‘Now I have been made whole’: Lucy Sante’s experience of transition

Lucy Sante concludes her thoughtful and occasionally poetic memoir with the words: ‘Now I have been made whole.’ Before transitioning at the age of 66 she had lived her life as a deeply divided man. This is an affecting book that could help move the trans debate forward from its currently undignified state of abuse and polarity. Sante interweaves the story of the first 18 months of her transition with that of the first three decades of her biography. Her parents emigrated to New Jersey from Belgium, initially when she was four (there were subsequent toings and froings). She writes a lot about her identity as a working-class Walloon, an

In defence of Brussels, Europe’s most underrated city break

Strolling around the Belgian Comic Strip Center, admiring the elegant artwork of Hergé (creator of Tintin), I wonder for the umpteenth time why so many of my British friends are so disparaging about Brussels. It’s one of my favourite cities, but most Britons I know wouldn’t dream of planning a break here. They don’t know what they’re missing. I’ve been here countless times, yet on each visit I discover something new. It’s full of quirky shops and exquisite restaurants, and there are some excellent museums too. If your idea of fun (like mine) is nosing around art galleries and antique shops, with plenty of pitstops en route, you’ll have a

How to eat frites the Belgian way

Many things about Belgium are impenetrably mysterious to the incoming foreigner: the commune system, which language to use, how to politely eat moules. But few are as cryptic as the menu of sauces that accompany Belgian frites. Ketchup, tartare, barbecue and mayonnaise seem fine. But what is Samourai? Andalouse? Mega?  Unlike many great Belgian things that have successfully been exported (Trappist beer, chocolate, Tintin, speculoos biscuits, Audrey Hepburn), frites can only be experienced on home turf. And my, aren’t they so Belgian. First, the friteries or fritkots in Dutch – chip shop kiosks found wedged on to street corners and in city squares – are totally egalitarian and the service

Why Antwerp should be your next city break

In a sleepy side street around the corner from Centraal Station, there’s a restaurant I return to whenever I’m in Antwerp. From the outside it doesn’t look like much – a perfunctory shopfront, more like a takeaway café – but inside it’s charming, like eating in someone’s home. Welcome to Hoffy’s, a cosy Yiddish enclave renowned for comforting, nourishing cuisine in the centre of this flamboyant, unruly city. For me, this kosher restaurant sums up the spirit of Antwerp, a cultural crossroads since the Middle Ages, a refuge for outsiders of every sort. It’s run by the Hoffman brothers, three big amiable men with long grey beards, and it was founded

Europe gripped by a fifth wave

How quickly things change. Just a month ago many EU countries were being praised for keeping some Covid restrictions in place, in many cases operating vaccine passport systems. By contrast, Britain was being attacked for removing most Covid restrictions in July. The UK suffering elevated infection rates ever since, leading to predictions that we could be back in lockdown by Christmas. Now, many EU governments are panicking as infection rates soar — and protesters have taken to the streets to oppose new lockdowns and, in the case of Austria, compulsory vaccinations from next February. What is the situation in the worst-affected countries? Austria Current number of people recorded as infected: 144,442 —

The manhunt dividing Belgium

Belgium’s leading virologist is in hiding, holed up with his family in a government safe house. The reason? A right-wing Flemish soldier. Jürgen Conings disappeared from his home on 17 May, leaving behind a booby-trapped car and a series of letters laying out his grievances against ‘the regime’. In a goodbye letter to his partner, Conings wrote: The so-called political elite, joined now by the virologists, are deciding how you and I should live… I don’t care whether I die or not, but I will live my last days the way I want. The muscular 5ft 9in former corporal is now officially a grade-4 terror risk. But that hasn’t stopped

Bring on the Brexit songs, England fans

Fifa is worried. It is freaking out over the possibility that England fans will take a Brexit-related swipe at Belgian fans in tomorrow’s game. Our boys face the Belgians at Kaliningrad tomorrow evening. And given that a great many England fans are a) fond of Brexit and b) known to have a few pints ahead of a game, Fifa stiffs are concerned that a bit of Brexit-loving and Belgium-bashing might leak into their chants. ‘There is a risk of punishment’, Fifa has warned members of the En-ger-land lobby who are thinking of mentioning Brexit. What a bunch of miserabilists. It is further proof that the overlords of football don’t actually

