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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Belgium's Biggest New Year's Reception

Every year in January, the city of Antwerp invites its citizens – and any tourists that happen to pass by – to a giant, public New Year's celebration on the main market square. When we still lived in our appartment in the city centre, literally a stone's throw away, we never missed it. There are free drinks for everyone – hot chocolate, soup or glühwein (hot wine) – and everyone gets a small present. And there were even free fries for everyone (with ketchup or mayonaise)! At least if you were willing to stand in line for half an hour. We queued up twice.

If you look around a bit, you have the chance to rub shoulders with the mayor and other local celebrities. But the nice thing is that the atmosphere is so nice that you just start talking to anyone and get to meet people you'd otherwise never talk to.

For the little ones, there was an antique merry-go-round, with swings and beautiful wooden swans. I took Wolf for a round on my lap. I had the impression that he didn't quite know what to make of the experience. I did, because it was freezing cold and I was glad when the thing finally stopped. But it was also fun to wave to mummy every time we wizzed by, while she was eating her giant pink 'Barbapappa' (sugar spin).

We didn't stay too long, because it was still very cold despite the hot food and drinks, but again it was very nice. We missed last year, because Wolf was still too small, but I hope we can make it back next year.

Posted by Bart at 9:19 PM
Categories: Being Belgian

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

First Fries

Today, my son became a true Belgian:

Wolf's first fries  

He ate his first fries. A true son of his father, he cried to get out of bed and when he discovered we were eating fries (or chips), there was no stopping him. After this tentative first fries, he continued to empty my plate. I can't tell you how proud I am.

And wait until he discovers mayonnaise!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Choo Choo Too

More pictures of those stunning miniature trains.

Model railroad in Turnhout (Belgium)  

Look at that! If it weren't for the 'giants' in the back, you'd think it was the real thing.

Model railroad in Turnhout (Belgium)  

Model railroad in Turnhout (Belgium)  

They are fun to ride too. And the miniature train driver has to do all the things the 'grown-ups' have to do: add a drip of oil here, clean there, shovel coal, build up steam, clean out the ashes and so on. And then: wheeeeeeeee!

Posted by Bart at 9:38 PM
Categories: Being Belgian, Framed

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Choo Choo

A couple of weeks ago, we were at my sister's to celebrate mother's day. She lives close to the park of her home town Turnhout, where right that day the annual Park Days were held. There's always a lot to do, including concerts, sports and games, and this:

Model railroad in Turnhout (Belgium)  

The park has its very own model railroad, courtesy of the local railfans. Each train you see here is handmade, a painstaking labour of love.

Model railroad in Turnhout (Belgium)  

Especially the models of old steam locomotives are stunning. Just look at that amount of detail, all built exactly to scale.

Model railroad in Turnhout (Belgium)  

Model railroad in Turnhout (Belgium)  

Even the magnificent station is a replica of the train station of Turnhout as it used to be. Turnhout is a city on the border between Belgium and Holland, and it used to be an important train hub. When the rail connection with the Netherlands was cut, the station went into decline and this magnificent structure ended on the scrap heap. But thanks to the modellers, the old glory relives in scale.

Posted by Bart at 8:52 PM
Edited on: Tuesday, June 03, 2008 8:54 PM
Categories: Being Belgian, Framed

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Dreaming Of A White Easter

At the end of a rather balmy winter, the weather gods have apparently became aware that they've been a tad on the lazy side this year. So they surprised us with a snow bombardment. Of course, the B-family was on the other side of the country when the first flakes gently floated down. By the time we said goodbye to Mrs B's big sister and mother, it was really snowing. Thirty minutes later, we were caught in a veritable blizzard. I barely missed a bunch of penguins on the highway.

This morning, we woke up to a beautiful blanket of snow. It was at least seven centimeters thick at places – eat your heart out indigenous tribes people we're not allowed to call 'Eskimoes' any more! But when I got off the train, it had already turned into that dreaded filthy mushy sludge that clings to your shoes, soaks your trousers and chills your feet faster than when you submerge them into liquid nitrogen. Wearing shoes with big cracks in the soles doesn't help either, so I spent the day in the office with cold, wet feet.

Can't wait until spring, Bandini.

Posted by Bart at 9:18 PM
Categories: Being Belgian

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Old Man River

Winter stroll along the banks of the river Dyle in Mechelen...

Locks on the river Dyle - Mechelen (Belgium)  

Locks on the river Dyle - Mechelen (Belgium)  

Dreary weather and structures like this go together like tits and whipped cream.

