The Phileas Club 102 – Special: The Kingdom of Belgium


On this episode we talk about:

  • Belgium, its divisons and what unites it.

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  1. Kalpalduin says:

    Hello. As a fellow Belgian nammed Guillaume myself (not that it is so common as Sasha is in Russia or something, it’s just an ordinary name for our generation)
    I felt like jumping 2 or 3 or 10 times listening to this episode because I would have liked to add or develop a few things.

    There is a belgian identity. However, you might say without being rude it is not as strong or as defined as for some others nationalities. Why the heck is that?

    To understand belgian people better you first have to get a brief look at our History.
    At some point our lands were part of the roman Empire, at some point of France, the Netherlands, even Spain and Austria. Everybody fought over Belgium, this little crossroad with talented people (yay!)
    While Romans already used the word Belgica to refer to us, Belgium is less than 200 years old. In the Middle Ages there already were territories gaining independance through protectorate, and small states/cultures emerging in Gent, Antwerpen or Liège.
    However, Belgium only became independant in 1830. This led us having a relatively short History, or rather a short one of our very own, as a distinctive country and people.

    So, forever we’ve been part of different superpowers, influenced by their cultures, leaderships and conflicts.
    Since we are a small country located between bigger ones, cosmopolitan ourselves and influenced by several cultures, we are naturally pretty opened to the world and much less centered on ourselves than our lovable French neighbours.
    Maybe that is one of the reasons why we, along with the Netherlands and Luxembourg, started this Europe thing. Brussels in the administrative center of EU, but we take no pride in that. We are humble to the point some say it leads to a lack of ambition, even entrepreneurial.

    As a whole we are a pretty friendly open-minded people. International artists who come in Belgium, frenchies first, always underline how kind, “easy” and passionate our audience is.
    If we go on into cliches, Flemish people (north) tend to be a little bit more hard-working and strict than Walloons (south) who themselves tend to be more easy-going and partying.
    I should also point out there is something special about the belgian spirit and humour. I would describe it as frank but warm, somewhat surrealist, with a tiny touch of lunacy.

    We Walloons, the french speaking people of Belgium gain a huge influence from France culture. While we do have our own culture with cinema, famous comics, typical food, music, etc, we have nourished french culture as well throught many artists who, after becoming successful here, sometimes seek out a bigger audience in France. A classic example of that would be Jacques Brel; a modern example, if we stay in music, would be Stromae.
    I would say Flanders is less influenced by the Netherlands than we Walloons are influenced by France. And we are both influenced by american pop culture (like the whole world is, bravo USA.) Although Flanders [no Simpson joke here] has its own very rich modern culture, from all the way back to flemish painters like Rubens.

    When Belgium became independant in 1830, the elites spoke french, even the flemish aristocracy. Flemish people had to fight for a long time to gain the right to speak their own language in courts, business, etc. Only in 1932 a “language based of your region” law was adopted.
    This is one of the inherent reason why the north part of Belgium is pretty sensible on the language thing. If, as a Walloon, you go in Flanders and speak french to people, you will not always be well received. That could be an euphemism in some places where french is stricly banned in administrations. Even if most Flemish do speak french pretty nice, some of them will choose to answer you in their own language, or they will clearly show annoyance answering you in french. Sometimes we choose english as a common ground. If you are a french tourist, however, they will adress you in french without any issue whatsoever, in english for other visitors.

    Flemish people feel like Walloons don’t put enough effort in speaking dutch, among other things (it would have been interresting to have a flemish person for this episode.) The reality is flemish schools are way better at teaching french than walloon schools are at teaching flemish – and more and more younglings favour english now. So you might say it’s getting harder to understand each others. Just being able to read newspapers from the other side of the country helps.

    I also need to point out that for a long time the North was less powerful, and behind economically. The South part of Belgium where we speak french had a lot of coal mines, and one of the most advanced industries in the world up to 1960 (notably in metallurgy.) Today, it is the North which has become significantly richer. Their liberal politics arguably leads to more work opportunities than our socialist dominant ones (which has its own advantages) and they overall have better management I would admit. The strong socialist culture is partly an inheritage from the Worker Party who fought for the miners and other workers rights, partly the influence of french culture.

