Chapter 23 - Characteristics and Customs

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MOST foreign visitors to Belgium give a very unflattering description of Belgian character, and fix upon some national traits or habits to make them subjects of ridicule. This was not the impression I formed of the people during the several years I resided in the country, mixing with all classes of society and visiting parts rarely if ever visited by tourists. There are, of course, disagreeable persons in Belgium as in every other country, but I brought away the most agreeable opinion of the good qualities of the people as a whole, and in saying this I make no distinction between Walloons and Flemings. Both have their attractive side, although the latter are perhaps, on the whole, the most agreeable people to deal with. Leaving for others the unpleasant task of criticism, I only wish to dwell here on some of the popular types as they struck me in a favorable manner.

If I were asked what class of men, taken as a whole, impressed me most favorably in Belgium, I should have to reply, the postman, or the facteur as he is called. The Belgian facteur has raised the science of delivering letters to the level of a fine art. He works with his head as well as his fingers. He has mastered the first secret of the profession. The important fact on the envelope is not the address, but the name of the person. His object is to find that person. An error in number does not baffle him. There may be no street on the address. The name is called out to the assembled facteurs in the sorting-hall at the Grandes Postes, and the man who goes out to St. Giles or Etterbeck exclaims: "There is a person of that name at such and such an address ; give it to me and I will see if it is for him." If the person cannot be found this way, the register at the bureau de police is searched. If the name is not there, then only is it returned to the dead-letter office. I have had letters delivered to me which only had the name Brussels, and I was a stranger in the land.

There is another art that the facteur has learnt. He is always cheerful of aspect, as if he were the bearer of nothing but good news, and when he brings a registered letter, he quite beams. I have once or twice, however, seen a grave sternness displace the smile, when the dull foreign tourist, ignorant of the general custom, omitted to give him the three or four sous that is the usual reward for a lettre chargee. It is little omissions of this sort that explain a good deal of our unpopularity on the Continent. The Belgian postman not only delivers the letters, but also the newspapers to subscribers, and I never recollect a paper going astray in the course of three years. Perhaps he is seen at his best on the occasion of the New Year, when it is the custom to send one's visiting card to all one's friends and acquaintances. Then he works like a Titan to distribute the three million bits of pasteboard in Brussels alone.

It may be admitted that the Brussels facteur would never be able to get through his work, or to do it so well, but for the electric trams, which carry him from one end of the town to the other. These are used for another purpose in the matter of correspondence. A letter box is to be found at the end of each car, into which an express letter, bearing _an extra 25 centimes, or 2-cent stamp, may be dropped, and it will then be delivered as rapidly as possible, not only in Brussels, but throughout the kingdom. Telegraph boys are waiting at all the chief stopping-places to open these boxes, examine the letters, and take out those for places near at hand. If for the provinces, the letter is taken out at the station, sent off by the next train, and delivered by telegraph boy, or if the postoffice is closed, by the station porter. No doubt this system works better because the railways are owned and managed by the State. Express letters are in common use in Belgium, and, as worked on the uniform charge of five cents, no matter what the distance may be, are undoubtedly a great public convenience.

The tram-car employees are also a deserving body. They work very hard during long hours, and yet they always seem fresh and up to the mark. The cars are divided into first and second class, the difference being that in the former there are cushions. The recezeurs, or collectors, are often the recipients of a little perquisite. Where the change would often be a centime of halfpenny, the fare will often not accept it, whereupon the receveur politely raises his cap. These little favors, especially during the summer time, total up to a considerable addition to the meager wages paid by the tram companies. I cannot remember seeing a tram-car collector rude or disobliging to any one, and when a passenger rises too late to stop the car at one of the arrets facultatifs, he will generally express his regret at having got too far to make it possible. Accidents are not as numerous as might be expected, but pedestrians have to be on their guard, especially in passing behind a stationary car on to the opposite line of traffic.

The railway officials are another class who come a good deal under one's observation in traveling about the country. If the best side of them is to be seen, they require a little management, and some consideration must be paid to their dignity as State officials. The tourist is rather prone to address the red-capped chef de gare as if he were a porter at home, appointed for the express purpose of giving bewildered travelers information. That is not included among the duties of a station-master in Belgium. His function is to look after the trains, not the travelers. On the other hand, if the traveler approaches him in the correct manner, which means by raising his hand to his hat, he at once unbends, and will do everything he can to assist him. The railway guards and ticket-collectors also have nothing whatever to do with luggage, and it is beneath their dignity to help to take it out of the carriage. The porters are few in number, and their duties of taking the luggage out of the van, etc., monopolize their time, so they, too, are unable to assist travelers. As all these functionaries wear some sort of uniform, it is to them that the tourist looks for aid which he never receives, and consequently he or she feels aggrieved at the indifference with which the demand for a porter is received.

