Too small for such big divisions (you’d think)
Around Bruxelles and in some other areas road signs are written in both French and Flemish. In Wallonia and Flanders they are written in one language, respectively French or Flemish.
This New Years a 20 year old girl, I talked to earlier this year, was harassed and physically attacked by a group of people in the northern part of Belgium. The reason? She spoke French. In the nationwide Flemish bus company De Lijn it is more the rule than the exception that staff treats French speaking passengers in a rude and unreasonable manner, according to my Belgian friend’s personal experience, while a French girl with family in this little country told me, she often feels looked down upon when she orders her food in this neighboring country to the north.
Belgium has in many different ways inspired me to go on this Tour de Europe. I knew about the country’s problems with assembling a government and keeping it alive, since this European wonder beat Iraq in going the longest without an elected government. But I was awestruck, when I nine months ago heard that grownups would dare to attack a 20 year old girl because of what language comes out of her mouth. It made me feel ignorant because I had no idea that a Western European country of only 11 million inhabitants could be this divided.
On this bike trip, outside Belgium I’ve only met five people from this country; an older man and two young couples. The older man refused to give me his opinion on the Belgian divisions, while I didn’t bother the second couple I met with my holiday spoiling questions.
But the first couple. Here the guy in his early twenties gave me his views on the touchy affairs. He told me, he was just giving me a resume of the problems but his carefully picked details about the poor south and the uneven distribution of money in Belgium (the north being unfairly treated, to his opinion), left little doubt about his point of view. And he was of course from Gent in the Flemish part.
Though maybe not to the same degree, his ability to quickly give such a one-sided version of the Belgian crisis reminded me of quite a few experiences from my time in the Middle East. During an introduction speech at my university in Ankara an 18 year old man got inappropriately loud and lost his temper in front of around a 100 students, because the +55 year old Turkish professor welcoming us with a short history lesson didn’t want to call “the Arabs” traitors for their rebellion against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Or when the Turkish author Ece Temelkuran goes to Armenia to understand the meaning of the atrocities committed by the Turks during the same war, and a nine year old girl asks Temelkuran whether she recognizes the ‘Armenian genocide’ or not.
To hell with the elephant’s splendid memory if all it passes on are the stories from the older mammals in the parade.
Like in France, bread is considered a human right in Belgium. Thus, they have vending machines like this in smaller villages.
To be fair, as a foreigner I’ve mostly met friendly, curious and welcoming people in Belgium. As a cyclist, as a journalist and as a simple tourist. The traffic in Bruxelles reminds me a bit of the one in Beirut, the need for bread seems like in France and the cycling culture is a convincing transition from the south to velo-obsessed Holland. Oh, and they have excellent beer. Only things to adore.
But if you do want to understand a bit more of this odd division, where economy of course plays a big part, here is a few articles. It is as intriguing, as it is strange, I promise.
First, a very entertaining long-read, which is centered around the national football team before the World Cup. It can be read by anyone with just a minor understanding of this wonderful game.
A shorter one about the the language divide.
And what happens when a king links separatism with fascism.