When doves cry: 'Quit shoving!'  

Pigeons waiting on the tarmac for their turn to take off.

Posted by Bart at 9:05 PM
Edited on: Thursday, March 13, 2008 9:06 PM
Categories: Being Belgian, Framed

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Belgicum

I joined a group of bloggers/photo-enthusiasts yesterday to visit a photo exhibition by Stephan Vanfleteren. 'Yes', you say, 'isn't that the famous photographer with his pictures of the dark, grimey, smelly, empoverished underside of Belgium?' And you're totally correct, dear readers. It's such a pleasure to know that my readership is entirely composed of the upper strata of intellectuals all around the globe.

But enough wanking, let's see some pictures. Because when you visit a photo exhibition with sixteen amateur/semi-pro/pro photographers, it's not just about looking pictures but also about taking them. And take pictures we did, more so than a busload of japanese tourists on steroids.

Belgicum - photo exhibition by Stephan Vanfleteren

It was the first time I visited Antwerp's Photo Museum - shame on me and my children and my children's children to the fourteenth generation. I'd be planning to for ages, and Artur's invitation seemed the perfect occasion.

Exhibition Belgicum by Stephan Vanfleteren

Exhibition Belgicum by Stephan Vanfleteren

Exhibition Belgicum by Stephan Vanfleteren

Did I mention it is an exhibition about Belgium?

Exhibition Belgicum by Stephan Vanfleteren

Exhibition Belgicum by Stephan Vanfleteren

Exhibition Belgicum by Stephan Vanfleteren - Piet

I was a bit surprised to see this picture, because I know this man. He's an old coal miner that lived close to my former office. He lost his leg in an accident, and in order to keep getting his social benefits, he has to have a medical examination each year to show that his leg hasn't grown on yet. True story, I'm not pulling your leg (yes, I know, but I'm very tired). For me, that story says as much about my country as Vanfleteren's pictures.

Exhibition Belgicum by Stephan Vanfleteren

Exhibition Belgicum by Stephan Vanfleteren

With 16+ people in the room with a camera, such scenes were very common: one person would take a picture, while a second photographer thinks it would be cool/funny to take a picture of the first one, while a third one would capture the second one shooting the first one and so on. There were probably five people taking a picture of me taking a picture of the two of them.

Drinks and photo talk in the Zuiderpershuis (Antwerp)

Afterwards, we went for a drink in the 'Zuiderpershuis' - an old pumping station turned into a cultural centre with a focus on the south. With so many cameras around one table, things got ugly from time to time. You know, people shooting each other and so on...

Having a drink in the Zuiderpershuis (Antwerp)

Snacks

Real photographers

Inspired by Vanfleteren's work, I started taking pictures of ugly people... KIDDING - just KIDDING!

Real cameras

There were two groups: the (semi) pro's, sporting cameras like these that come with their own laser ranging system, doppler radar and refrigerator to keep your drinks cool. By contrast, the cameras of the second group, the amateurs, looked almost like those disposable thingies you can buy in theme parks or at tourist attractions.

Interesting discussion

Smoking

Smoking can lead to some nasty effects, like photo geeks insisting on taking your picture.

Statue of Maria on a restauration project

After the drinks, a small group of us went for a walk in the city, to practice what we'd learned from the great master (and from each other).

Puppet in a mirror

Antwerp - wooden structure on wall

Antwerp - graffiti

Suske & Wiske - Bob and Bobette

Antwerp, the birth place of Bob and Bobette (or rather: Suske and Wiske). Antwerp - and many other Belgian cities - boasts a number of comics figures on such walls all over the city.

City lights

As light was fading, my trusty camera reached its limits. So time to get 'creative'.

Shopping window

One final picture, and then I had to run to get my bus. Wolf and Mrs.B were waiting for their diners.

Posted by Bart at 10:32 PM
Edited on: Sunday, January 27, 2008 10:37 PM
Categories: Being Belgian, Framed

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Old Flanders

Last month we went to Bokryk, an open air museum and park in the beautiful and green province of Limburg. I can't count how many times I went there as a boy on various school trips. History has always fascinated me, and Bokryk is like being dropped smack bang in 14th to 19th century Flanders. Or a slightly dusted-off version of it.

Farmer's bedroom  

A farmer's bedroom in a typical cottage. Places like this begg to be photographed in black&white or sepia.

Beetroot  

Carts and charriots  

Champetter  

It's not just static displays of old houses and tools. Things are quite lively thanks to a bunch of actors that take their role to heart. This local sheriff, or champetter in the Flemish dialects, gave anyone visiting his village a stern look.