If, however, the traveler should utter the word Commissionaire, there would be no lack of ready hands to carry the baggage, as on every platform a good supply of these men stand ready for a job. They can easily be distinguished by their linen shirts or smocks, and generally have a badge, either on their cap or on their arm. These are the railway porters, in our sense of the term, but they have no authority in the station, and must not do anything else but carry luggage. They are to be found outside the station also, but at Brussels a penny ticket has to be taken for them to secure their admission to the platform, even when carrying travelers' luggage.

The Brussels policeman has often been held up to ridicule, but it is altogether undeserved. A recent cartoon in Punch pictures a small representative of the law trying in vain to get a big Flemish ouvrier out of a beer-shop and finally ending the colloquy by saying, "Then stay where you are." The cartoon is not more true to life than such skits generally are. In the first place, the Brussels policeman is not so very small, but his loose and comfortable costume does not give him the stiff and imposing appearance of our guardians of the law. He is really a very active individual, and his courage is beyond question. It must be remembered that the criminal class with which he has to deal is far more dangerous than ours, apart from the alien element in some of our large cities, which is giving our police authorities a taste of Continental conditions. Brussels criminals always carry revolvers, and know how to use them, and as they generally work in couples, a solitary policeman has to be always on his guard. The newspapers are seldom without an account of an affray in which revolver shots are exchanged, but it is very rarely that a criminal escapes the hands of justice. The Brussels policeman is not, however, assumed to be at the service of every pedestrian in search of information. Still, if asked a question with sufficient politeness, he will reply to the extent of his knowledge with equal civility. But his engrossing duty is to watch the crimnial classes, and to prevent them doing much mischief. This duty he discharges in an efficient manner, considering that the force to which he belongs is numerically weak, and that the criminal class is proportionally large.

Passing to a higher class in society, I wish to say a good word for the Belgian officer. He, not less than the Brussels policeman, is made an object of caricaturists, and very unjustly. I have known or met a great many of them, and I have found them intelligent, earnest, and devoted to their profession, although its prospects are not very seductive, and the chances of earning any glory in it seem remote. This is the more remarkable, because the greater number of Belgian officers come from the body of the people. They represent not a separate class or caste, but just the ordinary citizens of the country, and many of them have risen from the grade of soiis-ofticers. The noble class only enters the Guides, and to a less extent the Grenadiers, Lancers, and Carabiniers. Outside the Guides there is also a complete absence of what we call "side." The Belgian officer is a quiet, inoffensive fellow, rather inclined to take the small affairs of his barrack life a little too seriously, but entitled to special credit for the attention he pays to the wants of his men, and to preserving good relations with them. It is not his fault if so little fighting has fallen to his lot, and if his reputation in real warfare has still to be made.

The official class in Belgium presents what we should consider the most favorable type of the Belgian gentleman. An official is always extremely courteous (I speak of the representatives of the higher administration), and rather a stickler for formality. The pith of his remarks may be small, but he will cover it with a number of polite phrases, expressed in classic French. The staff of each cabinet, or the inner private office of a Secretary of State, or director of a department, is carefully recruited from the most promising candidates, who are selected for their personal appearance and family connections as well as their attainments. They have also to undergo, after appointment, qualifying examinations to prove their fitness to pass into the higher grades. In the Foreign Office, the highest level of excellence is maintained. In speaking of the characteristics and customs of the Belgians, one should not omit to mention the women of Belgium, who are noted for their thrift, cleanliness, and capacity for work. Even visitors from other countries, who are prejudiced against everything foreign, and who have not a word to say in behalf of the men, are impressed in their favor. There is a complete absence of that tawdriness which is so obtrusive and offensive among our working classes, and the neat and tidy way in which all the women in Belgium, without exception, arrange their hair is a striking contrast with the dishevelled locks or flounting chignons of their English and American sisters. A case of a Belgian woman wearing any hair but her own is not to be found. The first impression formed in the country is that the women do all the work, which brings the reflection in its train that the men must have an easy time of it. On the latter point this is corrected by greater knowledge of the subdivision of labor; but the opinion that the female half of the community works as hard as the male will not in any way be modified. Women manage all the shops, from the small groceries and greengroceries up to business of importance, and it is only in the largest establishments that men take their place. They will be helped in this task by their children or, if there is one, by their grandfather; but it is considered somewhat undignified for an active man to mind a shop. He will often seek and obtain employment outside the business which his wife stops at home to conduct. All the purveyors and carriers of milk are women, and their little carts drawn by dogs with their bright brass cans, are one of the sights of Brussels, especially when they are all assembled on the Grand Place for inspection.

