Saturday, 27 February 2010

Sorry, Belgium

I'm really, really sorry. The ridiculous, posturing Nigel Farage used his status as an MEP last week to launch a tirade of abuse at the EU President, Mr van Rompuy - and at Belgium generally.

I just hope Belgians (whether Fleming or Walloon - but that's a distinction Mr Farage probably doesn't grasp) realise that this view of Belgium is not commonly shared in England.

Coming from Norwich, which in the 15th century was part of a cosmopolitan northern European trading network and in the 16th century accepted a large number of immigrants from the Spanish Netherlands, I feel Belgium is in some ways part of my own culture - the paths of Holland, Belgium and Norfolk have always been linked.

And if Belgium is a 'non-country' because it was for years colonised byv the Spanish, that presumably means India is a non-country - and so is the United States. Heck, the States belonged to three separate owners - France, Britain and Spain - how much more of a non-country can you get?

So: what did the Belgians ever do for us?

  • Frites. The humble chip, in Belgian hands, becomes a gastronomic delight, with a choice of mayonnaise or up to twenty different sauces. For a full meal, just add mussels - moules frites is one of the great classic dishes of the world.

  • Beer. While it's possible to spend your time in Belgium drinking Stella or Jupiler, head for the good beer houses to explore the artisanal traditions of lambic, oud bruin, and saison beers. I particularly like my lambics - beers like Rodenbach Grand Cru and Duchesse de Bourgogne have a sweet-and-sour character and strong flavour that makes them rival a really good pint of porter in my affections.

  • Chocolate. Now I have to tread carefully here because of my French partner who will no doubt tell me that the best chocolate in the world is French. But the Belgians really don't do chocolate badly.

  • Speculoos. Snappy crackly little ginger biscuits with your coffee.

  • Tintin, the boy reporter. I can imagine the world without Tintin - but I can't imagine it without Captain Haddock or Madame Castafiore, or Snowy the little dog (Milou, in French). HergĂ©'s Tintin has afforded generations of children, and adults, immense delight. Belgium is still one of those nations where le BD - bande dessinĂ©e, comic, graphic novel - is treated seriously; it has a comics museum, even. And if you haven't discovered the amazingly strange comics, fantastic architectures and perverse worldview of Schuiten & Peeters, you must - Piranesi's prisons updated to the 21st century.

  • Simenon's Maigret, a brooding, intuitive detective who knocks the faux-Belge Poirot into a cocked hat. Excellent, moody books. As for the crimes, they're a bit darker than you find in Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers .

  • Marvellous art nouveau architecture - Brussels is one of the best places in the world to see it. You can mix great Belgian beer with art noov if you visit the Mort Subite brasserie - drink your faro and see yourself reflected into infinity in the huge mirrors.

  • Rubens - a great baroque artist, perhaps the greatest working north of the Alps. Mr Farage really ought to be told that Britain owes this great Belgian painter a debt of thanks for creating the paintings of the Banqueting House in Whitehall - not far from the Houses of Parliament. (Van Dyck, another Belgian, pretty much created the seventeenth-century English portrait school - as well as the preferred royal iconography of Charles I.)

  • Gothic Belgium - you will never see a greater Gothic city than Bruges, with its chivalric culture, its canals, its great churches, its paintings, the quiet alleyways where ivy and wisteria grow, the busy market square, the little fish market under tall trees. If Belgium had only given us Bruges, and nothing else, it would still be memorable.

  • Mr van Rompuy. A politician who writes haiku; and in the proper Japanese tradition, writes them all the time (the ones on his website are this year's; so far, a good handful).  My Flemish isn't good enough to say how good they are, but what I have managed to read, I liked. Maybe what Mr Farage needs is to go off and sit in a Zen garden for a while, and learn to write haiku instead of making speeches.

So thank you, Belgium. An odd country, for sure, but not a 'non-country' by any means.

1 comment:

  1. Hear Hear.

    Dreadful to be associated by nationality wiht that awful man. I love Belgium! often seen by the brists as just somewhere you drive through on the way to somewhere else, but a lovely country in its own right!