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Jeffrey the Belgian

Being Belgian

When I was a lad growing up, I dreamed of being many things: an astronomer, a pilot, a gynecologist. But of all my many childhood dreams, the one thing I never expected to become in adulthood was a Belgian. Nevertheless, a few years ago I signed up to become a Belgian. And, now that I am a national of this delightful little country, I can publicly proclaim that it is appalling at how easy it is for clowns like me to acquire Belgian nationality! We need to do something about this!

In fact, there is surprisingly little fanfare to becoming a Belgian if you've lived and worked in the country long enough. I simply waddled down to the Gemeentehuis (Town Hall) and said in Dutch, "Please, madam, I wish to become a Belgian." A few days later, I met with the Burgemeester (mayor), signed some forms and from there it was a mere administrative process to gain a new nationality. Belgian bureaucrats, like bureaucrats everywhere, love administrative processes. So, not only was I becoming a Belgian national, but I was making a civil servant or two happy.

A few months after meeting the mayor, I received a letter asking me to make my way back to the town hall with a couple of passport photos for my new identity card. That was it. I had apparently become a Belgian on that day. No "congratulations, Jeffrey, you are now a Belgian!" No champagne. Not a single congratulatory kiss from the mayor's daughter. Just an ID card that indicated − and still indicates − that Jeffrey Paul Baumgartner is a Belgian, thank you very much. Frankly, I was a little disappointed. Then again, patriotism is not a Belgian thing.

I've heard that when you become an American citizen, a choir of Angels led by Jesus, holding a ceremonial machine gun, sings the national anthem to celebrate.

Curious Belgium

Belgium is a curious little country which most of the rest of the world ignores. Indeed, I am often asked, especially by non-Europeans, what language we speak in Belgium. I often say, "Belgian" and then make funny grunting noises, claiming it is the national language. This is usually a great deal funnier after several Belgian beers.

In fact, the country is divided into three language regions. The Flemish (which is a Belgian way of saying "Dutch") speaking region is in the north (where I live); Wallonia, in the South, which is French speaking; and a tiny piece of Belgium that is German speaking. The Brussels area is officially bilingual Dutch and French, though French speakers dominate.

Fortunately, in spite of the language and cultural differences, the Flemish and French speakers adore one another and are often seen spontaneously hugging each other in the streets of Brussels where the languages meet.

Actually, that's not true. Not even a bit.

Language Barrier

The Flemish consider the Walloons to be useless, unemployed layabouts living a life of welfare luxury supported by Flemish tax payers' hard work, while the Walloons perceive the Flemish to be pompous, uptight and lacking even the rudiments of culture. The Flemish say that, "well yeah, if we sat around on our arses all day, we'd have time to get more culture ourselves", to which the Walloons stick out their tongues and say "nyah nyah nyah" − in French, of course. The German speakers, small in number, hide quietly in their bit of Belgium, trying to avoid being brought into the battle.

These days, the Flemish side of Belgium is far wealthier than the Walloon side, so some particularly uptight Flemish politicians regularly talk about splitting the country along the language divide so that they (I should say "we" as I live on the Flemish side) can keep our tax money to ourselves and maybe support a bevy of cultured Flemish layabouts.

Brussels

These politicians claim that the only thing stopping Flanders from seceding is Brussels. Belgium's capital city and home to the European Institutes rakes in money by the truckload. However, it is officially bilingual, its population is largely French speaking and it sits (geographically) in Flanders. So, neither side has a clear legal claim on the city. When politicians talk about separation, they like to use the analogy of divorce, with Brussels as the child that belongs to both sides. Brussels, the pundits like to say, is the only thing keeping the country together.

I disagree. I believe the confusing matter of custody of Brussels presents a marvellous and entertaining solution. In Belgian divorce cases, custody of the children is normally split evenly between the two parents. The children are with the mother one week and the father the next. The idea is that both parents should have equal participation and responsibility when it comes to raising their children.

So, why not do this with Brussels? It couldbe French speaking one week and Flemish speaking the next. You would have separate Flemish and Walloon city councils that would also change weekly. All the street and road signs, which are now in both languages, would switch language at midnight on Sunday. So the "Chaussée de Louvain" would suddenly become "Leuvensesteenweg". "Grand Place" would become "Grote Markt". Even shops, restaurants and caf├ęs would be encouraged to change names according to language. Can you imagine? It would be a great tourist draw. People would come, from all over the world, to Brussels to watch the street signs switch over. Wouldn't that be a hell of a lot more exciting than watching the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace?

Sadly, whenever I suggest this idea to Belgian politicians, they grumble about the need to make it harder for foreigners to become a Belgian. I heartily agree!

Note: since I became a Belgian, the country does seem to have made nationalisation more difficult. I guess they did learn a lesson from me.

 

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