Tag Archives: belgium

Le plat pays mais pas le mien

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It is easy to be nostalgic – to think back of earlier times when “everything was better”. But somehow I can’t help but think things wére better before. At least, before, Belgian politicians were capable of forming a government. Of making compromises.

Tomorrow, hopefully, 10,000s of people will flood Brussels to ask for… well… something. A government. An agreement. Progress. Light at the end of the tunnel. Almost 23,000 people have RSVPd “yes” on the Facebook page of the event (another 25,000 voted “maybe”) – for an improvised demonstration organized by students in the middle of an exam period this is, to Belgian standards, quite impressive. Whether this will actually change something, is an open question, though judging on the past 223 days I’m guessing: not much.

Because it has been 223 days. 223 days ago, we had federal elections. 223 days ago, the north and the south of the country each chose their winner. Unfortunately, their colors couldn’t have been more opposite: left in the south, right in the north. To make things easier, this government will need to reform part of the constitution and thus needs a 2/3 majority, resulting in no less than 7 parties involved in negotiations. We are quick to judge the US and its 2-party system, but having 14+ parties (only counting the ones that get a voice in tv debates) isn’t exactly the solution either.

So what is going on?

Do you really want to know?

I suggest you take a course – because I sure as hell don’t have a clue.

Belgian catfight.

The north wants more responsibilities for the regional governments. The south wants things to stay the way they are.
The south wants more money for Brussels. The north thinks Brussels should generate its own income.
The north wants to tackle some unconstitutional election issues. The south wants to go along if there are compensations (since this will likely result in less votes for southern parties).
The south wants more rights for French-speaking people who live in the Dutch-speaking north (get their administration letters in French etc). The north feels they should just adapt and learn Dutch. Somehow, everything is brought down to the difference in language.

And (a small, very small) part of the north is sick of the south and wants to solve it all through independency. Unfortunately, it is their party that (for other reasons) won the elections. In other words: any compromise that all parties agree on will be necessarily a defeat for this party because it is not independency.

What I find most amazing is that when polls are held to measure current voting behavior (once in a while the option of new elections is mentioned), the same parties win. Worse: they increase their influence. Because people appreciate that, for once, the politicians try to keep their full electoral promise instead of compromising – an art Belgian politicians have perfected in the past. That meanwhile unemployment is rising, an increasing amount of people end up in debt, our social security system creaks under the rising cost of medical expenses for the elderly, environmental issues aren’t dealt with, speculation on the future of Belgium causes interest rates to skyrocket, … is rather unimportant. Politicians are standing their grounds. And nobody moves.

But now, finally, after 223 days, after breaking the European record government formation (207 days, sometime in the 70s, the Netherlands) and well on our way to break the world record (249 days, last year, … Iraq (!)), the lethargic Belgians have woken up from their sleep and decided to stand up. Call out for movement. For action. I hope tomorrow’s demonstration will bring many people to our capital. I hope it will be peaceful, and serene. And by all means – I hope it will help.

Let me tell you something about Santa Claus…

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… he’s not real!

(I shocked you there, didn’t I?)

THIS is the real Santa Claus, aka Sinterklaas:

Portrait of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.

Image via Wikipedia

Although I had to let go of the brilliant idea that Coca Cola invented Santa Claus, even Wikipedia agrees that we, in the Low Countries, have the true and original saint. Ha! Moreover, we’ve managed to get the Americans to adopt him for Christmas, only to have them export him back to Europe. It is ironic, in a way, but since it means I got presents TWICE in december as a kid, you don’t hear me complaining ;).

See, for us, Belgian kids, the highlight of the year is December 6 – sure, you get presents from your parents and family with Christmas, but the true event to look forward to is when Sinterklaas arrives in the country. Days, even weeks before the big day, we would put out our shoe near the window, hoping Zwarte Piet (Black Pete, Sinterklaas’ servant) would know we didn’t have a chimney and he’d have to get in through the window. We’d leave our letter to Sinterklaas, with a long list of the presents we would like to receive, a carrot or a sugar lump for his big, white horse Slechtweervandaag (Badweathertoday), and occasionally a beer for Zwarte Piet (not always – we didn’t want to get him drunk). The next morning, the letter was gone, the carrot was left half-eaten and the beer bottle was empty, but some candy had been left instead. The proof was overwhelming: Sinterklaas had come! And he had taken our letter!

