Monday, December 30, 2013

Mimi Foundation: If only for a second

Founded in Belgium by Myriam Ullens de Schooten in 2004, the Mimi Foundation aims to "contribute to the improvement of the quality of life of people affected by cancer, more specifically during the entire period of their chemotherapy/radiotherapy treatment".

In June, the foundation collaborated with Leo Burnett France on "If only for a second". One of the products of the collab is the following video, explained thusly by the creators:
20 cancer patients participated in a unique makeover experience. 
The 20 participants were invited to a studio. Their hair and makeup were completely redone.
During the transformation, they were asked to keep their eyes shut.
A photographer then immortalized the moment they opened their eyes.
This discovery allowed them to forget their illness, IF ONLY FOR A SECOND.
Do yourself a favor and watch this.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Sweet, Sweet Weiner

The latest Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal features Belgian Surrealist superstar René Magritte, and offers a hilarious explanation to one of his most famous works. Go check it out.

Jukebox Friday: Raymond van het Groenewoud - Twee Meisjes

Raymond van het Groenewoud. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Raymond van het Groenewoud (b. 1950) is one of Belgium's most popular singer-songwriters. Born in Schaarbeek in Brussels, He has described himself as a "lyricist, philosopher and clown".

"Twee Meisjes" ("Two Girls") appeared in 1995 as the closing track on his 16th album, Ik ben God niet ("I am not God"). According to Wikipedia, van het Groenewoud was inspired to write the song after a siesta on the beach at Lago Maggiore in Italy. The lyrics read like a poem, making the lovely melody appear almost as merely a brilliant afterthought to an already perfect painting of words.

The song topped Radio 1's yearly Best Belgian Song poll from 2008 to 2011. It reclaimed the top spot when the votes for the 2013 edition were counted last week. (Interestingly, this year's runner-up was Yevgueni's "Als Ze Lacht", a recent Jukebox Friday entry and a personal favorite of mine.)



Lyrics (original Dutch):

Twee meisjes op het strand
ze lezen modebladen
ze kijken in het rond
ze dromen van een prins

Twee meisjes op het strand
ze lezen modebladen
ze kijken in het rond
ze dromen van een prins

Ze zoeken in hun tas
ze wijzen naar de foto's
ze schudden met hun haar
ze praten met een vriend

Twee meisjes op een plank
gedragen door de golven
het branden van de zon
de wijzers houden op

De dag brengt ouderdom
de nacht brengt vreemde uren
het deken is zo zwaar
een bladzijde slaat om


Lyrics (English translation):

Two girls on the beach
They read fashion magazines
They look around
They dream of a prince

Two girls on the beach
They read fashion magazines
They look around
They dream of a prince

They rummage through their bags
They point at photographs
They shake their hair
They talk to a friend

Two girls on a board
Carried through the waves
The burning of the sun
The clock hands stop

The day brings old age
The night brings strange hours
The blanket is so heavy
A page turns.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Ugly Belgian Houses

The perfect Tumblr blog is 50% stunning visuals and 50% pretentious text.

Ugly Belgian Houses blends these values brilliantly while revealing some truly preposterous crimes against architecture. I almost feel sorry for the home owners. Almost.

Source: Ugly Belgian Houses.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Jukebox Friday: Gorki - Mia



Belgian melancholy:
Nostalgic and scrutinizing,
pained but carefree,
beautiful and ugly,
important and useless -
Gimme some.


Lyrics (original Dutch):

Toen ik honger had kwam ik naar je toe
Je zei: Eten kan als je de afwas doet
Mensen als jij moeten niet moeilijk doen
Geef ze een kans voor ze stom gaan doen

De middenstand regeert het land
Beter dan ooit tevoren
Mia heeft het licht gezien
Ze zegt: Niemand gaat verloren

Voorlopig gaan we nog even door
Op het lichtend pad, het verkeerde spoor
Mensen als ik vind je overal
Op de arbeidsmarkt in dit tranendal

Sterren komen, sterren gaan
Alleen Elvis blijft bestaan
Mia heeft nooit afgezien
Ze vraagt: Kun jij nog dromen?

De middenstand regeert het land
Beter dan ooit tevoren
Mia heeft het licht gezien
Ze zegt: Niemand gaat verloren

Sterren komen, sterren gaan
Alleen Elvis blijft bestaan
Mia heeft nooit afgezien
Ze vraagt: Kun jij nog dromen?

Sterren komen, sterren gaan
Alleen Elvis blijft bestaan
Mia heeft nooit afgezien
Ze vraagt: Kun jij nog dromen?


Lyrics (English translation):

When I was hungry, I came to you
you said you can eat, if you wash the dishes
people like you shouldn’t behave difficult
give them a chance before they do stupid things

the middle class rules the country,
better than ever before
Mia has seen the light
she says: nobody gets lost.

