I may have said this before, but Belgium is a strange place. One of the strangest things about it is how everything divides along linguistic fault lines. As someone who comes from a country where, at least in part, many things divide along religious fault lines you would think that I might be used to this kind of thing, but no.
Any event in Belgium is a matter of linguistic divide, I offer the following random examples:
Many years ago, before we had a baby and went out occasionally Mr. Waffle and I went to a concert in Ghent, to see the American band Cake. Ghent is Flemish speaking. This subtlety was lost on the band who said “Bonsoir Ghent” and were greeted, to their surprise, by sullen silence and a couple of boos (francophones were obviously too scared to open their mouths). Baffled band. Someone near the stage whispered into the lead singer’s ear. “Gooie avond Gent” said he. Explosion of delight, riotous applause. The lead singer then said in English what most of us foreigners think but would NEVER say “this linguistic division is ridiculous, you’ll end up like the Balkans, if you go on like this”. This went down like a lead balloon, understandably enough, so they just went on and played to the surly crowd.
Once, I was in the post office and there was a big queue and this woman skipped to the front of the queue to ask whether she could have a form and fill it in while in the queue. No. Now, this is annoying. But this being Belgium, it became a question of language. He was only refusing to give her the form because she was a francophone and there was no point him denying it (he was a Flemish speaker) because she knew for a fact that Flemish speakers got all the jobs in the post office. Big row.
Recently, DHL have been looking to increase the number of flights into Brussels airport. This has caused controversy because, you know, it’s a bit unpleasant having aeroplanes flying over your house in the middle of the night, but on the other hand DHL provides lots of jobs etc. I’m not sure that I have understood all the details but on to this basic fact I have heard the following linguistic elements being grafted:
– it is suggested that the flights should go over the Brussels region rather than Flanders because the Brussels region is the hub that encourages the business. Please note that Brussels is officially bilingual, in reality it is largely francophone and it is situated in Flanders which is Flemish speaking, think of it as like West Berlin before the wall came down – it has its own special region, the Brussels region, which is separate from Flanders – the Flemish do not like this much, they disapprove of Brussels. You might also like to note that Brussels airport is in fact located in Flanders and not in the Brussels region. Are you still with me?
– it is suggested that flights are being deliberately routed over the “communes à facilité”. Stay with me here. Brussels is expanding. Beyond the Brussels region. It’s full of eurocrats and fat cat internationals and we like living in the distant suburbs us eurocrats and fat cat internationals (though not us Waffles, I hasten to add, we live in Brussels). And the distant suburbs are Flemish. But we don’t speak any Flemish, we get by in French so with great reluctance the Flemish agreed to the “communes à facilité”, suburbs where you could do business in French with the local authorities. But only for a couple of years until your Flemish got up to scratch. But the Flemish are not pleased and they worry that the Flemish countryside will be overrun by these ignorant foreigners who will force them all to speak French. Now the latest conspiracy theory which the French speakers offer goes as follows – the DHL flights will be routed over the communes de facilite driving down prices and driving the internationals and French speakers out leaving the area free for hordes of Flemish people to come in, buy up the property and turn these areas back into proper Flemish speaking zones. What the DHL people make of this, I have no idea.
– DHL provides Belgium with a lot of jobs and a lot of these are low skill, menial jobs so they go the employment agencies and sweep up a lot of people. Good for Belgium? NO. Only good for Flanders because they only go to the Flemish speaking employment agencies. Who knows what the truth of this matter is? You would have thought good for Flanders would be good for Belgium anyway because as any Flemish speaker will tell you they are dead from propping up the financially feeble French speaking region (Wallonia) with their thriving economy. But it doesn’t really work like that.
Have no idea what the latest on the DHL thing is but the Belgian PM (a Flemish speaker, since you ask) emerged from a 20 hour meeting yesterday saying they couldn’t reach agreement, I suspect it may be a long haul. Meanwhile DHL are allegedly looking at the attractions of Germany for their European hub.
I have other stories along these linguistic lines but I will save them for another day, in case you get too, too excited.
on 22 September 2004 at 13:27
and we’ve got four language lines in Switzerland – Italian, German, French and Romansch…but Romansch is only spoken by about 5% of the population.
on 23 September 2004 at 11:16
Norah, v. interesting might be pushing it, but there you go, you will be able to cater to Belgian sensibilities whenever you meet one. By the by, here’s more of it from the Economist.”The Belgian government is once again riven by infighting. The issue, as ever, is the demand by Dutch-speakers for more power to be devolved to Flanders. Not surprisingly, Wallonia, the French-speaking half of the country, is resisting. The problem this time is an obscure battle over parliamentary constituencies on the borders of Brussels, where French and Dutch-speakers rub against each other. But the real issue is the Francophones’ fear that the richer Dutch-speaking half of the country is intent on secession. That this debate continues to take place in a city dedicated to the promotion of European unity is an irony lost on the participants.”
Heather, we have German as well, I just didn’t mention them because they seem like a peaceable minority and no one appears to believe that they get all the best jobs.