Finding common ground between the Flemish and the French in Belgium

On Saturday night I went to my first real Belgian house party — where the lingua franca was French. Spending time with the other half of the country made me appreciate that, indeed, the cultural divide between Flanders and Wallonia is a real phenomenon. I mean, I live in Leuven, a mere stone’s throw from Belgium’s French-speaking capital, but it might as well be on the other side of the country because the atmosphere is completely different. And I don’t think it’s just because one’s a small town and the other is a big city — there seem to be other factors, including language and cultural mix. It’s a small thing but, for example, everytime I catch the train between Leuven and Brussels, I can’t help but notice the order that French and Dutch are announced on the train, and at what point it changes, and when it becomes just Dutch — over the distance of mere kilometres.

(Before anyone says anything, yes, I do realise that there is also a German-speaking minority but essentially the two halves are Dutch and French.)

I’d come into Brussels to catch up with a friend, thinking it’d be just a couple of hours before going home. But shopping turned into dinner, then a birthday party, and finally crashing at his place followed by brunch the next morning at his favourite neighbourhood bistro. At the back of my mind, I kept thinking I have a lot of studying to do, but sometimes you’ve just gotta go with it, right? Although I’m learning a lot about Belgium through my studies at the formidable KU Leuven, I’m learning a lot more about it through the university of life. Cheesy but true.

Near Avenue Louise, Brussels
Near Avenue Louise, Brussels

When I look back on the past weeks, it actually surprises me to consider just how many Belgians I’ve socialised with. Every day I seem to be talking to someone new, or otherwise catching up with local friends I’ve made these past two months. And this is on top of all the internationals! I already know how internationals live here, since I’m one of them, but it’s satisfying to feel like I’m getting a better idea of how locals actually live too. On Friday night, for example, I went out for drinks with three Belgian guys — two Flemish and one French speaking, originally from Brussels. For them it was Friday night drinks, the end of a tiring work week — for me it was just another night of drinks, ha. We went to a great bar in town called The Capital, with a menu of over 500 beers. I was actually the common connection between the three of them, and it makes me happy to see people taking chances with socialising and interested in making new friends. The lingua franca at our table was English, alongside the universal language of beer. It was nice to chat over two excellent beers (Tripel Karmaliet), which both contained 8.4% alcohol (!) — so I soon felt warm and tipsy, and was happy to call it a night. Then just like a local I got on my bike, a little drunk, and made it all the way home in one piece.

But coming back to my Saturday night in Brussels: I came in to hang out with a new friend I originally met in Palm Springs at the TEDActive conference at the start of the year. Eduardo and I get on well, and I enjoy spending time with him. He’s actually originally from Brazil via France, but he’s been in Brussels for a few years so this is now home. He thought I’d like the party at his friend’s apartment — and he was right. It was a great gathering.

I’m not fond of big parties but I do like house parties to have the chance to have chats with different kinds of people. I used a bit of survival French, but my speaking level isn’t really up to scratch at the moment for me to get good stuff out of conversations. I do see how my passive French is slowly improving though. Almost everyone there was French speaking, with a few internationals thrown in who also spoke French — but someone mentioned that there were actually two Flemish girls at the party. And it was interesting to note how they’d become friends with the host: folk dancing.

Folk dancing
Folk dancing

Apparently, about ten years ago, there was a folk dancing revival in Belgium, and it happened everywhere in both the French speaking AND Dutch speaking parts of the country. The origins of the impromptu dancing I watched at the party was French, not too dissimilar to other kinds of folk dancing I’ve occasionally seen in different parts of Europe. It was beautiful to observe, an intimate moment among friends, and a privilege to be able to witness inside someone’s home. This is how dancing started and continues to be practiced the world over — it’s not just a rarefied art form. Earlier that night, the host got out his accordian and some of his friends jammed with him in the traditional way.

The cultural divides in Belgium seem rather intractable, and it’s something I’m constantly exploring with everyone. I’ve heard that everyone is more comfortable with the second language of English, which means that most Dutch speakers prefer English over French, and the French speakers seem to know very little Dutch full stop (and maybe relatively English too?). It’s quite puzzling since everyone seems to study the other language for years in the school curriculum, but I suppose the way languages are taught at school the world over is generally pretty bad. People also say that the Flemish are more closed, whereas the Wallonians are more open, and that Antwerp is the snottiest and most ultra-Flemish place there is. I’ve been to Antwerp a few times over the past decade and somehow like it the best of all the Belgian cities, but perhaps as an English speaker and as a tourist it’s totally different for me. In any case, I know a tiny bit about Belgian politics and I’m aware that Antwerp is the seat of the Flemish separatist movement.

Thinking about all this, I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for Belgium and how it can stay fully unified, or whether that tension will simply continue for generations to come. Also, is the Belgian royal family completely inert when it comes to unifying the nation? But hey, putting politics aside, there’s dancing and drinking…and those are two powerful forces right there that can overcome all kinds of cultural barriers.

Postscript

A week ago I was completely gutted about missing out on Arcade Fire in Brussels, which I heard about far too late — and I got a belated response from the universe offering me two free tickets to a Sunday night concert at Cirque Royal in Brussels. The headline act was The Lumineers, and the show had long sold out. I was actually more eager to see the support band, Thao and The Get Down Stay Down, so seconds after I finished writing this blog post, I rushed back into Brussels and got my friend out with me again, going with the flow which had characterised my weekend. By the time we arrived at the venue we missed the band I’d wanted to see but even so, The Lumineers were good and their energy was infectious. And seeing them gave me one extra thought to end this post: music is another thing which brings people together.

At the Cirque Royal for The Lumineers
At the Cirque Royal for The Lumineers

I overheard lots of internationals, as well as French being spoken, while Eduardo observed that he could hear lots of Flemish being spoken around him which was, according to him, “unusual for Brussels”. So for one night only, a band from Colorado came to town, and brought together the French speakers, the Flemish, along with the rest of the world: “I belong with you, you belong with me, you’re my sweetheart”.

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