For now we'll go on
on the lighted path, the wrong track
people like me can be found anywhere,
on the job market in this valley of tears

stars come, stars go,
only Elvis stays around
Mia never suffered
She asks: can you still dream?

the middle class rules the country,
better than ever before
Mia has seen the light
she says: nobody gets lost.

stars come, stars go,
only Elvis stays around
Mia never suffered
She asks: can you still dream?

stars come, stars go,
only Elvis stays around
Mia never suffered
She asks: can you still dream?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Friday, November 8, 2013

Amsterdam city council acknowledge Black Pete racism

Tradition holds that the last couple of months of the year be spent debating the Low Countries' blackface antics. I am, of course, talking about Zwarte Piet ("Black Pete"), who has been a staple of the Sinterklaas celebration of December 5-6 since he was invented by a school teacher in Amsterdam in 1845.

This year, the mayor of Amsterdam - where each year, Sinterklaas and his black-skinned (sorry, blackface) servants make their grand entrance on a steamboat disturbingly reminiscent of a refugee ship heading for Lampedusa - met with some of the Zwarte Piet opponents. They wanted the entire spectacle to be cancelled, which of course didn't happen.



Instead it was decided that the Pieten will from now on wear lipstick of different colours, rather than just red, and "a variety of black hair" rather than the traditional black curls. It has also previously been decided that the cosplayers will not be allowed to wear gold earrings.

Of course, by changing the character's appearance, the city council recognizes the overt racism in the original representation of the Zwarte Piet character.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The one about euthanasia

Belgian legislators, doctors and clergy have entered the spotlight these past few weeks, after PM Elio Di Rupo's Socialist party proposed a bill extending the right of euthanasia to children and dementia patients.

I've seen plenty of reactions to this news in foreign media, most of it cooly sceptical/intensely PC about the whole thing, some of it horrified at this supposed crime against humanity.

You may accuse me of reductionism, but to me, the real question regarding euthanasia is this:

Should people's responsibility for their own lives include the right to choose between life and death?

Until I hear a good argument to the opposite, my answer is a roaring yes. And I'm not talking about vague prophecies about a "culture of death". And if I hear the word "non-Christian", I will dismiss every word following it as based on a delusion.

Pro-choice is my objective approach, but I can't tell you how I would feel if anyone close to me were to become terminally ill or handicapped in a way that would make a comfortable life impossible. I would probably want them around for as long as possible, regardless of their own feelings or discomfort.

But wouldn't that be selfish?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Jukebox Friday: Yevgueni - Als Ze Lacht



Video source: YouTube channel Klein Kunst.

This is one of my favorite Belgian songs of all time.

"Als Ze Lacht" ("When She Laughs") is the opening track and first single from Yevgueni's (pronounced yev-GEH-nee) debut album, Kannibaal (2005). It topped the charts for ten weeks upon release.

Unlike some of Yevgueni's politically-themed songs, this one's a pure head-over-heels love song: a testimony to love's miraculous ability to blot out any pain and to color your world with light and warmth. This was one of the first Belgian songs my wife shared with me, and I can't describe how great it feels to finally be able to listen to the song and fully understand the lyrics for the first time.

A note, to make sure that the second verse makes any sense: The lyric about "Martine" refers to a Flemish news anchor.

Lyrics (original Dutch):

Ze is niet altijd even vrolijk
en dat ligt ook wel eens aan mij
En een beetje aan de weerman,
maar die maakt ook niemand blij
Met al zijn miezerige buien,
daar heeft zij geen boodschap aan
zij wil alle dagen zon
en als het moet eens een orkaan

Maar net als hem blijf ik proberen,
elke dag een flauwe mop
En plots is daar dan toch die glimlach,
en dan klaart alles hier weer op

Want als ze lacht breekt de hele hemel open
Echt ik waan me in de tropen
't is echt machtig als ze lacht
Als ze lacht baad ik uren in de zon,
ik wou dat ik dat voor haar kon,
wat zij voor mij doet als ze lacht

'k Ben ook niet altijd even vrolijk
maar dat ligt echt wel niet aan mij
want zelfs met Martine om zeven
is er maar zelden goed nieuws bij
Of toch, een nieuwe prins geboren,
zelfs nog beter een dolfijn
Maar dan een stuk of honderd plaatsen
waar ze weer aan't vechten zijn

Er is nochtans niet zoveel nodig,
misschien meer vrouwen aan de macht
Dan zeg ik schat jij zou dat kunnen,
en echt ik meen het, maar zij lacht

En als ze lacht, is het even wereldvrede
is de laatste strijd gestreden
't is echt machtig als ze lacht
Als ze lacht, baad ik uren in de zon
ik wou dat ik dat voor haar kon
wat zij voor mij doet als ze lacht
Ja, ik wou echt dat ik dat voor haar kon zijn


Lyrics (English translation):

She isn't always cheerful
and that's sometimes my fault
And a little bit the weather man's fault
but he never makes anybody happy
With all his stupid showers,
it tells her nothing
she wants sunshine every day
and sometimes a hurricane if necessary

