Somewhat Famous Belgians: a near-comprehensive list

Claire Handscombe

What Belgium lacks in size (and, apparently, in famous people) it more than makes up for with other charms. And not to sound defensive, but it really is tiny — the size of Rhode Island. So before you judge, let’s see how many famous Rhode Islanders you can name…

Me, someday

Technically I’m not Belgian, but I did live there for seven years as a child, which would have qualified me if I had applied for citizenship before the age of 23, only I didn’t know that and I missed my chance. I lived there again for three years as an adult, which it turns out qualified me all over again but I didn’t know that until it had stopped qualifying me. (Sigh.) The fame part is trickier but authors of one published novel are totally all famous and constantly mobbed for their autographs, right? That should start happening any second now.

Amélie Nothomb

The rare example of the published novelist who is probably politely asked for an autograph from time to time. Mobbed is maybe too strong a word for any writer, let’s be honest.

Adolphe Sax

Okay, admittedly, you probably haven’t heard of him, but you HAVE heard of the musical instrument he invented.

“French” fries

The story — at least one of the stories, the one I like — goes that Americans first tasted frites during the War, and, thinking they were in France, called them French fries & imported the concept. But they weren’t in France; they were in Belgium, and Belgian frites are so far superior to much of what passes for French fries in the U.S. that it’s probably just as well they have a different name. They’re essentially a different thing — French fries are to frites what instant coffee is to coffee.

(If you want real frites, some of the best I have ever, ever had are available from Belga, one of my favourite DC restaurants. They come with mayonnaise, as God intended. Seriously. Try it. They deliver.)


What, fictional doesn’t count to you people?!

Audrey Hepburn

Look, it’s the middle of the night and I really don’t have the energy to read this entire Wikipedia article about acquiring Belgian citizenship — which usually, admittedly, you get if your father is Belgian, and Audrey’s was not. But she WAS born in Brussels, which, if you ask me, makes her at least as Belgian as I am.

The Smurfs

Or, as I knew them when I was growing up, les Schtroumpfs. (Looks at all those clustered consonants! Is that not a delightful word?)

Not the inventor of the emoji, probably

Okay, clever clogs, emoji are clearly Japanese in origin, but this is really just an opportunity to vent about how it took a while for the Belgian flag emoji to appear on my iPhone keyboard, back in 2015.

Kim Clijsters

Oh! You say. I’ve definitely heard of her. And you have! She’s a former number one tennis player. So despite the lack of a Belgian flag emoji, I can use this: 🎾

Justine Hénin

Also 🎾1⃣, also in the early 2000s. Not bad going for a tiny little country the size of Rhode Island. I’m trying to resist making a political point about how European socialism obviously has some plus points after all, but it’s still the middle of the night, and my usually weak filter is currently non existent.

Anne-Marie Slaughter

She wrote what was once the most downloaded ever Atlantic article, on why women still can’t have it all. They can, however, have Belgian nationality, which is almost the same thing — though to my dismay (and not to step on what was otherwise fairly good, as middle-of-the-night witticisms go), we can’t quite claim her either since Belgianness is patrilineal, not matrilineal. Good grief, they don’t make it easy on themselves, do they?

Hercule Poirot

There you go again, with your anti-fictionalist tendencies.


Maybe I should rename this list “Somewhat famous somewhat Belgians”?

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

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