Bel­gium, the many-faceted young­ster of Europe

This di­versely pop­u­lated re­gion has a his­tory dat­ing back to the cam­paigns of Julius Cae­sar

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

DRIV­ING through the snowy wastes of the Ar­dennes for­est in Bel­gium last week, that mar­vel­lous quote of for­mer French Pres­i­dent Charles de Gaulle came to mind: “Bel­gium is a coun­try in­vented by the Bri­tish to an­noy the French.”

Well, “mea culpa” you could say. Ev­ery proper Briton keeps a tick­ling stick in his cup­board, ready to flick it un­der the nose of the near­est French­man.

Just for sport, you un­der­stand.

But then, de Gaulle may have had his own rea­sons for mak­ing deroga­tory re­marks about Bel­gium, a coun­try of many un­usual traits and ap­par­ent in­con­sis­ten­cies. De Gaulle, you see, knew it rather well. He was sent there to school at the age of 17, to a col­lege of French Je­suits in ex­ile, to study for im­proved math­e­mat­ics qualifications. He spent just over a year there, in the cas­tle at An­to­ing, from 1907. Could be, the ex­pe­ri­ence scarred him for life.

Bel­gium is a cu­ri­ous place. One of Europe’s most pop­u­lar jokes is: “Name five fa­mous Bel­gians”. Most peo­ple can’t get past two and one is Her­cule Poirot.

It is one of the newer coun­tries of Western Europe, gain­ing its full in­de­pen­dence as re­cently as 1831. Yet the his­tory of this re­gion is an­cient. Julius Cae­sar’s con­quest of Gaul brought him in con­tact with peo­ple of this re­gion who were named the “Bel­gae”, one of the many Celtic tribes of Gaul. Thus, the Ro­mans named this new prov­ince and out­post of the Ro­man Em­pire “Gal­lia Bel­gica”.

From Ro­man times up to the 20th cen­tury, the area we now call Bel­gium was one of the most pop­u­lar bat­tle­grounds of Europe. Just about any renowned con­queror or mil­i­tary fig­ure, in­clud­ing Louis XIV, Napoleon, Welling­ton, Kaiser Wilhelm and then Adolf Hitler, spread out maps and ap­par­ently sali­vated at the prospect of over-run­ning this com­par­a­tively small re­gion of Europe.

Bel­gian place names such as Water­loo are syn­ony­mous with great mil­i­tary cam­paigns. Ri­val pow­ers and coun­tries have been try­ing for cen­turies to take a slice of this place like we now take a slice of Bel­gian choco­late cake.

In the midst of a Bel­gian win­ter, it can be tricky to dis­cern just what the ap­peal of the place ac­tu­ally is. In the cap­i­tal, Brus­sels, a weird mix of EU-money-driven, mod­ern ar­chi­tect de­signed of­fices – the myr­iad de­part­ments of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion – and shabby late 19th and early 20th cen­tury build­ings dom­i­nate the cen­tre. Euro­pean politi­cians on healthy ex­pense al­lowances cer­tainly dic­tate the out­ra­geous prices at the bet­ter restau­rants and ho­tels.

Out in the coun­try, up in the cold hills of the Ar­dennes for­est, the heavy snow and deep grey skies pro­vide a win­ter blan­ket of gloom.

If you live here, you get your cen­tral heat­ing sys­tem ser­viced and your log store filled up to the brim long be­fore the colours of a north­ern hemi­sphere au­tumn have fi­nally fallen to earth. The win­ters are long and cold in this part of north­ern Europe.

But if the cli­mate is cool, so too are the re­la­tion­ships be­tween the dif­fer­ent Bel­gian peo­ples. There are three of­fi­cial lan­guages among the 10 mil­lion-plus pop­u­la­tion; Dutch, French and Ger­man. Un­til 1973, Bel­gian Dutch was called Flemish.

Dutch is the first lan­guage in the north (Flan­ders), where nearly 60 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion lives; French in the south (Wal­lo­nia). About 20 per­cent of the peo­ple speak both lan­guages.

Bel­gians who speak French as their first lan­guage are called Wal­loons, from the col­lec­tive name for three French di­alects spo­ken in the south. Just to com­pli­cate mat­ters, Ger­man is spo­ken by sev­eral thou­sands in the east.

On a mo­tor­way jour­ney from one end of the coun­try to an­other, Brus­sels can be spelled “Brux­elles” (the French spell­ing), “Brus­sel” (the Dutch) or “Brus­sels” (English ver­sion).

Dis­putes be­tween the two pre­dom­i­nant lan­guage groups, who also have dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions and cus­toms, have caused so­cial and po­lit­i­cal ten­sions.

There has been talk of each re­gion be­com­ing au­ton­o­mous, a move which Bel­gium as a whole needs like a hole in the head.

Brus­sels, al­though lo­cated in the Flemish re­gion, is of­fi­cially bilin­gual; but French, long the tra­di­tional lan­guage of govern­ment and com­merce, is pre­dom­i­nantly spo­ken.

Bel­gium re­mains a great place to visit. Bruges, known as the Venice of the north, is one of the great gems of Europe, An­twerp is a mighty city and port while the woods, forests and tav­erns of the re­mote Ar­dennes are a trea­sure to un­earth for the dis­cern­ing trav­eller.

Europe’s many at­trac­tions come in all kinds of re­gions and pack­ages.

SHIVER: Europe has been blan­keted in early win­ter snow for the past week. Work­ers re­move the snow from the pitch ahead of a soc­cer match in Ghent, Bel­gium. PIC­TURE: AP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.