But just like him I keep trying,
every day a lame joke
And suddenly there's that smile after all
and everything clears up again

'Cause when she laughs the whole sky opens up
I feel like I'm in the tropics
It's really powerful when she laughs
When she laughs I bathe for hours in the sun,
I wish I could do for her
what she does for me when she laughs

I'm not always cheerful
but that's really not my fault
because even with Martine at seven
there is rarely any good news
Or maybe a new prince has been born,
or even better, a dolphin
But then there's a hundred places
where they're fighting again

Still, it wouldn't take much
perhaps more women in charge
Then I say honey, you could do that,
and I really mean it, I really mean it
but she laughs

And when she laughs, there's a moment of world peace
the last battle has been fought
It's really powerful when she laughs
When she laughs, I bathe for hours in the sun
I wish I could do for her
what she does for me when she laughs

Yes, I really wish I could do that for her...

BONUS: This song has been masterfully reworked on more than once occasion. I send you off with a lovely acoustic version from a concert Bika and I happened to attend two years ago.


Friday, October 25, 2013

Jukebox Friday: Yevgueni - Oud En Versleten



"Oud En Versleten" ("Old And Worn") appeared on Kannibaal, Yevgueni's 2005 debut album.

Like many of Yevgueni's most compelling songs, this is a first-person narrative. It is written from the perspective of someone who, nearing the end of their life, encourages friends and family to euthanize them.

The song became the center of a controversy this summer, when the pastor and entire parish council of Putte decided to ban it from the funeral of Anna De Wachter (88). De Wachter lived the last ten years of her life in a nursing home, of which seven years were spent battling Alzheimer's disease. The family thought that "Oud En Versleten" mirrored her final days perfectly.

The request was declined, however, supposedly because the pastor thinks it encourages euthanasia.

Although euthanasia is widely accepted in Belgium (the 2nd country to legalize it after the Netherlands), the Catholic church continues to oppose it.

To which I say: if you don't agree with the Church, don't leave them in charge of sending you off.

Lyrics (original Dutch):

Als ik oud ben en versleten
en ik voor mijn raampje sta
of in mijn rolstoel neergezeten
nauwelijks weet da'k nog besta

Als ik oud ben en versleten
jou moet vragen wie ik ben
al jouw liefde ben vergeten
en mijn vrienden niet meer ken

Geef me dan alsjeblief een spuitje of een duwtje door het raam
ik schrijf vooraf wel een briefje dat het per ongeluk is gegaan

Als ik oud ben en versleten,
mijn hersenen al gestorven zijn
maar mijn lijf 't nog niet wil weten
en blijft leven voor de schijn

Als ik oud ben en versleten,
enkel mensen werk verschaf
als ik niet meer alleen kan eten
meer dan een been al in't graf

Geef me dan alsjeblief een spuitje of een duwtje door het raam
ik schrijf vooraf wel een briefje dat het per ongeluk is gegaan

Ik ben geboren zonder luier en zo wil ik ook graag dood
ik kan nog uren zitten kauwen op een simpel stukje brood
zo blijf ik nog wel bezig maar het hoeft niet meer voor mij
want laat ons eerlijk wezen het is al lang voorbij

Ik schrijf vooraf wel een briefje dat het per ongeluk is gegaan


Lyrics (English translation):

When I'm old and worn
and I stand before my window
or sit in my wheelchair
hardly knowing that I still exist

When I'm old and worn
Have to ask you who I am
Have forgotten all your love
and don't know my friends anymore

Then please give me a shot or a push through the window
I'll write a note first, saying it was an accident.

When I'm old and worn,
my brains have died
but my body's too stubborn
and stays alive just for show

When I'm old and worn,
only giving people something to do
if I can't eat by myself
more than one leg already in the grave

Then please give me a shot or a push through the window
I'll write a note first, saying it was an accident

I was born without a diaper and that's how I want to die
I can still munch on a single piece of bread for hours
Keeping myself occupied, but I don't need it anymore
Because let's be honest, it's long gone.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

All of everything

I've had a lot of things in my life. Some were toys. Some were friendships. Some were memories I still pull out of my dusty mind now and then, to remind myself of how great life can be.

Nothing compares to this new arrival, though.


Since Kevin was born two months ago, a million overwhelming and wonderful thoughts have raced through my brain. They form a tapestry of ideas and impressions I could never have imagined before.

This is a new person. I'm a new person. Whoever I was before is now fading into the past, like somebody that I used to know. It's amazing that a tiny human being, who won't even remember his first year when he grows up, can turn me into another person simply by being there. If that's not magic, I don't know what is.

What else is there to say? If you're a father, you know exactly what I'm going through. If not, unfortunately there's nothing I can do for you.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Jukebox Friday: Hooverphonic - You Hurt Me

I get a nice 90s vibe from this 2005 song. Trademark strings, clever chords and the silver-dagger vocals of Geike Arnaert await you!

Monday, September 16, 2013

"Hold this for me, okay?"

