Talking culture over filter coffee with the Belgian Consul General Mark Van de Vreken
Consul General Mark Van de Vreken of the Consulate General of Belgium in Chennai was rather busy a few weeks ago, overseeing the arrangements for the state visit of the couple of King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium, to India — a royal affair in every respect. In an exclusive chat with Indulge, he gave us his overview of the cultural links between Tamil Nadu and the country of Belgium. Excerpts from the interview:
You are fairly new to Chennai. And the Belgium Consulate here is about four to five years old. What is it like being in the city?
It is a great city, I must say. Of course, it was hectic for the first two months. You have to settle. First, I was living near the beach in Panaiyur, but I decided to come a bit closer. There was a lot of practical things we had to do, because if you are a diplomat, in my case, I arrived with two big suitcases and two pieces of hand luggage, and that’s for about two months. And then you wait for your container that is being shipped. So, I settled a few days back. I was very busy with that.
In general, I am very pleased by the city. Chennai is a very welcoming and accommodating city. People here are extremely nice. I have a couple of friends whom I call whenever I have a problem, and the issue is solved within a few hours. It is a vibrant city. Chennai is the economic capital of South India, and you really see a lot of potential here.
We opened our Consulate in Chennai four years ago. Before this, we only had an embassy in Delhi, and a Consulate General in Mumbai, but he was also covering the South. Given the fact that India is growing very rapidly, it is the fastest growing major economy in the world - and Tamil Nadu is the second fastest growing economy in South India. So, economically speaking, a lot of things are moving, and that’s why my ministry decided four years ago to open up here in Chennai. A Consul General who is in-charge of Chennai, and I think it was a wise decision. There is a lot of opportunity here.
The King and Queen of Belgium were in India recently...
The Royal couple of King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium spent seven days in India, earlier this November. They started off with a visit to the Taj Mahal, in Agra, which was a special experience. The visit focused on two major cities from a political and economic point of view — New Delhi and Mumbai.
The King and Queen didn't come to Chennai, but we organised a culinary event - Chennai tastes Belgium to mark the occasion. That was a kind of extension of the state visits here in Chennai, in the presence of the Brussels Minister-President His Excellency Rudi Vervoort.
The state visit was a great success. State visits are the highest type of visits that happen in the diplomatic relations between countries. And basically, our new King Philippe decided, on all state visits, there should also be a large business delegation. So, there was a huge business delegation accompanying the King and the Queen as well. They do two state visits per year. One country of a shorter distance, and one country at a larger distance. So, the fact that they have already come to India in 2017, shows the importance of India for Belgium.
What's more is that this year we are also celebrating 70 years of our diplomatic relations. Belgium was one of the first countries that recognised the Indian independence in 1947, and we have very strong ties with India. So, therefore, a decision was taken about two years ago that India would be visited by the Royal couple in 2017.
There are a lot of activities being planned — official of course, meetings with the President, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and also, ceremonial meetings. For example, what is often forgotten which should not be, is that a lot of Indian soldiers also did fight during the First World War, and basically fell in the Battle of Flanders, and we are currently commemorating 100 years of the First World War. So, there was a special ceremony on that. There was also a ceremony on remembering the victims of the Mumbai attacks.
Then there were some social occasions as well. There was a huge reception at the Belgian Embassy with a light show, and there was a performance by the Belgian-Indian dance group called Bollylicious. As you might know, Belgium is also the country of Tomorrowland, which is the biggest EDM festival in the world. And one of our DJs, Lost Frequencies, performed a concert at the Gateway of India in Mumbai.
And also, His Majesty played a game of cricket. What is a bit special about cricket is that it was actually said to have been invented in Belgium, in Flanders, in medieval times. Those days, people used their sticks, with which they herded their sheep, and it came from a old Flemish expression, "met de krik ketsen", which in Dutch loosley means, "beat with a baton". And they brought it to England, and then it became a very famous sport in England, and in India, and other countries. All in all, such a visit is very rich with lots of activities from the morning till the evening. It was a very successful visit.
How much of the city of Chennai have you seen, and how would you like to be involved in its cultural affairs?
So far, I haven’t seen that much yet, because I haven’t had the time yet. I moved in, and I had to relocate. But the first weekend I arrived, I was invited to an Indian wedding, and already, that was a very special culutural experience. I attended both the sangeet on the first evening, and the wedding on the second evening - that was something I enjoyed a lot. Of course, culture is the way of bridging contact between people, and Tamil culture is very historic. There’s a lot of theatre here, and there’s a lot of music festivals. I definitely want to get involved with that once I get settled in the city.
Can you tell us about Belgium being a business destination for entrepreneurs in India?
Actually, it’s a very favourable destination due to its location. Belgium is really at the heart of Europe. If you look at the location of Belgium, you take a train, and in two hours you can be in Amsterdam, you can be in Paris, you can be in London - so this makes the whole of Europe accessible, and basically, Europe is a market of about 500 milion consumers that you can have easy access to through Belgium.
There is, of course, the current question of Brexit. What we advice Indian companies is to not give up your presence in the UK, because the UK is historically an important partner of India, and will remain an important partner of the EU, as well. But it could also be useful for an Indian company to also set up shop in mainland Europe, and I think Belgium is one of the best places where you can go, because there are a lot of incentives being given by the government to attract investments into Belgium.