Game of cow dung dropping  

Visitors can place a bet on the cow dung game. A meadow is divided into 10x10 fields and then they let a cow in. Then, everybody waits until the cow drops her load and if it's in your field you win. I want to emphasise that modern Flemish people do not spend their weekends staring at cows until they do a poo. Instead we watch local television, which is shit anyway. Oh, well. That's progress for you.

Farmers  

These lot were very weary about my camera, until I explained it was a gift from the devil that would capture their souls.

Farmer's wife  

Vegetable garden  

I want a garden like this. With a windmill in the background.

For whom the bells toll...  

Cemetary  

Herbs and spices drying  

Lace making in Bokryk  

Any tourist that's been to Belgium knows that Bruges is famous for its lace, but it was not the only place where lace was produced. This lady is making needle lace, while in the front you can see the implements to make bobbin lace.

Old machine  

The is an old machine to make... things... and... stuff.

Mushroom on birch tree  

Nun in Bokryk  

Antique photo camera  

I don't care how much easier it is to make pictures with a digital camera, it will never be as beautiful as this venerable machine.

This little piggie went to the market  

This little piggie went to the market... AND WAS NEVER SEEN AGAIN!

The priest herds his flock  

The catholic priest herded his flock and protected the villagers against those dangerous socialists who tried to poison the workers with crazy ideas about workers' rights, the right to vote, equality and other rubbish.

Pumpkin flower  

The notary's house  

A look inside the house of the local gentry, probably a notary or a lawyer, or maybe even the mayor.

School's out for ever  

Shoemaker's tools  

Inside the shoemaker's shop.

The old town in Bokryk  

The market square with lots of pubs  

Bokryk even has an old town, with an old market square, with old pubs. We are in Belgium after all.

Horses' tredmill  

Pre-industrial revolution mechanics: a tredmill driven by one horsepower.

View on a village from the Haspengouw region in Belgium  

Village pub  

The village pub.

Windmill in Bokryk  

I just love windmills.

Windmill in Bokryk  

Labourer's wife in her Sunday dress  

The wife of a coal miner. Poor people from all over Belgium would leave their rural villages go and work into the coal mines in Limburg and the French speaking south of Belgium. They would wear the same clothes all week long, but on Sunday they had to dress up nice to attend mass.

Posted by Bart at 3:41 PM
Edited on: Thursday, October 25, 2007 3:27 PM
Categories: Being Belgian, Framed

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Banana Split

All’s not well in the kingdom of Belgium. Three months after the general elections, we are closer to general political mayhem than to a functioning government. Given the fines you can get here for not voting (is mandatory here) or not showing up when you’re selected for polling station duty, you’d think that you’d be served quickly.

Not that strong and lengthy discussions are rare here. We have loads of political parties here, for one because every political family here is split into a French speaking and a Flemish speaking party. There’s no ‘winner takes all’ here, every government is a coalition and compromising is a way of living here for politicians. As a consequence, no-one really knows what’s going on anymore. We have a state that is utterly complicated and its difficult to see the differences between the ideas of most political parties because their programmes overlap so much.

So to distinguish themselves, a couple of Flemish parties decided to try to win the voters’ vote by pretending they could single-handedly end the eternal strife between the Flemish and French-speaking parties by simply telling those bloody Walloons how things are going to run from now on. They called this ‘good government’.

The Walloons – not as stupid as they may look at first glance – thought it was not a good idea to be dictated what to do and what not, and surprisingly blocked the coalition talks. How quaint! It doesn’t help either that the leader of the Flemish Christian-democrat/nationalist cartel insists on insulting the people south of the language barrier.

This trouble between the Flemish and French speaking parties is not new. What is new – and worrying – is that there doesn’t seem to be anyone anymore that understands the importance of collaboration between the different parts of the country. We may speak two languages here (actually three, we have a couple of thousand of German speaking hobbyists as well), but economically we are but one region. To split it requires nuclear precision and doesn’t make any sense. People move around, economic and social development comes and goes and the situation constantly evolves over time. Some politicians used to realise this, and they were always able to glue things together. But now it seems that the glue is missing.

Another thing is that both politicians and the media – at least in my part of the country – seem to pretend that splitting is not only feasible, but also easy. Newspapers and TV stations present different scenarios and dubious polls.

I work at a bilingual organisation. My boss speaks French, our bigger boss speaks Dutch, our biggest boss speaks Dutch, about half of my colleagues speak French. Not everyone’s knowledge of the other language is perfect, but there are language courses and they are popular. And most importantly, we get along fine and when we have discussions, it is never about language.