For a long time, the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons at the Kleine Brogel Air Base in Limburg has been a public secret. In a cable from 2009, recently posted on WikiLeaks, then-ambassador Howard Gutman turns the secret into a fact:
On the military side, the American tactical nuclear weapons stationed at Kleine Brogel in Belgium make its government take a cautious approach.
It's a shame that the Belgian people need a channel like WikiLeaks to inform them that an ally is keeping WMDs in their backyard.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

News and links, week 26


  • While cutting 10% from the Foreign Office budget, British ministers still find £1 million to give to Belgium for the marking of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. (The Telegraph)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

News and links, week 23


  • Tamar Alexia Fleishman has a highly entertaining piece on Ghent over at The Washington Times.
  • A change in legislation after the 2011 Liège attack means Belgium is no longer the only European country where (some) firearms can be bought without a gun license. (De Standaard, 6/9)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

News and links, week 13


  • As the first university in Europe, Ghent University has formally recognized a student club devoted to BDSM. The club's official status makes it eligible for subsidies and allows it to organize activities on campus. It's probably not worth mentioning that these activities will not actually include any BDSM practices. (HLN)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

News and links: week 10


  • The Brussels commune of Molenbeek has cancelled a debate on Zionism following complaints regarding the use of an anti-Semitic charicature to promote the event. The cartoon, depicting an Israeli soldier posing as an ultra-Orthodox Jew and tipping the scales of justice toward a single white man, was created by the anti-Semitic French artist Zeon. (Xpats.com)
  • The Daily Mail's Travel section has a wonderful article on Ghent. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk)

This cartoon by the French artist Zeon was used to promote a (now cancelled) debate on Zionism in Brussels.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

News and links, week 9

  • The Jewish National Fund has planted over 240 million trees in Israel. Last week, the JNF dedicated a grove on the slopes of Mount Hebron to the memory of the 22 children and 6 adults - among them 22 Belgian nationals - who were killed in the Sierre bus crash last year. (EJP via Xpats.com)
Yatir Forest, a planted forest on the slopes of Mount Hebron in Israel.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

News and links, week 8

  • Writing for the New York Times, John Tagliabue provides a lovely portrait of the the village of Vleteren and its world-famous Trappist beer, Westvleteren 12.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

News and links, week 7

Friday, February 15, 2013

Jukebox Friday: Laïs - Le Renard Et La Belette

Laïs in 2003. Photo: Michiel Hendryckx.

I mentioned Läis in my introduction to Belgian music, but strangely enough, I haven't featured them in Jukebox Friday yet.

Until now.

Laïs is a vocal trio consisting of Jorunn Bauweraerts, Annelies Brosens and Nathalie Delcroix. All members are from Kalmthout, a town near Antwerp. Since 1994, they have released seven albums and are a recurring act at various Belgian folk festivals such as Folk Dranouter.

Laïs is the Celtic word for voice, which is an essential part of the group's music. Their sound is defined by polyphonic close harmonies which gives their songs a medieval touch, even when the instrumentation lies closer to folk rock than early music.

"Le Renard Et La Belette" can be found on Laïs' brilliant sophomore album, Dorothea (2000). The recording is based on the tradtitional Breton folk song "La Jument de Michao". Some of you will know this song better as performed by the Breton folk band Tri Yann (video here).

I'm sorry if you don't understand the lyrics, but then, neither do I, and I still think it's a fantastic song and a terrible earworm. If you happen to have a workable English translation, please don't hesitate to share it with me.



C'est dans 10 ans en je m'en irai
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
C'est dans 10 ans en je m'en irai
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
J'entends le loup, le renard et la belette
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
J'entends le loup, le renard et la belette
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter

C'est dans 10 ans en je m'en irai
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
C'est dans 10 ans en je m'en irai
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
J'entends le loup, le renard et la belette
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
J'entends le loup, le renard et la belette
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter


C'est dans 9 ans je m'en irai
La jument de michau a passé dans le pré
La jument de michau et son petit poulain
Ont passé dans le pré, ont mangé tout le foin
La jument de michau et son petit poulain
Ont passé dans le pré, ont mangé tout le foin

C'est dans 9 ans je m'en irai
La jument de michau a passé dans le pré
La jument de michau et son petit poulain
Ont passé dans le pré, ont mangé tout le foin
La jument de michau et son petit poulain
Ont passé dans le pré, ont mangé tout le foin

L'hiver viendra, les gars, l'hiver viendra
La jument de michau elle s'en repartira
L'hiver viendra, les gars, l'hiver viendra

La jument de michau elle s'en repartira
L'hiver viendra, les gars, l'hiver viendra
La jument de michau elle s'en repartira
L'hiver viendra, les gars, l'hiver viendra
La jument de michau elle s'en repartira

C'est dans 10 ans en je m'en irai
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
C'est dans 10 ans en je m'en irai
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
J'entends le loup, le renard et la belette
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
J'entends le loup, le renard et la belette
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter

