The Sorrow of Belgium

The best thing about summer temperatures is that they are generally followed by thunderstorms. And that’s exactly my favourite kind of weather. As much as Belgians fear temperatures above 25 degrees, they also fear thunderstorms. The country even gets ‘codes’ when there might be thunderstorms coming. Code yellow, code orange, code red… depending on how ‘dangerous’ the coming storms might be.

Yesterday was code orange so I got my gear out and drove to Gent. I have been wanting to go up the belfry for a while now so I thought this was the right time.

This 90 meter high watchtower dating from the 14th century is a great place to see thunderstorms coming. It’s a not very comfortable narrow passageway, constantly ‘invaded’ by tourists, but nevertheless a great photographic spot.


So I was waiting for the storm (that didn’t really come), watching the clouds, watching the tourists passing me. Brits, Americans, Dutch, Scandinavians, Germans, a lot of Spanish speaking and many many Chinese. The Chinese, probably the most avid selfie-takers.

Then a group of French speaking ‘cool guys’ came up. You know the type 16-something, impeccably dressed, loud, showing off… This one guy saw me and automatically said “Bonjour madame!”. I answer back in French and he said, startled, “Mais vous parlez français!”, you speak French! “Of course!” I told him, “I am Belgian!”. ‘Oh, where are you from then?’, he asked. Obviously expecting me to name some south Belgian city as he seemed genuinely surprised when he found out I’m Flemish. Without thinking I ask him the rhetorical question, “but you can speak Flemish, can’t you?” and to my surprise his answer was “oh no! I don’t!” And added an apologetic “but I am from Brussels”, as if to say ‘they don’t speak Flemish there’.

By then the group had moved on and our conversation ended as rapidly as it had started. I was a bit annoyed. Don’t they learn Flemish anymore in our bilingual Belgian capital? Are we (Flemish) the only ones who remember that Brussels is -officially- bilingual? Do they really expect us to speak French, all the time?

The usual Flemish thoughts.

I had nothing on my mind except thinking, as the clouds weren’t really coming, so started thinking about that particular delicate Belgian issue : 2 different people, the French speaking Walloons in the south and the Flemish speaking in the north, ‘stuck’ together in a country called Belgium. Both languages equal, theoretically, but practically it’s always the Flemish that must adapt to the French. Or so it feels to us.

As far as I remember it has always been an issue. Language was one of the reasons Belgium came to exist, it was an important issue in the desire for independency. Back then it was the French speaking elite who were afraid they would lose power to the Flemish ‘people’. It took the Flemish a long time to become ‘equal’ as a language, with the university of Leuven (Flemish town) changing from French to Flemish only in 1968!

When I was in school French was one of the main subjects, next to Maths and Flemish, and generally Flemish was taught in the Walloon schools. Nowadays English is more and more taking the place of Flemish/French as a second language in schools on both sides of the language border.

Thus making the language tensions no longer an issue. There are no longer losers in the battle between Flemish and Walloons on what language they will speak to each other. They just speak English. That’s what I usually do anyway.

So Mr. Cool Guy’s lack of knowledge of my native language is forgiven. -I do hope he speaks English though- ;-).

This is as bad as the clouds got …

“Verdriet van Belgie”, the sorrow of Belgium, a podcast on the Belgian independence by Johan Opdebeek. Only in Flemish I am afraid. Highly recommended.

The language battle I mention here is only in unofficial matters. In political matters and official matters what language is spoken is subject to many strict rules. The prime minister for example will give all speeches half in Flemish half in French.

The panorama photo is taken with my cell phone. The other photos with my camera. check out for more of my work.

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