I find it difficult to spend money here in Brussels. It's actually quite a bit of effort to get rid of it. I spend Monday to Friday working in the windswept industrial no-man's-land between Brussels and Flanders, miles from shops of any kind. The canteen food and the transport here are paid for by the company. When I leave my apartment in the morning, shops are not yet open; and when I get back, they're all closed. So during the week, I'm pretty much isolated from the world of consumer spending.
The weekend isn't much better. Belgium being the Catholic-social-conscience country that it is, everything closes on Sundays. So I'm left with Saturday. Saturday is my one window of opportunity, my one chance of the week to release all that pent-up consumer craving and relieve myself of troublesome cash. Saturday is so important that I usually prepare a list of Saturday things to do. After all, if I forget to do something one Saturday, it's a whole seven days before I get the chance to do it again.
I had high hopes for this Saturday. I went out the door that morning with a spring in my step and a longer-than-usual list. My first stop was the hairdressers across the street. Hmmm... looked a bit empty. In fact, to all intents and purposes, it looked closed. I was a bit relieved, to be honest - I'm getting to the stage where I'm losing hair permanently with each trip to the hairdresser - so I happily moved on.
Next stop was a nearby photo shop where I planned to get my Paris photos finally developed, after the camera had been languishing three months in my bag. But when I got there - closed. Strange. I didn't know they closed on Saturdays - but to be honest I didn't pass by there much, so it was reasonable. And anyway, there was sure to be a photo shop open in the city centre.
So I got the tram to the centre. On the way, I stopped off in Chausee d'Ixelles, one of the main shopping streets outside the Petit Ring, where I'd heard there was a secondhand CD shop. It was here I realised that something suspicious was going on, for the entire street was shut down and deserted. Shops that I had definitely been in on a previous Saturday were boarded up. What was going on? Had I slept through Saturday and got up on a Sunday by mistake?
In desperation, I took the metro to Rue Neuve in the city centre, which is usually so packed that it's difficult to get standing room. Empty. Lifeless. Tumbleweeds.
My Saturday list was now in ruins, but I was still determined to find out why everything was closed. Clearly, some kind of national holiday was afoot. But which one? And why did it have to ruin my Saturday? On the metro back I spotted a guy in a black, red and yellow jester's hat. And then something clicked. It was Belgian National Day.
Compared to something like St. Patrick's Day, Belgian National Day is an extremely low-key affair. In Ireland, the place becomes wallpapered with flags and shamrocks. Here, on the occasional street, a lone flag droops from a window, getting slowly soaked in the drizzle. In Ireland, throngs of assholes descend on Dublin city centre, covering the streets with hot dog wrappers and beer and piss and vomit. Here, the only gathering I saw was an embarrassingly small event in the Place de Justice, where a few kids were allowed to look inside military vehicles. They may have been a parade in front of the Palace, but if there was, it was certainly a much more sombre affair than a St. Patrick's Day parade.
The unassuming nature of Belgian National Day shouldn't come as much of a surprise. After all, let's be honest, in Belgium there isn't much to get nationalistic about. Belgium isn't really a nation state in the conventional sense of a people united by language and culture. The Flemish and Walloons keep pretty much to themselves, and have a barely-concealed mistrust and sometimes hatred of each other. Rather, Belgium is more like an old-fashioned European monarchy turned nation state, a heterogeneous administrative blob in the mould of 19th century Austria-Hungary or Henry II's Angevin Empire.
Not that this is a bad thing - and here I'm talking about the heterogeneity rather than the monarchy. It gives the place a nicely cosmopolitan atmosphere, and tends to free it from the shackles of national identity, to some extent. For 'national identity' is now a constraining, rather than liberating, concept.
National identity inevitably brings with it the baggage of the national stereotype. Now some people think that national stereotypes are a good thing: they give a ready-made set of characteristics to relate to. They help to start conversations. For example, if you meet an Irish person, you can say 'So you must like a few pints of Guinness then.' (Incidentally, if we ever happen to meet, do not say that to me. I will want to punch you.)
But it is this ready-made set of characteristics that makes the national stereotype (and all stereotypes, of course) such a bad thing. When you meet a foreign person for the first time, it means you come with assumptions. You can run their personality through the sieve of the national stereotype, and discard everything that doesn't fit. At worst, the national stereotype is a handy performatted personality that you can apply indiscriminately to foreigners without ever having to think about them as individuals. It saves unwanted mental exercise. (Hollywood does it all the time!)
It doesn't help, either, that national stereotypes are invariably negative. Think about the ones you know: the English are stuck-up, the French are philanderers, the Germans are humourless, the Scots are treacherous, the Irish are unruly drunks. (And sadly, many of the Irish ex-pats I see here are only too keen to live up to this stereotype.) Needless to say, it suited, and still suits, national powers that an entire people can be branded with one stereotyped image, and that the image is a negative one at that. It makes it easier to whip up hatred when hatred is required.
So in a way, it's quite refreshing to live in a place that is relatively free of national stereotyping. I mean, what do you say to a Belgian? I remember a Monty Python sketch that had some ideas....