Sunday, 21 December 2008

A country divided

I've been to Belgium on a couple of occasions now. To Brussels first, but then also to Antwerp (Flemish) and Liege (Walloon). In the past I hadn't really noticed any particular friction between the different language groups, and the stories I had seen in the press and on the TV about a nation tearing itself apart along linguistic lines, I thought were a little over exaggerated for effect.

Then today, in the Choco-Story I came across the open sore.

There were a large group of people walking round in matching jackets and bags, and for a while I thought they might be quite mature language students (in the same way that large groups of people wandering around London with matching bags and jackets are always students coming to the UK to study English.) However, on closer inspection (i.e. having one barge in front of me whilst I was trying to read a display board), they appeared to all be from the same company, possibly on a work outing.

I miss-timed getting down to the demonstration on making chocolate and arrived just a few seconds ahead of this group, so any chance of it being in English went out the window.

The presenter said that he would only present in one language and wanted a show of hands who wanted English, Dutch or French. Needless to say there were more hands up for Dutch and French than English, but it was difficult to say which one won.

Given that as I was arriving the presenter had just finished the previous talk which was in Dutch I think he decided he wanted a change and started to do the presentation in French. He was quite quickly interrupted by someone speaking in Dutch. I’m not quite certain what he was saying but there was a mention of Vlaams, Nederladich and Walloon. The guy speaking was one of the employee day trip group. A retort came back in French, from a colleague, which didn't sound like it was being delivered in a friendly manner. I think the presenter realised this and decided that he might be able to do it in two languages so started to repeat everything in both Dutch and French.

Now it’s possible that it was just a row between two colleagues who don’t see eye to eye, but at the same time it was noticeable that they were in two distinct groups – those speaking Dutch and those speaking French - on different sides of the room.

It’s always possible that it was a work bonding trip gone horribly wrong, it could be that the whole thing was being put on as some kind of massive company in joke

Or it could be that those news reports weren't so wrong. Could Belgium actually be pulling itself apart?

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