I’m Belgian, but I will not talk about Belgian culture, as it’s not really the culture I grew up with. I grew up in Aalst, a city of about 120,000 cynical souls in between Brussels and Ghent.
On the day that I’m writing this Aalst is organizing its yearly Carneval festivities which are recognized by UNESCO as world heritage.
On Tuesday, today, men dress up as women and go boozing, all over time, yelling at people, spraying with garlic spray, kissing whomever they please, etc.
Aalst was a very poor city, and at the peak of the industrial revolution it was filthy. There’s still a plant right smack dab in the middle of town, which spreads a foul stench that you can only like if you were born there.
If you like someone in Aalst, you insult them, as hard as you can. If someone in Aalst can’t stand you, he will be polite to you and totally make fun of you behind your back. The insults are impossible to translate and other Flemish people from other cities don’t understand them.
Aalst is looked down upon by the rest of the country, as a open lunatic asylum for retarded people who are proud to be retarded.
In the picture you see me dressed up for Carneval 2008.
I live in primitive Slovakia now, where it’s very, very, easy to go outside of the borders of what is considered ‘appropriate’ or ‘acceptable’ and people around here are shocked when they see it. Their first question is if I had long hair for real, because Slovak people don’t understand why any guy would want to have long hair. It’s their one problem with their national star, Peter Sagan, the cyclist, sometimes he wears his hair long.
I have struggled all my life with trying to adapt to social standards outside of Aalst. I’m either too polite or too informal, because it’s hard for me to determine the border. In Aalst you just say something absolutely awful and you make a friend. In the ‘real’ world the same rules do not apply. For the same reason I don’t like my official native language, Dutch, because the dialect we speak at home is radically different. My own country felt foreign once outside of Aalst. I still feel shame when I speak Dutch, because I have the accent of the town that is most famous for Louis Paul Boon, a guy who amassed a huge collection of ‘dirty’ pictures, chased women, drank himself to death and, came dangerously close to winning the Nobel prize for literature.
My Slovak wife didn’t want to live in the city, because she found the atmosphere to be morbid and so negative and cynical that she got to be -almost depressed-, she’s the most cheerful person I have ever met. We balance each other out.
In Aalst we have the weird paradox that we hate humanity for all its hypocrite and formal and fake behavior, but at the same time we are most likely to do you a favor from all people in Belgium, I do believe.
This is my wife this morning, the super cheerful Slovak girl, who married a misanthropic, yet alruistic cynic, from Aalst.