I have lived in Belgium for 20 years. That is too long. I have started to accept things as normal when they are anything but normal.
When I read in the newspaper that little blue plastic Smurfs were to be Belgium’s official mascots at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, I just thought it was a silly idea. But, when I thought about it later, I realised it was a very smart move.
The Smurfs, or Schtroumphs, as they were originally named, were created by Belgian cartoonist Pierre Culliford in the same year that Belgium held its World Fair, in 1958. So at about the same time as the country was showing off its cutting-edge technology, Peyo (as he signed himself) was unveiling 99 strange little blue men.
The Smurfs, described as “three apples high”, spoke a strange private language which relied heavily on the simple word “smurf” to serve for just about anything you wanted to say. So the sentence, “I want to smurf you on the smurf,” could mean “I want to kiss you on the cheek” or “I want to hit you on the head.”
Humans in Smurf stories would try to copy the language but invariably got it wrong because words had a different meaning depending on whether you were a Northern Smurf or a Southern Smurf.
The Smurf books sold in millions. The merchandising deals were colossal. You could buy plastic models of Lazy Smurf or Smurfette (the only woman) or listen to Father Abraham sing The Smurf Song while munching your way through a whole packet of Halibro’s blue jellied Smurf sweets.
So maybe the Belgians have got the right idea in launching a Smurf charm offensive in China. Perhaps those little blue figures from Belgium will smurf the Chinese on the smurf.