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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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This is the third, and last, part of my description of “Brumidon”. Just like Friday, if this sentence leaves you flabbergasted, you may need to read this and this.

These are the things and ideas/values from London I would import into my “ideal country”, in addition to my friends, of course.

The sense that I am “at the centre of it”
I moved to London for its “centrality”. It is often the place where you’ll find the best art in Europe, be it music, painting or theatre, but also some of the most exciting bars and restaurants, and the coolest shops (even if in that regard Milan wasn’t too bad).
I work in very central London (Holborn/Covent Garden) and I – stupidly perhaps – get an adrenaline kick in the morning from the hustle and bustle of traffic, and from thinking “I am in London”.

London, Thames

London, Thames (Photo jasonhawkes.com)

The international character
I run no risk of losing my Italian language skills in London. My hairdresser is from Genova, the guy who sells me sushi at my local Abokado is from Puglia, one of my very good friends moved from Milan to London six months before me … and the Italian expat community is large and welcoming. And it’s not only the Italians I can meet easily: my London friends hail from France, Ireland, Australia, Greece, etc. Some days it feels like being an Erasmus student again – a most delightful feeling.

English (as it is spoken in the UK)
It’s always been my favourite language (since I’ve started learning any, that is). Being able to speak English every day, with native speakers, is a source of joy for me.

The humour
The irony, the banter, the teasing, the wit: call it as you want, it pervades all aspects of life in the UK. And it makes it so much better.

London, Clissold Park in Stoke Newington

London, Clissold Park in Stoke Newington

The open-mindedness
There is a sense of freedom when you live in London. When it comes to fashion or behaviour, everything is permitted, no one ever raises a brow, provided you don’t create actual nuisance. Imperturbable and unperturbed, British people mind their own business.

I am probably known for having a slight tendency to overdress. Unlike in Italy, where people scrutinise (dissect?) your outfit, or in Belgium, where the consensus seems to be that you should not stand out, in London I feel free to dress exactly as I want. Bring on glitter! Bring on colour! Bring on elaborate dresses and high heels in the office, even though the de facto uniform is chequered shirts + jeans + trainers (for the men).

The general good working, the efficiency
Buses that run 24/7, fast customer service that actually is a service, : London works. Which is good, given its size and the number of inhabitants (nearly as many as the whole of Belgium).

London, Trafalgar Square

London, Trafalgar Square (Photo by David Iliff, License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Some food
The UK is not particularly renowned for its own gastronomic culture (yes, this is a euphemism). Things have greatly improved over the past 15 years though, and TV cooking shows and cooking classes are all the rage. There are a number of British specialities I go mad about, like cream tea (the prospect of eating scones with clotted cream and thick jam invariably makes me ecstatic), but the nicest thing about food in London is that the choice is endless. Whatever continent your taste buds fancy eating from tonight, you will find something to satisfy you.

This is the second part of my description of “Brumidon”. If this sentence leaves you flabbergasted, you may need to read this and this.

As always, the “things” I would first and foremost import are actually people, and they are my friends. After them, these are the typically Italian “things” and ideas/values that would definitely be part of my ideal country.

The weather
Yes, right, this is a bit obvious. But how lovely it was for 5 years to enjoy agreeable springs and autumns, winters with some sun (as opposed to an everlasting grey sky), and hot, hot summers. I really liked Milan’s weather, its real winter making you enjoy the other seasons properly. Milan is also famous for its super thick fog, particularly present in late autumn, especially in the outskirts. I love it for the air of mystery it lends to the city, I love it despite the potential safety risks it creates on the road.

Milan, Piazza del Duomo

Milan, Piazza del Duomo (© iStockphoto:Thinkstock)

The elegance
Elegance in Milan is nearly effortless, it is above all “native”, in that it comes naturally. On sunny days, during lunch breaks in central Milan, I would sometimes sit outside on the steps of the nearby ballet shoes shop, and watch passers-by. It was a stream of beautifully crafted high heel shoes, suits made of the finest wool in the most flattering colours, all perfectly designed, all perfectly coordinated.

Elegance does not stop at fashion: design is also everywhere in Milan. This was true not only during Design Week: a random waiting room may have seats from Kartell, and Alessi house accessories are almost the norm.