What could I win when Belgium splits in two (or three, or four)? I’d have to take an ‘international’ train from where I live (Antwerp) to the foreign country of Brussels/Wallonia. For your information: that’s a 40km ride. Maybe I won’t need an international passport, a visa or a work permit – after all we do live in Europe. But you can bet I will need to pay taxes in both countries. I will have to adapt to two sets of legislation. And I’m not the only one, because hundreds of thousands of Flemish people work in Brussels (which is a predominantly French speaking region).

So can someone kick those ballooning egos under the butt and find us some reasonable people?

Posted by Bart at 9:31 PM
Categories: Being Belgian

Monday, July 23, 2007

Nah Nahnah Nahnaaaah…

Slight hiccup from our Prime-Minister-to-be (at least that’s what he’d like to be) Yves Leterme. We had national elections a couple of weeks ago, and as usual a lot of Flemish parties tried to profile themselves by claiming that they would single-handedly end the abuses from the French-speaking part of the country and lead the way to Flemish independence. The French-speaking parties on the other hand wallowed themselves in the pool of innocence and did their utmost to prove that they are soooo rational and that they’re the only protectors of unity, defending the realm against those mad separatists from the other side of the language barrier.

But no party can form a government on its own, they always need a coalition and a coalition of Flemish AND Wallonian (French-speaking) parties at that. But they all did their best to annoy the other ones during the elections.

The ‘big winners’ of the elections were the Flemish Christian Democrats, who can now present their candidate for the title of Prime Minister. But because their big giant head Mr. Leterme called the French speaking part of the country a bunch of morons, he is not very popular and he doesn’t seem to get a government going.

And then he made it even more difficult for himself by showing just how stupid he can be if he really wants to. A (French speaking) journalist asked him to sign the national anthem – the Belgian national anthem because every potato field has one here. Mr. would-be-PM didn’t just fail to remember the right lines. He started to sing the French national anthem! What a moron! What a dork!

The text of our national anthem is actually not that difficult. In fact it is very easy; every Belgian knows it:

Nah nahnah nahnaaaah
Nah nahnah nah nah naaaaanah
Nahnah nah nah nah nah nah nahnaaah
Nanah nah nah nah nah nah nah nahnah naaaahnah
Nah nah nah nah nahnah nah nah naaaah
Nah nahnah nah nahnah nah nah naaahnah
Nah nahnah nahnah nah nahnahnaaaah
Nah nah nahnah nah nahnahnah nah naaaanah
Nah naaah nah nahnaah na nah naaah
Nah nah nahnah nah nahnahnah nah naaaanah
- everybody! -
Nah naaah nah nahnaah na nah naaah
Nah naaah nah nahnaah na nah naaah
Nah naaah nah nahnaah na nah naaah
Taaaradzim!

See, I even know it by heart!

Posted by Bart at 9:42 PM
Categories: Being Belgian

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Ardennes In Early Spring

We went to the Ardennes for the Easter weekend. It's a beautiful mountainous region in the south-east of Belgium. It's one of the few more-or-less natural reserves we have in this country, excellent for walking. And photography of course.

Forest road between the pine trees in the Ardennes  

Can you smell the resin?

Dead pine tree (Belgium - Ardennes)  

Dead wood with banks of mushrooms (Belgium - Ardennes)  

Small forest lake (Belgium - Ardennes)  

Moss in the undergrowth (Belgium - Ardennes)  

Forest stream (Belgium - Ardennes)  

The area is criss-crossed by small streams and rivulets. Sometimes there are small bridges or trees laid over them. But sometimes you have to wade through, as we had to do at this point.

Butterfly (Belgium - Ardennes)  

Branch (Belgium - Ardennes)  

Spring is in the air!

 

Horses in a meadow (Belgium - Ardennes)  

Daisies (Belgium - Ardennes)  

I used to eat these when I was a baby.

Cranes in flight (Belgium - Ardennes)  

We heard a strange sound and looked up. It's a flight of cranes flying to the north.

Bison (Belgium - Ardennes)  

Bison (Belgium - Ardennes)  

These ladies are not native but immigrants from North-America. My brother lives on a bison farm.

Bison in close-up (Belgium - Ardennes)  

Posted by Bart at 5:46 PM
Categories: Being Belgian, Framed

Friday, October 20, 2006

Dirty Pictures

In order to further discourage smoking, especially by youngsters, our government has decided that the cigarette producers have to put ‘dirty pictures’ on the packets of cigarettes.

