Can you imagine a mini Tower of Babel, a country of only 11 million inhabitants, with three official languages and English, as a fourth, serving as buffer between them all? We’re not talking here about a mythical kingdom of J.K. Rowling’s imagination but of the very much alive country of Belgium. As a French teacher, I was anxious to visit another French-speaking country outside of France, where I could see new things and experience a different culture, all while using my favorite language.
Although I knew that both French and Flemish are spoken in Belgium, I had naively assumed that I would get to use my French everywhere. After all, in a tiny country that exists as an independent entity from The Netherlands only since l831, how separate can you get? Very, as I found out upon our tour group’s arrival in Antwerp.
The northern half of Belgium, Valaanderen (Flanders in English) is Flemish speaking. Flemish, a language very similar to Dutch, reflects the proximity of that area to The Netherlands. However, the southern part, Wallonie (Wallonia in English) is practically all French-speaking. In Brussels, the capital, which actually is a small enclave within Flemish Belgium, French is the dominant language. To further confuse the American tourist, close to the Belgian/German border, there are about 75,000 German speakers.
If the armchair traveler thinks that speakers of French and Flemish co-exist in blissful harmony, a trip to the county will be a real eye-opener, revealing resentments on both sides. Marcie, our tour guide, who was Flemish, spoke French fluently. “What really hurts,” she explained to us, her voice revealing the great emotion behind her words, “is that in school we have to learn French. But most Wallonais don’t take learning Flemish seriously and will rarely try to use even a word of it to us.”
I had the opposite experience trying to practice my French in Flanders, specifically the cities of Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges. A few shopkeepers answered me in the same language. After all, business is business. However, others met my “Bonjour, Madame” or “Bonjour Monsieur” with a cold stare and suggested that we speak English, the common denominator.
The differences between French and Flemish extend to more than just language. There are Flemish and French newspapers, radio and television stations, sports federations, universities and even governments. Finally, after nine months of political deadlock in the legislature, Yves Leterme emerged victorious and was appointed prime minister on March 20, 2008 by King Albert II, unifying the country. Leterme has angered more than a few Belgians by stating that the only things common to them all are “the king, the soccer team and some beers.” Some beers? This is quite the understatement; the country boasts over l,000 different kinds of beer.
As one can imagine, gastronomic differences abound. Specialties of Wallonia include the famous gauffre de Liege (Belgian sugar waffle) and frites (French fries, which should be technically called Belgian fries, as yes, they originated in Belgium) which are served with what they call mayonnaise. I was skeptical of this combo at first, being that my cultural bent is towards ketchup and a dash of salt. However, one of my fellow passengers helped me with an attitude adjustment. “Just think potato salad,” she said encouragingly. Actually, their version of mayo is closer to our hollandaise sauce. Luckily I had gotten only a sample size (at 60 centimes) and felt no guilt finishing every scrumptious frite.
Flanders is famous for its waterzooi, a soup made with veggies and one’s choice of chicken or fish. For lunch, I opted for the fish, fresh from the coast and found the soup to be a meal in itself, gourmet at that.
Perhaps the most amazing part of this country is the fact that with all the differences of language and culture, Belgium is thriving. People looked happy and healthy, filling up cafes, walking confidently in the streets and selling their wares to tourists. How this all happens, my fellow travelers, is a state secret I have yet to figure out.
Barbara Russek is a French teacher and freelance writer in Tucson. She welcomes comments at