via Google Images

My mum was sure sometimes she heard the horse on the roof, but I never did… but then again I wasn’t such a good listener. Sometimes though, Zwarte Piet would slam open the door and throw cookies and candy around – you never knew when he would come, or from which door (although attentive children might have noted it was the door through which their father disappeared 5 minutes before) and you had to be REALLY quick to see him. But when the doorbell rang on the night of December 5th, and Sinterklaas and 3 or 4 of his Zwarte Piet’s entered the room, everybody froze. Excitement, because the big bag Zware Piet was carrying promised presents, but also fear: Sinterklaas had a big book in which all your mischief was listed, and you could only hope the list wasn’t so long that Zwarte Piet would be tempted to put you in the bag and take you back to Spain with them… . The way they were standing behind their boss, looking very big and black (it’s not racism. it’s from going up and down the chimney.) and serious, was pretty daunting, so I generally tried to please them by singing or playing a song on my flute – and it worked every time ;). Of course, the Sint couldn’t make it to our house every year – there were just too many kids to be visited, but even when he was busy he’d make a quick stop during the night and left our well-deserved gifts in our shoes.

Image via Google Images

This year though, I have bought the Sint a gift. A GPS. Because my grandma has moved 3 times since I was small, but he still brings MY chocolate to HER place. And you know what I found in my shoe this year?

An un-eaten carrot!

If you want to know the whole story of Sinterklaas/Santa Claus, I refer to Wikipedia, here is the story of how I, as a Belgian child in the 80’s, experienced the whole thing – traditions evolve and differ slightly in the Netherlands, Germany, … so you might find other versions elsewhere.

A tale from the road

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My apologies for leaving you all post-less last weekend, but I wasn’t exactly in the mood for blogging due to the circumstances that sent me home unexpectedly, and neither did I have time to prepare some scheduled posts – but for now regular posting is back! (well, at least until the end of the month)

As I said, I had to return home unexpectedly last weekend. And I took the train. From Lund. To Ghent.

A 17 hour journey*.

To this moment I have no idea why exactly I chose the train. It wasn’t that much cheaper (although, to say it with Tesco: every little helps!). Or actually… T told me to take the train. So I did.

And it started out great – the first train was 15 minutes late. Not when I got on, but for some reason or another, it stopped every 10 minutes. Without there being a train station. We stopped on the øresund-bridge, we stopped before getting into the tunnel, we stopped when we got out, … honestly, this train had issues. I was starting to fear I’d miss my connection and wasn’t exactly thrilled by the idea of missing my grandfather’s funeral because of a train with issues. So once in Copenhagen I started to run – well, you know, the kind of run-hop-walking you generally do when you’re in a hurry but got a big backpack on your back and a full handbag on your front which bounces along happily. The platform was found easily enough, but this was the longest train I ever saw (not really… I saw a Guinness Book attempt for the longest train of over 70 wagons… but for the sake of this post: it was loooooong) and my coach was the very last one. And when I finally got there, I wish I hadn’t.

The wailing which greeted me coming from the train was just… mind-blowing. Think a 2-year-old which has been taken its lollipop, only this was an adult. And I’m pretty sure she wasn’t going to stop even if you gave her 10 lollipops. She was sitting in a couchette with her husband and 3 children, and was completely freaking out. The conductor was in there with them, trying to calm her (and her kids, which were getting really upset because, well, their mother was upset), so I wiggled my way past to try and find my couchette, hoping it would be as far away as possible from noise. It wasn’t. In fact, in passing the conductor I had already passed my spot.

It was there.

The one remaining seat in the couchette occupied by HER.

Please, no, please don’t tell me I have to spend 12 hours in a tiny couchette with a freaked out woman and her 3 kids. She has probably a very good reason to be upset and I’m a kind, tolerant person but please…

And then they got out. For whatever reason the lady had decided she would not continue her journey and she got out, her 3 kids and husband following her silently. I couldn’t believe it – not only did I not have to share a couchette with Mrs. Wail, I GOT A WHOLE COUCHETTE FOR MYSELF! Ah, bliss … .

And then they got back in. Apparently 3 ticket guys combined had been able to convince her to still take the train (strangely, her husband did not say a singly soothing word to his wife, let alone give her a hug or a kiss, rather he seemed embarrassed by the whole situation).

No… please… no… .

Fortunately, both the lady and the conductor had the same idea – it wouldn’t be healthy for me to spend the night in her company. Pfieuw…. for a second, I thought I would be assigned a private bed, since the couchettes seemed pretty much full, but I ended up sharing with two Croation women which fell asleep as soon as they found their seats.

The Thalys was late. And the train to Ghent was late. But I was home. And sometimes, that’s enough.