C'est dans 10 ans en je m'en irai
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
C'est dans 10 ans en je m'en irai
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
J'entends le loup, le renard et la belette
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
J'entends le loup, le renard et la belette
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter

C'est dans 9 ans je m'en irai
La jument de michau a passé dans le pré
La jument de michau et son petit poulain
Ont passé dans le pré, ont mangé tout le foin
La jument de michau et son petit poulain
Ont passé dans le pré, ont mangé tout le foin

C'est dans 9 ans je m'en irai
La jument de michau a passé dans le pré
La jument de michau et son petit poulain
Ont passé dans le pré, ont mangé tout le foin
La jument de michau et son petit poulain
Ont passé dans le pré, ont mangé tout le foin

L'hiver viendra, les gars, l'hiver viendra
La jument de michau elle s'en repartira
L'hiver viendra, les gars, l'hiver viendra
La jument de michau elle s'en repartira

L'hiver viendra, les gars, l'hiver viendra
La jument de michau elle s'en repartira
L'hiver viendra, les gars, l'hiver viendra
La jument de michau elle s'en repartira

C'est dans 10 ans en je m'en irai
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
C'est dans 10 ans en je m'en irai
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
J'entends le loup, le renard et la belette
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
J'entends le loup, le renard et la belette
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter

C'est dans 10 ans en je m'en irai
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
C'est dans 10 ans en je m'en irai
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
J'entends le loup, le renard et la belette
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter
J'entends le loup, le renard et la belette
J'entends le loup et le renard chanter

A triumph for diversity and language

From Xpats.com:
The city of Ghent will no longer use the word allochtoon (immigrant, or, literally, originating from another country) in its official communications and everyday speech. "This marks the launch of a new integration policy," says Equal Opportunities Minister Resul Tapmaz, himself a Ghent politician of Turkish origin. "The ethnic cultural minorities have come to me asking to have the Ghent administration scrap the word," says Tapmaz, "The people of Ghent from whatever background are not satisfied with that label. They feel like Gentenaars, not immigrants." More specifically, the city will replace the word 'immigrant' in all its administrative documents with terms such as ethnic minorities, Turkish Gentenaars, Ghent Moroccans and newcomers.
It should be mentioned that not only Ghent, but several other cities in both Flanders and the Netherlands, have made this change in protocol. A new wind is blowing, and it smells like solidarity.

What the Xpats article doesn't mention is the main reason for the change: the negative connotations of the word allochtoon. Fact is, the word has traditionally and frequently appeared together with words like theft, violence and poverty, in order to highlight social problems within some immigrant communities.

When this word is applied as an umbrella term for immigrants, you end up lumping a lot of different people into the same box. A box that is starting to stink to high heaven.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

News and links, week 6

  • Aviation Week has some photos of Belgian A109s getting shipped from Melsbroek military airport near Brussels to Sévaré in Mali. The helicopters will provide medevac services to combat troops fighting Islamist rebels in Northern Mali.
  • Marc Dutroux, Belgium's most infamous killer, has launched a bid for early release (Reuters).  While cops are being pulled from vacation to provide security detail for Dutroux, officials have declared that the chance of the appeal being granted is as good as zero.
  • In a recent review, Rogert Ebert praises Rust and Bone (French: De rouille et d'os), a drama film starring Belgian leading man Matthias Schoenaerts opposite Marion Cotillard.
  • Employees at six Belgian Colruyt stores discover a total of 66 kg (145 lbs) of cocaine hidden in banana crates. (Expats.com)

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Ellen N. LaMotte: The Backwash of War (1916)

I apologize in advance to those now rolling their eyes at this seemingly endless stream of posts about the First World War. By the way, you can read the other post here.

Today's book was introduced to me by Joski, my father-in-law, who is still churning out posts on his Dutch-language blog on history, music, and everything in between. If your Dutch is strong, like the heart of a young stallion, you can click here to read his post on this book, which also includes several more photographs than can be seen here.

The Backwash of War: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse was written in 1916 by Ellen Newbold La Motte (1873-1961). Having worked as a qualified nurse since 1902, she volunteered her skills to the Western Front in World War I as one of the first American war nurses in Europe.

Ellen Newbold La Motte c. 1902.

From 1914 to 1916, La Motte served with the American Ambulance Service in Paris and as a nurse at a French Army field hospital in Belgium. The Backwash of War chronicles fourteen episodes from her time at the field hospital. The book is rich with powerful moments that, if not for the pen of Ms. La Motte, would have been lost in the sands of time.

The nurse's perspective is very different from that of a soldier. While combat itself often means death in the blink of an eye, things change dramatically when you follow the trickle of wounded to the field hospitals behind the trenches.

At the field hospital, you are faced with three possible outcomes. You may heal enough to get sent back to the front to die another day; you may end up in the cemetery; or you may be sent back home, where a missing limb or some other heinous wound serves as a constant reminder of your sacrifice for "the greater cause". The Backwash of War describes all of these possibilities with equal amounts of bitter realism.

