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A blog about Belgian culture in London. A blog about the arts in London, Brussels and Milan, from a Belgian point of view.

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Belgium is “famous” for a few things; one of them is chocolate. Some people use coffee or tea but I am proudly powered by chocolate. So when it comes to this most delicious substance, I must admit to being extremely narrow-minded: I try to eat Belgian dark chocolate only.

Belgian chocolate is, of course, the best in the world (I am assuming there are no Swiss reading this blog).

So being a “Belgian abroad”, I often have to rely on import. One such import is New Tree chocolate, which I invariably favour for my daily post-lunch treat, especially in the office (Where would I be without it? “Asleep, curled up under my desk” is probably the answer). I love any of their dark chocolate varieties, to the exception perhaps of the one with chili.

New Tree Chocolate

New Tree Chocolate

In Belgium you can find New Tree in most supermarkets. Apparently it used to be sold in the UK at Waitrose, but sadly it isn’t anymore. So I often find myself blessing the fact that Eurostar does not enforce weigh restrictions on luggage…

Fortunately, a few of my favourite brands of Belgian chocolate are available in London, such as Neuhaus – pronounced  “nerorse” by French-speakers, “noyhouse” by Dutch-speakers. Neuhaus was founded in 1857, and is credited with being the inventor of both the praline and the “ballotin” (the box which contains pralines).

Neuhaus - Caprice praline

Neuhaus – Caprice

My favourite praline is the Caprice: the contrast between the crème fraiche, the caramel inside and the dark chocolate outside is… orgasmic (yes, it is). Plus I think the history of this praline, which informed its design, is great: it was created for the “Expo 58”, the World Exhibition held in Brussels in 1958 for which the iconic Atomium was built.

Atomium - (c) PixGraphix - Sabam

Atomium – (© http://www.atomium.be – photo PixGraphix )

In London you can find Neuhaus at Saint Pancras station. I confess to having recently developed a new ritual: every time I am accompanying a visiting friend or relative back to the Eurostar terminal, I am offering myself two Caprices. Only two of them, because I wish to keep this luxury ritual relatively low-cost.

This is the first in a series of articles on the FAI, the “National Trust of Italy”. If you live in the UK, you are most probably familiar with the National Trust, and you’re perhaps even a member of this brilliant organisation. This is what they do:

We protect historic houses, gardens, mills, coastline, forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, nature reserves, villages and pubs. Then we open them up for ever, for everyone.

Quite cool, isn’t it? Very high on my “to-visit-list” of National Trust properties is Red House (1860), the only house commissioned, created and lived in by William Morris, one of the founders of the Arts & Crafts movement.

Red House - William Morris - National Trust

Red House – William Morris – National Trust

This blog post, however, is more about the National Trust’s Italian equivalent, the Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI), which was established in 1975 following the model of the British National Trust. The aim of this “Italian Environment Fund” is to protect elements of Italy’s physical heritage which might otherwise be lost.

My absolute favourite FAI property, and I have written about it before – in fact, I suspect I am boring some people with it – is the Villa Necchi Campiglio, a jewel of an Art Deco house situated in the heart of Milan.

Villa Necchi Campiglio Milano - Pietro Portaluppi - FAI

Villa Necchi Campiglio – Pietro Portaluppi – FAI

Some other cool properties in Lombardy include the Villa Panza in Varese (north of Milan). The villa displays part of the contemporary art (think Dan Flavin, James Turrell, etc) collection of master collector Giuseppe Panza.

Villa Panza Varese

Villa Panza in Varese – FAI

As well as the Villa del Balbianello, on the shores of Lake Como, which you can even hire for your wedding (if you have a *substantial* budget).

Villa del Balbianello, Lake Como

Villa del Balbianello, Lake Como – FAI

A one-year membership to FAI costs only 39€ and gives you unlimited entry to the properties (which turns out to be very useful when, like me, you become obsessed by a particular house and need to visit it several times a year…).

