The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Culture of Belgium

A discussion of Belgian culture requires discussing both those aspects of cultural life shared by 'all' or most of the Belgians, regardless of what language they speak, and also, the differences between the main cultural communities, the Flemings and the French-speakers from Brussels and Wallonia.

Most Belgians tend to view their culture as an integral part of European culture; nevertheless, both main communities tend to make their thousands of individual and collective cultural choices mainly from within their own community, and then, when going beyond, Flemings draw intensively from both the Anglo-Saxon culture (which dominates sciences, professional life and most news media) and French and other Latin cultures, whereas French-speakers focus on cultural life in Paris and elsewhere in the French-speaking world ("la Francité"), and less outside. A truly scientific discussion would also include discussion of the different cultures of Belgian ethnic minorities such as the Jews who have formed a remarkable component of Flemish culture - in particular that of Antwerp for over five hundred years.


Generalities on culture in Belgium

Belgium is well known for its art, its great architecture, its beer, its food, and its chocolate . Its inhabitants have a reputation among their fellow Europeans for being chubby and sedentary.

Belgium has a large variety of museums and temporary expositions. Some of the most impressive museums in Belgium are The Royal Museum for Fine Arts, in Antwerpen, which has an admirable collection of works by Peter Paul Rubens, and The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, which has a cinema, a concert hall, and artworks of many periods.

Good cooking and fine beers are seen by many as part of Belgian culture. The beer with the most prestige is that of the Trappist monks. Technically, it is an ale and traditionally each abbey's beer is served in its own glass (the forms, heights and widths are different). There are only six breweries that are allowed to brew Trappist beer.

The inhabitants of this country have a reputation for loving french fries, which were invented there. They were originally called "french fries" by American soldiers during World War I, who saw French soldiers eating them. The fried potato strips, sold at many small shops and stands (often at train stations), are known locally as frieten in Dutch and frites in French, and are served with mayonnaise.

Some Belgian cuisine is exported all over the world. Other less known snacks are speculaas (a sweet, crunchy cookie), waffles and chocolate truffles. As main courses Belgians have mussels with french fries, endive prepared in a special way, Brussels sprouts, Gentse waterzooi (a casserole made up of chicken and vegetables) and Paling In 't Groen (eels in a sauce).

As for many other elements of culture, Belgian literature as such does not exist. Flemins share their authors with the Dutch, and Belgian French-speakers with the French. Historically, several great French authors went to Belgium for refuge. However, for since years now, this trend reversed, and top French-speaking authors often settle in Paris, e.g. Amélie Nothomb.

Belgium has also performed well in cycling. One of the greatest cyclists ever, Eddy Merckx, who won 5 Tours de France, five Giro d'Italia, one Vuelta a España, two Tours of Belgium, and one Tour of Switzerland, was Belgian. Belgium has world champions in motocross, judo and table tennis. Belgium and parts of Northern France is the site of the so-called Spring Classics , a series of road cycling races ran in the spring season. Roughly speaking, there are two types of such races: the Flemish ones and the Walloon ones. The Flemish ones are characterized by cobblestones or "pave", and the Walloon ones are characterized by rolling hills. Examples of the Flemish races include Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders and the Het Volk . Examples of the Walloon races include Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Flèche-Wallone . Regional loyalties are often found in full display at these races. Belgium is also the dominant country in cyclocross, and has produced a few MTB champions.

Festivals play a major role in Belgium's cultural life. Nearly every city and town has its own festival, some that date back several centuries. And these aren't just tricks for tourism, but real, authentic celebrations that take months to prepare. Two of the biggest festivals are the three-day carnival at Binche, near Mons, held just before Lent (the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter), and the Procession of the Holy Blood, held in Bruges in May. During the carnival in Binche, "Gilles" lead the procession, which are men dressed in high, plumed hats and bright costumes. Several of these festivals include sporting competitions, such as cycling, and many of these festivals fall under the category of Kermesse.

