainer… I digress. Back to the party:

Feisty Marie-Helene, one of my mom’s best friend. Sharp as a tack.

The two compadres.

The catering company, Art’aste, did a great job.

Gerard, my cousin Valerie (who used to dismember her Barbie dolls) and Antoine (nefiou Sr.)

Gerard’s wife Nancy and Olivier, the husband of the Dismemberor. Sill in one piece. A miracle.

My crazy photographer brother (and his new Nikon D3) and the Dismemberor eying the camera suspiciously.

Marcel’s wife, Natha, having a “come to Jesus” with Nanou (I had seated them at different tables for dinner but all bets were off after dessert) – in the corner, one of my mom’s sculptures. I love her art. I liked the way she paints but I LOVE the way she sculpts. Every time I’m in Brussels, I steal all her sculptures and put them in my room. They are all mine.

Nancy, the Dismemberor, Gerard and another of my mom’s sculptures. Mine.

Between my brother and me, guests got photographed under every imaginable angle.

My brother sucks but I love to photograph him

The two waiters. My brother and I thought they were a pretty hilarious pair so at the end of the evening we kidnap them to the photo studio and played a little. They got in trouble with the caterer for disappearing on him. Chris and I felt like kids caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

The back cover. The album is on its way to Belgium. 30 pages of memories. Happy memories I hope. They’d better be happy considering the sweat, the blood, the ANGST it took to organize the whole affair! I’m just extremely relieved everyone survived and no one got sued.

Hi Nat! Howdy? Your horse has cancer.

May 12 – 3 am – Brussels. The phone rings.

“Hi Nat. It’s Daniel. Virus can’t walk.”

Daniel, valiant Keeper of Virus the Schnookie Pookie and Peyote the Alligator when I’m away. Fantastic with my two aging Jack Russells but not so much with keeping track of the 7 hour time difference…

“What do you mean “he can’t walk?” I ask, suddenly wide awake.

“He can’t walk on the hardwood floors. He takes a step, then slips and he can’t get up no more.”

“Daniel, please go to Target, buy 20 bath rugs and put them all over the house.”

Virus le Schnookie Pookie

Virus the fabulous Schnookie Pookie

Same day, 6 hours later, still Brussels. The phone rings.

“Nathalie? Hi! It’s Anita. How are you? Toy has cancer.”

Not to dwell on cliches, but when it rains… Toy. Dinky Toy the Stinky. My little 27 year old horse. A happy Belgian retiree since my departure to the States, 17 years ago. The horse does nothing. He eats twice a day, goes to pasture, and he lives in a damn castle. I’m not kidding. He lives MUCH better than I do. That horse leads a charmed existence and has no right to get cancer.

“Nathalie? Are you still there?”


“Toy had not shed his winter coat so the vet told us to clip him. Well, that was a whole ordeal! We did what we could but you know Toy… He’s kind of clipped. Under all that hair, he did not look good. The vet is coming back later. Would you like to be there?”

When I arrive at the stables, I am truly horrified.

Dinky Toy

Had I seen the poor thing in a field, I would have suspected abuse and called the SPCA. The vet arrives and examines him. He says it’s Cushings Disease (which perhaps is NOT cancer!) He also says the horse appears very skinny but it is due mainly to his loss of muscle tissue. He is not suffering. If we manage to make him retain some of the food he scarfs down, he could still have a few years in front of him.

The next day, I visit him in the field. Out in the open space, he looks a tad better. But not much.

Dinky toy the Stinky

My instructions are: “The day you actually manage to catch him in the field, I guess that’s when we’ll have to start really worrying. Until then, you’ll just have to keep on running after him every evening…”

When I return to the States, the two dogs greet me at the door. The house’s hardwood floors are covered with bath rugs of varied vibrant colors. I guess I should have mentioned one color only, beige or black… but at 3 am, it just did not come to mind. I just hope that when my time comes to slip and fall on the hardwood floors, someone will love me enough to make that special trip to Target. I hope this person will have good taste.

Halal or not halal, that’s the question

Diaka. A beautiful Muslim Guinean woman who happens to have been dating my brother (the one that sucks) for a few years. She measures 6 feet and dwarfs me but still, I like her a lot. With time, it seems she has grown accustomed to our crazy family ways. Or has she?

Diaka, the Tree

You cannot go to my mom’s house without being fed like a goose. “Eat, it’s love!” is the message you must read between the lines. You pack the pounds and hope that she’ll love you a little less in the future.

My mom offered Diaka a bit of her delicious salmon mousse the other day. Earlier my mother had asked her if she wanted to drink a mint tea and gave her hot water with mint leaves and not a trace of tea.

Diaka jungle

At this point, Diaka should have been slightly suspicious, but salmon mousse sounded great. And it was. You spread it on a toast (made with real bread not like in the US) and it is light and very tasty. Diaka thanked my mom and told her how much she was appreciating the treat.

My mom then casually mentioned: “I was really lucky, they had such good ham at the butcher this morning.” That’s when Diaka choked and promptly excused herself.