What moron thought of this? I would think that dirty pictures would attract young boys rather than frighten them. If anything, it will be a reason to start smoking:

- “Did you see my latest cancer picture yet?

- “Whoaaaaw, that’s soooo gross. I’ll trade you for three pictures of tar lungs!

- “Nah, everyone has tar lungs.

- “How about rotting fingers? I’ve got some nice ones of rotting fingers.

- “Ok, show me.

These fools clearly know nothing of the psyche of young boys, or of the psyche of grown men for that matter. Grown men are very fond of dirty pictures, that’s the whole reason why they spend so much time on the internet.

Except me of course, because I’m above that sort of thing, being a married man and all that.

Posted by Bart at 8:11 PM
Categories: Being Belgian

Monday, October 02, 2006

Sing And Dance Against Intolerance

Belgium is running to the ballot box again next Sunday, for the local elections. So our letter box got stuffed with election adds the last couple of weeks. Despite having some interest in politics, I couldn’t tell you what the points of view of most of the Flemish parties are, except in general terms. The socialists want more jobs and better social welfare, the liberal democrats want less taxes and less government, the greens want more green and the nationalists want all of the above as long as they don’t have to share it with the French-speaking part of Belgium.

No, the really big question of these elections is whether the Flemish extremist party Vlaams Belang will rise in popularity or not. Vlaams Belang (which you can translate by Flemish interests but also by Flemish importance), formerly known as Vlaams Blok is a party that has grown out of the Flemish nationalist party Volksunie (People’s Union) when its founding fathers thought that that parties’ demands concerning the independence of Flanders were not radical enough. In the beginning the Vlaams Blok was mainly popular with people who gambled wrong during the Second World War and grew a moustache to copy the one the Führer had brought into fashion at the time. So the party was a marginal phenomenon until a number of young hotshots with equally wrong ideas but with a far better communication strategy took power. Their populist programme was remarkably simple and clear:

  1. Whatever the other parties say is wrong, they are morons and we know what’s best for the people and what the people want, which is exactly the opposite of what the other parties say.
  2. Moroccans and other Muslims are to blame for crime, insecurity and unemployment, and should be transported by military plane back to their country.
  3. French speaking people are to blame for being French speaking people, for not speaking Dutch, for speaking at all and for making holes in ‘our’ social security.
  4. Politicians of other parties are to blame for all the rest. Especially French speaking politicians, who love the king and queen too much and who secretly dominate the government in order to make more holes in social security and import Moroccans.
  5. Democracy is for wimps, because any idiot can see that we’re right.

As you can see it avoids any nuances that might make it difficult to understand, unlike the programmes of those other democratic parties (poufs!) They gave the Vlaams Blok a nice present too, by making sure that their stupid ideas could never be faced with reality. They were given the gift of perfect isolation in what’s known as the Cordon Sanitaire, so that the Vlaams Blok could grow without hinder and indulge in its role of the eternal underdog. They’re masters of populist communication and a number of law suits against the party and its subsidiaries concerning xenophobic behaviour gave them ever more votes, although they had to change their name into ‘Vlaams Belang’.

At the moment, Vlaams Belang can count on one third of the voters in Flanders and it’s become the largest party here. So keeping it out of power requires some political DIY-ing of the highest order. And now the 1000 € question is: will they gain absolute control of a number of municipalities or cities in Flanders? While the 500 € question is: will local delegates of other parties fall for their power and make a coalition with them?

Civil liberties are at stake here, so it’s no trivial matter. Although in such a scenario they will do their utmost to prove that they are a ‘decent’ party that know very well how to govern a city, thank you very much. At the local level, they can’t deport foreigners with suspicious dark tans, but they can make life harder for them. And for us too! I don’t want them to spend all our money on a police force that controls my every move, chase away companies and break down social and cultural infrastructure.

The fuel for this party are the feelings of insecurity and intolerance. Me! Me! Me! And not you! Things need to change to how I want them and right this minute!

So it was about time that those brave and good souls that still form the majority of the population here to make a stand. A bold but positive statement, to show that not all of us are racists or wining nincompoops. So stand we did, with 100.000 people in four cities in the whole of the country, in a great and free concert to celebrate tolerance. Even massive rain and hail showers couldn’t chase us!

And the extremists grumbled in their dark holes and prepared their dark plans…

Posted by Bart at 7:10 PM
Categories: Being Belgian

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Sandwich Sociology

In a daring and breathtaking bit of sociological participatory research, I discovered that eating a plain sandwich in public is not done in Belgium these days.