Enigma variations | 3 November 2016

On 2 August 1933 one of the more improbable meetings of the 20th century took place when Albert Einstein had lunch with James Ensor. Apparently, Einstein attempted to explain his theory of relativity to Ensor, who doesn’t seem to have understood it. That evening the painter gave a speech, entitled ‘Ensor to Einstein’, ending with a sort of apology. Painters, he exclaimed — ‘alas and alack!’ — were slaves to vision and resistant to ‘positive reason, to calculations, to probabilities’. However, Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans at the Royal Academy is an exhibition that is subject to the principle of relativity. This is not simply a display of work

First aid

In the 1980s, supermarkets stocked a fruit juice named ‘Um Bongo’ with the strapline ‘They drink it in the Congo!’. This is the starting point for Adam Brace’s examination of Britain’s relationship with the Congolese (whose word ‘mbongo’ means money). A group of do-gooding Londoners host a festival to celebrate the Congo’s culture and history but they rapidly become mired in controversies about age-old injustices and white-to-black ratios on steering committees. The Congolese party includes a few rogue terrorists whose death threats the British publicists find rather glamorous and titillating. The characters rarely reach beyond the obvious. The Londoners are bloodless yuppie go-getters. The Congolese are suspicious, chippy and mistrustful.

The faceless man in the bowler hat

Surrealism was, at least initially, as much about writing as painting. A plaque on the Hotel des Grands Hommes in Paris’s Place du Pantheon records that the oneiric movement began in 1919 when André Breton and Philippe Soupault invented ‘l’ecriture automatique’ at numéro 17. Automatic writing, with consciousness suspended, was supposed to open a conduit to an internal dreamworld. René Magritte (1898–1967) became one of the most famous Surrealist painters, but he wrote throughout his life: detective stories, manifestoes, criticism, essays, prose-poems, lectures, surreal bric-a-brac. His Ecrits Complets was published by Flammarion in 1979 and ran to 764 pages. The avant-garde publisher John Calder intended an English edition, but it

Never gonna give EU up

June the 24th was a grim morning for Remain voters, and we’ve been working through the seven stages of grief ever since. Given that nobody has the faintest idea when, how or even if the UK will actually leave, acceptance is still some way off. But Remainers are a pragmatic bunch and many have now worked out that their own personal Brexit can be deftly avoided by taking another EU nationality. Likewise, UK citizens living in the EU, who have found to their horror that they are pawns in a very complex game of migrant chess between Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker, are concluding that now is a wise moment

There’s a grim reason why Belgium has plenty of organ donors

A discussion between two medical ethicists on the Today programme this morning ended with them agreeing on one point: whether or not it is right to breed pigs so that their organs can be harvested for transplantation into humans (as the University of California is experimenting with), the first thing we should do in order to solve the shortage of donor organs is to move to a system of ‘presumed consent’, where the organs of dying patients are considered fair game for transplantation unless they have signed a form excluding this. To leave the pigs for a moment, what is so ethical about presumed consent for human donors? In the

Hollande equals Thatcher? Not quite, Monsieur le President, but keep trying

Have you ever tried discussing the merits of gun control with a Texan, or of deregulated labour markets with a Frenchman and his Belgian cousin? The prejudices involved are much the same. Many Americans believe that guns in the home and the pick-up truck are their best protection against violent attack, and that the 13,286 US gunshot deaths last year would have hit an even higher number if gun ownership was more restricted. Likewise, French trade unionists believe a 35-hour working week combined with laws restricting any company that is a going concern from making redundancies are the best protection of their economic wellbeing, rather than a root cause of