The Guinean

My mom just turned 75. I guess she cannot be trusted around people on a strict halal diet. Salmon – ham, same color eh! Almost the same, right?

J’adore Bruxelles too!

Brussels, a quaint version of Paris (well, minus the Louvre, the Centre Pompidou and other miscellanies.) It’s quieter, more bon-enfant, more genuine. Walking in the Foret de soignes and the Bois de la Cambre, you actually breathe fresh air. In Paris, you go out five minutes, and you feel you need a shower. But j’adore Paris nonetheless…


Reveries at the Bois de la Cambre

Family jogging

Family jogging in the Foret de Soignes

Kid running

Being a kid in a park

Michael with the Apple

Michael with the Apple

Gordi fato

Well-fed little boy in the Bois

Just quaint and peaceful…

When all else fails, import a foreigner

If you belong to the normal average dysfunctional family, you know very well that clan gatherings may turn into somewhat painful occasions.


Nicolas, mon nefioo. Drama king. Set himself ablaze after Christmas dinner

In my very colorful Belgian family, tradition dictates that, prior to any meeting, the matriarch create a fabulous table centerpiece. The floral arrangement (elevated from simple bouquet to original work of art over the years) comes in handy in the midst of any argument.

Over the screaming and typical exchange of insults, you can always hear my mother bellow in a screeching voice: “Has anyone noticed my centerpiece?” It’s code for “you ungrateful children, I’ve carried you 9 months in my womb and cooked a wonderful dinner for you and now you are ruining everything for me and if you continue, I’m just going to leave the table and kill myself.” Mildly embarrassed, we generally quickly drop the bone of contention and utter a few admirative comments for the masterpiece.

Snow in Brussels

White Christmas

I noticed these last few years the rapid erosion of the centerpiece tactic. One night, after a complete breakdown where both my sister and brother ended up covered in chocolate mousse, I devised a new strategy. When all else fails, one must import a foreigner. The thinking behind the new scheme is that people generally carry themselves better in the presence of a stranger. You must however follow four essential rules:

  1. Your foreigner must be well-behaved: experience has taught me that the host family matches the degree of civility exhibited by the guest.
  2. Your foreigner must not be acquainted with the local language. For an American family, a mere English-speaking Canadian just won’t do. Think South or Quebec. By forcing your family members to express themselves in an unfamiliar vernacular, you greatly reduce the risk of infighting .
  3. You must not sleep with your foreigner. This rule ensures repeated use of said foreigner.
  4. After three utilizations, the foreigner must be replaced. When the family begins showing too much ease, your foreigner has become “a friend of the family” and it won’t take long before your relatives revert to their bad habits and drama.

My foreigner Robby

My current foreigner, Robby, imported to Brussels from Texas, has almost reached the end of the road. My family likes him way too much for him to remain fully effective. The search is officially on for my next victim…

Party time

Parties always offer great opportunities to catch displays of genuine emotion. While I photograph events for a living, I rarely resist the temptation to bring a camera along when invited as a guest as well.

My friends would argue that my social time would be spent more wisely concentrating on finding that forever elusive oxymoronic “decent guy” than hiding behind a Canon but history, mine anyway, has demonstrated time and time again that photography is much more emotionally rewarding, not to mention longer lasting… I digress.

Party for Steph

Going back to Brussels for Christmas allows me to occasionally run into people whose paths I have not crossed in decades. This year, the “pony bunch” gathered to celebrate one of their own’s birthday. This tight-knit group of friends grew up dedicating their youth to competing one another on high-priced ponies. All were show-jumping at an international level, traveling together, and causing many headaches to hotel managers and chaperons across Europe. Today most have married, procreated, and passed along the passion to their children.

In the following photograph, Steph, surrounded by her two sons, reads the letter which sends her and family to Rome as a birthday gift.

The gift

When photographing an event, I avoid using a flash as much as possible. One, it kills the mood, and second, it annihilates any chance of remaining discrete. A wide aperture lens generally solves the problem. It’s a choice. Capturing movement remains iffy as evidenced by the next photograph of Chloe and husband demonstrating acrobatic rock in the kitchen in the morning’s wee hours.


The cutest moment of the party happened when Diego, Steph’s 12 year old son, surprised her with a gift. He had gotten into major trouble during the afternoon for disappearing on his bike for a whole hour and refusing to provide any explanations as to his whereabouts. He had actually pedaled for miles to get to the nearest Godiva and purchase a little box of his mom’s favorite chocolates with his saved up allowance.

Steph and Diego

Steph and Diego 3

As a woman sans child, I was touched by the gesture and suddenly felt quite cheated. Luckily all the mothers around the table were quick to point out that mommies around the world have to put up with years of sacrifice and suffering in order to blessed with such a charming attention once every blue moon. All righty then! The pang of parental deprivation had lasted exactly a minute and thirty seconds.

It takes me hours after a party to process the gazillion photographs, but I do not mind. The reward is in the party goers’ smiles when they receive their prints. And in this particular case, I also get to bring back to Texas a little piece of Belgium with me, a little piece of my past.