I went out to buy a bunch of presents during my lunch break. She-who-teases-me-with-my-old-age is celebrating her 28th birthday tomorrow, getting another step closer to the big three-O. Meanwhile, a friend of mine has reproduced by means of his wife, but more on that tomorrow. So since I had to run errands and have lunch in the same short span of time, I walked merrily towards the subway station while simultaneously munching my sandwiches.

It was then that I noticed people were staring at me. Not just one or two of them but almost everybody I crossed. There was nothing extraordinary about my lunch: three sandwiches made from two slices of whole-wheat bread, one with spiced ham, one with chicken-curry and one with veal-in-mustard-sauce. Granted, they were big slices of bread, but not that big either. Yet people eyed me with suspicion and disbelief.

I met three youngsters chewing overstuffed pitas in the subway, but they didn’t get any looks. I saw someone hurling through the street in an attempt to catch the bus while eating a slice of pizza and no-one seemed to care. Dozens of people were milling down the omnipresent baguette or waffles or fruit or fries, but all that is perfectly fine.

But the humble sandwich, the working class’ lunch-item number one is socially repressed here. I think it’s outrageous that people here are condemned to a lower status because of their choice of lunch! It’s only a matter of time before we’re treated as second class citizens. We’ll have to sit in separate lunchrooms or be restricted to the back of the bus while we’re eating. It’s discrimination, that’s what it is. Forget about all that bickering between Flemish and Walloons, or the discrimination of people from Northern Africa. This is far more serious because nobody dares to bring it out in the open. Until now that is! Remember, you read it first on Bartlog.

And before someone asks, I did eat with my mouth closed.

Posted by Bart at 10:54 PM
Categories: Being Belgian

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Park Life

The weather’s been lovely the last couple of days. Actually it was rather hot. Make that extremely hot, I’ve been sweating like a woolly rhinoceros in a Turkish steam bath. In short, the weather is terrible here. Damn global warming!

The bright side to this is that we have a park right in front of our office, complete with tall trees, lush lawns, frivolous fountains with Donald, Daffy and Daisy Ducks and broad benches to seat your big bottom on. It’s quite a large park and it has a lot of benches, but it is also located in a city district stuffed with offices, including the European commission and its subsidiaries. So finding an empty park bench can be quite difficult during lunch hour. Of course it has to be an empty park bench. We Belgians are reserved to the point of being anti-social, so we wouldn’t dream of sharing a park bench with someone we don’t know. This despite the fact that the benches are a full three meters long, which means they can provide parking space for quite a number of arses, depending on their respective width and expanding volume once the hard wood makes contact with blubberised fast-food and candy bars.

So once a single person has seated himself or herself on a bench, it’s taken. Gone forever. Conquered. Unavailable. Out of the running.

When you walk trough the park during lunch time on a beautiful day as this, you will see people running around with their brown paper bags or lunch boxes in hand, peering from one side of the park to the other in the hope to find an empty bench. The benches most sought for are the ones in the shade of one of those big trees. Only die-hard sunbathers take a bench in the full blaze of the sun and generally they have to flee it after ten minutes or so. When two people find their looking for a bench at the same time, they will nervously try to beat the other one.

In any case, what everyone tries desperately to avoid is to be left with the dreaded Shit Bench. Oh, many a desperate luncher has felt his relieved grin fading away when they found out that this last free bench they discovered in the shadow of the big chestnut tree on the west-side of the park turned out to be the Shit Bench. For some reason, this tree attracts billions of pigeons that reserve one particular branch right above this bench as their public toilet. This poor bench is for the most part covered in a layer of white slurry and most people wouldn’t dream to take a seat here.

But amazingly, some people seem so desperate to find a seat in the park, that they ignore the pigeon poo. They precariously lower themselves on the small corner that’s free of droppings, eating their sandwiches and salads while forcing their backs away from the back of the bench. Others even pretend their nose bleeds and plant their finely dressed office ass on the bench, poo or no poo.

You have to be desperate to sit there. It’s a sure sign your career has reached a tragic ending. Everyone has seen you sitting on the Shit Bench; you’ve become an outcast, a pariah.

Lunching in the park: it’s the survival of the fittest.

