For the past 4 weeks, since the World Cup began, we've been occasionally treated to the sound of various car drivers racing round and round the outer Mons ringroad, hooting their horns and waving their flags in celebration of their respective teams' victories. This has only really been noticeable when there have been victories for Spain, Germany, and to a lesser extent, the Netherlands. In particular, Spain. After each and every victory, always seeming to come around 10.30 at night, hordes of Spain supporters (I won't call them Spaniards. Will explain why in a bit) get in their cars within minutes of the full time whistle and seem to take great pleasure in driving around and honking their horns for a good hour. Or until the whole of Mons has got the message.
As Spain progressed further and further in the tournament, the hooting has got louder as the number of Spain supporters has increased. It's almost as if they've been picking people up on the way. What's been bizarre has been trying to work out why there has been such strong support for the Spanish team. There are Spaniards in Mons, thanks to the presence of a certain international military organisation here, but many live outside the city. I've also never heard a single Spanish voice in all the time I've been living here.
What's even more puzzling is that it's actually Italy who would understandibly be getting a huge amount of support from Les Montois, due in small part to the fact that about 41% of foreigners who live in Mons are of Italian origin, as a result of the steady influx who were invited to come after the war to find work in Wallonia's booming coal industry. Unfortunately for them, Italy fared even worse in the World Cup than England. No mean feat.
Instead, it seems that the residents of Mons have adpoted Spain as their 'home nation.' This was no more evident than in tonight's final against the Netherlands. We went to the Grand Place to watch the final on the many (small) screens that had been erected outside several restaurants/bars. There were hundreds and hundreds of people there, crowded around the screens, decked out in Spanish football tops and draped in Spanish flags. Almost everyone was wearing something in the colours of Spain.
And then you move around from vantage point to vantage point, and continue listening, and quickly realise that you can't hear a single Spanish voice. Not even someone speaking English with a Spanish accent. Everyone was a French speaker, probably from Mons. I've asked a few people to try and explain the reasons for this. A Belgian friend who also lives in Mons told me that she thinks it might be partly down to the fact that thousands of Belgians flock to the Spanish coast every summer and therefore have a real affinity with the country. Or it might also do with the fact that Belgium failed to qualify for this tournament and the locals have decided to pick someone else to follow. Admittedly, the rise in support seems to have been based solely on the good fortunes of the team. Hardly genuine fans eh?
But, another explanation (from my good wife, C), and one that I find the most plausible, if only because it's a rather political and ever so slightly controversial slant, is that it's no surprise to find, in a country that suffers from an identity problem (to say the least), so many people more than happy to throw their weight behind another nation. And not just half-hearted support, but deep and fervent support. When Spain scored and eventually won, you could be forgiven for thinking you were actually in Spain.
I found this slightly bizarre, a little irritating (how the hell can you cheer on another nation??) but also poignant at the same time. Especially as Spain itself is hardly a country basking in national unity. This kind of thing just would not happen in England. You'd never get a huge number of English people getting behind another team and cheering them on with such passion. And we also have an identity problem of sorts!
The behaviour of the locals during the World Cup does also perhaps back up what C has started to believe about the character and people of Mons. At first, I always used to think, naturally, I was in France. But, the more you observe, the more people you speak to, the more you realise that Les Montois remind you more of the Spanish than the French. Of course, it is worth stating that Belgium used to be ruled by the Spanish in the sixteeth century. Although I'm sure that that no longer has too much of an influence on its present inhabitants!
The number of festivals in the region echoes the Spanish love for them. Like the Spanish, the Walloons like to party. They also seem to take great pride in being as loud as possible when celebrating big occasions, such as a wedding, or a hen/stag do (where they ritually humiliate the future bride or groom in public by making them dress up in the most outrageous costumes possible. In the case of the men, some are forced to sit down whilst their 'friends' hurl food and other things at them.). The hooting of the horns takes place after a wedding as a convoy of cars drives through the centre. I guess, (without wanting to fall into generalisations, but hey it's necessary for my argument to stand up!) the unreliability we've found with many people, and the 'manana' attitude to most things could also be factors. Who knows. Just loose theories for now.