Talking Dutch: Belgian solutions


A photo essay by a German in Brussels is making reviewers laugh – and cry

Derek Blyth on the Belgian art of making problems

“Belgian Solutions” sounds like it might be a logistics company based somewhere in East Flanders. But it turns out to be the title of a book by a German photographer called David Helbich, who moved to Brussels from Amsterdam in 2002.

Helbich was astonished by the strange things he saw in Belgium. He created a Facebook page where he posted photographs of odd details of Belgian life that seem normal to citizens but absurd to foreigners. The page was so successful that he has now published a book with 300 photographs of absurdities.

Belgian Solutions was widely reviewed in the local and international press. Some reviewers found it hard to figure out how to make sense of the pictures. Om te lachen en soms ook te huilen – sometimes they make you laugh and sometimes they make you cry, noted Brussel Deze Week.

Mostly, they make you blink in disbelief. Een trap die leidt naar een blinde muur – a staircase that leads to a blank wall; een slagboom die rust op een gebouw omdat er te weinig ruimte is om helemaal naar beneden te zakken – a barrier that rests against a building because there isn’t enough space for it to descend fully; verkeersborden die met plakband worden bijgewerkt tot de juiste situatie – traffic signs that have been fixed with tape to make them read correctly.

Building bloopers

The reviewers in the Dutch press, while concluding that the project sprang from affection for Belgium, generally saw the book as evidence of the country’s incompetence. De Belgische openbare ruimte staat vol met infrastructurele raadsels en bouwkundige bloopers – Belgian public space is full of infrastructural puzzles and building disasters, wrote NRC Handelsblad. Een viaduct dat nooit werd afgebouwd – a viaduct that was never completed. Huizen zonder ramen – houses without windows. De gemiddelde Nederlander, op bezoek in België, schudt al snel meewarig zijn hoofd: “Wat maken ze er hier toch een puinhoop van” – the average Dutch person, on a visit to Belgium, will soon end up shaking his head in pity: “What a total shambles.” 

Isn’t this just a naively romantic way of describing sloppiness?

- NRC Handelsblad

But Helbich turns out to be on the side of the Belgians. De Nederlander heeft niet door dat de Belg juist trots is op de humor achter al die zogenaamde mislukkingen – the Dutch person doesn’t realise that Belgians are actually proud of the humour inherent in these alleged disasters.

Aha, said the NRC Handelsblad reporter. Is dat niet een al te romantische omschrijving van slordigheid? – Isn’t that just a naively romantic way of describing sloppiness? And then there was the health and safety issue. Leiden die Belgische oplossingen ook tot ongelukken? – don’t these Belgian solutions sometimes lead to accidents?

Maybe they do. But it’s hard not to feel a degree of affection for a country that constructs staircases leading to nowhere and underground lines that are abandoned before they are opened. There's never a dull moment.

Photo: David Helbich

Talking Dutch: Belgian solutions

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