* For the sake of comparison, Copenhagen-Brussels takes 1h20 with the plane – 6 hours door-to-door.

Saturday “Belgian” Smörgåsbord

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Lisa reading a Tintin comic book.

Even Lisa reads Tintin! (Image via Wikipedia)

For as long as Belgium exists, I will be proud of it! We may have the most indecisive politicians in the world, but we also have chocolate, beer, Tintin, the saxophone and amazing maps, … we have it all, we have it good, and we should be proud of it! So despite the current political crisis, I thought I’d use this week’s Smörgåsbord to highlight some of the good stuff coming from Belgium recently…

To start off, Sam Sulmont (25) has made it to the shortlist of 125 finalists of the YouTube Play. A Biennial of Creative Video competition. The competition, which was organized in conjunction with the Guggenheim Museum, aimed to discover and showcase the most exceptional talent working in the ever-expanding realm of online video. Sulmont’s movie, “Sounds in the key of Z”, paints a rather depressing view on life, as a man wearing a gas mask wakes up, wanders around in an old, worn-down building and finally dies in front of a non-functional television. The experimental short was Sulmont’s thesis at the Narafi film school in Brussels. Ironically, his exam jury wasn’t easily convinced by “Sounds in the key of Z” and Sulmont only just passed. Whether he has made it to the final 20 who will see their work on display at the New York Guggenheim from Oct. 22-24, will be announced on October 21st. (via De Morgen, screenshot from “Sounds in the key of Z”)

United Pepper, a Belgium-based eco-tech company, is setting high standards to their products. Not only do they want to produce “green” electronics by avoiding the use of PVC and flame retardants, two chemicals of particular concern when old electronics are disposed of, they also want to produce them in a fair trade manner. Since there really are no globally agreed fair trade standards for electronics, the company took general principles outlined by the World Fair Trade Organization – no easy task, given the global nature of the electronics supply chain – and applied them to their manufacturing partner in Vietnam. Greenness and fair trade aside, who wouldn’t want such an adorable-looking webcam? (via The World, image used with permission from United Pepper)

Good news from the Belgian army also! Conform the Oslo Treaty from 2008, we have destroyed all our cluster bombs. Cluster bombs have killed and injured thousands of civilians during the last 40 years and -unfortunately- continue to do so today even long after a conflict has ended. One third of all recorded cluster munitions casualties are children. 60% of cluster bomb casualties are injured while undertaking their normal activities. So far, the Convention on Cluster Munitions has been signed by 108 countries, 41 of which have also ratified it. Unsurprisingly, the USA, Israel, Russia, and China are among those countries who have not signed.
(via De Morgen, image under Fair Use via Cluster Munition Coalition)

And to finish off on a lighter note, the hidden camera show Benidorm Bastards has won the top award of best program of 2010 at the Rose d’Or television festival in Switzerland. Seven old people drive the kids crazy in this guerrilla-style show, in which the wrinklies get one over on the youth, for a change. But I’ll let the Bastards themselves do the talking… Enjoy!
(roughly every other prank is without dialogues, so it’s even enjoyable for non-Dutch speakers)

Nil Volentibus Arduum

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“Nil volentibus arduum” – nothing is impossible if you really want it -, with these words (not coincidently sharing the acronym with the name of his party), Bart De Wever claimed his electoral victory last June. 83 days later, it appears that the quote doesn’t apply to the formation of a stable federal government.

Now we aren’t panicking just yet: in 2007 it took Yves Leterme 192 days to form a federal government. An interim-government, that was, just so the most urgent matters could be actually dealt with. So 83 days is really just peanuts. And for those wondering how come a country without a government doesn’t end up in chaos, let me give you a brief introduction to my home country, Belgium.

Geograpical overview of the regions and communities. Each of these have their own government.


It’s not really big – 30,528 square kilometres and a population of nearly 11 million people. In the north (Flanders), they speak Dutch*, in the south (Wallonia) they speak French, in the east they speak German and Brussels is a bilingual enclave in the Dutch-speaking part. This may seem a little bit complicated to organize government meetings and such, but really, there is an easy solution for that: just give everyone their own government. And thus there is a Flemish government, a Wallon government, a Brussels government, a Dutch government (though this is fused with the Flemish one), a French government, and a German government. And then a federal government for the whole country, to keep things together. This is no joke: 6 governments we have in this tiny weeny country of mine. It may look like a complicated situation (okay, it is), but the result is that there are enough governing powers left to keep our world turning even in the absence of a federal government.

