A Game of Balls
A tour through Brussels’ legendary daily flea market – Place Jeu de Balle
Brussels-based writer David Labi heads downtown to meet the people within one of Europe’s oldest daily flea markets – and goes shopping the old-school way
“The market sustains thousands of people. Not just vendors, but visitors too.” Anass looks at me with his one straight eye. He’s buttoned up in a thick coat, unperturbed by the cold Brussels morning.
I lean on a table holding Disney watches, china figurines, ashtrays, baubles, and metal tools for hobbyist torturers. “Without the market, they couldn’t feel at peace.” A huge grey sky hangs low and brushes our heads. Around us a loose mishmash of individuals stumble, eyes spiralling as they take in the market’s wares. “It has a therapeutic component too,” Anass continues. He laughs. “Maybe that’s 40% of it.”
Vintage shops line the streets of Les Marolles, the kookiest neighbourhood of the Belgian capital. They’re crammed with exquisite mid-century furniture, Flemish oil paintings, Congolese statues and more, suited to every budget and taste. But the quarter’s indisputable soul is the flea market at Place du Jeu de Balle. The only daily market of its kind in Belgium, the historic spot is even immortalised in the pages of Tintin (The Secret of the Unicorn for the geeks out there).
The square’s French name comes from the ball game (petanque) popular in the 19th century, while its Flemish name, Vossenplein (Foxes Square) testifies to the Renard locomotive plant that once stood here, in a linguistic crossover common to these parts. After the factory’s demolition, half the vacated space became a fire station; half became this square. Brussels in the 19th century was undergoing a makeover and officials felt its new boulevards were messed up by the old flea market downtown, so they moved the entire thing here. That was in 1873.
Nearly 150 years later, Anass is one of many visitors who know what they’re looking for. A restaurateur, he comes to buy up old fridges, freezers, and other appliances to send back home as donations to Cameroon, where people can’t afford them. “With a fridge-freezer people can make ice cubes, yoghurt,” he explains. “Just one fridge can sustain one or two families.”
Sustaining families is a topic in the air here today, as on and off lockdowns loom in response to new variants of the COVID-19 virus. “People aren’t buying because they’re afraid,” says Sherif, a Tunisian-born vendor who’s been working here for 15 years.
“Of course it’s fear of another confinement, but if you ask me it’s something else.” I look at him quizzically. “In my view we can’t return to normality until the US-China conflict is resolved.”
I’m taken aback. “You think that’s the root?”
“I’m sure of it, brother. It all comes out of there.”
At a high table between two stalls, over plastic cups of coffee and cigarettes, I interrupt two vendors bantering. “You can’t live with this situation,” the smaller, greyer one tells me. “It’s dead, dead, dead.” His taller, younger colleague adds, “You pay the market fees from your pocket just so you can return home with nothing.”
Market fees per day are 12 euros per square metre, but most people need more space, meaning 36, 48 or more. Plus there’s costs of trucks, gasoline, taxes, and other expenses to factor in. The two guys tell me that selling 100 euros in a day – pretty much the max they can expect at the moment – might leave you with 40 in the pocket.
Arrais is more upbeat. He pays 240 euros per month, on a prepaid subscription basis. He eschews tables and racks in favour of a grid of boxes on the ground. Weekday buyers pick through at a steady rate, like lanky birds of prey inspecting a carcass. Somehow Arrais talks with me while simultaneously counting out change for at least three sales during our seven-minute chat. “Is it hard to pay the subscription?” I ask him. “That’s why we work,” he says. “To have a shop you’d pay a lot more.” A lady approaches with a stack of plates. “Eight euros,” he tells her. Then to me, “See, madam, she’s buying the plates here and will resell elsewhere.” She points out a small crack on one plate. “Seven euros, that’s it,” he says. She assents with no word nor gesture, packing the bounty into a trolley. “Is madam going to sell the plates elsewhere?” I ask her. “Maybe,” she responds, and trundles off into the mist.
What’s the most expensive thing you’ve sold? Arrais hmms and gives a faraway look. “Not more than 500 euros.” What was that? “It was a long time ago… A painting like that.” He waves at one of countless in view. The two neighbours balk at my question. “There’s no expensive item here,” they say. “We just get peanuts here,” says the taller one. “But as we say, we make bread with it.”
