The Belgians suffer from an inferiority complex; they are always ready to victimize themselves, suspicious of other people’s intentions. They never assume responsibility and are the first to destroy an idea with their primitive complaints. As a Dutchman one could kick a Belgian’s ass without end.
Don’t think the Dutch are any better. The curtainless windows in the Dutch street view are by far a metaphor for a transparent and tolerant society. The division between Dutch private life and the passenger is a cold one: to the passenger it juxtaposes his solitary position in a wide landscape to the safe but unreachable family cocoon. The Dutch will never show hospitality. They simply aren’t generous.
The grim Dutchman and the fat Belgian wife are a perfect couple. They scrutinize strangers with eyes full of miscontent. To understand them is to dive deep into the traumatic experiences caused by centuries of religious oppression. Recent xenofobia hides yet another form of self hate.
I grew up in the very south of the Netherlands. Amsterdam was equally far away from my hometown as Brussels was. Time was not divided between television and outdoor activities. The moments spend in front of the TV screen were precious and rare: The Tv started the transmissions in the early evening. It never succeeded to get me involved in the news of the day. My news of the day was that we, my friends would meet for a game of football.
I was almost seven years old when Kennedy got killed in the streets of Dallas. I watched it on tv when they showed it over and over again. My nose was glued to the screen. I was annoyed by the quality of the images: I could barely recognize something. Only once I got connected to the brutality of world history when a few years later brother Bobby got shot. The friar who was supposed to teach us followed the news on a little transistor radio. All the kids in the class room watched him cry when the younger Kennedy died.
Television was my connection to that something we call culture: Television land was occupied by strange personalities like tante Tilly who talked with a squirrel. To me they didn’t make any difference to the characters I met in the numerous books I read.
In retrospective it was sound. The Flemish language was warmer and a bit funny because of words I wouldn’t hear around me. But also Dutch was different from the singsong dialect spoken in my region. It sounded more harsh, but also much more convincing and in a way liberating. Language was a first stimulus to conquer and care for a world that over the years would replace the inner and outer circles of the house where I was born. In that newly found habitat ‘taste’ became a loyal servant.
In my younger years I got immersed in the comic strip world; I felt undefinable desires when listening to the then called beat music And I also discovered America, my first foreign country, when, on sundays, in a wooden house that was built by volunteers, together with other kids, I watched the comedians from the twenties destroy everything around them or get involved in street fights in which they threw whipped cream cakes at each other.
Belgium had a rich history; they showed their wealth. But they were rich and prosperous before the great discoveries opened up the horizons. Their beautiful cities show this introvert structure. In the ‘Dutch’ speaking part of Belgium, language desintegrates into numerous dialects as soon as everyone has returned to their homes.
Until the beginning of the eighties I felt sympathy for my neighbour country because of the trashy, hilariously funny comic strip artist Kamagurka, because of the edgy and energetic sound of TC Matic, and the unpretentiousness of Arno Hintjens, their singer. I liked the calmness of their radio, and the choice of music that was more mature then the Dutch counterpart. I watched the Tour de France on Belgian tv and even followed Belgian football with special interest. My close friends will probably find it hard to believe, but I have always been convinced that Eric Gerets was a great player.
Jeroen Brouwers, a Dutch writer, had succeeded to portray Brussels with a sweet sense of melancholy. An aura of innocence surrounded singers like Adamo or Rocco Granata. Even king Baldouin added to the unreal effect with his saintlike appearance. I realize now that Queen Fabiola and Tante Tilly were the only Belgian women I knew of. Maybe that’s another reason that the country disappeared in a dead angle of my existence. Sofia Loren blocked the view.
Then, suddenly, Belgium smelled of sulphur. Vanden Boeynants, a man not born from a woman’s womb, but a politician who had come crawling into this world from the devil’s arse, dominated the country. Corruption, mass destruction of cultural heritage, the uprise of darkest nationalism in the Antwerp region, de bende van Nijvel, Dutroux, the assasinations of politicians, turned Belgian society into a nightmare. Centuries of catholic dictature made the citizins obbey and spit their anger in the wrong direction, and cut the country in two. Belgians I met confirmed my prejudice. Why go there. I considered them ‘boerehufters.’ That’s an insult.
In recent years I go from Cologne to Paris and vice versa. I abandoned bus travels pretty soon: Eurolines move along the dirt part of life: they only seem to exist for showing the passengers the miseries of being poor and outcasted in the EC. In Brussels the bus stops amidst a world of towering glass. Lightning strikes without sound. And then it rains for days.
Trains have pluche seats. They move smoothly. Brussels Midi offers a view on a pale city laid out against a hill. The cupola of the palace of justice is clearly visible. In Brouwers’s book ‘groetjes uit Brussel’ it becomes an obsessive icon. I look and imagine to hear music. It happens every time; I try to catch it with my inner ear, a sound beyond the purring tinnitus in my right ear, but everytime it escapes. I can’t sing it for you. And while the music retreats behind the clouds, I hop over roofs and wonder if I ever will enter this city that for such a long time had only existed in my imagination.
Eventually it happened. It needed women to seduce me. The concert with Crys Cole and Julie Rousse was in a basement somewhere close to the station. Greek Gods, wine and the scent of roses could help you understand what happened to me on that evening. Maybe in those waves of awareness the town rose up from my childhood memories. A third muse took my hand and lead me to her wonderful house. There I watched the gardens and felt the comfortable warmth glow on me. I thought I could live in this house forever, preferably moving backwards in time.
