Brussels Stories: A ghost town no longer - unless you're a Euro-cat

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The Independent Online

A smattering of shops are open for business; some restaurants are doing a brisk trade; and the odd EU official can be spotted strolling to the office. This might sound like a typical summer scene but, in mid-August, it is a sign of changing times in the city that once simply emptied for the month.

Not long ago anyone who counted disappeared for four weeks' holiday, the forward-thinking ones leaving in late July to avoid the traffic jams on France's autoroute du soleil. But, well into the second week of August, there are still signs of life in the EU district of Brussels.

Around the city, shopkeepers are adapting slowly to a pattern of more staggered vacations and the gradual demise of the great month-long Euro-break.

In my local square, Place Brugmann, there are no fewer than three boulangeries that all used to pack up simultaneously for the summer, leaving locals without so much as a pain au chocolat. This year they are staggering their holidays. Meanwhile, the local pizzeria is already back from its annual break.

This evolution is a little subtle for those unfamiliar with the city, which can still strike newcomers as a ghost town in August. One recently arrived diplomat was astonished to find all the local dry cleaners closed.

But, once upon a time, it was virtually impossible to buy a sandwich in the EU district after the first week of August. Last week there were a host of snack bars and restaurants to choose from.

The daily press briefings at the European Commission used to grind to a halt in August. Instead one or two on-call press officers would chat to those journalists still left in town in the waiting area outside the press room.

This year there is a skeleton staff of five or six press officers for the whole summer to manage the flow of what passes for news. At least 50 journalists troop in each day ostensibly to listen to this, though they may be attracted more by the press room café. It has departed from all tradition and decided to stay open right through the month.

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All this is just as well for one occupant of the European Commission's smart, new Berlaymont headquarters. It is black and nameless, and its existence was discovered only when a press officer was distracted from her work by the sound of meowing. At the rear of the building is an area separated from the rest of the world by a high glass wall. Trapped inside this zone was a small cat, which was getting thinner by the week until the press team stepped in.

Feeding the creature has been difficult since no one except the security guards are allowed into this no man's land. However, a complex pulley system has been constructed so Whiskas can be lowered on to the ground.

Plans are afoot to launch a rescue mission in September. Meanwhile, the cat will not starve. In the same way as there is a summer on-call rota for dealing with journalists, so the press team has organised a feeding timetable for the cat. Who says those Eurocrats don't have a heart?

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Back in Place Brugmann a new statue has gone up in honour of Julio Cortázar, an Argentine who became one of the most important Latin American writers of the last century. Cortázar does, in fact, have strong connections with Brussels, having been born in the suburb of Ixelles. Unfortunately, the plaque explaining as much has disappeared, leaving locals baffled by the appearance of a bearded figure, clearly not of Belgian origin. At least local youths are happy. The concrete surroundings are excellent for skateboarding.

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