La Motte describes life in a WWI field hospital in meticulous detail, never shying away from the most repulsive descriptions of the "human wreckage" she sees. She works in the hall of the Grands Blessés, where the most seriously wounded men are brought. It is an atmosphere of constant, lingering, slow and painful death. La Motte evokes the sight of dirt, blood and other bodily fluids, the smell from terrible wounds, and the moaning, screaming voices of the dying.

Presumably to preserve morale, the book was censored and withdrawn when America entered the war in 1917-1918. It wasn't republished until 1934, sixteen years after the Armistice.

Operating room in the field hospital at Roesbrugge near Ypres.

Like many other portrayals of the First World War, The Backwash of War is cynical, bitter, and relentlessly realistic. There is a good portion of sarcasm, for example in the description of generals who visit the hospital only to pin medals on the bedspreads of dying men, to boost morale among those who may heal enough to get a chance to die in a future battle.

There are no heroes in this book, only regular people trying to survive and do their job while all the world seems to be falling apart around them. There is no Kate Beckinsale here, running to and fro with blood packs while Hans Zimmer conducts the orchestra. There is only a tired staff of nurses, doctors and orderlies who see death every day and know that it is more than often ugly, painful, unavoidable and completely senseless.
Thus the science of healing stood baffled before the science of destroying.
La Motte does not shy away from less-than-flattering characterizations of individuals and groups. This provides a unique insight into some of the tensions that existed even between allies, especially the French and the Belgians whose country they were fighting to liberate. One of the fourteen vignettes, titled A Belgian Civilian, describes what happens when a small child, dying from a shell wound to the abdomen, is brought into the hospital. His reluctant mother is brought down from Ypres by another ambulance:
So she continued her complaints. She had been dragged away from her husband, from her other children, and she seemed to have little interest in her son, the Belgian civilian, said to be dying. However, now that she was here, now that she had come all this way, she would go in to see him for a moment, since the Directrice seemed to think it so important. The Directrice of this French field hospital was an American, by marriage a British subject, and she had curious, antiquated ideas. She seemed to feel that a mother’s place was with her child, if that child was dying. The Directrice had three children of her own whom she had left in England over a year ago, when she came out to Flanders for the life and adventures of the Front. But she would have returned to England immediately, without an instant’s hesitation, had she received word that one of these children was dying. Which was a point of view opposed to that of this Belgian mother, who seemed to feel that her place was back in Ypres, in her home, with her husband and other children. In fact, this Belgian mother had been rudely dragged away from her home, from her family, from certain duties that she seemed to think important. So she complained bitterly, and went into the ward most reluctantly, to see her son, said to be dying.
Later, the woman leaves for home, showing even less concern for her dead offspring than some animals would. The chapter ends with an exclamation of solidarity from a French soldier:
“These Belgians!” said a French soldier. “How prosperous they will be after the war! How much money they will make from the Americans, and from the others who come to see the ruins!”
And as an afterthought, in an undertone, he added: “Ces sales Belges!” ("These dirty Belgians!")
In the end, The Backwash of War is a shockingly honest firsthand depiction of one of mankind's darkest hours. If you're already acquainted with the soldier's perspective on the war in the trenches, this book will significantly broaden your horizon. Also, it's quite simply a very good read.


The Backwash of War by Ellen N. La Motte can be downloaded for free at the Project Gutenberg web site.

Sources:
http://www.medicalarchives.jhmi.edu/papers/lamotte.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_LaMotte
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26884/26884-h/26884-h.htm
http://www.wo1.be/ned/geschiedenis/gastbijdragen/roesbrugge/roesbrugge.htm
http://berichtenuithetverleden.wordpress.com/2012/07/19/ellen-la-motte-the-backwash-of-war-het-kielzog-van-de-oorlog/

Friday, February 1, 2013

Jacques Tardi: It Was the War of the Trenches - C'était la guerre des tranchées (2010)

(As always, click on images to embiggen.)

My brother-in-law gave me this book for Christmas. I finished it yesterday, and now it's begging for a blog post.


It Was the War of the Trenches is a collection of fictional episodes describing the experiences of French soldiers on the Western Front in World War I (1914-1918). Written and drawn by WWI-aficionado Jacques Tardi, it was published in the original French in 1993. The full English translation came out in 2010.

The book is a tour de force of storytelling, with compelling characters and big ideas set against the infathomable destruction and suffering of the First World War.

It Was the War in the Trenches is very different from the more action-oriented American war comics I used to read as a kid. Tardi focuses more on the individual soldier's internal and external struggle than on gunfights and artillery barrages.

Using an HBO analogy, you could say that this book has more of the bleak cynicism of The Pacific than the peppy camaraderie of Band of Brothers. The book shines the brightest in moments where the balance between these two is just right.

A dying soldier contemplates the paradoxes of war (p. 91).

The comic does have plenty of jarring action sequences, reminiscent of what we've seen in old movies but completely stripped of heroism and glory.