I returned to Brussels a few times. A sign or not, I forgot my acustic laptop ( a beautiful gift by Tore Honoré Boe ) at Margarida’s house. When I picked it up a few months later it could have – and maybe has – picked up sounds and stories. Margarida Guia lives her house as if it was a novel and a song alike.
Another host was Eric Desjeux. He made me travel all around town. Now my memories could mix with the city’s microcosmos in which a picture of Eddy Merckx could be the lid of a pandora’s box that enclosed myriad lifes lived in the small wofking class houses, to which the café on the corner was the refrain in a never ending song. I walked the streets and kept on touching the bricks in the walls.
My last visit was in the first days of April. It rained when I arrived in Liège. The landscape I had seen from the train window was similar to that of my home region. My parent’s house was 50km more to the north. Finally I could witness the new station from the inside: Calatraves had succeeded to erect a monument to the Mosasaurus. In ten years time the rains would have covered the immaculate white structure with dirt.
Places like Le Cercle, where I performed, are extinct in the southern part of the Netherlands, that still was under catholic domination during my younger years. Le Cercle belonged to the local parish. Sebastian, my host and one of the four organizers who had a beard and as I found out later spoke fluently Italian, assured me, when we entered the place, that the clerics were quite okay with having this kind of concerts under their roof. It was a big space stripped bare to the essential: billiard tables, easy chairs and sofa’s and a bar.
What looked big and village disco for adolescents like under the neon lights turned out to be a very intimate and warm venue once the sounds started flowing from the speakers. I seldom encountered such a generous and attentive audience.
A detour to this Belgian story was offered by Luca Massolin. The main instrument in his set was the mandolin. His performance was a modern day lullaby that started of with space ship sounds as once were heard in B-movies. But the layers of sound didn’t bring images of extraterrestials. I thought of the Italians that had emigrated to the America’s at the break of the nineteen hundreds. Not few of them brought a mandolin along. Later he told me he had moved to Porto. At the beginning of the two thousands it is another kind of poverty that makes Italians leave their country.
The light in Gent where I arrived the next day was so sharp that it hurt my eyes. The sky was without clouds, and the place in front of the station was remarkably quiet. A friendly young girl who had asked me for an autograph treated me like a friendly old man, and patiently explained how to get to the Vlasmarkt, since tram number 1 couldn’t bring me there. This welcome made me walk the first meters with a quaint feeling: it felt like arriving in a new hometown. It smelled familiar.
The Belgian tram driver told me to get of at de Zonnestraat. Zonnestraat means Sun street. Girls who can say this in Flemish kiss better. After five minutes I knew that the tram driver had given me a cryptic message. The lady I had asked how to get to the Vlasmarkt only knew it was ‘somewhere in that direction.’ her hand indicated a small road at the other side of the square. The tram I had just left disappeared in that street. What the tram driver had wanted to tell me was: “hey stranger it is a beautiful day in a beautiful town. Take a walk.”
When looking for an address in a city with a complex structure like Gent the best strategy to follow is ask well dressed lady’s who are at least seventy years old. As long as they don’t move in groups of forty you can assume they’ve lived here for almost their lifetime. And because gossipping is just an other way of getting around, a representative of the female gender is the logical choice. It only took two ladies to get me to the Vlasmarkt. My last guide was a beautiful woman of maybe eighty years old, her face all powdered, red lipstick, a cute little hat, whose impacable indications brought me right to the spot. Her friendlyness filled my heart with joy. And suddenly it struck me, me and my quaint sentiment.
Gent was a Dutch town. It filled my consciousness, took possession of my skin as if I was struck by the power of enlightenment. It sounded just too good, Belgium and Holland put together. We are les pays bas, paesi bassi, paesos bajos, the netherlands, anywhere in whatever foreign country we go: plural! I thought of the great advantages this would have: a richer and completer history, van Eyck and Rembrandt playing for the same national team, an incredible collection of beautiful cities … mountains!
I don’t like to throw away anything at all. My house is filled with little things. Every now and then I think it is time to get rid of some useless souvenirs. I cannot. It would cut of a part of my life. That’s why I liked Belgium. In some parts it was old and rundown, but it contained memories of a past life. Dutch inferiority complex has caused a blind elimination process. Only the buildings and streets that qualified for representation in a tourist guide survived.
I wonder why no politician has ever proposed a unification of Belgium and Holland. The Belgian conflict between french and flamish would be reduced to a folkloristic incident. Kids would grew up trilingual! Amsterdam would be just as dear to them as Brussels. Nobody would never ever go Dutch again. It was all so very fucking yin and yang.
It was in this spirit I started my performance. But at the other side of the venue was a bar, and at that bar loud talking was going on. It sounded like a tape I didn’t want to play. I took my dictaphone and went there, while my own tapes kept on playing. On the bar stood a big cardboard box, microwave size. I put my dictaphone on ‘record’ and started a new conversation. Somehow it made sense talking during my own concert. I wanted to know what was in the box. The woman behind the bar invited me to have a look. I opened it and found myself eye in eye with a turkey. The animal looked at me with a faint expression of guilt, as if it were embarrassed to have reincarnated a bit too soon.
“Een kip!” “Neeeee, een kalkoen!” She explained . It was her birthday and the turkey was a present. It would go live in her backyard. I asked if it had a name. She explained. They had suggested to take the name of one of the artists who performed here this day. At that point I felt it coming.