For British expats living in Brussels, Guy Fawkes Night on November 5th is a low, low point in the calendar. It’s not that we don’t see fireworks all year round here – of course we do. The Brussels authorities make fine use of our over-generous tax contributions to put on a whole range of displays throughout the summer months to mark various, indecipherable occasions. I’m told the same thing happens over Christmas and New Year but, being an expat, that is something I can’t confirm.
No, I’m not going so far as to say that there are no fireworks in this country AT ALL. My point is that come this Saturday, the British expat community will be overcome with a sense of overwhelming ennui. Sure, they’ll be a few scouts putting on a show at the local British School of Brussels, and good on them, but for most of us, November 5th will be just another day sans fireworks. A quick glance at Angloinfo – an online forum for English speakers − shows I’m not the only one to feel disappointed at the prospect of this.
I’m fairly convinced that most people don’t even celebrate Guy Fawkes Night in the comfort of their own homes here. Natural instincts will be telling all right-thinking Brits to take an old shirt and pair of trousers from the cupboard, stuff ‘em full of dead leaves in the garden and burn them on a clumsily constructed bonfire. But we won’t do it. Why? Well, I suppose it’s a bit to do with the origins of the celebration itself. Although few people bat an eyelid at the idea of burning a (symbolic, happily) effigy back home, it’s not really the done thing here – and can lead to all sorts of awkward conversations with indigenous friends and neighbours. It’s hard to explain that although the celebration has lost all sense of historic and religious significance, it remains a central tenet to British culture. Basically, it’s just a bit of a laugh.
So November 5th is a right-off. And it’s a shame really, because for 364 days of the year, Brussels is a fairly natural destination for Brits abroad. Unlike expats of other nationalities, the weather is far from a shock for us (read what Lindsay has to say about how American expats respond to Belgium, for example) – in fact it’s fairly similar to our own weather (invariably awful). Also, we’re a paltry two-hour train ride from home (well, to London at least), the beer and food are heaps better, there’s a trendy international, multi-lingual vibe, loads of cultural stuff to enjoy, clubs to join – the works. Sure, the bureaucracy is time-consuming and shops are shut on Sundays (inconvenient, yet economical) but overall we know we’re onto a good thing.
In spite of my love for Guy Fawkes celebrations – and deep-seated belief that fireworks can only be enjoyed on freezing cold, autumnal evenings – I have to admit that this country’s refusal to mark the occasion doesn’t distress me for longer than a few days each year. If it’s the only time I genuinely feel foreign in Belgium, I suppose I should count my blessings.
Perhaps next year I’ll take a trip home for November 5th, and get all this Bonfire-Night angst out of my system.