Tardi's extensive research is evident in how he adapts vintage photographs into his panels. Without knowing it, I incorporated one of these photographs in an earlier post on the battles of Passchendaele. Here's an above-and-below comparison:

British soldiers blinded by tear gas near Ypres, 1918.

Tardi's 1993 version.

The book also deals briefly with the Rape of Belgium, a propaganda term for atrocities committed by the Germans during the invasion and occupation of neutral Belgium. One of the scenes in the book depicts German soldiers chasing off Belgian soldiers by using their own women and children as human shields.

The French soldiers are less troubled by the prospect of firing at the Belgians, and soon open fire. 

Use of human shields by Germans in It Was the War of the Trenches.

This event was originally illustrated by Louis Raemaekers (1869-1956), a Dutch cartoonist who created some of the most striking propaganda images of the war.

The Shields of Rösselaere by Louis Raemaekers.

In a café, lower down, near the canal, I saw a number of German soldiers, and was successful in having a chat with the inn-keeper, at the farthest corner of the bar. I asked, of course, what they meant by burning the village, and he told me that the Germans had made a number of successful attacks on Fort Pontisse, until at last they had reduced it to silence. They were now so near that they could open the final assault. They were afraid, however, of some ambush, or underground mine, and the Friday before they had collected the population, whom they forced to march in front of them. When they had got quite near they dared not enter it yet, and drove the priest and twelve of the principal villagers before them.
- L. Mokveld: The German Fury in Belgium (1917)

Most of the individual events in the book are fictional, but this does not diminish the fact that similar things happened, again and again, to thousands of young men during the war. Tardi's meticulous research has allowed him to tell his own stories while staying true to the era, the people who inhabited it, and the ideas that governed them. Well-researched, well-drawn and well-told, It Was the War of the Trenches is perhaps the best comic book on a historical subject I have read so far.

The Western Front claimed fifteen million casualties between 1914 and 1918, in as many gruesome ways as man could have invented up to that point. As harrowing as this book may be, it can never fully communicate the horrors that took place in this little corner of the world nearly a hundred years ago.

You can find another great review of this book at Forbidden Planet International.

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_of_belgium
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/34031
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_world_war
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Raemaekers
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Lys_(1918)

Monday, January 28, 2013

A brief history of bicycle racing in Belgium

Bicycle racing (Dutch: wielrennen, French: cyclisme sportif) is by far one of the most popular sports in Belgium. It is also a sport in which Belgium can be counted among the superpowers of the world. Here's a quick history of bicycle road racing in Belgium.

The Tour de France has played a major role in Belgian bicycle culture. At the beginning of the 20th century, support for cycling was diminishing across the country. Then, in 1912, Odile Defraye from West Flanders became the first Belgian and second foreigner to win the Tour de France. The next two Tours were also won by a Belgian, Philippe Thys from Anderlecht. Thys won the Tour a third and final time in 1920, becoming the first person ever to win the Tour three times.

Odile Defraye, the first hero of Belgian cycling.

Philippe Thys.

Over the years, 18 of 99 Tours de France have been won by Belgians, more than any other country with the exception of (surprise, surprise) France (36 victories). The last Belgian to win the Tour de France was Lucien Van Impe in 1976.

Odile Defraye's Tour de France victory directly or indirectly inspired the creation of the biggest annual Flemish sports event, the Tour of Flanders (Dutch: Ronde van Vlaanderen, French: Tour des Flandres). Retired cyclist Nico Mattan (b. 1971) from Kortrijk once said of the race:
Many great names of Flemish cycling live on the route of the race. This closeness doesn't exist in any other country. That's what gives our identity.
The course of the Tour of Flanders has changed dramatically over the years, but one defining feature has always been its cobbled hills, of which there are currently 17 (including repeats). One of the most famous is the Muur van Geraardsbergen (English: Wall of Geraardsbergen/Grammont, French: Mur de Grammont), which was a staple of the Tour of Flanders until 2012. It is 1075 m (3527 ft) long with a steepness of 9,3% and a height difference of 92 m (302 ft). The hill was made a heritage site in 1995.

Since 2004, The women's Tour of Flanders  (Dutch: Ronde van Vlaanderen voor Vrouwen) has been held every spring on the same date as the men's race.

Cyclists climbing the Muur van Geraardsbergen
during the women's Tour of Flanders in 2006.

The most recent winner of the Tour of Flanders (2012) was Tom Boonen, who had previously won the race on two occasions. Boonen is the most successful Belgian cyclist of his era, which has made him Belgium's main male sports idol.

Tom Boonen celebrates his fourth Paris–Roubaix victory, in 2012.

And finally, we take a step back in time. While most Belgians will instantly recognize names like Rik Van Looy and Tom Boonen, the name Eddy Merckx may ring a bell even to a Norwegian who's never set his foot in the Low Countries.

Merckx (b. 1945) is arguably the greatest road cyclist in Belgian history, and many consider him the greatest cyclist ever. To put things into perspective, he is the Wayne Gretzky, the Michael Jordan and the Diego Maradona of cycling.

