Describing the intricacies of culture is like mapping the human genome – pitted with difficulties. Khaled Diab spoke to a number of people in Belgium to find out what makes the country tick culturally.
Culture is important in Belgium. After all, how many countries can claim to have been born in, of all places, the opera house, even if opera was originally conceived as an art form for the masses.
The Belgian revolution – a middle-class uprising par excellence – began following a rousing performance of Auber's La Muette de Portici in August 1830, when the disgruntled bourgeoisie audience took to the streets to demand their linguistic, religious and economic rights from William I of Orange.
But there is more to culture than the high forms of opera and classical music. In fact, when writing an article about any national culture a number of difficulties arise: defining what exactly ‘culture' is, trying to sum it up in a limited space, and describing it meaningfully without descending into clichéd stereotypes or generalisations.
Derived from the Latin colo, meaning ‘to cultivate', culture covers literally every aspect of our lives that is not innate, from our morning tea or coffee to high literature and fine art.
To overcome some the pitfalls, I have been out and about find out what Belgian have to say about their culture.
A-Z of Belgian culture
Although Flemings and Walloons often share similar cultural interests, there are very few communal cultural spaces left. There are no national newspapers or television stations, no national theatre and no national cultural bodies. This is a side effect of the country's devolution and increasing federalisation. The cultural tastes of the two main communities can diverge quite significantly, particularly when it comes to popular music.
Flanders and Walloonia each have their own distinctive traditional architectural character. The Flemish have followed a more ‘low countries' style, while the Walloons have employed a more French look.
Belgium, as a whole, has been at the forefront of the modernist architectural movement, with pioneering Belgian architects, such as Victor Horta, setting the tone for the art decoand art nouveau styles.
Bricks and mortar
The Belgian propensity for architectural innovation should come as no surprise given the affection in which they hold their houses. “Every Belgian is born with a brick in the stomach”, is a popular belief here. In fact, many Belgians would rather build their own homes than buy an existing property. The downside of this is that the country has fallen prey to ‘ribbon' urbanisation in which towns and villages connect to one another in endless strips of development.
Food and drink
Belgian cuisine, like Belgium itself, lies somewhere between northern and Mediterranean Europe. It is a fusion between French finesse and solid northern European fare.
“For a Belgian, food is the most important thing in the world, not to survive but to communicate with his or her peers,” write Peter Perceval and Bert Kruismans in their hilarious België voor beginnelingen (Belgium for beginners/foreigners), a satirical guide to Belgian identity. “A Belgian speaks not with words, but with beers, steaks and biscuits.”
Food and drink are prominent guests at almost every social occasion, as was demonstrated when I visited an exhibition of family films and videos recently. Regardless of the event, everyone stood around with a glass in their hand and the person filming would give the buffet an affectionate, slow sweep with the camera.
For your viewing pleasure
The cinema, theatre and other performing arts are popular pastimes in Belgium. Belgian cinema is quite a small, but regularly acclaimed, affair and people tend to look to the outside world for their viewing pleasure.
All the Hollywood blockbusters and box-office hits get a viewing here, either in English with Dutch and French subtitles, or dubbed in French. It is also easy to see films from all over the world, including the increasingly popular Spanish-language cinema, China, Japan and even Israel and Palestine. A surprising number of art-house cinemas are managing to keep their heads above water and some are even thriving.
Although Belgium lacks a vibrant commercial theatre scene like that in London or Paris, many Belgians enjoy going to the theatre, which tends to be community-based and subsidised by the regional government. “I love going to the theatre,” says Gabrielle, a Belgian office worker from Liège. “I like classical theatre, but I also enjoy watching something more complicated and experimental.” Belgium's experimental and fringe theatre is perhaps one of the most dynamic in Europe.
Fine art is both a popular and elitist cultural pursuit in Belgium. Belgian art covers everything from the exquisite realism of the Flemish primitives to the witty surrealism of René Magritte. There are plenty of places to see unique and priceless examples of Belgian art, including the Bozar in Brussels. For something a little more outlandish, Watou in West Flanders organises a summer arts festival in which the entire village becomes an exhibition space.
Comic strips are considered a high art form in Belgium. In fact, many Belgians are attracted to the comic and cartoon art of other countries. “I am interested in Asian culture and it all started with Japanese comic books,” explains Grégory, a graphic artist from Brussels.
Belgians tend to value modesty and shun showiness, which is reflected in their humour. “We Belgians can laugh at ourselves. Self-mockery is a common element of comedy here,” jokes Gabrielle.
Judging by TV output, the francophone community also enjoys more slapstick comedy, while the Flemish seem to go more for dry, understated humour and irony. Stand-up comedy is currently all the rage in Flanders, with Comedy Casino, proving a big hit.
Reading is a popular pastime in Belgium and many Belgians go to reading clubs. Being citizens of a small multicultural country, Belgians have incredibly eclectic tastes, and read literature from across Europe and other parts of the world – often in the original language.
The most famous of Belgium's contemporary writers in Dutch is Hugo Claus who is regularly a ‘bridesmaid but never a bride' when it comes to the Nobel Prize for literature. Maurice Maeterlinck, who was born in Gent and wrote in French, actually won the Nobel Prize in 1911.
Every Belgian town and city has its own market square or three, reflecting the historic importance of markets in the country. Even though shopping malls and hypermarkets are slowly dethroning more traditional markets, they still have a great deal of support (see pages 34-35).
One example is the ever-popular brocantes/rommelmarkten (junk/flea markets). “The brocante is the Belgian equivalent of cricket – an entirely futile activity which everyone, nevertheless, thoroughly enjoys,” jokes Simon, a British resident of Brussels.
Belgium has hundreds of museums covering many parallel historical narratives: Belgium, art, war, nature, psychology and psychiatry, every town and many villages, body sculptor, the 20th century and much more.
“Museums still attract a lot of people, but numbers are falling,” explains Els, the curator of a museum in Sint Niklass. “Many museums are evolving to appeal to broader audiences by becoming more interactive and entertaining. This has sparked a heated debate in the museum world of the relative merits of educating and entertaining the public.”
To outsiders, Belgium is forever associated with the legendary voice of Jacques Brel who died in 1978, although many do mistake him for being French. Given the relatively small size of the Belgian market, musicians often have their eyes on foreign markets.
Belgian dance music is popular across Europe and many groups and singers perform in languages other than their own.
Sport is an important component of Belgian life – whether it is through direct engagement or by proxy. The most popular sports in the country are football, tennis and cycling. Despite the poor performance of the ‘Red Devils' in recent years, soccer is still the favourite national sport.
The relative domination of women's tennis by Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters has ensured that the sport has a massive and loyal following. Although the glorious days of five-time Tour de France champion Eddy Merckx are a fond memory, cycling is still very popular in Belgium. Wielertoeristen – cycling hobbyists – can be seen kitted out in full racing regalia as they swoop through the countryside, taking regular pit stops at their favourite watering hole!
And, following the three gold medals Belgium won – two of which were within five minutes of each other – at the European Athletics Championship in Göteborg last month, athletics looks set to become a popular pastime.