bunker in the distance, field near Burg-Reuland
Burg-Reuland, Belgium, March 3, 2012—I'VE NEVER REALLY understood the point of Belgium. So small a country seems to me to make no sense unless it's to express a uniquely strong sense of unity. Denmark, for example, makes sense as a counter-statement to the rest of Scandinavia. Larger countries like Germany, France, Italy have made themselves nations by integrating smaller communities with the sheer weight of their size, even then not that easily. But how can Belgium justify nationhood, other than by refusing, fraction by fraction, to be subsumed by one neighbor or another?
It was partly in order to explore this that I thought of taking this trek across the Ardennes. The town we're sleeping in, tonight, numbers about 500 citizens, our barkeep-hotelkeeper tells me; yet it's quadralingual: French and Flemish, the two majority languages of the nation; German, which is perhaps grudgingly approved since Germany annexed this area temporarily a while back, and the local dialect, which seems to me to mediate among Dutch, German, and the peculiar language they speak in Luxembourg — a language which is, I think, like Alsatian, really a modern development of Gothic, not merely a dialect of German.
In the last few days I've opened conversations in French, and the usual immediate reply is in an incomprehensible kind of Dutch — Flemish, I suppose, spoken as a second language by people who are just trying to be polite. When I then explain that I don't speak Flemish my interlocutor responds in an almost equally incomprehensible French. This was until today, when in Spa and Stavelot and Vielsalm we were in the country of Wallonia, where the locals seem to prefer speaking, well, Walloon, a strange cousin of French.
English is spoken at hotel desks and to a limited extent in restaurants; it is never seen, not even on menus. When I asked a man in Stavelot for bus information — an old man sitting in the sun on a bench with his dog — he answered in Flemish at first, then switched to French. He asked where I was from: California, I told him. Oh, pas Australien? (I think my hat had misled him to that conclusion.) No, California, I said, in the west of the United States.
He formed his hands into pistols, not letting go the leash, and smiled, and said Wild West! Paf paf! I smiled and said Yes wild west, il faut après tout tuer les vaches, and he smiled, and I walked away.
Great as these linguistic differences are, I don't think they cause the fractionalization of Belgium. I think they rather are one of many results of a single cause, the intrusion of foreign structures on thitherto specifically local societies. Our friendly (not to say loquacious) hotelkeep in Vielsalm told us of a distant ancestor who was peacefully minding his own business in his workshop when Napoleon's army marched through town, informed him he was joining the troop as a sapper, and had no choice but to go with them as a noncombatant (perhaps not trusted with arms), on the Russian campaign, which he not only managed to survive, but even took advantage of to the extent of bringing back to Belgium (as it would become in another thirty years) with a Belorussian wife. Hence the improbable name Bérinzenne, a community outside Spa. These people butcher foreign languages worse than do the Brits.
The same hotelkeeper told us his grandfather had fought on the German side in World War I, having no choice, as after the Germans had annexed Belgium, after only twenty days of war, he was after all a German, and followed orders or else.
When his son received a similar notice a generation later, though, he told his mother he wouldn't obey, and instead left in the middle of the night, somehow making his way south across France and Spain to Gibraltar, where the British, impressed by his resourcefulness, took him in and sent him to Scotland to help train Commandos.
This southeastern part of Belgium belonged to the Royaume of Luxembourg, as I understand it, until those leaders of the free world the French, because 1789 made them republican and egalitarian, not monarchic, and intent on spreading the word Enlightenment everywhere, decided it should be French, and so it remained until the Council of Vienna, presumably not knowing what else to do about Flemings, Walloons, and other such non-belongers, decided to throw them all in together in one tiny buffer state with its own king.
Industrial savvy and a huge, rich African colony — don't ask me how they got that — made Belgium work, more or less, among modern post-Napoleonic countries up until the tragic 20th-century German expansions. Having walked three days through the country and talked to a handful of representative Belgians I feel pretty authoritatively that the country could be self-sufficient; there's good farmland, God knows plenty of trees, and that endless supply of Spa water.
Tourists like to come here for what they lack at home: the Dutch for hills; Germans for food closer to that of the French; the French no doubt to feel better about being French, not that they need reasons; people of all nations, sadly, to visit cemeteries. To me the people hereabouts seem relaxed and secure. The Vielsalm hotelkeeper, as if to explain why he stayed in this little provincial city, said Look, I'm forty-two, I was born here, I love my country, I know it rains a lot and the mud is terrible, but it's beautiful, it's not like anywhere else, and I'd never leave it.
(There must be something in his gene pool, though: he too has a Belorussian wife; I never found out why.)
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