Predictably, perhaps, Belgium does not feature prominently in Patricia Schulz’s “1,000 Places To See Before You Die”. Given my disdain for “Harry, take a photograph” tourism, it was serendipitous that the only foreign place I was taken to see in the ten years after I entered this life was Belgium. And I loved it.
My father spent the closing months of 1944 in newly liberated Antwerp and made the one great investment of his life (from my point of view): giving his army chocolate ration to the 10-year-old daughter of a local family he befriended. When he went back with me in tow twenty years later, parents and daughter showered me with non-army-issue Belgian chocolate and toys that, in Wilson-era Britain, were beyond my wildest dreams.
Antwerp has always held a certain magic for me and, while I have traveled several times to Brussels over the years, my single return to Antwerp in the course of the last half century was to catch a train to Amsterdam, leaving the myth intact.
It was, therefore, with a twinge of sadness (but with more than a smattering of amusement) that I read a front page article in the International New York Times last week detailing a triumph for the Antwerp police in breaking a criminal ring.
Hercule Poirot was, without doubt, one of the brightest Belgians who never lived. With the analytical brain of a middle-aged Englishwoman, the canny detective brilliantly solved every case that came his way. Inspiring generations of real-life Belgian detectives, Poirot’s protegés must be feeling especially proud these past weeks. Employing the state-of-the-art techniques of their craft, Antwerp’s finest succeeded in uncovering a massive tax fraud involving members of that venerable city’s diamond trade and a Swiss affiliate of a British bank claiming historical association with the former colony of Hong Kong and a large Chinese city beginning with S.
The genius of the Belgian Force knows no bounds: not only did they cotton-on that something was afoot with the squeaky-clean diamond industry, but they also understood that the list of account holders provided by a whistle-blowing former employee of the said bank a few years back might mean something. Putting two and two together, after a couple of years of playing now-you-see-us-now-you-don’t with local dealers, they finally swooped in dawn raids six weeks ago and made a series of arrests. What is remarkable is that there was anybody left to arrest; it can only be surmised that the suspects had their usual faith in the capabilities of the Belgian police.
In fairness, nobody would ever willingly suspect the Belgian Diamond Industry. Perceived as upright – and the police force as vigilant – the Belgian tax authorities have for years rewarded the industry by applying to it something called the Fiscal Plan. Like mere tax compliant mortals, dealers are required to prepare accounts for submission to the tax authorities, but each year the selfsame tax authorities inform them as to the minimum they owe according to their independent assessment of the industry, based on a percentage of turnover. So successful has this idea proved that it has been exported to Israel (Tachshiv), while there are plans for its adoption in India (Presumptive Taxation).
Of course, this alternative “who-are-you-trying-to-pull-one-over-on?” taxation system still rests on the turnover being reported. Although media articles on the current alleged fraud are a bit short on the facts, it would appear that there might have been a slight under-reporting of sales, with payments decoyed through multiple tax havens in a classic Agatha Christie-era tax evasion scheme. Of course, the great advantage of diamonds over, say heavy industrial equipment, is that they are classic carry-on baggage – even if the mode of carry-on sometimes involves walking with a rather peculiar limp.
It was only as an adult that I realized that Belgium is one of the great chocolate producers of the world. That ersatz stuff my father gave to the young Renée probably tasted nearly as bad to her as Hershey’s tastes to me – but I suppose after four years of German Occupation anything will do.
About fifteen years ago, I traveled to Brazil with a Senior Vice President of a chocolate company and his colleague. At lunchtime on the first day we were apparently forgotten by our hosts and hunger started to kick in. Due to my peculiar dietary requirements I then, as now, came prepared. Opening my briefcase I proceeded to slam a 500 gram slab of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk on the boardroom table (nowadays it would be a 100 gram energy bar) and declared it: “the best chocolate in the world”. The SVP gave me the greasy eyeball, to which I retorted; “If you don’t want it, don’t eat it”. He partook. Not so much as a thank you. I think I will stick with the Belgians.