(translated by Sasha Newell, Directeur, Laboratoire d’Anthropologie des Mondes Contemporains, Université Libre de Bruxelles)
[translator’s introduction: Brol is a term of Belgian origin that means clutter or junk, but in the following piece written by ULB research group LIEU, a much richer set of associations is revealed. The analysis is tied to an ethnographic and sociological contextualisation within Place Jeu de Balle. This square in the Marolles district of Brussels hosts a second-hand market that has been running in this location for about 150 years, and is sometimes claimed to be the only flea market in the world open 365 days a year (a dubious claim, though it might be true within Europe). In fact, the Vieux Marché or “old market,” as it is sometimes referred to, has been running as an entrepôt for previously used goods even longer, since at least the 17th century. It was moved in the 19th century from its original location near the bank of the Seine, which was covered over in order to build the grand Haussman style boulevard Anspach.]
This entry was written by an assemblage of authors as part of the activities of the research group LIEU (Laboratoire interdisciplinaire en Etudes urbaines) at ULB, from May to June in 2019 (Paul Aron, Livia Cahn, Chloé Deligne, Ananda Kohlbrenner, Virginie Milliot, Noémie Pons-Rotbardt, Maria Anita Palumbo, Sophie Richelle, Martin Rosenfeld, Marine Spor, Patrick Wouters).
“Everything that is sold in the market here is brol. For example, this, if you have it at home, its useless, it’s brol! We all have brol at home. I am sure that you have plenty of useless things at your place, but these are objects that you hold on to, that you are attached to” (A street cleaner employed by the city to clean place Jeu de Balle, 7th of May, 2019).
The word brol is used in Belgium and in the north of France. In Brussels, it is used abundantly in the flea market at the Place Jeux de Balle, in the quartier of Marolles. It is used to designate the heterogeneity of objects that are sold and the jumble of their installation. The regulars of the market have a variety of examples at their disposal to explain its meaning and justify the difficulty of translation by the fact that it is from informal speech. So, is brol Bruxellois? If it is a word that is omnipresent in the lower class neighborhoods of downtown Brussels and it is included in the lexicons of Bruxellois speech, its area of diffusion and its etymology seems to connect it with other spaces. This poses the question of the historic trajectory of the word.
The etymology of the word brol carries it back to the original Germanic brod, that signifies brouiller [scramble], mix, cloud. This etymology is echoed in a series of Germanic as well as Latin terms, which explains its persistence in French as well as Dutch. The world “brouiller,” in its different acceptions, evokes alteration, the fact of being ruined, the shuffling of cards, the admixture of liquids or materials, the disorder of ideas as well as things. It is the source of the Italian imbroglio, the knot. In deriving words such as débrouillard [resourceful], brouillon [draft] or brouet [broth], which share with brol the seeds of the heterogeneity of composition, the mix of matter or of products. The term brol in its variant “broel” has long been documented in West Flanders (or perhaps it was itself a borrowing of the French word brouille). Given that this province, like other Flemish provinces, contributed to the migration towards Brussels in the 19th century, it is not impossible that brol followed the path of this rural exodus. Frequently used in Brussels and in Wallonia, brol was entered in the Petit Robert in 2008, with other French terms from Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Caribbean. There it is defined as disorder or clutter. Other French equivalents are bazar [bazaar] or camelote [junk].
Nevertheless, brol is more than that . . . If the word serves to designate objets de peu [objects of little value], useless, bulky (or not), it also often includes a special relationship with the latter. Brol is junk (but not only), bric-a-brac (but not just) . . . because these are also objects one clings to even if they are worth nothing, objects that one keeps in hope of doing something with them. They are invested with a memory that has no value beyond itself or a creative desire. They can be plural “my brols” or “your brols,” they can be really insignificant (“brolekkes” [brol + Flemish diminutive suffix]), they can be new or old but they always have a future—they are undecided, possible. There is thus also a “betwixt and between” dimension of brol which is situated between past attachment and a possible future. Neither its function not its value can ever be defined a priori or once and for all, it is always personal, singular, and uncertain. Brol is situated in a cyclic temporality of objects that are already used but not yet spent. As soon as one is sold, recuperated, maintained or transformed, it can escape the dustbin. Brol can thus generate the brol of brol, until reaching the stage of absolutely no value to anybody.
The flea market of Brussels, which is held every morning, is a true concentration of all these brol because it exposes to potential buyers the content of Bruxellois attics and basements without much of a preliminary sorting. In the boxes arranged on the ground itself, the family photo neighbours mismatched cups, honorific medals, old school notebooks, stirring together intimate memories with Belgian histories in the same broth. The market is the breadwinner of the vide-greniers [the attic-emptiers], the paradise of the scavenger, a supply site for antique dealers. . . It is thus a place of numerous interactions, exchanges, and sometimes tensions, as much in the moments of bargaining and discussion of the value of objects as in the moment of gleaning abandoned objects when the market comes to an end. The relationships between actors are sometimes cordial and cooperative, sometimes tense. Indeed, some tensions crystalize around the desire to organise the multiple uses of the market.
Like many central urban spaces, Marolles is today simultaneously exposed to strong real estate pressure and urban marketing strategies. The lower class neighbourhood, having long ago welcomed the precarious and the migrant, is situated in direct proximity to spaces undergoing powerful gentrification, like Salon, where the antique dealers are already well established. To attract new and wealthier residents, as well as tourists, public political will aims to rationalise, aestheticize, and maintain a certain order in the square of the old market, which occupies an ambiguous position in the process because it represents a source of nuisance as well as attraction for the middle class who wants to move into this area. They are bothered by the congestion and traffic brought by the market, but the intensive occupation of public space, as well as the garbage it produces. But they are drawn by the ambiance and atmosphere created by the market, which lends a strong identity to the quartier. For those who promote and contribute to the “revalorisation” and gentrification of Marolles, brol incarnates at once disorder in need of eradication and the very “authenticity” that makes it attractive. In the effort to reconcile these two sides, the authorities (notably the agency that promotes tourism in Brussels) have supported the creation of Brol National (a version of the market that specifically highlights products branded as “Belgian”) held on the day of national festivities. They also tried to impose matching white awnings for all the market vendors, but so far without success. This same simultaneous valorisation and eradication of “junk,” of “the abandoned,” is felt in the most ambitious urban developments in Brussels that aim to reconvert ancient industrial zones into lodging. As a symptom of these tendencies, the term “brolic audacity” was recently used by a journalist to describe politicians who authorized the precarious occupation of areas under transformation and the multiple projects that flourish there.
If there is thus an attachment to brol at the flea market, if some local associations seek to preserve it because it embodies “the soul of the neighbourhood,” today it is also instrumentalized by a politics of gentrification. These tensions became palpable in 2014, in response to an urban development project envisioning the reorganisation of the square to allow for an immense underground parking lot, which would have brought an end to the market. While for the moment those plans seem to have been abandoned due to the mobilisation of the local residents, many stakes remain actively at play around the polysemy of brol!