The adventures of Hergé

I’m not going to pretend that Tintin was a significant feature of my childhood, but I was aware of him and his adventures. Mrs SC feels much the same, although I think her childhood exposure may have been greater than my own. I have come across some of the Tintin books (along with one or two Lucky Lukes) among the pile of well-thumbed Asterix albums in my wife’s childhood home, suggesting she and her siblings had a more French-oriented experience than my sister and I.

Here in Belgium Tintin is something of a national hero and you soon realise (if you didn’t know it already) that Tintin’s creator, Georges Remi, was Belgian. Georges Remi’s initials, reversed (RG) and spoken in a French accent become Hergé, which is how Georges Remi signed his cartoons.

Herge

There’s even a Hergé museum, which is where Mrs SC and I found ourselves on Sunday.

Like many places in Wallonia it is at one time not that far away, yet not the easiest place to get to. Located in a town called Louvain-la-Neuve. It’s a fairly short train journey from Brussels, but for us at least finding the train wasn’t straightforward. The museum has a website with instructions for “Localization”, and it advises train travellers to visit the SNCB website – this is the website of Belgian Rail.

Belgian Rail has a search function where you can input your departure point and destination (“station, stop, address”) and – in theory – get information about your train. However, you do have to know exactly where you are going. The Hergé museum advises you to “choose destination Louvain-la-Neuve”, but do so and the search engine replies: “Your input is ambiguous.” It then gives you about twenty options to choose among. There are a lot of stops at Louvain-la-Neuve, but none of them is the Hergé museum.

seagull

Our first attempt to visit the museum was scuttled by this confusion. However, we persisted and the next time we were in the Brussels Central Station we asked a young man with “Student” printed across his Belgian Rail sweatshirt. “Ah, no. What you want is Louvain-la-Neuve-Université because the museum is located next to l’Université de Louvain.” And so it was.

Louvain-la-Neuve is a rather disturbing place. It appears to have been built completely new, sometime in the 1970s, solely to house a university – the French language, Catholic University of Louvain. On Sunday morning it was giving a good impression of a film set for a rather creepy science-fiction/horror movie. One of those films in which most people have been stolen away by aliens, or turned into zombies that only come out at night, while the few who remain go about their lives apparently oblivious to the population disaster that has struck their town.

Herge museumThe Hergé museum is housed just a short walk from the echoing centre of Louvain-la-Neuve in a purpose-built, architecturally designed edifice that sits like a ship in a grassy dry dock, reached by bridges from a couple of sides. It’s an interesting building, odd angles and white with big windows. The entrance (as you can see from the photo) gives a passable imitation of an open book – one that’s been well-read and has pages coming loose. Sadly, the architecture is a wonderful shell for less inspiring contents.

I can’t say the Hergé museum is the most overpriced and boring museum I’ve ever visited. (That honour goes to a museum of natural history on Malta.) But at €9.50 per adult it isn’t cheap and though I wouldn’t call it boring, I wouldn’t call it exciting either. It certainly wants to be exciting and gets very excited about Hergé: “one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century”, it calls him. It seems Hergé had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about being a commercial artist. The museum responds to this by going out of its way to praise him for his innovation and success in the field of commercial graphics. He was a “[g]raphic designer, caricaturist, cartoonist, illustrator, storyteller… a multi-talented artist who was a perfect reflection of the twentieth century.”

Yeah. Right.

Seriously, the only reason Hergé is widely known – the only reason he has a whole museum dedicated to him – is because of Tintin. The tension between the man and his creation is palpable throughout the museum, and the curators are aware of it. At the very beginning of the audio guide one recorded voice demands to learn about Tintin while another promises Tintin but insists there is so much more. But there really isn’t. Not here, anyway. And actually there’s not a lot of Tintin either.

Perhaps that’s unfair. There is a lot of Tintin, but so many opportunities are missed. Considering the reason for the museum’s existence and its star attraction is not Hergé but Tintin, a beloved children’s cartoon character, the museum is absolutely not designed to appeal to children. In fact, I think the only people who might find the Hergé Museum truly gripping would be the sort of adults who collect comic books and memorabilia.