One guy, a cheery Moroccan who keeps a stall with his brother, just sold a lamp to a vendor across the square. “There are days I sell, and days I buy…” he muses. “It’s like that, it rolls round. Like a cassette.” Or indeed life and death; the endless transfer of matter. Most stuff here comes from “vide maison” (house emptying). Sometimes that’s people moving away, perhaps a European Commission official taking away his prized pieces and leaving the rest. Other times someone has died, resulting in the strange spectacle of a whole life laid out on a blanket in the square. Old photos, postcards, coffee sets, a candlestick bought in another moment. Objects endowed with unknowable stories, now exposed out of context. Naked. “Isn’t it sad,” I ask the cheery Moroccan, “seeing the whole life of someone who’s passed away?” “It’s normal,” he replies. “Normal.”
When a home needs emptying, people check the commercial register, search online, call numbers. These dudes turn up with trucks. Sometimes they pay for the goods, sometimes they get them for free. Sometimes it’s done by lots, and you don’t know what’s in your crates. A daily lottery, but with losers. There’s a booby prize – throwing stuff away costs money. I’m told 55 euros per cubic metre, making about 600 euros to empty a truck. The gamble gets steeper.
“I must have made mistakes,” says Hafied, under a canopy near a corner marked by the famous Marseillais bar where people drink pastis and eat sardine sandwiches sold next door. “I must have sold valuable things for too cheap.” But you don’t always know. And others do. Those people who come round and seize on an object at once. “They know what they are looking for. They come precisely for paintings, vases, knives, or clothing… You could offer them the rest for free and they wouldn’t take it.” I hear stories. In 2019 a man bought ten vinyl records here for 50 euros and later sold them for 5,000. Another bought a bunch of cheap postcards, and cashed in for ten grand. I walk past an old man rifling through postcards and wonder. Savant or chancer?
To my untrained eye, identities blend in the market. The most represented origin among vendors is Moroccan, followed by Algerian. There are people of Belgian descendence, less keen to talk to me. Spanish. An Italian or two. There’s talk of Brazilians. Sherif says he’s one of four Tunisians. For 30 years he’s been officially Belgian. “But honestly, he says, “nobody ever made me feel like I’m Belgian.” I search for a positive angle. “Do you feel Bruxellois, though?” I ask him.
“We’re only here because we’re stuck here,” he says. You can pay much less rent outside the city, but if your wife is veiled and you go the supermarket you’ll have problems. “They’ll make your life difficult,” he says. “I won’t go into it, it’s a vast topic. But anyone who says racism doesn’t exist, is a big liar. It exists, and we see it every day.”
Belgium’s brutal colonial history in Central Africa is transformed here into a few stalls selling African masks. The sellers are uniformly uninterested in answering my questions. The masks are immaculately lined up, some uncanny, some noble, some inspiring, some terrifying. All silent. The gloom of the economy, the pandemic, the inevitability of decay and dissolution starts getting to me. One vendor says he doesn’t see the market lasting five years. What will happen to the thousands of people living from its sales – from its therapy?
An older grey chap of Moroccan origin leans forward in a folding chair. He started selling here after he retired. “It’s my pension.” The lockdown was hard, he says, very, very hard. I see a teddy bear reaching out its fluffy arm to me, begging for help. What’s the role of the market in society? “The market is an attraction for everyone, to look even if you don’t buy. Sometimes you fall in love with something and buy – that’s the market.” For a moment his demeanour changes, there’s a sparkle in his eyes. “When you speak of the market, you talk of discovering something that you don’t see every day.” Perhaps the bear is inviting me on a voyage.
Not too hard with the cold weather? I ask one. “Il faut, quand-même” he shoots back. “Nevertheless, we must.” The ease of these men, talking and interacting, buying, selling goods, giving them new life, making up prices on the spot, discussing, negotiating, seeing what’s possible… It feels hard, but creative, free, and productive. Good. Do you like the job? Hafied talks to me while retaining a 360º watch on things. “I’m free, I’m independent, nobody comes to tell me I’m not working,” he responds. “I’m my own boss. That’s it. And now I have to empty the truck.” With thanks, he is gone, surely to return.
What’s so good about this?
In an era of online commercialisation, markets remain a place where old fashioned human exchange takes place. You can walk and talk, discuss the price, and fall in love with something you didn’t know you needed.
As the effects of the pandemic takes their toll, vendors at the historic flea market of Place du Jeu de Balle, Brussels, are wondering what will become of them. Let’s take this moment to recognise the powerful force for good occupied by markets in our societies… and go shopping the old-school way.
Meet the writer
David Labi is a London-born and world-seasoned writer, facilitator, producer and performer. He set up a city magazine and made films in Buenos Aires, wrote scripts for TV news in Tokyo, curated an arts collective in Berlin, and now lives in Brussels, where he runs his creative agency for good causes called Good Point. David is currently developing a one-man show about his father, a Libyan Jewish Holocaust survivor – an epic tragicomic rollercoaster through identity, trauma, and rebirth. Follow the ethical storyteller on @david_labi.