Saturday, December 5, 2009

Fri 4 Dec, or the day I learnt how crazy Belgian politics is.

Had a fascinating insight into the world of Belgian politics today, thanks in part to today's lesson with my upper-intermediate students. I had found a useful article in last week's Guardian which asked the question: what next for Begium now that their popular(ish) PM has become the first president of the European Council?

I wasn't sure whether the students would understand it, but they did, and they loved it. In fact, they loved talking about the ins and outs of Belgian politics and Belgian society in general. It really is a divided country. According to the students (and from what I've read and heard from others), the French speakers in the south and the Dutch speakers in the north rarely mix. By that I mean that it's unusual for someone from Flanders to live and work in Wallonia (where I live) and vice versa.

At the company I teach at, not too far from Charleroi, none of the workers are Flemish, so I'm told. Other things I found out: when Belgians vote, they only vote within their region, so someone in Wallonia will never have a say over what happens in Flanders. The PM should always be, by convention, a Flemish one. And it's been like that since the 1960s. People in Flanders speak Dutch, not Flemish, (Flemish is the dialect and not the language), yet some people still refer to the language as 'Flemish,' but depending on how it is said and by whom, the word Flemish itself can have pejorative connotations.

Brussels is an anomaly in that as the capital city it is officially bilingual, but the majority of people living there speak French. However, Flemish people (according to the Walloons) want to see Brussels become only a Dutch-speaking city, and are worried that Brussels, like many other capital cities, is expanding further and further into the suburbs, and with it incorporating more and more French, and not Dutch, speakers. What I've noticed when I've been to Brussels is that all Metro announcements are said first in Dutch, and then French, if that has any siginificance?

And all of this doesn't take in to account the 70odd thousand German-speakers, buried somewhere in the East of the country, and part of the Walloon region.

Belgium also has compulsory voting, which I was delighted to hear, even though this is of course not really democratic. I'm sure there will be many other observations to come during my time here. Great stuff for a lover of politics.

Arrived at Ghent (Gand in French, Gent in Dutch) just before 9pm for the weekend. Had a bit of a mini-crisis with the fact that C couldn't find her wallet (not for the first time!) and wasn't sure whether it had been left at home or stolen by what she thought was a doggy looking guy at Ghent station.

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