    So there you have a country with two distinctive cultures who must work together.
    There surely are a ton of countries with bigger cultural and ethnic diversities. The thing is, because we have no strong common belgian identity and the two communities are close to equal numbers, there is no distinctive majority to rule over, this being reinforced by our coalition government. Good thing, but hard thing.

    The language is truly a barrier here and, as Guillaume noted, most Wallons and Flanders just don’t interract with each others very often. For most people the other community is kinda like, just the others guys. Even if the large majority of people don’t hate the other community, there is a persistant small resentment. Or maybe a better way to put it is the feeling you get in a family when you love another member, but you don’t agree with him on everything and you get frustrated.
    Besides politics, sports are common interactions. The football championshit for example regroups clubs from both regions.

    Flemish who seek complete state independance are not a new thing at all. The most convinced and sometimes outrageous are far right, but you have reasonnable people among them as well. They understand they can’t really get to an independance of Flanders right now, so they rather try to gain more power or to reinforce the local governments. Recent events in Catalonia is echoing this, european countries taking position for Spain as a whole for obvious interests.

    One of the key holding this shit together (‘beg your pardon ladies and sirs) is Brussels.
    Another small one is actually royalty, the royal family acting as a symbol of union between the two communities. The royal couple is charged with diplomatic and humanitarian missions. Most people think they are too privileged, costly and useless, but we keep them and it’s not the biggest deal.
    The capital is a huge deal. As Brussels is in the middle of everything, including Europe, nobody could let it go to the other side. Funny thing is Brussels itself is located in flemish territory, but >70% of its inhabitants speak french. Brussels is also a very cosmopolitan city where you find the most migrants, especially Congolese descendants and Morrocans, among Africans (as Belgium once “owned” Congo, Burundi and Rwanda.)
    We also have a ton of descendants of belgian-italian interbreeding in the South (about 1 out of 4 people in my province) since Belgium made a pact with Italy the last century to get some workforce in the coil mines. The Italians are very well assimilated as it’s been a long time and their culture was relatively close to ours anyways, while as other countries we sometimes find more difficulties to successfully integrate people with arabic origins.

    So there you go, I hope this ads up to the episode and you to have a better idea of who Belgians are. You are welcome to come visit us!

    • Thanks for the additional details! Very useful to understand the country a bit more…

      • Guillaume Hachez says:

        Great comment – and he’s right, you really should come visit us in Brussels to meet all your Belgian listeners (and our beer).

  2. As another fellow Belgian I’m very glad you recorded this episode. Guillaume made an awesome summary, I agree with everything. And I also agree with what Kalpalduin wrote. Thank you, Guillaume and Patrick, for this love letter to Belgium-episode and for making us known around the globe.

    When I worked in Wallonia, I kind of lived ignoring Flanders exists. But now, as I’ve been working as a federal employee in Brussels for 5 years, I really appreciate what is our multiculturalism and our essence as a people making compromises.

    We have perfect language- (and gender-) parity in the work-team. We never speak English among ourselves (in our service). The default language (between a Flemish and a Walloon speaking about a dossier they are working on) is French because (as explained by Kalpalduin), our brethren from the north have a much better level than our Dutch level. Written dossiers are in English because we follow EU regulation and it allows worksharing with other EU Member States. Press releases for our citizens are in both French and Dutch (and we don’t spend the resources translating in German). At the coffee break I speak Dutch half of the time when a Flemish colleague is in the discussion but most of us Walloon are too lazy for that. The problem is also that Flemish people among themselves speak fast in all sorts of Flemish dialects, which are very hard to understand for people who learned handbook Flemish. But it’s fine when they adapt to your rhythm. Anyway,

    I love this multi-language and EU-worksharing context, I hope it will last forever.

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