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Your New BFF: Tintin

18 Jul

Europe seems to be in love with Tintin.  In fact, they have a hard time understanding that the vast majority of Americans have no idea who this guy is.  So let’s learn a bit about him today and when that Spielberg movie comes out you can say you knew him when.

Tintin is a much beloved comic by a man named Georges Remi.  Although he took his initials, turned them around and used that for his pen name – Hergé.  He worked for a newspaper in the 1920s and began drawing Tintin for the children’s section.  His strips would form a story if you read them every day.  Soon he was on to his third tale when books were being made to collect Tintin’s adventures.  This is typical of how Belgians read comics.  Though they see them in newspapers they will typically buy the well-made books for their collections.  Over 60% of the books produced in Belgium are comics.

Tintin's loyal sidekick, Snowy, finds a leak in a whiskey car. Canine drinking is serious business.

Though Tintin first appeared in 1929, it was in 1934 that his character really began to change.  Hergé met a young Chinese student by the name of Chang.  This man helped to understand that his work needed accurate detail.  That Hergé could not make generalizations about foreign lands and people as he did.  To this day Tintin is still criticized for racial stereotypes, sexism and cruelty to animals.  Though Hergé’s work largely reflected the time, it was his meeting with Chang that helped him to see there was another route.  As time went on the research involved in one Tintin book could take as long as four years.

Walt Disney was contacted by Hergé in regards to a possible film deal but he never responded.  Perhaps Tintin was too much competition for Mickey Mouse?  He’s just as popular overseas.  Now Stephen Spielberg is making a movie of the Belgian comic hero.  Although he bought the rights in the 1980s, no project had come to life until now.  And it’s likely to be a trilogy involving Peter Jackson, from what I read.  Not too shabby.  Jackson’s connection might explain why Andy Serkis (better known as Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies) is involved.  Jamie Bell of Billy Elliott will play Tintin.  The movie is expected to be out this fall and has some fantastic-looking previews.


Belgium: Have It Your Way

31 May

Have I told you that I now download podcasts? This just happened within the last month. That might be funny to you if you knew that I actually participate in a podcast. These things happen. My sister is a talented chef and she likes Totino’s Party Pizza. Needing everything to make sense is a bad habit to have, especially if you’re going to Belgium.

Magritte: Make a little birdhouse in your soul

That brings me to today’s post. I was listening to a podcast. So I wasn’t just rambling about that in the first paragraph without reason. This particular podcast was so interesting that I thought that you guys should know about it. I think that you should just listen to it yourself, of course, but in the absence of that you can read my quick rehash here and consider yourself in the know.

Belgium has three official languages – Dutch, French and German.  This happens in Switzerland too but not quite to the extent that it does in Belgium.  Right now the Belgians are without a federal government but they carry on anyway.  How?  Well, they have regional governments.  There are basically three main regions in Belgium – Flanders where Dutch is spoken, Wallonia where they speak French and Brussels where most are bilingual.  Oh and Brussels, they speak pretty much every other language because it’s the seat of the European Union.

But it doesn’t stop with regional governments.  Nope, the Belgians also have governments that segregated by language.  Dutch, French and German all have individual politicians looking out for them no matter where they live in the country.  So a French speaker could live in Flanders but still be covered by this group.  Interesting, right?

There is more, of course.  The media for these groups is completely separate.  So if you are making a Flemish TV show in Flanders the Walloons in Wallonia aren’t going to see it.  Not dubbed, not subtitled, not nothing.  They don’t share artists, movies, authors.  Oh, but they do!  They share Madonna, Colin Firth and ABBA because these artists speak English.  The podcast identifies that this is a neutral language for Belgians.  That while the Flemish learn Dutch and English, the Walloons only speak French.  In the past the Flemish person would begrudgingly make the effort by speaking French but this isn’t as common anymore.

Another fascinating thing is that they don’t even share political parties.  The parties from the other region do not even appear on the ballot.  They couldn’t vote for them if they wanted to.  This makes for strange bedfellows.  It also means that there is very little that can be called Belgian.  Except for beer, chocolate and frites, as the podcast is quick to point out.  Or maybe there is one other thing.  As Belgians have been living in a land without Federal government recently and have functioned with a divided country for a much longer time they do have something in common: the surreal.  What else is to be expected from the country that brought us Magritte, huh?  Fascinating.

She Smells Sea Shells

22 May

I’m from North Dakota.  As such, I never ate that much seafood growing up.  Every Christmas we’d have cod or as we called it “torsk” which I think is Swedish.  My well-intentioned mom would cook the cod until it needed to be scraped off the cookie sheet they were cooked on.  I thought it was pretty good but it wasn’t something that I’d opt for when looking at menus in the future.

Now I live in the land of quite a few lakes.  I’ve grown to love walleye, with or without the beer batter.  Last week I even ordered a shrimp cocktail, which, surprisingly, has nothing to do with booze. 

Moules Frites

These mussels beat out a Vegemite sandwich any day.

