The one thing that everybody
seems to know about Belgium is that nobody knows of anyone famous or even
significant who is Belgian. At least that is how the dinner party
discussion usually starts; as it progresses, it becomes obvious that a
surprising number of interesting, significant and famous people are or were
Belgian, particularly considering what a small place it is. Apart from the
obligatory Jean-Claude Van Damme (always the girls’ first selection), world
class artists such as Rubens, Magritte and two of my favourites, Bosch and
Delvaux, together with authors such as Georges Simenon (of Maigret detective
fame) and Hergé, the alleged Nazi sympathiser and creator of Tin-Tin.
even a website (www.famousbelgians.net)
which rather defensively, admittedly not without cause, lists 259 famous
Belgians, including the fictitious Poirot, The Singing Nun and Mannekin Pis!
Taken together those should
give a fair impression of Belgium for first time visitors. It ranges from
the trivial and tasteless, through high culture and a spot of surrealism,
right on to a rather menacing over-zealous officiousness bordering on
fascism. Brussels is, for example, the only place I have ever been accosted
for taking a photograph of the exterior of a building, admittedly by a
rather bored bank security guard; even in tin-pot dictatorships no-one has
objected despite dire guide book warnings not to photograph bridges, post
offices etc. It is also the only place I have had an altercation with a
train conductor about the validity of a ticket I had purchased from his
colleague five minutes earlier.