This could be the only book you need to read to discover what makes Belgium “tick”.
If there’s one single book I’d recommend to help you get to know Belgium, it’s 100 Belgian Icons by Derek Blyth. It’s easy, entertaining and quick to read, yet it contains a wealth of information. By the last page you’ll know more about Belgium than if you’d consumed a dozen or so heavier tomes.
This is because Derek Blyth really delves into what Belgium is all about. Its heartbeat. Its soul. What makes it tick. He does this by identifying those aspects of Belgium that make it different from any other country. These are categorized into its people, places, traditions, pleasures, brands … even ideas and expressions. 100 of them, each concisely described in just 200-300 words. So by the end of the book you will have come to understand why people like Derek – and myself – have enjoyed living here for over 30 years and love this exceptional, quirky, fascinating, frustrating, varied but never-boring country. Or what Derek calls “the strangest country in the world.”
A book to randomly dip into
Delving into 100 Belgian Icons by Derek Blyth is like dipping into a box of mixed Neuhaus pralines. You never know what you’re going to end up with, but you know it’s going to be delicious. And that you won’t be able to resist having another dip into the box.
In fact I recommend that approach – random dipping. Just open the book at random and read all about that particular icon.
Come on, let’s give it a go. What do we end up with in this chocolate box of Belgian icons? Blindfold on? Pin at the ready?
- Steak Américain: Where else could you order something that is basically raw mince … “but bound with raw egg yolks, and flavoured with mayonnaise, piccalilli, finely chopped onions, capers, parsley, and a dash of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce?”
- Pigeon racing: A sport invented in Belgium in 1818, and now almost every village has a pigeon-fanciers’ club. “A bronze statue in Brussels symbolizes the pigeons (and pigeon-fanciers) who lost their lives in the First World War.”
- Tintin: Is this smart Belgian boy with the funny hair and the white dog the most famous Belgian? His creator Hergé is a national hero, with his own museum.
- Cycling: “It might seem mad, but Belgian cyclists love the rain, the hills, the cobbles.”
- Gueuze: A unique beer formed by spontaneous fermentation of airborne yeasts only found in a small geographical area. “Now it is cool to drink a Gueuze. Even if no one likes the taste at first.”
- Tomorrowland: “Staged in the sleepy Flemish town of Boom, near Antwerp, it’s the world’s most popular electronic dance festival.”
I could go on. Chocolate, beer, mussels and waffles. Eddy Merckx, Jacques Brel, Stromae and The Singing Nun. Vertical archery and The Last Post. Bruges, battlefields and Spa-Francorchamps. Rubens, Bruegel and Magritte. Belfries and beguinages. The book also gives you useful links for further information or addresses to visit per icon.
Reality, not fantasy
But this is no rose-coloured romantic view of Belgium. Aspects of Belgium that make us throw our hands in the air in despair also make it onto the list of icons. Ugly Belgian houses. Rain. Useless projects. Madame Pipi. Cobblestones. The language border. Abandoned places. And the ultimate: No government.
But, as Derek points out, it’s all a matter of perspective. And Belgians are great at putting things into perspective. No government for 541 days? (It really happened, following elections in 2010). “It doesn’t matter too much, because most of the everyday responsibilities of government are exercised by the regions or even the local communes. It means Belgians can be quite relaxed about the lack of a federal government.”
Another characteristic of Belgians that comes across is their modesty. They are not renowned for blowing their own trumpets. (Unlike my country of origin, for example, where every minor accomplishment is labelled as “world-beating”). So you may be surprised at some of the achievements by Belgians mentioned in this book.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy dipping into 100 Belgian Icons by Derek Blyth. It’s available for purchase at most bookshops, online, or direct from the publisher for 19.95 EUR.
I have reviewed a couple of other excellent books by Derek: Hidden Belgium and 500 Hidden Secrets of Brussels. And check out this interview with him where he describes his favourite locations in Belgium.