Apart from the location, it’s also the quality of life that is worth mentioning. I think that Belgium is the country with the most Michelin stars. If you want to have some good food, go to Belgium, and it comes at a good price. Things are very accessible, you can easily travel within the country. Different cities are only within an hour of each other. If you want to go to Ghent, if you want to go to Antwerp, Bruges, all these historic cities are one hour away from Brussels. That is really a great asset. The central location is something to look out for, and also the incentives to companies, and we have a workforce that speaks many languages, and is very productive.
Brussels is a very international city, and is basically the second most international city in the world, if you look at the number of diplomatic representations. There is the presence of the EU, the presence of NATO, and the presence of many international institutions, which makes Brussels and Belgium the place to be for any international expats.
We know about the waffles and chocolates, but tell us more about Belgium’s Michelin star food, and its culture.
As you mentioned, gastronomy is very important, every Belgian is born with a bit of flavour for gastronomy, and we have a couple of world renowned culinary schools where all our chefs are being trained. Something typical about Belgians is a bit of entrepreneurship, so all these chefs want to start their own restaurant, which means that in every village, and every town in Belgium, you will find a restaurant that is owned by one of these excellent chefs, and you can have very good food at very affordable prices.
Belgium is not only about beer, it’s not only about chocolates, of course, it’s about that also - but it’s not only about waffles. It’s about many more things. First of all, I would say, it is about the historic cities of Belgium. We have Bruges, we have Antwerp, we have Ghent - these are the bigger cities. And Brussels, the capital, as well. There are also smaller cities that are worth exploring, and they are all at about an hour, or an hour and a half from Brussels.
We have a lot of other tourist attractions. The Ardennes, for example, are very beautiful low mountains, where you can do lots of activities like kayaking. One thing that is useful to know is that Belgium has the highest amount of castles, so wherever you are in Belgium, there is a castle nearby, so visit it.
There are a lot of museums as well. We have some museums of fine art where you can see the old masters, for example, Rubens, and Van Eyck. Belgium was also an important country in the fields of impressionism, and of expressionism. We have very good museums on these as well. And of course, Belgium is the country of surrealism, with René Magritte’s famous painting, “This is not a pipe”. There is a Magritte museum in Brussels, and I would definitely recommend it. So visit Belgium, visit its restaurants, its museums, its historic cities, and you can indulge in something very special.
Do you follow much Indian popular entertainment? Who are the celebrites you would like to meet?
Before I came to India, one of the ways of preparing was to watch movies about India. They were more international movies about India, so I haven’t explored much yet about Kollywood and Bollywood, and that is something I want to explore much more, because here in Chennai, you have the Kollywood industry, which is a major film industry, and I should know a bit more about that, of course. Now if you ask me what kind of people I would like to meet, and which ones are my favourite, well then, for the moment, I still stick to the ones that are internationally famous.
First of all, Deepika Padukone, who is a tremendous actress, and Shah Rukh Khan - if you go into an Indian restaurant in Brussels, you’ll see his picture everywhere. Their movie, Chennai Express, of course, has a link to the city. Local celebrities, I still have to discover. But I want to explore, especially the movie industry, a lot more.
Also, I think you have splendid movies that are often shot abroad. I would like to stimulate an Indian blockbuster being shot in Belgium in one of its medieval cities, and I’m going to try to make it work. That’s one of the things that’s on my bucket list, professionally speaking, because I think it really would be worth showing a city like Antwerp, Bruges, or Brussels in one of your wonderful movies.
What are the places you have on your to-do list?
A to-do list about India is a lifetime to-do list, because there are so many things to explore. First of all, I want to explore the South of India. Before I came to India, someone told, I was very lucky. I asked, Why? and he said, “Because you’re going to the South of India, which is an incredibly beautiful region.” First of all, Kerala, which I want to discover, but many other places that are to be discovered, as well.
Soon I will go to Goa, because friends are visiting and going to Goa. There are a lot of cities I want to explore. I also like vibrant cities, so cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mumbai are really cities where things are happening. Definitely, I want to explore them more. I already saw them briefly, but it was always an official visit, so I didn’t really have the chance to discover these cities - they are definitely on my bucket list. And of course, in the north of India, there are a lot of things to discover, but for the next four years, my holiday destinations will be focused on India or around India.
Give us your overview of how you see Chennai and Belgium.
Chennai is crucial for me, because I’m living here. So it’s logical that I put Chennai most in the picture. What I find interesting about Chennai is that the culture of the people fits very well with the Belgian culture. That is, people are humble, very friendly, and also, the business people are very modest and media-savvy. It’s a bit of the same style we have in Belgium: focus on quality, not on bragging.
That aside, I think there a lot of cultural links between Tamil Nadu and Belgium. One thing to focus on is the culinary aspect. Chennai is a city of very good food - it is the capital of South Indian food, and Belgium is a capital of gastronomy. So I want to link these things together. And that’s why last Saturday, I organised a big event here in the Taj Coromandel, where two top Belgian chefs came to prepare Belgian dishes along with the staff of the Taj who prepared Indian dishes, so it was a very nice intermingling of the culinary traditions of Chennai and Belgium.
Also, academic cooperation is important. And I’m also looking at how to be active in other cities and regions of India. One idea that I still have to materialise is to organise a Belgian Day once a year, in one of the capitals of the Southern states, and that would then be a day to celebrate Belgian culture, with concerts, and culinary events, something along those lines. It may be a wild idea, but I hope to materialise that during the coming year. That will not only put Belgium on the map in Chennai, but also on the rest of South India, and South India will be put more on the map in Belgium, as well.