Life in Brussels is far from only the usual vortex of EU and Belgian culture. Far from it. Rather, it’s a mix and a mosaic and a melting pot, all at once. So it was only half unexpected that we should get invited to celebrate Norway’s national day last Thursday.
The connection point was our friends Mark and Sigrid. He, being a British gentleman, wanted to surprise his Norwegian wife by taking her to the huge celebrations held at the Scandinavian school and Norwegian/Swedish church on her country’s national day, and had asked us secretly beforehand if we wanted to join in. After all, my wife is Swedish, I am half Swedish, and the children are a fine blend. Scandinavians all around, kind of.
Norway may not be in the EU, but has a representation that is so close to the Berlaymonster that the Norwegian flag is the first foreign flag you usually see in those quarters. What’s more, Norway is also an enthusiastic member of NATO, whose world headquarters are not far from where we go to church. So there are plenty of Norwegian people in Brussels, certainly enough to whip up a respectable bash.
I’m always in for a decent party. Great idea, we said, and on the big day of syttende maj, we set off.
The festivities had been announced as largely consisting of games for the kids, activities for the kids, fun for the kids, lotteries for the kids, hot dogs and soft drinks and anything else that can be creatively smeared on clothes, and everything else that, when combined with one four-year-old and one half-past-five-year-old, inevitably will induce wall to wall washing machine use. So, being fairly experienced parents and used to Swedish outdoor activities, we therefore collectively donned what is known in Sweden as “oömma kläder” (not-so-easily-ruined clothes).
Little did we know that we would be in for a shock.
Upon arrival, after the usual erroneous driving, we were met by National Pride Embodied. I kid you not: Everyone was wearing his or her absolute best. Not their Sunday best, that is, but their Very Best, the near-sacred garments that are kept for once-a-year events.
Every man in sight was in a suit and tie, all the way down to the smallest children. That is, with the exception of the majority of the people, who were instead decked out in their carefully crafted national dresses, painstakingly hand-sewn down to the last stitch, of the kind which you can see on the picture here (no, it’s not from the Brussels event, because of course I forgot my camera). All the way, of course, down to the smallest children.
My wife was wearing slightly less casual attire than the rest of us. I, wearing a black leather jacket and black jeans, asked my wife if I could hide behind her. My wife was offended by the very idea that I thought that I would be able to hide behind her.
The ambassador spoke. (And the people were asked to remain silent while he did so). The national anthem was played. (And the people didn’t have to be asked to stand to attention and sing, hands on hearts, tears in corners of eyes). The people marched around the courtyard in a procession. (And everyone cheered from the depths of their hearts).
Flags were waved everywhere with the pride that can only be mustered by a nation that only became fully independent in 1905.
Incidentally, in that year, the country they became independent from was – Sweden.
That in itself would have been enough to make us feel as popular at the celebration of that independence as bacon sandwiches at a Bar Mitzvah, but to add insult to injury, we suddenly discovered that we had managed to top off our oldest son’s jeans, sweater and gym shoes outfit with a cap with the word “Sweden” in large gold letters across the front.
We had him turn it back to front. The rear band of his cap had the word “SWEDEN” printed on it in large gold capital letters. We tried combing some of his hair over it. We regretted his latest haircut.
And then, the final insult: I had to take my youngest son to the bathroom – when you gotta go, you gotta go – which turned out to be inside the main building. We got inside. My son went into a cubicle. So did I. And then I discovered that the whole men’s room had large – large – windows facing the front courtyard. Outside those huge windows stood the brass band, solemnly playing Norwegian nationalistic music. In front of them stood the entire Norwegian Brussels colony, solemnly listening.
And solemnly watching.
And behind the brass band, remember, my four-year-old and I – citizens of the former occupying power – were peeing.
Luckily, there was no diplomatic crisis as a result. Thanks to the Norwegians themselves, whose other defining characteristic – apart, as we now have painstakingly learned by trial and horror, from national pride – is a deep, wide and profound sense of general friendliness. They didn’t chuck us out – on the contrary, they made us all feel very welcome and have a very good time.
So it was easy for us at the end of that day to agree with the first few words of the Norwegian national anthem: “Ja, vi elsker dette landet” – “Yes, we love this country”.
And be happy that I had decided to put the jeans with holes on both knees in the laundry bin the day before.