Despite the museum’s attempts to enter the digital age with an audio guide on a smartphone, the material it has is presented in a crushingly traditional way. Glass cases display objects Hergé owned; framed pictures of original strips hang on the walls… and that’s about it. Beautifully lit, spacious, architecturally designed gallery after gallery with glass boxes and framed pictures. For variety there are occasional video screens. There’s almost nothing to do but walk, look, read, listen. The relief when we found the stereoscope images from Hergé’s research collection and were able to operate the machines to switch pictures. It wasn’t much, to be sure, but in the desert of monotony one learns to be grateful for even a little variety.

Waterfront

More than this, after a short while you begin to suspect the museum is presenting a highly edited account of Tintin and Hergé’s lives – so highly edited that the same information, the same pictures, the same video clips are recycled in the galleries and the audio guide over and again. We gave up listening to the guide during what seemed to be the third run-through of Hergé’s biography, and gave up on the museum itself after the fourth or fifth gallery.

Some of the information you don’t get from the museum you can find on Wikipedia. For example, while the museum tells you Tintin started out in 1929 as a weekly cartoon strip in the children’s supplement to the Catholic newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle, Wikipedia tells you the earliest Tintin strips were right-wing Catholic propaganda for children. The first strip (1929-1930) was Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. (It is the only story Hergé seems in later life to have been embarrassed about – he never redrew it or republished it in colour as he did all his other early Tintin stories.)

The second story was not an improvement. Tintin in the Congo (1930) with its caricature Africans and paternal colonists still attracts criticism – most recently, in Sweden, when there was a big row about whether or not copies of the album should be displayed in libraries and loaned out to children.

Hergé, who was in his early 20s when he came up with Tintin, did grow more serious and more sensitive with the passage of time. Later stories starting with The Cigars of the Pharaohs (1932) and continuing with The Blue Lotus (1934) began to introduce more complex storylines and more relatively sympathetic characters, as well as developing a cleaner, more direct drawing style which came to be known as ligne claire. (This is presented in the museum.)

Tintin quiff

Although the propaganda was toned down, Tintin continued to be imbued with conservative values. The fact that Hergé went on to publish Tintin stories in approved publications during the German occupation of Belgium, 1939 to 1944, led many to conclude he was a collaborator if not a committed Nazi supporter. He was certainly identified as a collaborator by the Belgian resistance. However the fact that he was “only” drawing cartoons for children seems to have counted in his favour. Though blacklisted for a time after liberation, he was never put on trial and eventually his wartime activities were officially described as those of “a blunderer rather than a traitor”. He was allowed to resume a professional life. (This is glossed over in the museum.)

Hergé’s Catholicism also took a beating. His first marriage seems to have been less than happy and a consequence of social pressure at Le Vingtième Siècle. His first wife was the secretary of his editor at the newspaper. A series of affairs, with the inevitable accompanying Catholic guilt, was followed by a divorce and eventually a second marriage. According to Wikipedia, towards the end of his life Hergé may have been more of a Taoist than a Catholic. (None of this is in the museum – at least not in the first three reiterations of his biography that I listened to. Possibly because his second wife was responsible for establishing the museum after his death, and possibly because the museum is in the grounds of a Catholic university.)

Tintin and seagull

The museum shop and “café” between them show the that the museum has clearly identified the economic group it expects to appeal to. The shop is packed with overpriced memorabilia – mostly plastic (or even ceramic) models of Tintin and other characters from the albums. Want a Tintin moon rocket? It comes in sizes from a few centimetres high to one taller than a full-grown Belgian man (1.786). You can also buy Tintin albums in various translations (so there is something for the kids after all). You can probably get a fizzy drink or a cup of coffee in the café too, if you ask really nicely, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the bill of fare. Three course meals are what they want to sell you. We decided the museum had already got enough of our cash and went looking for something else.

We ended up eating largely tasteless but faintly savoury waffles at a Belgian fast-food establishment in the by now slightly more awake Louvain-la-Neuve. Hardly a culinary delight, but not nearly as expensive as the food in the Hergé Café. And after that we took ourselves back to Brussels.