In a career spanning the years 1961 to 1975 Merckx won 525 races, earning him three road cycling world championships, five Tour de France wins (the highest* number of wins ever, a record matched only by three other cyclists), and five victories in the Giro d'Italia. In 2005, the people of Flanders voted him the 3rd greatest Belgian of all time.

Eddy Merckx in 1973, the year he skipped the Tour de France because the
French audience was in an uproar over the possibility of Merckx matching
the Frenchman Jacques Anquetil's record of five wins. Merckx returned to the
Tour in 1974 to take his fifth and final victory in the race.


*What's that? Lance Armstrong? Never heard of him.

Sources:
http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vlaamse_sportgeschiedenis#Wielrennen
http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddy_Merckx
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Grootste_Belg
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_racing
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tour_of_flanders
http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronde_van_Vlaanderen
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muur_van_Geraardsbergen
http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muur_van_Geraardsbergen
http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippe_Thys
http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odiel_Defraeye

Friday, January 18, 2013

Belgian war correspondent killed in Syria

The Doha Centre for Media Freedom has so far documented 72 professional or citizen journalists who have died during the Syrian civil war. The 73rd entry will be a Belgian.

Today Didier Reynders, the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, confirmed the death of Yves Debay, 58. He was killed by sniper fire in Aleppo.

Debay was born on Christmas Eve in 1954, in Elisabethville in the Belgian Congo. He joined the Belgian Army at the age of 21 and eventually became a tank commander. He fought with the Rhodesians against guerilla troops in the Rhodesian Bush War of 1964-1979. In 1985, he became a war correspondent. He has covered wars in Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, the Balkans, and Afghanistan. His recent assignment to Syria would be his last.

Yves Debay (1954-2013). Source

We will most likely never find out who fired the deadly shot. Anti-government militants have released images of Debay's body, along with claims that he was killed by government troops.

Sources:
http://www.demorgen.be/dm/nl/990/Buitenland/article/detail/1564347/2013/01/18/Belgische-oorlogsjournalist-omgekomen-in-Syrie.dhtml (Dutch)

Fighting and dying in Africa

In July of last year, northern Mali fell into the clutches of anti-government Islamist groups. In October, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a French resolution approving an African-led force to assist the Malian army in combating the Islamist militants.

While only French troops have so far been directly involved in the fighting, several countries have committed personnel and equipment to the operation. These countries include Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Belgian contingent consists of 75-80 staff members, two C-130 transport aircraft, and one or two Agusta A109 Medevac medical evacuation helicopters.

Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport plane of the Belgian Air Component
photographed at McChord Air Force Base, Washington, 2009. Source

Agusta A109 helicopter of the Belgian Air Component
at Florennes Air Base in Namur, Belgium, 2012. Source

France has already sustained its first casualty in the conflict. On 11 January, battalion commander Lt. Damien Boiteux, 41, was hit by small arms fire in his Gazelle helicopter during an attack on a rebel column near Sévaré. Although the other pilot was able to fly the helicopter back to base, Lt. Boiteux later died of his wounds.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault at the coffin of Lt. Damien Boiteux,
the first European casualty in the Northern Mali conflict. Source

Meanwhile, hundreds of Africans have been killed and about 374,000 have become refugees in a conflict that will continue to affect the region for many years to come.

Also this week, a group of militants with relations to Al-Qaida crossed the border from Mali into Algeria and captured a BP-owned natural gas field, In Aménas. The militants were reported to have killed two foreign nationals and were holding 41 foreign nationals - among them eight Norwegians - hostage. A spokesman for the group said that the purpose of the attack was to get revenge on the countries that had intervened in Mali. After an unsuccessful rescue operation by the Algerian military, some reports indicated that many of the hostages have been killed. The hostage situation remains unresolved.

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Mali_conflict_(2012%E2%80%93present)
http://www.deredactie.be/cm/vrtnieuws/binnenland/130116_Belgen_Mali_Melsbroek
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Am%C3%A9nas_hostage_crisis
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Serval
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Konna

Sunday, January 13, 2013

News and links, week 2


Friday, January 11, 2013

Jukebox Friday: Roberto Bellarosa - Love Kills (Belgium's 2013 ESC contribution)

My apologies in advance.

Roberto Bellarosa was born in 1995 in Huy, a town in the Belgian province of Liege. He shot to fame in April 2012 when he won the reality singing competition The Voice Belgique. In November it was announced that he would represent Belgium at the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö, Sweden.

The song itself would fit nicely into the second half of an Enrique Iglesias album. Sadly, in this performance Bellarosa seems to be struggling to hit the high notes, and the rest of his performance can best be described as uninspired. Let's hope it goes better in Malmö.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

News and links, week 1


Happy New Year! Here are the Belgium news and links from the first week of 2013 (and everything I didn't have time to report during the holidays).
Gerard Depardieu. Photo source