At the Place du Jeu de Balle

The famous flea market inspired Tintin’s creator, Hergé, and remains a place of glorious disorderliness where economics are boiled down to their simplest form.

Place du Jeu de Balle Flea Market in the Marolles district, Brussels.
Place du Jeu de Balle Flea Market in the Marolles district, Brussels. Credit: GAUTIER Stephane/SAGAPHOTO.COM / Alamy Stock Photo

On Place du Jeu de Balle in Brussels, you can find what is likely to be one of the world’s oldest flea markets. It is certainly the only one to be open every day of the year. The market initially took place on the Place Anneessens in the city centre but as one city councillor put it, the market ‘had a negative impact on the appearance of new central boulevards’ and was the moved to its current location, the more riff-raff Marolles neighbourhood in 1873. The Marché aux Puces of Paris faced a similar fate under the Haussmann renovation when it was moved outside of the old city fort.

I can appreciate the thinking behind these decisions; the Brussels market is an ugly mess. Every day, the square fills up with what can only be called stuff. Occasionally, some thought goes into how it is organised but for the most part, there is no rhyme nor reason as to how stalls are structured. A crystal chandelier is dumped next to a naked Barbie doll missing a leg; an enormous Chinese style vase is plonked next to a set of yellowing net curtains or a fur coat. As a result, shopping there feels like rummaging through a landfill site – which is the likely origin of most of the objects found there. It’s difficult to imagine the goods in their past life, lined up, brand-new in department stores maybe as long as a century ago.

Perhaps the strangest things are the photographs on sale. The market is filled with heart-shaped lockets holding sepia photos of someone’s long-dead sweetheart. They usually go for about five euros. Stranger still, there are a number of family trees drawn by children on sale. Each of them, drawn in crayon, feature little round photographs of ‘maman’, ‘papa’, ‘tonton’, ‘papi’ and finally ‘moi’. If the clothes and haircuts of the people in the photos are anything to go by, most of the family trees are at least twenty years old. I imagine the people featured on the tree’s branches would pay a fair amount, decades later, to be reunited with the drawing. But for the rest of us they are of no use whatsoever, save the opportunity to imagine people’s stories and ponder how the drawing ended up in the market.

The market certainly does spark the imagination. Possibly the most famous Belgian ever, Hergé, the creator of Tintin, gleaned images and costume ideas from the market and even used it as a launch point for the series’ eleventh volume, The Secret of the Unicorn Strolling through the market, Tintin spots an antique model ship amongst the clutter, which he buys for his friend Captain Haddock only to start a bidding war between two shady characters lurking around the stands. Hijinks and adventure ensue. The comic was adapted into a feature film directed by Steven Spielberg in 2011 which grossed $374 million—enough to buy everything in the market which inspired the premise of the film several hundred times over.

Having said that, it is completely impossible to determine the total value of the market; it shifts each time someone barters down the price, each time one of the vendors silently decides to flog an old rocking horse for five euros more than originally decided. The price fluctuates depending on who’s asking, and with each interaction you feel the stall holders’ eyes size you up, estimating how wealthy or stupid you are.

Avenue Louise (Brussels’ somewhat lacking answer to the Champs Elysée) is about a ten-minute walk away. There, you can find all the usual suspects of high fashion. One wonders the difference in what might be deemed a reasonable price for a handbag depending on whether it was found in Gucci’s Brussels branch or the market’s chaotic cluster of Tupperware tubs.

Because, if you’re able to consider them in isolation, there are ornaments, pieces of clothing and furniture at the market which, if transported a kilometre down the road, would fetch maybe a hundred times more than what even the most generous customer would pay at the Place du Jeu de Balle. But in a flea market, the objects degrade each other—a figurine of the Virgin seems somehow worth much more when placed among other saints’ statues and less when standing next to a rubber duck, for instance. The objects are stripped down to their purest value as the cost of making, designing, marketing, and branding them are long gone once they reach one of the collapsible tables on the square. The only factor that matters is the simplest of economic questions: how much do you want this thing?

The market is where I made one decision I really regret. Two years ago, a lobster made from brass caught my eye. I only had ten euros cash on me, and the vendor wasn’t going lower than twelve. I couldn’t be bothered to walk to the ATM the next street along and take out more money, so I didn’t buy it. Rent was also due that weekend, if I remember correctly. I think about that lobster and how much I liked it about once a week to this day. I’ve been back a few times to see if I can find it again, but with no luck. I’d probably pay about thirty euros now for it if I had the chance.


Eve Webster