RIYADH: When I was a child, I used to sit with my sister in front of the television, watching the parades for the king and crown prince (we now have our first crown princess) in our capital. We tried to spot my father, who was marching while playing music, before eating Belgian beef stew with fries and mayonnaise (not ketchup, it’s not Belgian), homemade by my mother. Later on, while living in Brussels, I celebrated July 21 with friends, picnicking in the parks and participating in events and activities the city organized, ending the evening with a concert.
To me, Belgium is the country I spent the first 28 years of my life in, where I was blessed with great education and many opportunities. Working for Belgium as a civil servant abroad is my chance to give back to my country.
Living abroad changes the way you see home. It has definitely made me a more proud citizen. As diplomats, we have the opportunity to visit the most innovative Belgian companies abroad and we also meet very interesting Belgians and see their wonderful projects all over the world, whether they are entrepreneurs or artists, active in the medical field, as professors, or even sportsmen and women. We are a small but very diverse nation because of our history and geographical location in the center of Europe, hosting the headquarters of many international institutions and businesses. The diversity in culture, language and background of our citizens is a true asset and we are too modest when it comes to selling our unique Belgian identity.
Being far away from family and friends makes celebrating National Day different. This year will be my third National Day in Riyadh and, as in previous years, I hope to celebrate the day with friends from Belgium, Saudi Arabia and all over the world, enjoying some delicious Belgian food while having lovely chats and listening to Belgian music. I will probably hear a comment of “Ah, is this Belgian? I thought it was from…” here and there.
I wish all my fellow citizens a happy and relaxing day under the sun. I hope the ones living in Belgium as well as abroad are able to invite an expat or a local to their homes and share stories about our homeland, while enjoying our amazing cuisine. For everyone back home and in neighboring countries who are currently living through extremely difficult times due to last week’s terrible natural disaster, my deepest sympathies are with you and your families.
Elisa De Raes
Deputy Head of Mission and Consul to Saudi Arabia
There is no better way to get to know the true spirit of a country than to visit it during its National Day celebrations. Although a small country, Belgium has a very rich and diverse culture and every town or village has its own traditions when it comes to celebrating our National Day.
The Belgian population of more than 11.5 million is composed of Dutch speakers, French speakers, the inhabitants of our cosmopolitan capital of Brussels, and a small but dynamic German-speaking community in the east of the country.
My colleague Adrien Lacroix might have stated (see below) that Belgium often has bad weather, but my vibrant French-speaking city of Liege is said to enjoy 365 days of sun per year — a way of saying that, in spite of the weather conditions, its citizens are always warm-hearted and welcoming. The citizens of Liege once again proved their resilience and sense of solidarity last week, as the city was badly impacted by the devastating floods that hit Western Europe. My thoughts are with all those who have been affected in Belgium, Germany and elsewhere.
Like many other Belgians, I always choose to celebrate our National Day in Brussels, where I can mingle with fellow citizens from all parts of the country. A typical July 21 in our capital includes eating a hearty plate of our traditional moules-frites (mussels and fries) and then attending the military and civilian parade that takes place in front of the Royal Palace in the presence of our king. The parade always gets me hungry again, so I usually end up wandering around Brussels’ magnificent Grand Place square in search of a delicious Belgian waffle. I then join a bigger group of friends to attend the music festival held on the Jeu de Balle Square in the Marolles neighborhood, where we enjoy the great performances of the 100 percent-Belgian lineup.
Belgium’s climate means that the National Day usually ends up in the rain — what is popularly referred to in French as the “drache nationale” (national downpour). This rarely seems to discourage the joyful crowd, which is by this point too busy dancing to Stromae to care about anything else.
Saying that Belgian cuisine is limited to chocolate and waffles is a cliche, but saying that the Belgians know how to celebrate their National Day is a fact.
Belgian National Day takes place on July 21, in the middle of summer. This is important because Belgium is known for having an unpleasant climate most of the year, with cold days from the fall in October until spring in May. What’s more, my country gets about 200 days of rainfall each year. So the summertime is usually colored with celebrations, gatherings, concerts, parties, fireworks and all sorts of festive events taking place outdoors. No need to mention the music festivals, such as Tomorrowland, to understand how big and vibrant such activities are. This year, the weather took us by surprise and floods caused a disaster in many parts of Belgium, for which I would like to express my solidarity with the victims.
Our National Day is celebrated in the open air and is a time to enjoy the company of our fellow citizens. I come from a small city called Tournai in the southwest of the French-speaking part of Belgium, but I think National Day activities are the same almost everywhere: The municipality organizes concerts and shows, usually on the main square (“grand place”). The restaurants and cafes set up a terrace or bar outside and a lot of people are dressed in black, yellow and red. They listen to local artists or bands while cheering together for the fireworks, often until late at night. Food is served — usually barbecued meat — together with refreshing frozen drinks.
To me, the meaning of this day has taken up more and more significance in the light of our recent history. I believe all Belgians have something in common, a sort of “Belgiantude,” defined by surrealism, self-derision and a love of living. I hope we can continue on this path for centuries to come. As our anthem has it, “Le roi, la loi, la liberte” (For king, for law and for freedom).