Posted by Bart at 10:43 PM
Edited on: Wednesday, July 12, 2006 10:54 PM
Categories: Being Belgian

Monday, June 26, 2006

Pointless Violence

A couple of months ago, the generally rather peaceful people of Belgium were frightened out of their peaceful dreams by a murder. A seventeen year old boy was murdered by two Polish youngsters, stabbed to death during the short fight that ensued when he and his friend refused to hand over his iPod. What frightened people was that it didn’t happen in some back alley in the dead of night, but in Brussels Central Station, one of the busiest railway stations in the country, smack bang in the middle of rush hour. Thousands of bystanders couldn’t prevent the incident or bring Joe back to life.

A couple of weeks ago, an 18 year old Belgian boy walks into a store selling guns and arms, and buys himself a small arsenal. Then he sets off for a walk trough the historical centre of Antwerp, shooting at anyone with a brown skin. He wounds a woman of Turkish origin and kills another Malinese woman. She was babysitting a two year old Belgian girl, which he also blasted to pieces. He was stopped when a police officer shot him in the belly. He acknowledged later that he had racist motifs.

Last Saturday, a 54 year old man was kicked to death on a bus in Antwerp. A group of youngsters were fighting on the bus, and he tried to intervene to calm things down. His community feeling was not appreciated; all the youngsters turned against him and started to kick him. When the bus stopped, they ran away and subsequently the man suffered a fatal heart attack.

The media call this ‘pointless violence’, but it seems to me all violence is pointless.

People are getting the impression they’re living in Iraq, and in line with an old Belgian tradition, they feel the government(s) should do something about it. But maybe they should look at what they can do, such as giving their children an education and not expecting that the school and the state raise their children. Or try to help when it’s needed instead of pretending they’re hard-boiled in front of the cameras.

Posted by Bart at 9:50 PM
Categories: Being Belgian

Monday, April 24, 2006

'Doing A Terrace'

The first rays of sunshine have finally reached Belgian soil, after a long, cold and depressive winter. There’s a park right across the door of the office, so I ate my sandwich outdoors today, on a park bench in the shade, looking at the dogs play and smelling the fresh spring smell of the plants and flowers.

Lovely!

Belgians wait eagerly for these first moments of spring sunshine, because after a long winter stop, they can finally eat and drink outdoors again, on the terrace of a pub or restaurant. In the Flemish part, we call this ‘doing a terrace’. In fact, we’re so fond of it that it has become a bit ridiculous really. This weekend the sun was shining, but that doesn’t mean it was warm at all. Still, people were sitting on the terraces, dressed in coats and pullovers, or just huddling close together and trembling on their seats. The weather forecast said it was going to be warm (they were wrong of course), so we’re going to SIT OUTSIDE, even if our bums freeze off.

Another consequence of this Belgian terrace mania is that a lot of cafés and restaurants installed devices to allow their customers to survive the freezing cold and still sit outside. This starts with gas-heaters that make you melt at one side and freeze at the other. Then there are windshields at both sides of the terrace. Some will also make a roof to protect you from the rain. And finally, there’s the wind shield at the front, to make it nice and cosy. Now tell me, if you’re completely surrounded by walls, with a roof over your head and with a heating installed at the interior, why do people still call these ‘terraces’? In my dictionary, this is a building, or rather an add-on to a building. And generally, it’s an ugly add-on too. Plus, it blocks the sidewalks, often you have to walk on the street to pass these contraptions.

So, fellow countrymen and -women, make a choice: sit outside when the weather permits, or don’t if it’s too cold. But don’t pretend you’re outside when in fact you’re sitting in a damp, ugly, half-cold-half-warm dump without a decent view!

Posted by Bart at 9:22 PM
Categories: Being Belgian

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Law And Order

Antwerp has a brand new Court of Justice, the old building just apparently couldn’t handle all the crime that happens in the city. Today, she-who-doesn’t-want-to-put-out-the-garbage-because-she-claims-she’d-throw-up was invited to a drink in honour of the festive opening of the Lawyers’ Dressing Room (she’s a lawyer herself).

I asked her when the drink in honour of the festive opening of the toilets would take place.

Next week there will be a diner party to the festive opening of the broom cupboard, the King and Queen will cut the ribbon.

Posted by Bart at 2:17 PM
Categories: Being Belgian

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Lost in Translation

Because ministers here have nothing better to do with their – hugely overpaid – time, one member of the Flemish government has deemed it necessary to order that all Flemish cities should henceforth only be known by their Flemish (Dutch language) name. You see, in 1988 the national government decided that municipalities close to the language border and certain large cities should be referable both by their Dutch and their French name. So Antwerpen (Dutch name) is know by the French speaking population as Anvers. In English it is Antwerp of course. Gent (D) is Gand (F) or Ghent in English, and Brussel (D) is Bruxelles (F) is Brussels (E). So far so good.