It’s good timing, my willingness to love the fruit of the sea.  Remember when I babbled on about sardines?  Well, I’ll remind you.  It came down to me suggesting that when in Rome,or Milwaukee or Dubuque, we should try the local specialty.  It doesn’t mean that we’re always going to like it but it’s part of being there and experiencing the place.

And now I’m studying Brussels and I’m talking myself into trying mussels.  They go so well together that they rhyme.  The Belgian/French dish of moules frites (mool freets) combines mussels with Belgian fries.  The fries are not going to be a problem.  Right now, my mouth is watering thinking of the suckers.  It’s the eating of clams that I’m working to get my head around.  After all, these guys have beards.  Thankfully, I read that the beards are just muscles that are formed to keep the mussels in their shell and that they sometimes use their beards to kill.  Yes, really.

What really helped me get my head around eating clams was the recipe I found for Belgian mussels.  Now, I’m about as likely to make these things at home as I am to land a place on the Vikings but you might not be me.  So below I’ve included the ingredients listed.  If you want to make the recipe itself, click this link.  And one last thing.  I’ve read that you should use the shell of your first mussel as a utensil to get the other guys out of their shell.  How you get the first one out must involve a fork and a bunch of grimacing.  Bon apetit!

Belgian Mussels

  • 1 kg fresh mussels
  • 1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 large shallot, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chervil
  • 50 ml olive oil
  • 150 ml dry white wine, such as Muscadet
  • 1 teaspoon Pernod (optional) or 1 teaspoon pastis (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons creme fraiche (optional)

Smurfs Up!

13 May

The last few posts on this blog have been kind of dreary.  Unless you find syphillis and the machinery of war a jolly good time, that is.  So I thought today would be a good time to talk about the Smurfs.  These little blue bags of fun started in the mind of a Belgian cartoonist.  Yes, really.  They weren’t initially named Smurfs either but Schtroumpfs.  Just like the Jeffersons they were a result of a spin off from a popular Belgian comic called “Johan et Pirlouit” (which translates into “Johan and Peewit”.  Now isn’t that worth reading today’s post for?  Because if it doesn’t I think you need to head over to YouTube and do a search for “tired puppies”.  You are obviously in need of some cheering up, my friend.)

Anyway, Les Schtroumpfs became so popular that they got their own strip.  Then they got their own cartoon studio with animators churning out comics, books, and magazines.  They also had musical hits by Michel Legrand who is better known for the soundtracks for Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Thomas Crown Affair(1968).  That’s quite a pedigree, Smurfs.

Today my boss called me Cliff Claven, of Cheers fame, but I like to think that I take after Brainy Smurf... and maybe Velma from Scooby Doo.

Smurfs take over Belgium and Holland, but in a peaceful way.  (I’m not looking at anyone, I’m just lovin’ on the Smurfs, y’all.)  The merchandising alone is “off the hizzle”.  The Smurfs then start to appear in the UK in ’78 to promote service stations owned by National.  Then Hanna Barbera grabs hold of the Smurfs in 1981 and the rest is Saturday morning cartoon history.  I’d still definitely pick a Smurf’s Band-Aid over a plain one.  Or a Smurfs lunchbox over an Amazing Hulk.

We may possibly be visiting a whole museum devoted to the Smurfs Belgian comics when we visit Brussels.  The Mister’s dad is a bit of a fiend when it comes to the world of comics.  The Belgian Comic Strip Center is both history and a chance to buy an entire miniature history of a particular comic strip in French or Dutch.  Can you say “souvenir”?  I can.  Though I still can’t say “Peewit” without giggling.

Oh and they make wicked cool Smurfs socks at Loungefly but apparently they are too good for they are currently sold out.


19 Apr

As a tourist, there are places you go knowing that you will just be one in the crowd.  Some of these places are important because they are pieces of history.  They celebrate a moment in time and are so epic that missing them means that you kind of missed the point.  Some places are a treasury of beauty.  Masterpieces of art or of nature, they remind you of the power of humanity and its frailty.  Still other places are visited because of their personal value, be they romantic or a memorial.  They allow us a physical place to center an emotion.  Lastly, there are the places that really have to no good reason to visit them but that compelling urge to see what is there.  And that, my friends, is where the Atomium comes in.

The Atomium was built as part of a World’s Fair that took place in Brussels in 1958.  It was a super futuristic attempt at iconography.  It captured a moment where everybody knew that nuclear energy would be part of the future, for better or worse.  Those crazy Belgians enlarged an iron crystal 165 billion times and put escalators inside of it.  You know, for tourists… or scientists… or whatever.

Now I know full well that I could ride escalators here at home.  I could go the Mall of America and make a day of it.  But those escalators aren’t in a big and shiny metal structure.  And while they might sell t-shirts there they won’t have t-shirts with a big and shiny iron crystal enlarged 165 billion times on them. 

I could try to dignify my wish to see the Atomium by saying that it has exhibits about science, history and art.  I could even say that the view from the Atomium will likely be the best we will have of Belgium.  But I think we all know that I just want to go there because it looks cool and is about as serious as a Pez dispenser.  God bless Belgium.  They even have an Atomium Beer.

Click link to get Atomi(um)ized!