I lived for 13 years in Belgium and a very happy 13 years they were. It’s easy to get around, it’s got urban, rural, all the major bands play there, it’s got loads going on, you’re near stuff elsewhere – day trips shopping in Lille, or going to stadium gigs in France, Christmas market in Aachen. Yes there are internal tensions, but that’s not unique – there doesn’t seem to me to be much love lost between north and south England sometimes, and I’m sure some French people would love the idea of getting shot of Paris! Most countries of continental Europe have existed in some other form in the past – why single Belgium out as a non-country on that basis?
Various things do unite Belgians, and perhaps most importantly, distinguish them from their neighbours in France and the Netherlands. For example, try getting a meal in a restaurant in the Netherlands after 9.30 pm: in all parts of Belgium kitchens are often open past midnight and they do enjoy their food and leisure in a very non-Northern European way. You can even eat the kebabs when you’re sober…!
There’s the old chestnut that there are no famous Belgians. A very trendy restaurant in central Brussels has a wall covered with the names of famous Belgians, which makes you realise that the problem is most people think the famous Belgians are from somewhere else. Even if we discount the many famous Flemish School painters, on the basis that Belgium didn’t exist as a separate nation then, the Belga Queen will tell you that the famously French Johnny Hallyday is Belgian.
Another famous Belgian that most people think is French is the incomparable Jacques Brel. I came across him only a few years ago, when I was asked to do a speech on him for the annual Caledonian Society Burns Supper. One “best of ” album from iTunes and a bit of googling later, and I was hooked. Interestingly in light of some of the recent discussion, he was fiercely proud of being Belgian. Not Flemish, not Walloon, but Belgian. He once said:
“If I were king, I would send all the Flemings to Wallonia and all the Walloons to Flanders for six months. Like military service. They would live with a family and that would solve all our ethnic and linguistic problems very fast. Because everybody’s tooth aches in the same way, everybody loves their mother, everybody loves or hates spinach. And those are the things that really count.”
He wrote the achingly lovely “Le Plat Pays” a love song to his country which doesn’t dress it up, but for me really captures a lot about the place. Here he is in action:
If you’re not familiar with him, you have to watch his performance of Amsterdam, I’ve watched this loads, heard the song hundreds of times, but it still give me goosebumps.