Italy may be criticised for having an obsession for “la bella figura”, for favouring form over substance. I don’t care, this struck a big chord with my fascination for beautiful things.

The history, the artistic heritage
Middle Age town centres, roman churches, Renaissance palaces: they seem to be round every corner in Italy. With regard to historical and artistic heritage, I do think that France and Italy reign supreme over Europe. I know I am exposing myself to abuse here, from the rest of Europe, as well from the Italians (who think they are better than the French) and the French (who think they are better than the Italians).

Esselunga
Simply the best supermarket in the world. Good prices, first quality stuff and a fantastic “catalogo premi” (literally, “prizes catalogue”). Compared to it, the rewards you get with Nectar points are just lame. Where else would you get Bouroullec brothers-designed pieces of furniture? A large part of my home consisted of objects and pieces of furniture acquired through Esselunga’s card loyalty scheme.
Every time I go back to Milan, I go on a pilgrimage to Esselunga and stock up on pasta, pasta sauce, wine, salame and… deodorant.

Milan, Castello Sforzesco

Milan, Castello Sforzesco (Picture by Fabio Messina for http://www.visitamilano.it)

Being two hours away from the Ligurian seaside, two hours away from Mont Blanc and one hour away from Lake Como
It is sort of difficult to beat that. Not that I went every weekend (as some Milanese do).

Aperitivo
Ask any expat in Northern Italy what they like most about their new home and they will most probably say: the aperitivo. “Aperitivo” was invented in Milan and is this fabulous concept whereby you get a free all-you-can-eat buffet of light food and canapés to accompany your glass of wine/beer/cocktail, at almost every bar of the city, between 6pm and 9pm.

Some food
These are the Italian specialities I would like to see on my plate/in my glass: panna cotta, San Daniele ham, cachi, chiacchiere, the cappuccino from Il Marchesino (with bits of meringue on top), bruschette, spaetzle from Alto Adige, ice cream (the only one really deserving the name), cheeses, cheeses, cheeses (ooh the brigante, ooh the pecorino, ooh the asiago) and wine wine wine (ooh the Gewürztraminer, ooh the Valpolicella, oooh the Vin Santo). And also: olives all’ascolana from Le Marche, bicerin from Torino, passatelli from Emilia-Romagna.

Milan, Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele

Milan, Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele (Picture Provincia di Milano for http://www.visitamilano.it)

If you’ve read yesterday’s post with attention, you are aware that I sometimes daydream about living in an “ideal country”, which you may call “Paulineland” or “BruMiDon”. (Or even “Pauline’s stupidly improbable fantasy country”, if you so wish).

These are the typically Belgian “things” and ideas/values/customs that would definitely be part of it.

My family
Some days, usually on Sunday afternoons, I wish I could easily pop in to my parents’, my grandma’s or my sister’s. I do bless the fact that they can call me for free (thank you Belgacom) on my landline and that there is no huge time difference between us though.

Brussels Grand Place

Brussels, Grand Place

The tolerance
With regard to “big issues”, I like to say that Belgium usually looks at what its neighbours The Netherlands do, and follows their policies in case of success. Abortion, gay marriage, gay adoption, euthanasia: all of these have been legal and accepted as “normal” in Belgium for many years. Moving to Italy proved a bit of a shock, as I naively thought these values were shared everywhere in Europe: this is actually not really the case. Belgium’s Prime Minister is the gay son of immigrants, and no one cares a bit.

The healthcare system
Italy and the UK have a fairly similar system, which is “nearly free healthcare available to everyone”. While I like that very much as a concept, in real life I prefer the Belgian healthcare system, where you tend to pay a little, but have very good service and no awfully long waiting lists. If I want to see my dermatologist, I book an appointment at my dermatologist. This might seem straightforward to you, but this is absolutely not the case in the UK for instance, where GPs are omnipotent.

In Italy and the UK, people will regularly go to A&E because they have a problem that, while being minor, necessitates swift treatment. It took me some time not to be alarmed when colleagues, upon being asked how they were doing in the morning, greeted me with a nonchalant “Yes, I’m great, I went to A&E last night”. I would then wonder if they had cut their hands off, or suffered cardiac arrest. No, they usually only had a really bad case of sore throat.