So that was our Sunday.

(By the way, the museum is very protective of Hergé’s copyright and forbids photography – which is my excuse for the paucity of illustrations this week.)


This week’s recording is not quite as good as I would have wished – none of my own ambient recordings were useable and the editing process got a bit rushed. Some background sounds courtesy of Freesound.org and Freesound uploaders zagi2, sagetyrtle and cris. Many thanks!

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Tourist Information

Belgium is a schizophrenic nation, people say, at the Dutch end of the country everyone is Germanic and efficient, but at the French end everyone is Gallic and disorganised. As for Brussels – Pff! (And a gesture of hands thrown in the air.) The Dutch end of the country is Flanders and the French end is Wallonia while the 19 municipalities that make up the city of Brussels are a principally French speaking enclave just within the area of Flanders.

I heard this story about the difference between Dutch-speaking Belgians and French-speaking Belgians (or if you prefer, the Flemings and the Walloons) even before I moved to Brussels and it’s been repeated to me here by all sorts of different people – foreigners, Flemings and even French-speakers. The French-speakers are apologetic and self-deprecating when they tell it, but they tell it none the less.

Now I really don’t want to be the sort of person who goes around swallowing clichés whole and then regurgitating them, but I’m going to share with you my recent experience of seeking tourist information in Brussels, and I’m afraid it does rather confirm the above.

Last week was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. I know I’d left it rather late, but I thought it might be nice to go out to Waterloo for the anniversary celebrations. Waterloo is not far from here at all, it’s just to the south of Brussels and many people live there and commute into the city to work. Also, there is a big expatriate Swedish community in Waterloo clustered around the Swedish school (and attracted there originally following the major promotion of the town by a certain Swedish pop group).

Grand Place 3Anyway, here I am in Brussels, Waterloo is a 15 minute train ride away, it seemed a natural thing to do to go into the Brussels Tourist Information office on the Grand Place and ask for some help. La Grand Place (French) or Grote Markt (Dutch) is in the centre of the Brussels’ tourist district, a fabulous former market square surrounded by tall, 15th century Gothic to 17th century Baroque buildings commemorating civic institutions and city guilds. The TI centre is in the south-east corner of the Place, in the City Hall (Hôtel de Ville). You enter through a short corridor past the sign that tells you (I think) this used to be a police station. To the right is an office where you can buy souvenirs and tickets and to the left an office where you can get information. If you are lucky.

Need InfoI say that because, if you’re going to visit the Brussels TI office, you’d better come prepared with questions that relate just to Brussels. As the young man in the office politely explained, Waterloo is not in Brussels. It is in Wallonia and what happens in Wallonia – even if only just across the border in Waterloo – is a mystery in Brussels. The young man (who had very good English) managed without actually saying it to convey that he felt me profoundly misguided in wanting to visit Waterloo when I had all the delights of Brussels available to me.

But I was persistent. Where to find out about events in Waterloo? For that you’ll have to visit the Wallonia Tourist Information centre, he said, and started giving me directions – across the square, down that street, turn left… you can’t miss it. Having previously had experience of “you can’t miss it” directions in Brussels that somehow I did manage to miss, I asked for a map. He wrote the address down and drew a sketch map for me on a scrap of paper. The Brussels TI office doesn’t have maps of the city to give away to tourists who want to leave Brussels.

The Wallonia office, when I found it, was shut. Clearly the opening hours of the Wallonia TI centre are also something unknown in Brussels. They were displayed on the door however, so I made a note and went back the following day.

Espace WallonieThe Wallonia tourist information “Espace” is a large open room, partly given over to exhibitions (currently there is an exhibition for children about Ernest & Celestine who I must conclude are Walloons). The reception desk was staffed with two people who did not seem to have much to do. I went up to them and said: Do you speak English? Then immediately corrected myself (because this is a tourist information office). Of course you speak English!

They didn’t.

Or rather, the older man did not and the middle-aged woman with him said she could manage a little.

So I asked about Waterloo.

