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2005-07-26 Belgian waffling leaves a sour taste

They say that first impressions last. Then judging by my recent trip to Belgium, I won't be rushing back. I had briefly visited Belgium on a school trip, over two decades ago, sampling the delights of Bruges - a perfectly preserved medieval city, and perhaps Belgium's tourist capital.

 

Unfortunately, it was raining for our day in Brussels, but I was nonetheless impressed with the country's large, commercial and political capital. In June 2005, the Celtic Tenors were contracted to perform in a huge outdoor spectacular -"Solistes du Domaine" - with soloists from the Bolshoi Opera, the `Opera Babes', and a host of others, at the Cháteau de Grand Bigard, not far from the centre of Brussels.

 

We landed late at night at Charleroi airport, and were driven aggressively and recklessly for an hour, eventually being dropped at the wrong hotel. Our driver was then informed that we were in fact being put up at an airport hotel, at Brussels' other airport - Zavantem - nine miles from the city centre, but at least with the other artists.

 

By now, it was one in the morning, and even the boring off-grey airport hotel bedrooms were strangely inviting. The following morning at rehearsal, we were handed 63 pages of music which we had never seen before. Thankfully most of it was marked `choir'. "Which choir is performing tomorrow?", we enquired naively. "There is no choir", came the abrupt reply, "YOU are the choir". After the conductor, soprano and pianist arrived an hour late, and after a few fairly justified tantrums, the assembled contracted soloists began to reluctantly rehearse the new music, to be performed to a crowd of 7,000 people the following evening.

 

After eleven hours of strained rehearsal, no food, and several `singer-y' outbursts, we were returned to our boring hotel, to order and pay for our own dinner. On the day of the show, each artist was taken aside, and warned not to say that we were `happy to be in Brussels', as we may upset the Flemings, or the Bruxellois, or the Walloons, or even the Dutch. "But by all means say that you are happy to be in Belgium, just not Brussels". We were warned not to speak in French, and also not to speak in Flemish or Walloon (probably less likely in all fairness, my Walloon being a little rusty now).

 

We were told not to speak too much at all, as you may upset the French, or the Flemish, or the Walloons, or the Dutch, or the organisers. I was feeling distinctly unwelcome in Belgium. Our own set went well on the night, and even the choral finale, learned the day before, accompanied by an impressive fireworks display, went down a treat with the capacity crowd.

 

The following day, we had an evening flight home, and so at least had the opportunity to see a little more of the city. After a shuttle bus to the airport, then a train to the centre, we soon found ourselves in the Grand Place - the heart of Brussels - with it's medieval guild- houses, it's Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque fassade, and stunning 15th century City Hall Hotel de Ville. There is quite a definite contrast between the more working class `lower town' and the more grand and royal `upper town'.

 

The Royal Palace, parliament, the Gothic Cathedral, and a whole range of museums exhibit clearly the country's rich artistic past. Our gourmet lunch (with a portion of the world-renowned Belgian chips) was all washed down with a glass of famous Belgian beer (there are over 400). Then it was time to quickly browse the shops - mouth-watering patisseries and chocolateries, Tintin-shops, and endless Belgian lace.

 

Of course, no visit to Brussels would be complete without viewing the city's mascot, the Mannequin Pis - a 2ft high bronze boy peeing. He is regularly dressed up, has been vandalised and even kidnapped, and in 1985 Belgian feminists got their way by insisting on the erection (should I say construction?) of a Jannequin Pis. Sadly, because of my negative work-experience in Belgium, my revised impression of the country has been tainted. However, with all the recent EU problems, there is surely something a little worrying about having the EU Headquarters in a city which is so seriously divided, both historically and politically, and which has as it's mascot a 2ft urinating boy.