Chocolate and beer. To have tasted the Belgian variety of these treats is to count yourself among the lucky. Believe it or not, they may be all that’s left of a strained Belgian national identity. Obviously there is more to this nation, but its most interesting aspect might well be the ongoing struggle with its own national identity. The country is comprised of three major autonomous regions: Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels-Capital. There is also a small and often neglected German-speaking offshoot in Eastern Wallonia. These communities have spent the last 180 years in constant non-violent conflict. The overall feeling of the tension is similar to that of sibling rivalry: each side thumbs its nose at the other and makes it the butt of jokes. Such a limited bond makes it difficult for the small country to form any sort of national identity, and some would argue that Belgium has none.
On the surface, the country’s breakdown appears simple. Flanders occupies the northern half of the nation, and its inhabitants speak Flemish, a Dutch variant. The Southern portion of the country houses the Francophone Wallonia, which is decidedly rural and often viewed as less progressive by the Flemish. Of the two regions, Flanders is more industrial and urban. The region includes the city of Antwerp, coined the diamond capital of the world. The Brussels-capital region is essentially a French enclave inside Flanders, but it retains its own government. The reason for this is simple: Brussels is home to many international organizations (think NATO and the European Union) and therefore cannot afford to be caught up in the squabbles of partisan politics. Each region maintains almost total self-control, dictating everything from educational policies to transportation. Flanders has flourished in recent decades and now accounts for nearly two-thirds of the current population of Belgium. It has grown economically and politically and now it seems that Flanders is looking to grow in a new direction.
The current federal political situation is precarious. The Flemish see themselves as the progressive economic leader and feel that the quaint rural Walloons are more of a hindrance than a help. This point of view came to the political foreground following the June 10, 2007 general election, when the would-be prime minister, Yves Leterme was announced, a man who had very clear leanings in the direction of further Flemish autonomy. For more than six months the county has been unable to form its central government. The discussion began because Belgium wasn’t sure how a leader so clearly on one end of the political spectrum could represent the entire nation. Now the talks are far more serious. The nation is contemplating whether or not it should even be a nation. Why should a country held together by self-governing regions even stay one country? It looks like the only thing holding the Flemish and Walloons together is that neither side wants to concede control of Brussels, which interestingly enough, controls itself.
“Why should a country held together by self-governing regions even stay one country?”
The acrimonious in-fighting continues, and one question remains ever present: is a nation with no easily identifiable sense of nationalism really a nation? I remember once being flippantly told that the Belgians stay together out of mutual hatred for their neighboring nations. In the same conversation, I was told that no Belgian citizen knows the national anthem or admits to being Belgian when asked. I got the impression that neither was meant to convey shame, but rather indifference. This explanation made perfect sense to me, as I rarely, if ever, tell people where I come from. I didn’t have a rooted upbringing and therefore, I don’t feel a pull towards any particular place. I have always wondered if this is the same sentiment felt simultaneously, but separately, by both the Flemish and the Walloons. It might be the one feeling they share.
I am not the foremost political scientist, but I did have the opportunity to spend a year in a unique position within this little nation. At age eighteen, I was an exchange student in Antwerp, living in Francophone homes, I attended a Dutch-language school, but all of my social contact and home-life was conducted in French. The window into this French-speaking sub-culture gave me a bit of a different perspective on the current situation. As a sheltered American this was the most uncomfortable position to be in. I was unsure of my capacity to learn even one language; the idea of learning two simultaneously left me faint. I accepted the challenge, and the subsequent year was full of miscommunication, social gaffes and cultural insight.
Languages in Belgium
The dinner table was my introduction into the confusion of the Belgian linguistic identity. I quickly learned that it was not uncommon for three languages—Dutch, French, and English—to fly effortlessly across the table. The most common language was French, for after all, it was the most common language spoken within the walls of the home. I soon realized that Dutch was used to describe any event that occurred in the outside world. Basically, if the original event happened in Dutch, then that was the language used for the retelling. Due to my presence at the table, English was a necessary evil serving as a bridge between the other two languages. I spent the better part of each meal trying to decipher which language was spoken. I was so unaccustomed to the rapid linguistic changes, that at first, I couldn’t always hear the shift or the difference. Today this strikes me as absurd, since the three sound so incredibly different. I discovered that for me, the dinner table meant practice. It was here that I was able to try out conversations and vocabulary that I wasn’t quite comfortable using elsewhere, like in school.
My first contact with the culture struggle came in the form of a language lesson. I was asked to attend kindergarten classes, a humiliating learning experience in which I was teased by toddlers. The Flemish children laughed at me. To them it was hilarious that a person of my size was so confounded by the simplest words and pronunciations. True, they were children, but children can be cruel, and it was difficult not to be offended. However, the Francophone children had it worse. These children often do not learn Flemish until they begin school. I both witnessed and was told of the social stigma attached to French-speakers. For this reason, it is not hard to guess why these kindergartners try to learn Flemish as quickly as possible. And yet, the teachers still punish the children for their mistakes. One of my host-mothers was a kindergarten teacher and she once explained that when a Francophone child gets flustered and reverts back to his native tongue, the teacher swats him on the hand to remind him to speak Flemish. This story is made all the more interesting by the fact that this host-mother was herself a Francophone. The children in my class did not seem to mind the punishment, but perhaps that is because they had me to pick on.
