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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.

Posts from the Belgium Category

In life, there’s not only art. There is also food, hence this post. In a previous “Belgian Chocolate” episode, I was telling you about two of my favourite Belgian chocolate brands, New Tree and Neuhaus. I will continue my tale of “sweet Belgian magnificence” (yes) with additional recommendations.

Another very good Belgian chocolatier is the über-posh Pierre Marcolini. In the UK, you can buy his creations online; apparently they used to be sold at Selfridges, but sadly they are no more. His pralines are very refined, not exactly rich in cream – think tea, think rose, think thyme. His “Carrés2 de chocolat” make for very nice cocoa-presents.

Carré2 chocolat, Pierre Marcolini

Carré2 chocolat, Pierre Marcolini

In Belgium we like to celebrate with chocolate (and beer). Seasonal feasts like Easter and Saint Nicolas can always be celebrated with a creation from one of my favourite brands, Galler, which is also “Belgian Royal Warrant Holder”.

Galler chocolate, "Snowman" range

Galler chocolate, “Snowman” range (picture © Galler)

The big guy below is called Saint Nicolas, our version of Father Christmas, whom we celebrate on 6th December. As a child I would never get presents at Christmas, I would always get them at Saint Nicolas.

Galler chocolate, "Saint Nicolas" range

Galler chocolate, “Saint Nicolas” range

When I first left home for Milan, my parents very nicely started sending me package full of Galler chocolate. They stopped after one of the lovingly packed boxes ‘disappeared’ somewhere in the post between Belgium and Italy. Fortunately I now live in the UK, where so far the post has proved somewhat more reliable.

Galler chocolate used to be sold at Harrod’s but sadly isn’t anymore, so I have suggest a trip to my homeland, where it is widely available.

I recently was on the brink of a “chocolate crisis”, having eaten all my provisions. I was awaiting visitors from the homeland were to come with some fresh stuff, but in the meantime I had to find something to help me stay awake after my lunch break. Fortunately for me, up until recently I worked close to the London boutique of Daskalidès. To be honest, I had never heard of this brand until a Latvian colleague of mine pointed out to me that they were Belgian. Having tested their pralines, I must admit they’re not bad (try out the ones with caramel and salt).

Now that you have read this short, two-part “guide to good Belgian” chocolate, you must promise me one thing: never, ever, again buy Guylian chocolate (you know, the horrible shell-shaped chocolates) thinking they are typically Belgian. Note how open-minded I am being: I could have said: never, ever, again buy Guylian chocolate full stop.

PS: the lovely team at Galler has pointed to me that their chocolate is also available at Sainsbury’s. I haven’t seen any myself yet, perhaps because I don’t go the larger stores. Let me know if you can spot any in London!

 

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!

Last month I went back to Brussels for a weekend. Thanks to Eurostar, I am now only 2 hours away from excellent chocolate, delicious beers and, incidentally, friends and family (and cats!).

Saturday 21st July happened to be Belgium’s National Day. Although my homeland is one of the least nationalistic countries I know, the day is the occasion of some sort of celebrations: some black-yellow-red flag waving, some chips eating, firemen letting small children try their luck as hose operators (and in so doing managing to wet innocent passers-by, me included), etc.

As in previous years, the Law Courts or “Palais de Justice” as they are known in French, were open to the public. These were built between 1866 and 1883 (17 years!) in the eclectic style, by architect Joseph Poelaert.

Brussels Law Court, Architect Poelaerts

Brussels Law Court, Architect Poelaerts

Not only is it Belgium’s most important Court building, but the Brussels Law Courts are also famous for their size: the biggest building constructed in the 19th century, it is bigger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The building is currently 160 by 150 meters, and has a total built ground surface of 26,000 m². It has 8 courtyards with a surface of 6000 m², 27 large court rooms and 245 smaller court rooms and other rooms (says Wikipedia).

All this is well and good, but why is that relevant to a blog dedicated to the arts? Well, the Law Courts are at the origin of a curious “artistic” insult…

In the 19th century, in order to build the Palais de Justice, a section of an adjacent neighbourhood (the “Marollen”) was demolished, while most of an adjacent park was also expropriated. As a result of the forced relocation of so many people, the word “architect” became one of the most serious insults in Brussels.

This is probably more charming that your usual sexual/scatological insult… I should, however, point out that “architect” as an insult is not commonly used nowadays, and I wouldn’t particularly advise you to try it next time someone upsets you in Brussels: your opponent may not catch the historical relevance.

Joseph Poelaert architect

Poor Mr Poelaert: at the origin of one of Brussels’ most original insults…

I will close this post on a slightly sad note. A building of such monstrous proportions as those of the Law Courts of course incurs huge maintenance costs (during our July visit, my friend and I wondered how much the heating bills amounted to). Due to the costs, it seems that the building has fallen into a worrying state of decay in recent years, not to mention the frequent escaping of prisoners.

I do, though, really hope the Belgian state will decide to invest the necessary funds to maintain the building: it is part of our history and… it is not ugly, actually.