As between Flemish and Walloon women it is difficult for an outsider to draw a just comparison. In appearance the Flemings are shorter and slighter than their half-sisters. They are also a fair-haired race, with bright complexions and pink cheeks. The Walloon is far taller and big in proportion, generally dark, with pale face and very marked features, although tradition declares that she should be fair, and assigns for dark-haired women a Spanish or even a Roman origin, which is going rather far back. It is not at all uncommon to meet a flaxen-haired woman of grand physique among the Walloons of Liege and Luxemburg, and this is especially the case among some of the old noble families. But, as a rule, the Walloon woman is dark, just as the Flemish is fair. There is more energy about the Fleming and more dignity about the Walloon. The former works harder and calls the latter lazy; the latter is a better manager, and requires a higher grade of comfort in her domestic life, and is disposed to regard her Flemish sisters as being somewhat behind the day and not quite on the same plane of culture as herself. There may be some foundation for this, and if we were to apply the test of cooking, Walloon cooks are pronounced superior in every way to Flemish. It is said that the Flemings, despite their clean and natty appearance in the streets, are not so scrupulously clean in their domestic arrangements as is desirable, and as is undoubtedly the case throughout the Walloon country. Both have a marked partiality for fine clothes and bright colors, and those who have only observed the people in their workaday clothes would not recognize the same persons as they go to mass on Sundays. The Walloons dress in better taste than the Flemings, and as they are considerably taller, they carry their clothes more gracefully and with greater effect. The art of dressmaking has been carried to a higher point of perfection among them, and most Walloon girls can cut out their own clothes and make them in the latest fashion. It is quite remarkable to notice the degree to which the art of dressing well is carried among the Walloon women of all classes, especially as there is no corresponding movement among the men. While the men in their Sunday clothes are just ordinary provincials, their wives and daughters might easily be mistaken for Parisennes.

The characteristics which mark the people at large are also found among the leisured and well-to-do classes. The Belgian lady has very much the same views of life as her humbler sister. Money means practically finer clothes, more visits to the theater, a longer vacation at the seaside or in the country, but the objects that constitute her ideas of a pleasant life are practically the same. Society passes its time with a certain lazy indifference and a complete absence of the exciting whirl of entertainments that constitutes life in New York, London, or Paris. There is a considerable amount of visiting, afternoon teas, the daily drive to the Bois, and there are occasional charity bazaars; but these must all form part of the regular existence anywhere of those who have no obligation to work for a living. The chief feature of Belgian society, as of Belgian life generally, is its domesticity. The family and its affairs form the pivot upon which the whole social system turns. It is very creditable and homelike, if the charge cannot be avoided that the result is a trifle dull.

In Luxemburg there is still a quaint custom maintained, in the celebration of the "dancing procession." Not long after the death of Bishop Willebrod, Luxemburg was visited by a cattle plague, and it was a popular belief in those days that the only way to restore the animals affected was for the men and women to imitate them by dancing and jumping about. The plague on this occasion was not arrested by these steps, and then it was proposed that a chosen band of "holy dancers" should proceed to St. Willebrod's shrine and make an offering. The result of this proceeding was considered to be the staying of the plague and the practice has been followed ever since, for over 1,100 years.

The dancing procession in its modern dress, which distinguishes it from the more austere presentment of the Middle Ages, is one of the prettiest sights that could be imagined. The participants reveal sometimes the fatigue natural from their severe physical exercise, but none of the frenzy of religious zeal in a high state of exaltation. The procession is formed on Prussian territory, across the bridge over the Sure, and many participants come from the Eiffel, where the people are as good Catholics as in the Duchy. All that region was subject to the Luxemburg princes centuries before Prussia was thought of, and St. Willebrod's fame is not restricted by present-day frontiers.

About nine in the morning of Whit-Tuesday, those who intend joining the procession form up on the eastern side of the bridge, the clergy await them on the western, and when the signal is given, the priests, with their attendant acolytes, lead the way. The bridge and its approaches are fifty yards across, from the bridge to the Church of St. Pierre through the main street of the town 1,200 metres (1,310 yards nearly) have to be traversed, and the dancers have to move three steps forward at a time and then take two backwards. For each five steps they take then they move forward only one; for the 1,200 metres they come 6,000. The procession is formed seven in a line, and the dancers keep together by holding pocket-handkerchiefs or scarves between them. Along the route, which is crowded, firemen are stationed to pick up those who fall, and the spectators exhort the dancers to persevere to the end.

The end is the hardest part of the ordeal, for the Church of St. Pierre stands on a slight eminence which is reached by sixty-two steep steps. Even here the processionists, after mounting three steps, have to retrace two, and the steps are worn and hollowed by the countless pilgrims of many centuries. The procession ends in front of the Saint's shrine, and by that time the dancers, who include persons of all ages from youth to old age and members of both sexes, are quite exhausted by their four miles of hopping. After the ceremony a popular fete is held for the amusement of the twenty thousand visitors who flock into the town on these occasions. The pilgrimage, or procession, is probably the oldest of its kind still existing in Europe, and the fervor of the participants, like the interest of the spectators, shows no sign of abatement.

Source: Boulger, Demetrius C. Belgium. Detroit: Published for the Bay View Reading Club, 1913. Print.

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