Another part of Belgian traditions is the comic strip. Belgium has numerous cartoonists, such as Hergé (Tintin), Willy Vandersteen (Spike and Suzy a.k.a. Bob & Bobette or Willy and Wanda, or "Suske en Wiske" in the original Dutch), Morris (Lucky Luke), Peyo (The Smurfs), Franquin (Spirou, Marsupilami, Gaston), Marc Sleen (Nero).

An important holiday (which is however not an official public holiday) takes place each year on December 6. This is Sinterklaasdag in Dutch or la Saint-Nicolas in French (English: Saint Nicholas). This is sort of an early Christmas. On December 5 evening before going to bed, kids put their shoes by the hearth with some water or wine and a carrot for Saint Nicholas's horse or donkey. Supposedly St. Nicholas then comes at night and travels down the chimney. He then takes the food and water or wine, puts down presents, goes back up, feeds his horse or donkey, and continues his course. He also knows whether kids have been good or bad. This holiday is especially loved by children in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Hooverphonic, formed in the mid-1990s, is a Belgian pop / trip hop band that achieved international recognition through their inclusion on the soundtrack Bernardo Bertolucci's 1996 film Stealing Beauty (Io Ballo da Sola ).

Belgium has occasionally been the butt of cruel jokes and jibes, such as in the Belgian-themed poems of Charles Baudelaire, where he calls the Belgians dirty and foolish.

See also: Music of Belgium

Flemish culture

At first sight, Flemish culture is defined via its language the Dutch, shared with the people in the Netherlands and Surinam. Indeed, a Flemish literature as such does not exist. Books written by Flemings and by Dutchmen are read all over the Dutch-speaking world. That most readers are able to distinguish the fine differences in vocabulary does not make any difference. In a wider sense, Flemings read many books written in other languages: not only English (dominating scientific and professional literature), but also French, and reasonable quantities of Spanish, German, and other literary production.

For students, the intellectual norm in Flanders means learning two or even three foreign languages. That openness, and the mainly Anglo-Saxon orientation is a rather recent phenomenon as, half a century ago, Flanders was heavily dominated by French culture, which now only is a honorable second. Proficiency in English has greatly improved during the last half century, whereas proficiency in French has decreased somewhat (according to some research, not as far as the improvement in English). Proficiency in other languages widened, and improved, although some companies complain about an seemingly eternal lack of sufficient German-speakers.

Looking more closely, one notes some other typical cultural characteristics: On average, Flemings have a greater respect for hierarchy than most Dutch, Englishmen and 'Nordic' peoples. In this respect, Flemish culture is more a Latin culture then an Anglo-Saxon/Germanic one. Related with this, political culture is more opaque, dominated by the main political parties and their wheeling, dealing and backroom agreements, and less transparent than Anglo-Saxon political life. This has certainly contributed to the extreme complexity of political institutions in Belgium.

In terms of intellectual discourse, Flemings appear more Anglo-Saxon again, preferring a down-to-earth, factual (and sometimes boring) style. One might say the Flemings prefer a Cartesian discourse more than contemporary France. Flemish political parties tend to be slightly more innovative: since the three 'old' parties (liberals, socialists and christian-democrats), all new political parties were founded in Flanders and most often in Antwerp ('Daensisme', progressive christian-democrats; Frontpartij & Volksunie, moderate Flemish; Agalev, alternative/green; Vlaams-Blok: far-right, and ROSSEM, a short-lived anarchistic spark).

The somewhat more confrontational nature of Flemish politics is probably related to the fact that initially, Flemings were massively discriminated against by the official Belgian institutions who had deliberately chosen to use French exclusively in all public life, whereas Dutch was dominant in the Belgian population, but nearly absent from the nobility and haute-bourgeoisie who dominated early political life (with its only 30.000 census-voters for 3 million Belgians in 1830). Although the vast majority of discriminations have since disappeared, the few remaining ones (like the widespread discrimination against Flemings by the medical emergency services in Brussels which was recently acknowledge for the first time by a prominent French minister, Rudy Demotte) still have a clear influence on political life in Flanders.

Walloon and French-speaking ('Francophone') culture

(to be added)

See also

Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12