Letters | 12 May 2016

Europe is already divided Sir: The Archbishop Emeritus of Westminster writes eloquently about the historical purpose of a ‘union’ in Europe as being primarily to eliminate the wars that for centuries had characterised Europe (‘Let’s renew the EU’, 7 May). He, and Pope Emeritus Benedict, both point to the shared Christian beliefs that defined all nations of Europe. But the EU, as it has evolved, is now no expression of such an underlying faith — in fact, the opposite. As he points out, it has removed any official reference to Europe’s common heritage, and is increasingly set on a shallow, utilitarian course. Europe is now more divided than ever, and it

The Economist’s assisted dying film is as crazy as a jihadi video

Because, it says, of its ‘liberal values and respect for human dignity’, the Economist has put out a film about Emily, a 24-year-old Belgian woman, who wants assisted dying. She is physically healthy, and comes, the film assures us, from a happy family. She has suffered from severe depression since childhood, however. By her own account, her self-made video (two years ago), in which she says ‘I don’t want to live a lie’ and ‘It keeps feeling empty whatever I do’, made her feel empowered. It inspired her to seek death at the hands of doctors. Belgium is one of two countries in the world which permits assisted dying for

A stunning blend of simplicity and complexity

Reading Tintin when I was a child, in Britain in the 1970s, I always assumed Georges Remi’s creation was just a harmless bit of fun. However, when I went to Belgium I discovered, to my amazement, that over there they take him very seriously indeed (this year, a single Tintin picture sold for €2.5 million in Brussels). In Britain, the fearless reporter in the plus fours is a quaint juvenile amusement. In his native Belgium he’s seen as high art, and his creator Hergé (Georges Remi’s initials, backwards) is revered. The late Harry Thompson wrote a brilliant book about Tintin from the British perspective. It was informed and affectionate, but

Death watch | 27 August 2015

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Lord Falconer and Douglas Murray debate ‘assisted dying'” startat=42] Listen [/audioplayer]A couple of years ago I contacted Holland’s top pro-euthanasia organisation. Our House of Lords looks likely to approve a bill legalising euthanasia here, I told them. ‘Very exciting!’ came the reply. Next month Parliament will again be discussing ‘assisted dying’, and although the tone of the British debate is not yet quite like the Dutch one, a shift in tone has undoubtedly occurred. In the past few years euthanasia has been renamed ‘assisted dying’ and become part of the ‘progressive’ cause. As two assisted dying bills, including Lord Falconer’s, come back to Parliament, the onus seems to

We don’t encourage suicide, so why should we assist it?

As MPs prepare to consider a private member’s bill to license what is being euphemistically called ‘assisted dying’, in Belgium a young woman with mental health problems has been cleared for euthanasia some time this summer. The Belgium-based outlet DeMorgen outlined the situation of the 24-year-old, identified only as ‘Laura’. Aside from depression and the feeling that ‘she wanted to die ever since childhood’, ‘Laura’ is physically healthy, enjoys coffee, friends and going to the theatre. According to the New Yorker, 13 percent of Belgians who died by euthanasia last year didn’t have a terminal illness — and 3 percent suffered from mental disorders. Belgium legalised euthanasia in 2002.  Since then the


Usually, one of the first indications that you’ve entered a bilingual country is that the road signs are in two languages. At least this is the case in Ireland or Wales — but not in Belgium. In Flanders, the signs are written in Dutch. In Wallonia, they are all in French. French is spoken in Flanders, by the small local Francophone community, but more notably by the huge number of French people who descend on Brugge for the Christmas sales. The French registration plates and the gaggle of overly loud wanderers with cameras are giveaways, but don’t even think about trying French here yourself. It’s considered rude if it’s not


Napoleon didn’t think much of Antwerp. ‘Scarcely a European city at all,’ he scoffed. If only he could see it today. Ten years ago, Antwerp felt provincial. Now it feels like the capital of an (almost) independent state. ‘Jardin Zoologique’ it says outside the zoo, but that’s the only French signage you’ll see in this resolutely Flemish city. When they built the zoo, in 1843, Belgium was only 13 years old, and French was the official language throughout this mongrel nation. Now it only survives on a few old war memorials. ‘You’re in Flanders now,’ locals tell you, if you try to speak to them in French. Each time I