So what’s up with that federal government? Well, elections were last June, and on the Flemish side NV-A won. This right-wing party basically wants an independent Flanders, i.e. the end of Belgium. On the French side PS was the winner, a left-wing party. Now if you say “win”, it’s not the American type of “win”, where the 2-party system inherently leads to 1 winner and 1 loser. Nono, we have several parties (I believe last June I had some 13 to choose from). Thus, a winner has maybe 20-25% – in one half of the country, since elections are split (also). Therefore, NV-A and PS cannot form a government on their own. Come in SP.A (the Flemish counterpart of PS), CD&V and CDH (the christian democrats), and Groen! and Ecolo (the green parties from either side). 7 political parties, from right wing over center to pretty socialist and left, have to form a government which is capable of sorting the federal finances (in short, taxes flow to the partial governments, leaving the federal government with nothing to actually work with), solving issues with the borders of the capital region (where the number of French speaking people in Flemish communities often largely exceeds the number of Dutch-speaking people), deal with the economic crisis and save A LOT of money while doing so. Oh, and change the constitution, to be able to do all of the above. I understand this can’t be easy, but hey, we’re grown ups, surely we can work something out?

They were optimistic, all 7 of them, before summer. We would have a government by September. It would be a historical government, and all those long-lasting conflicts from before I was born would be resolved. And it must be said – the climate in which negotiations took place was MUCH better than it was 3 years ago.

But 83 days later, negotiations have failed.
There is no viable alternative.

“Je suis désolée, Elio”, Bart De Wever said to the president of the PS, Elio Di Rupo.

Not just you, Bart, not just you.

The lion on the left is representative of Flanders, the rooster on the right of Wallonia.

* Some people insist on calling it Flemish. It is like saying American is a different language from British. Please.

ADDENMDUM 22/9: here’s a nice little video (in English) explaining on the regions and communities. It might help you to understand that… well, it’s too complicated to understand.

News of the week

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Anything that struck me because it was shocking, interesting or simply hilarious : my news of the past week.

    International

  • Russia is on fire.

    It is thoughtful to give the dog a mask, but it may be more effective if it was actually, like, covering his nose?

    Fires are raging across Europe – in Portugal the Andancas festival was evacuated [PT] due to approximating fires (as a result our Belgian pride and glory AedO [NL] couldn’t finish their final performance) and in Spain 2 firefighters lost their lives, but the situation is especially bad in Russia. The first rain in 6 weeks has finally cleared the skies in Moscow from the thick layer of smoke in which the city was covered, but the fires are all but under control. Several nuclear sites are threatened, including the Tsjernobyl area where the soil is still heavily contaminated with nuclear particles. A blazing fire could possibly throw these back in the air, allowing winds to spread them across the continent. A German expert however claims this holds no real threat.
    Somehow I’m reluctant to just shrug my shoulders and say “If you say so.” …
    National

  • 2 Sudbury schools are starting on September 1st.
    September 1st will be the start of a brand new school year not only for a whole lot of children, but also for 2 new schools in Antwerp and Ghent. They will be Sudbury schools, which are most easily described as a school where kids do what they want, how they want it and when they want it. The philosophy seems to be that if a child doesn’t want to learn to read, it shouldn’t – it will discover in due time that it is quite necessary to be able to read and will be all the more motivated. All rules are set up by the children themselves in a democratic way. It seems too good to be true, but my main concern would be that the school in Ghent has no building yet.
    Will they just ask the kids where they want to go to every day?
  • Ghent University is in the top 100 of the Shanghai Jiaotong World University Ranking.
    As an alumna of GU I am obviously pretty proud – eat this, Leuven! (Apologies… couldn’t help myself.) The ranking is highly criticized, since it focuses mainly on scientific output and research (Nobel Prize winners, etc) rather than education, which puts European Universities at a disadvantage. Still, Ghent made it to spot 90 and Lund, my future employer, ranks 67th. Berkeley, here I come!
    Technology

  • Get the solar panel spray, dear, we’re running out of power!
    I have honestly no clue even as to how to begin on developing them, but scientist report they have invented a plastic solar cell that works even on cloudy days. The cell is different from conventional solar cells and can use the infrared rays of the sun to convert into energy. The best part is not so much that they could be up to 5 times more effective than current solar cell technology, but that they would be available as a spray-on, allowing them to be sprayed on walls, clothing and even windows. A car covered with it could use them to continuously recharge its batteries. Talk about the future!

    On a somehow related note, new wind turbines are being developed that would look like trees, with the leaves harvesting power each time the winds “flaps” them. Well, they would certainly be more aesthetically pleasing than the current versions!