The story was no different when I switched schools midyear. I spent half the day with eleven-year-olds and the other half with the eighteen-year-old crowd. It was interesting to see the interaction because the school I attended was fairly ethnically diverse. And yet, I found that the Flemish students were more forgiving with the children of immigrants than they were with Francophone children. It was refreshing to see that two of my closest Francophone friends were long-time best friends with a Flemish girl, Lynne. She claimed that the stigma only exists if you let it, and that basically, it was an antiquated idea. Given the current state of political affairs within the nation, I would have to say that her thoughts are still a bit progressive.
“The Flemish children laughed at me. To them it was hilarious that a person of my size was so confounded by the simplest words and pronunciations. True, they were children, but children can be cruel, and it was difficult not to be offended. However, the Francophone children had it worse.”
This school experience was the first time I realized that while the Francophone community in Antwerp speaks Dutch with just as much skill and fluency as the Flemish, they are very different peoples. In school, students could often fish the Francophone out of the crowd. From my outside perspective, it appeared that the Francophones often knew each other through social groups and parental friendships. However, I knew a few Flemish kids that claimed to be able to identify the Francophones through their behavior and even the way that they carried themselves. It is probably an unfair comparison, but in my experience I found that the Francophone children were very driven by their parents. There was a lot of emphasis placed on academic ability. While it was important to most schoolchildren I encountered, my Francophone friends placed academics near the top of their priority lists. These friends would stress about every exam as though it were the biggest. They would rarely go out during the week because they needed to study. I had several friends who claimed to know what their adult careers would be at the age of eleven. Indeed, one such friend recently fulfilled this goal and is now a pharmacist. Academics may have been important, but that did not compare to the importance of knowing the right people, another notion that seemed somewhat less important to the Flemish students I encountered. This idea was apparent from the small cliques that the Francophones created within their own community.
My Dutch progress was constantly hindered by my contact with French. In order to keep myself sane, I decided to focus solely on the French, allowing the Dutch to filter in naturally. My host-sister decided that social interaction would help me conquer my irrational fear of my own accent, and so I jumped headfirst into two subsets of the Francophone community. She enlisted my help as a Girl Scout leader and placed me in what she called an activity group. Scouting was an interesting assignment. Here, the children were just as intrigued as the kindergartners by my linguistic deficiency, but possessed more patience than their younger counterparts. At the age of eight, they were well-acquainted with the cultural divide. In fact, some had found that instead of integrating, it was simpler to form their own social linguistic groupings. Their friends outside school became the same friends they made in school. Some girls said that if they did not go to school with scouts from their troop, they instead became friends with other Francophone children in their school year. When they reached high school they merged into activity groups.
The activity group was simply a co-ed adolescent version of Girl Scouts. The entire purpose of the Girl Scouts and activity groups is to provide a situation for Francophone kids to hang out. They almost never speak Dutch here. Actually, even Dutch anecdotes, in this situation, were translated and told in French. Both were designed by parents to reaffirm their children’s French-speaking identity. However, another exchange student living in Flemish families claimed that it looked more like an excuse to throw elaborate costume parties. I found it fascinating that, in the Scouts and this activity group, French was spoken exclusively. And yet, when I asked them if they related to the Walloons or if they would want to go to school in Wallonia, they all replied that they were Flemish. For them, I think, Flemish wasn’t a linguistic divide, but a cultural and geographical one. Each of these groups provided me with the opportunity to learn about Belgium from both sides of the cultural divide. I was provided with French-speaking perspectives, but these were often accompanied by the Flemish cultural identity.
“The Francophone community in Flanders sits in a unique position: it is not not Flemish; it is not Walloon; it is Belgian. When you ask, this is what they tell you.”
My overall experience left me in a strange position. While I am far more comfortable speaking French, I feel more compassion for the Flemish plight. I spent most of my time in the northern part of the country exploring Flemish cities and visiting local art museums. I learned that a lot of things come from Belgium: lace, Brussels sprouts and even fries. Granted, these are all non-essential items, but they are part of the charm. My parents, both fluent in German, had often told me that the farther north you travel in Europe, the less friendly people are. This is not the case in Belgium. The people were incredibly welcoming and polite. They were often open for a lively political debate, but their lack of ardent Belgian identity made it easier for them to understand an opponent’s position.
After reading about the current state of national affairs, I spoke to a Francophone friend, Catherine. I asked her what she thought about the idea of Belgium breaking apart. She presented a new case for national identity. The Francophone community sits in a unique position: it is not Flemish; it is not Walloon; it is Belgian. When you ask, this is what they tell you. This hybrid identity has enabled them to survive in a fractious nation. They are able to be active members of the Flemish community, as doctors, lawyers and engineers. But, they maintain the cultural balance by keeping their own social groupings and encouraging their children to speak French. They are truly bilingual and would have it no other way. I am unsure that some sort of velvet revolution is inevitable; perhaps the country of Belgium should step back and look into the tiny Francophone community in Flanders. It may not hold the key to an official national identity, but it provides an essential lesson in tolerance and mutual co-operation from which the country and the world at large could likely profit.
Changes/additions made February 21, 2007 (tmh)
by Roger Cohen
International Herald Tribune
December 16, 2007
“Belgian MPs support crisis leader“
December 23, 2007
“Viewpoints: Belgian crisis“
by Dominiek Minten and Beatrice Delvaux
September 17, 2007
“Belgium’s crisis is flagging“
October 12, 2007