Writing about the National Trust and the FAI has made me realise there is no such organisation in Belgium (and, as far as I know, in France). There the State is in charge of protecting national heritage. Knowing my slightly complicated country, there would probably need to be three of such organisations anyway, one for each region. I wonder why we evolved so differently with regard to heritage preservation. Anyone able to provide an answer to this burning question?

It seems there is a “Belgo-British exhibition” exchange going on, and no one had told me about it. It’s actually not too bad, because I’ve seen both shows, in their original city – hence probably before you. (If I were on Twitter, I would add: #win. But I am not on Twitter…)

What’s this “exchange” like then?

One side is Jeremy Deller currently showing in Brussels, at contemporary art centre WIELS. You may remember he had an exhibition going on at Southbank Centre in London this spring, together with David Shrigley, the  “witty British artist” (that’s my definition, not an official one).

Joy in People - Jeremy Deller

Joy in People – Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller is an artist who prefers to “work with people and their habits, symbols and social rituals”. I quite liked this exhibition, entitled “Joy in People”. The part I found most interesting was the re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, a battle which took place during the miners strike in Thatcher Britain.

Anyway, I am very curious to see what Belgian audiences make of this, in my opinion very, British artist. I would by all means recommend going to the exhibition, if only because it provides an opportunity to familiarize yourself with Jeremy Deller, who has been chosen to represent the UK at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

And if you’ve never been to WIELS, I would definitely recommend going if only for the sake of seeing the building which houses it: a former brewery (yes, this is Belgium) from the 1930s.

Wiels - Adrien Blomme - Wielemans-Ceuppens

WIELS – Architect Adrien Blomme

WIELS = Art deco galore…

WIELS - brewery interior

WIELS – The Interior

The second side of the exchange involves Belgian artist David Claerbout, who is currently showing at Parasol Unit, a foundation for contemporary arts in Angel (London!).

I saw the exhibition “The Time that Remains” at WIELS back in February 2011, when I was in Belgium for a weekend. The work of David Claerbout, who uses videos and photography, is one of contemplation.

While not everything enthuses me, I found a lot of poetry in some of his work, such as The Algiers Sections of a Happy Moment, a video actually made of photographs. It moves, very, very slowly…

David Claerbout - The Algiers Sections of a Happy Moment

David Claerbout – The Algiers Sections of a Happy Moment

Have you seen any of these exhibitions? If so, I would love you to leave a comment with your impressions…

No, this post is not a reflexion on my life, although it could be. It isn’t either an attempt to teach you some basic Italian words. Ieri, Oggi, Domani is the title of a 1963 film by Vittorio De Sica, starring Sofia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.

Exactly 6 years ago, I left Belgium for Italy. My Italian was not very good when I arrived in Milan, and for one month I attended a language school. The teacher was great – the best I have ever had, and god knows I’ve had many, in many languages. During one of the lessons we watched excerpts from Ieri, Oggi, Domani, as it provided a good introduction to the various regions of Italy and to Italian culture in general.

You see, the film is separated into three parts, telling the story of three “couples” in Rome, Naples and Milan, all played by Loren and Mastroianni.

This is the beginning of the Rome episode. I still, sometimes, hum “Perché perché, la domenica mi lasci sempre sola, per andare a vedere la partita, di pallone, perché?”* Not that anyone ever dumped me to go and watch football…  I just like the song.

*Don’t know what it means? That’s what Google Translate is for.

Watching the film again, I can now hear the various regional accents that are featured: the Milanese (which to me is the “default accent”), the Bolognese (the nicest of all), the Neapolitan, the Roman , etc. Italy is so diverse, especially when you compare it to more centralised countries like France

And of course, the film features the famous scene in which Sofia Loren performs a strip-tease in front of Marcello Mastroianni. (Somehow it makes me think of The Graduate, but this a bit off-topic).

That’s the start of the Milan episode. All these buildings, all these neighbourhoods now mean something to me. It kind of makes me feel nostalgic.

If you needed any more argument to convince you to watch it, Ieri, Oggi, Domani won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1965.