I’m not sure what Wallonia has to offer, but I would guess that the battlefield of Waterloo and the associated museums are quite a big attraction for foreign tourists, and judging by the coverage of the Waterloo celebrations in the British press, at least some of them are likely to be English-speaking. Well, if so, they are not expected to visit the Brussels space of the Wallonia TI centre.

The centre had one flyer which, to be fair, did include a few sentences in English and from which I was able to work out that there is a museum dedicated to Wellington in the town of Waterloo and a big hill overlooking the battlefield just outside the town. There are also buses from the town centre to the battlefield.

After consulting her colleague in French, the woman managed to convey to me that there is a new museum. If I understood correctly, built underground. This is a fine museum, the finest in Wallonia! But sadly the Wallonia Tourist Information space in Brussels had no information about it. The lady I was talking to went online but couldn’t find anything about the new museum on the the Internet either. However she was able to find a telephone number, which she used to call the museum. There was a long wait before anyone answered and then a long conversation that confirmed the new museum is open from Monday to Sunday, seven days a week, between 9 o’clock in the morning and 6 o’clock in the evening. She wrote this down for me and was very pleased that she knew both “Monday” and “Sunday”. Her colleague congratulated her.

How to get to Waterloo? If you don’t have a car you must take a train from the southern station and a bus. Okay. I can see from the flyer how much it costs to enter the museum and the different sites – can you tell me how much it costs to travel there? Is there perhaps a packet price? Oh dear, we don’t know. The buses are run by private enterprise and the trains originate in Brussels so that is something we can’t know about. Ask at the railway station. (Later, at the railway station, they said, Pff! And threw their hands up.)

While I was there another tourist came into the centre. This man spoke French and had some questions about Brussels. He talked with the man behind the counter – the one who couldn’t speak English – and although I didn’t understand everything I got the gist. It seems the Wallonia TI centre has no information about Brussels – not even a map – because it’s not Wallonia, you see. But they are happy to recommend the Brussels TI office in the Grand Place, though they have difficulty explaining even in French where it is. Since that was something I knew and the Wallonian information provider seemed so helpless, I almost volunteered to take the chap there myself. Almost but not quuite.

Leaving the Wallonia centre, I walked up the street about 100 metres and found myself outside the Flanders Tourist Information centre. It was open. When I saw this I thought: I have to. And I went in.

Visit FlandersThe Visit Flanders tourist information centre is even larger and more open than the Wallonia Espace, and rather busier when I was there, with seven or eight tourists but only one member of staff, an older woman, working behind the desk. I joined the queue. Obviously it wouldn’t be fair to ask about Waterloo, but I thought I could ask about Flanders Fields – surely as big magnet for foreign tourists in the Flanders area as Waterloo in Wallonia.

Standing in the queue I noticed a computer screen handily placed with “FAQ – Select your language” on it in five different languages. Under the title were buttons for each of English, French, Dutch, Spanish and German. I pressed the screen for English. Nothing happened. The screen wasn’t touch sensitive, so it was actually impossible to follow the instructions, choose your language and read the FAQ. This didn’t bode well.

Still, I waited in line. And I waited… But it has to be said, after I got to the head of the queue, that the woman behind the counter spoke good English and was able to give me brochures – in English – about Flanders Fields, a brochure about Ypres, a brochure about accommodation in the area, a tourist map and a leaflet with information about how to get there.

On the counter in front of her was a map of Brussels. The two older women ahead of me in the queue were asking about things to do and see in Brussels (in French). The Flanders TI woman not only answered them in French and made recommendations, but also gave them free tourist maps.

And so I am forced to conclude – at least in respect of tourist information offices in Brussels – it may be a cliché but the Belgian cultural divide is also alive and well and still splitting the country in two (or three).

Also, if you’re in Brussels and you Need Info – I recommend VisitFlanders on Rue du Marché aux Herbes.

Grand Place 4


I’d love to report that I got out to Waterloo and saw the re-enactment of the battle, but no. Eventually I discovered that tickets for the re-enactments (there were several days of them) were all sold out long ago. I’ll content myself with going out there some other time. I apologise btw for linking the 200th Anniversary reference to the on-line pages of the Anglo-jingo Daily Mail, but the pictures are really good.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.