I met someone recently with a French name and I was trying to guess where he came from, I went with the obvious Switzerland (obvious as I met him in Geneva I then tried France, with equal failure. At this point he looked a bit exasperated that I wasn’t going to remember which other European country speaks French when the answer came to me: Belgium. We spoke for a while about how annoying it was when no-one remembered his country.
Granted Belgium is bilingual with the two national languages of Flemish and French so that doesn’t make for an easy linguistic classification but I recalled that Belgium gets overlooked on a regular basis. And by a regular basis I mean I can think of one example, albeit a glaringly obvious one, which is that fries around the world tend to be known as French fries, when in fact they originated in Belgium.
Who else recalls with fond patronising mockery when a number of high-ranking and therefore headline-grabbing Americans decided to rename ‘french fries’ as freedom fries’ because the US was upset that France wouldn’t agree to join military intervention in Iraq without international support?
This may have never happened but I imagine indignant Americans refusing to grant recognition to the tasty potato fry, I imagine French people probably ridiculing the gesture and lastly I imagine Belgians angrily stomping their feet and saying ‘mon dieu! Les frites sont belgique pas français!’
Coming from the UK/England (for better or for worse) I’ve never really had the problem of national or linguistic non-recognition but I’ve seen the frustration of Welsh friends trying to explain that Wales wasn’t England and I imagine there must be a lot of inhabitants from less renowned countries sighing and rolling their eyes as they try to explain that ‘no Suriname is not in Africa’ (it’s in South America – I checked), ‘yes, I’m sure Luxembourg is in fact a country and not a province of Germany’, or ‘no, I don’t speak Polish because I’m from Hungary’.
Where you are from is actually a pretty big part of your identity so to have someone fail to recognize your nationality, or even worse to question it’s existence once you tell them, must be immensely annoying. I’m definitely not a geographical expert and I often get mixed up about where places are but I hope I’d have the sense to accept the answer of the person that’s actually from that place. I presume, and hope, that non-national recognition is only a problem for people when meeting others outside of their country, if you go to a country and don’t know that country exists then I cast a whole heap of judgment upon you!
So with Belgium on my mind (plus I was going anyway), last weekend I headed off to Brussels to meet a good friend who relocated there from London. I had been to Brussels before but quite a few years ago, so I had forgotten what it was like. I was imagining it would be much like Geneva, i.e. small, so was surprised on arriving at the airport to discover it was an airport of substantial size that actually takes a little time to navigate and that Brussels is in fact a pretty decent sized city, i.e. bigger than Geneva but not as big as London.
I had a great few days, it was awesome to catch up with a friend I hadn’t seen for about two years and to discover we had one of those friendships that is like an old comfy trainer. You might forget it exists from time to time and definitely don’t give it the attention you should but when you finally put it back on you remember just how comfortable it is. (A, if you are reading, sorry for the old shoe comparison).
As I’d done the touristy trail in Brussels on my first visit we also went for a day trip beyond the city and visited Ghent. Belgium impressed me by the convenient travel distance between big cities and by the fact it didn’t cost me a small fortune (try rocking up at a Swiss station on the day to get a ticket to a nearby city without crying as an unbelievable amount of swiss francs are vacuumed out of your account)!
Brussels was nice but Ghent was just laid-back cool. It was cold, it was foggy but it was awesome and also provided some nice Ghent specific beer. There is more to Belgium than beer (there are also fries, waffles and chocolate) but culturally it is a fairly important component and it would have been pretty insulting of me not to sample the local produce. Not wanting to risk initiating any diplomatic incidents I obviously felt obliged to try a few whilst I was there.
What’s particularly cool about beer (because yes, beer is cool or at least as cool as I am for continuing to use the word cool) is that every beer has it’s own specific glass, which makes the whole drinking experience so much more than just get trollied. It is a world away from rocking up to an English pub requesting a pint and being provided said pint in whatever generic glass happens to come to hand. Drinking a beer in Belgium is a traditional practice, imbibed with a rich national and social heritage (which could also be said of getting bladdered on the weekend in the UK, but it’s probably less frequently mentioned be the Minister of Sport and Culture).
I’m doing my best here to sell Belgium to the world but it will always be a winner in my eyes because in one week it gave me both a new friend and renewed my acquaintance with an old friend. And of course, more importantly than forging or rekindling human relationships, there was beer!