Another foundational author is Louis Paul Boon (Summer in Termuren), who wrote on the other side of Belgian’s linguistic divide. Did you know Belgium is really two countries in one? In the southern section of Wallonia they speak French, while in the northern region of Flanders they speak Dutch. In some places, Walloon regions encircle parts of Flanders which in turn encompass tinier Walloon outposts. Laws change from block to block, and there are even homes and businesses that are divided in half. When it’s closing time on one side of the bar, you can pick up your drink, cross the room and carry on.
This bifurcated sensibility contributes to an off-kilter creative tradition (think about the visual surrealism of painter René Magritte) that continues today in the work of writers such as Amelie Nothomb and Jean-Philippe Toussaint. Nothomb is perhaps most famous for her Fear and Trembling, a young woman’s comic nightmare of a year spent working for a massive corporation in Japan, while Toussaint’s most characteristic book, The Bathroom, is about a man who’s too overwhelmed by modern life to leave his tub.
Belgian publishing takes the most pride, though, in bandes dessinées—comic books. Tintin is the European equivalent of Mickey Mouse, but his creator Hergé isn’t the only genius graphic novelist around. Francois Schuiten and Benoit Peeters contrived an epic, literally fantastic series called Les Cités obscures (The Obscure Cities) that’s a must read. It’s only spottily available in English translation, but even if you can’t read French, you can immerse yourself enjoyably in the amazing art of the originals.
What to snack on while you’re turning pages? Well, according to a survey of Europeans, Belgium has the tenth best cuisine on the continent, so you’re probably in good shape regardless of what you choose. And there’s a brand-new book of recipes called What’s Cooking in Belgium to try if you’re not already convinced. You can start off with an authentic waterzooi, a creamy Flemish stew that usually contains fish or chicken, or in a month without an R, you can have moules-frites—mussels with fries. Take special note: what we call French fries originated in Belgium, and they’re still a staple there. You can find frites stands on almost every corner of Brussels.
As a favor to your designated driver, you should supply the soundtrack for the journey. No mixtape of Belgian music could leave out the masterful guitar of Django Reinhardt or the sarcastic chansons of Jacques Brel. For instant transport back to the punkish late ’70s and early ’80s, add a dash of Plastic Bertrand. Also a must is the only positive legacy of Belgian colonialism in Africa (chillingly captured in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost), the multicultural Zap Mama. You may also want to sample more recent sounds–the heavy weight of dEUS, the neo-soul crooning of Selah Sue, the trip-hop influenced Hooverphonic, or the stylistic fusion ofVaya Con Dios. For a big finish, you can wrap up with “Waterloo.” OK, they’re Swedish, but it’s sort of about Napoleon’s least favorite place in Belgium. Don’t worry, you’ll have a better time there than he did.