This is not a country

18th September 2007, Comments 0 comments

In response to the Economist's suggestion 'Time to call it a day', editor Paul Morris finds a possible answer in Belgium's surrealism.

In last week’s Economist, a point of view article suggested that it was time to 'Time to call it a day' in Belgium (The Economist : Time to call it a day).

When I arrived here in Belgium, elbow to elbow with the euro, there was a charm to the fact that there were two languages, that signposts and street signs in Brussels - the only official bilingual region in the country - had schizophrenia, with French text above and Dutch below. I marvelled at how graphic designers had adapted themselves, using ever more ingenious means to include both languages on posters, business cards and toilet ducks.

Belgium and Brussels in particular is very strong on the visual arts, abounding with painters, sculptors and of course the very bande dessinée out of which Tintin, one of its most famous sons grew. And it is done with great, often black humour. For artists there is a comfort zone in the lingua franca of the comic strip universe, almost as if Belgians soon realised that by taking the words out they could communicate better across the Flemish-Walloon divide.

 Belgian revolution painting by Egide Charles Gustave Wappers

Now I feel a sense of alienation when I head for the Belgian coast, into Flemish territory, partly because I don’t speak the language - just enough to order a pintje and boterham - but also because over the six years since I moved here, I have begun to sense even more dramatically the divide that exists. The outskirts of Brussels form the linguistic barrier between the Latin and the Germanic countries, but it’s more fundamental of course; disagreement runs deep in the veins of both communities.

Before I got here I fell for the same corny views of Belgium that lie beneath the surface of the Economist piece, I made or laughed at the same jokes the British make about every other country in the World.  "If Belgium did not already exist, would anyone nowadays take the trouble to invent it? Such questions could be asked of many countries."  I presume that the UK - 2 countries, half a country and a bit of a province - is one of the countries mentioned above, a collection united for now by an almost common language.


Leopold I of Belgium 1831

I am struggling to think of a country that was not invented for one reason or another and most countries reinvent themselves more often than Madonna. The fact that Belgium managed to stay together for so long should surely be applauded. The unaccredited author of the article surely came here to praise Belgium not to bury her.

Two languages, two cultures, one country. A microcosm of the European union, they say. Belgium’s failure to find a common ground in the current climate reflects badly on a Europe attempting to blend umpteen nationalities into one large if not nation then league of nations. Or perhaps this is the very strength of Europe; separate Flemish and Wallonian states could stand on their own two feet in a wider Europe. It wouldn’t quite open the floodgates for Scotland, Catalonia and others but it would put a crowbar in the gap in case anyone wanted to slip through.

Some suggest this is simply the dissolution of a marriage that was over long ago, that they haven’t shared the same bed for 50 years.
" … and then cleverly secured the headquarters of what is now the European Union."  That an area described by Englishman James Howell in 1640 as "the cockpit of Christendom" does not deserve to house the European Quarter smacks of sour grapes, like Germany getting the World Cup ahead of the English bid. Which other country is better placed? Belgium has been invaded by everyone who was within striking distance of it and some who came a long way just to put it on their list of conquered countries. It is geographically strategic and its very cosmopolitan nature was another plus in choosing it as the capital of Europe. Commentators who question Brussels as the location for Europe’s talking-shops rarely come up with a viable alternative.

As for the King, he may well end up King of Brussels as its future is the most intriguing aspect of the whole affair. Will it become a sort of mediaeval Italian City State? Italians form one of the largest communities here so perhaps it would become a northern Milan where Albert and his family would be the Viscontis or a new Venice ruled by the new Medicis. But Bruges is already called the Venice of the North and that would be in an independent Flanders. Will Walloons be heading there on holiday, accepting that it's all water under the bridges or will the Belgae head ever westwards towards the windy French coast and join the Celtic tribes of Brittany?

"Belgians need not feel too sad. Countries come and go." The country may well be a broken packet of biscuits but rather than the crumbs of comfort offered Little Belgium, I believe this part of the World has as much reason to look forward as any other part of Europe, and that if they solve this political crisis they will be the stronger for it.

As for the King, he may well end up King of Brussels as its future is the most intriguing aspect of the whole affair.
The writer mentions Belgium’s "rapacious" colonisation of Africa. The words ‘Pot‘, ‘Kettle’ and ‘Black‘ spring to mind. Belgium was a rapacious Chihuahua alongside the rabid European dogs that ravaged the world. I do not subscribe to what some misty-eyed Britons believe, that we travelled the world magnanimously dispensing Civilisation in the form of religion, education and healthy games of sports (that we now rarely beat anyone at it).

Some suggest this is simply the dissolution of a marriage that was over long ago, that they haven’t shared the same bed for 50 years. To flog a dead metaphor perhaps the infidelity of both sides - the one to the Netherlands, the other to la belle France - has not helped bind their union, though as with many smaller nations both Flemish and Walloons alike bristle when their larger neighbours are mentioned. Perhaps both parties have endured a long unhappy marriage and simply have a 177 year itch.

When I lived in Brighton on England's south coast, there was a door in a long white garden wall. A note had been written on it: ‘This Is Not A Door‘. It did not stop me trying to open it. One of Belgium’s more famous sons René Magritte painted a pipe and called his oeuvre Ceci N’Est Pas Une Pipe: ‘This is not a pipe‘. Perhaps Ceci N’Est Pas Un Pays, not a country after all, simply a product of lowlands surrealist imagination.

Paul Morris
Expatica Belgium

19 September 2007

The Economist : Time to call it a day

(copyright Expatica 2007)

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