Now that the authority to take decisions over these extremely important matters is transferred from national (federal) level to the three communities (French speaking, Dutch speaking and German speaking), the Flemish government apparently made it a priority to get somewhat more on the French speaking people’s nerves by forbidding the use of the French names. Needless to say, this move was very important to us, Flemish people, since it offers us such clear advantages as … ehm … and …er… and not to forget …Idunno…

This game has been going on for a while, and it leads to some annoying side effects. Especially to the poor foreigner who has to traverse our country. You see, it is very strictly forbidden to use the French designations for places on the highway and street signs in the Flemish part of the country. People that are caught writing Flemish names of places on signs in the French speaking part of the country will also be shot on the spot for this unforgivable error. So assume that you would want to go to the city of Mons in Wallonia coming from England and traversing Flanders. Would you know you had to follow the signs mentioning ‘Bergen’? Apparently people coming from Brussels and going to Liège via the ring way around Brussels can follow signs pointing out the direction to Liège, until they come to the very point where they have to get of the ring way and take another highway, because there the sign says ‘Luik’ instead of ‘Liège’. Unfortunately, that particular off ramp is located on Flemish territory, making it illegal to put up a sign with the French name of this rather important city.

Another problem is that people with nothing better to do on both sides of the language border, amuse themselves on otherwise boring Sundays by spray-painting over the French or Flemish name on the signs on the borderof their municipality. Of course, because everybody starts to do this – yelling ‘they started it’ as adults do – it has become very difficult to see in which place you’ve actually arrived.

My advice: when you come to Belgium, take a GPS system with you.

Posted by Bart at 7:28 PM
Categories: Being Belgian

Monday, February 06, 2006

Blasphemy in Belgium

Even Belgium didn’t escape the worldwide frenzy of Muslims protesting against the alleged blasphemy against their prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper. Yesterday, a spontaneous protest march crossed Brussels, gathering momentum and people as it went along. It ended at the buildings of the Flemish and French-speaking television channels, where the protesters demanded both stations to stop emitting the infamous picture. Meanwhile, all their protests have made many newspapers across Europe take over the picture in which Mohammed is depicted with a turban or headscarf in the form of a bomb.

It’s strange to look at this global attack on all things Danish and Norwegian – the second country where the cartoons were published. ‘Provocative’ and ‘controversial’ are not exactly the first words that pop into one’s mind when these countries are mentioned. Meanwhile, I pity those poor people working for the Danish/Norwegian embassies in the Muslim world. EU buildings are also a prime target, and in several countries, people have called for a boycott against Danish/Norwegian/EU products. This included Palestine, which made me wonder if those countries would also call for a boycott on EU subsidies and aid assistance.

The demonstration in Brussels on the other hand was peaceful and relatively calm, despite being unauthorised. This stood in sharp contrasts to events in many other countries, which shows that Muslims in Belgium are integrated quite well and have taken over some of our lethargy.

Belgians react in a much calmer way to blasphemy than some people in the Middle East. When Belgium’s largest brewer InBev (the former Interbrew) announced that it would increase the size of the beer glasses with 2 centilitres, going from the traditional 33 cl. to an unheard of 35 cl, no-one started to fling bricks and iron bars towards buildings. There was some protest from the pub owners, because these two centilitres don’t make much difference for the customers (they claimed), but on a whole barrel it does make a difference for the pubs. And it’s difficult for them to raise the price of beer, because already less and less people are visiting pubs so more and more of them go bankrupt.

Interbrew reacted by saying that the idea wasn’t that the glasses be fuller, but that the foamy top of the beer should be made larger to a full two centimetres, because that was ‘what the costumers wanted’. Let me immediately intervene here in the name of the Belgian beer drinkers and state clearly and officially that this is bullshit! Granted, we don’t like those English froth-less beers where the glass is full but the beer is flat and without energy. But that’s no reason to turn our beers into a Parisian coffee with whipped cream on top and a biscuit on the side.

In any other country, such blasphemy would lead to a full scale revolt in which rulers get hanged, buildings get torched and public morals sink to an all time low making it possible to get a free shag on every street corner. But not here, reserved, law-abiding and calm as we are (triple ahem). You don’t see us throwing stuff through windows and raiding other people’s embassies.

Now if someone were to draw a picture of a pint of beer with the foamy top shaped like a turban shaped like an old-fashioned bomb…

THEN things would turn ugly!

Posted by Bart at 7:26 PM
Categories: Being Belgian


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