The cheap rents in Brussels.
I have now made peace with the fact that all my friends in Belgium live in far nicer houses/flats than I do (although they do like to complain about the increased rent prices). The only way for me to beat them at this game would probably be to move to Berlin… Which I might actually do, one day.

Brussels, Palais Stoclet (architect Josef Hoffmann)

Brussels, Palais Stoclet (architect Josef Hoffmann)

The “class unconsciousness” and the opportunities to grow
Belgium of course has rich and poor people, people from aristocratic and “plain” families, snobs and “chavs”. But for some reason, it doesn’t seem to matter that much: the school you’ve been to, your family, all of this is of relatively little importance, unlike in the UK.

In addition, the state is there to support you if you want to progress and develop. Education is good but cheap. University fees are currently capped at 835€ per year, and if you have low income, it’s practically free of charge. Grants for further education and for internships abroad are easily available.

A word about food:
These are the Belgian specialities I would like to see on my plate/in my glass: chocolate (if you’ve been reading this blog, you already know the special relationship I have with dark, Belgian chocolate), perfectly cooked chips, an array of beers (from the fruity ones to the 11° strong Trappist ones), a few homemade dishes (chicons au gratin, carbonnades, pêches au thon) which I am actually able to replicate easily. Some more random stuff: maatjes (they’re not even Belgian, they’re Dutch), tarte au riz, my grandma’s galettes, etc.

Brussels, Bozar (architect Victor Horta)

Brussels, Bozar (architect Victor Horta)

(As you can tell, I was really struggling with the pictures. How do you picture “tolerance” and “cheap rents”? I’m putting photos of Brussels then…)


 

Exactly one year ago, I bought a one-way ticket to London. I am therefore technically celebrating my first anniversary in London today, and this will be a post with which art and being Belgian have little to do, or perhaps a lot. It is an unusual post in that it will be quite personal.

I was born in a small town (a village) in the suburbs of Brussels, from parents who have lived in that very town their whole life and only speak French.

Perhaps in reaction to my family, I decided I would learn languages – I currently know 5 of them -, and that I wanted to live abroad, to make things more exciting, and to a certain extent, more challenging (“Pourquoi faire simple quand on peut faire compliqué?” somehow seems to be a motto of mine).

Now aged 30, I consider myself “fluent” in three places, by which I mean that I not only speak the local language, but that I also know their traditions, and the values each of theses cherish. I have devised a personal “proof of fluency” test: being able to swear back in the street at someone who insults you (in the unlikely event of this happening) and being able to use the local public transport systems confidently (as in: knowing if you need to press the door button in order for the tube doors to open). Currently, I pass this test in three cities: Brussels, Milan and London.

I have lived in other places, including Edinburgh (as an exchange student) and Strasbourg (as an intern at the Council of Europe), but these stays have been too short for me to have really absorbed the local “essence”.

My cats, Tosca and Mirza (= The Prettiest)

My cats, Tosca and Mirza (= The Prettiest)

(I didn’t really know which picture to choose to illustrate this post (pictures of me on the web are a no-go), so I have opted for a photo of my cats – both of whom have flown to cats’ heaven now, sadly. I think they’re the prettiest.)

What about art, in all this? I moved to Milan for love (how banal), but ended up finding a job I was passionate about, at an opera house “making history since 1778”. And if I decided to leave everything for London, it was mainly for the art that this city has to offer. The National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert have a lot to answer for, in my case…

I would like to stress that I choose to mainly speak about cities, rather countries. This is because I know that I would have gained very different experiences if I had lived 5 years in Naples instead of Milan. Ditto with London: just as New York is not the US, London does not equal England or the UK – it is sui generis.

Recently I have caught myself dreaming about living in a sort of ideal place, which would include the best of my three cities. Mainly it’s the various friends that I would like to “bundle” (although I have many more friends, in many more countries).

In addition to them, there are a few things, and a few ideas and values, which I would import from Brussels, Milan and London into my “ideal country”. I tried to fit all of these into one post, but it proved too long and I have decided to split this into three posts, one for each of the coming days. So: à demain/a domani!