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Antwerp – Cleanliness, dancing and then… diamonds

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“It takes a prince to clean up Sahar”: A recent report under this headline, in a naional daily, pointed out how the Sahar road to Mumbai’s international airport was rid of illegal parking and congestion and kept clean coinciding with the visit of Prince Phillipe and Princess Mathilde of Belgium to the City. Whatever may be the earlier cases of clean up acts for VIP visits to our cities, this particular one, in honour of the Belgium royal couple, was well deserved. Belgium is one country which takes pride in how it looks. And my recent one-day trip to this European country with my colleague JP Nair made me wonder how the streets in Antwerp – the diamond city – did not have even one piece of paper on the roads.

As the tourist bus was taking us to the first halt in Antwerp, I kept looking down on to the street trying to spot a single case of littering, even at the cost of missing out on the city’s architecture. Clean India Journal has this strong influence on all its staff members that wherever we go, we only look for ‘cleanliness’ or the lack of it. One of those professional hazards! Or handicaps perhaps.

The bus dropped us off at the city’s main square. Before I could even look at the well-preserved medieval buildings or at the Statue of Barbo, I got drawn into a festivity with men and women dressed in traditional attire singing and dancing. (For those who do not know, according to folklore, a mythical giant called Antigoon lived near the river Scheldt. He took a toll from those crossing the river. If one refused, he would cut off one of his/her hands and throw it into the river. Eventually, the giant was slain by a young hero named Barbo who cut off the giant’s hand and flung it into the river. Hence Antwerpen, with ant meaning ‘hand’ and werpon meaning ‘to throw’).

It was the first Saturday of the spring and people were welcoming the season with traditional dance and customs. “We are also celebrating fertility,” said one participant. People danced around young married couples. Tall puppets of different ‘giants’ were kept standing near the crowd. The refreshingly down- to- earth enthusiasm of Antwerpians to preserve their culture spilled over to the streets. The beer-washed pubs and restaurants were getting filled up. There were so many people. So, I looked for litter again. No, the square was clean as if it had just been washed!

Belgium’s appearance is that of an old Medieval-Europe, beautifully preserved. People take great pride in their homes, family, city and in celebrating their culture. Many will agree that Belgians find messes a huge disgrace not only to themselves but also to their society. Most people maintain tidy houses by continuous washing and sweeping of their pavements. “Keeping things clean and having our homes tidy is a sign of respect we show to outsiders,” explained one old woman.

The Port of Antwerp is the second largest in Europe and fourth in the world. It is only 300m from the city centre, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. The Port has to keep its waters clear of unsightly litter, debris and other pollutants. Liverpool Water Witch – world leader in marine pollution control – has provided a successful solution to the pollution problems with a single multi-purpose vessel and efficient barge system. The Port uses specialist contractors to deal with both small and major oil spills.

On to Brussels, we joined the waffle eating crowd to watch ‘Manneken Pis’, the statue of a little boy “watering” straight on to the road. There are many legends about the Manneken and the Belgians’ fastidiousness for cleanliness but this one says it all. The legend goes that centuries ago, a man lost his little son. He found the child after two days near the place where now the fountain of Manneken Pis is installed. When the father spotted the boy, the latter was peeing. As a gratitude to the ‘rare’ tolerance of the people to this public act of dirtying the road, the father had the fountain with a statue of the boy constructed!

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