I am from Spain so I know a bit about regional divisions, different languages in the same country and separatist movements.
But nothing compared to what I’ve found here in Brussels. As you may know the country has a record government crisis due to differences between the Flemish (Dutch speaking) and the Walloons (French speaking).
So, how what does a country that has had no effective government for more than a year look like?
Well, at first glance it basically looks like any other country.
There’s no anarchy and public services keep on working. I guess that in Brussels the division that threatens to break the country apart is not that visible. People speak to you either in English or French, even if Dutch is their mother language.
For a newcomer it’s a question of small details. Like going to watch an English language film and finding that it is subtitled in both in Dutch and French. I have to say that double subtitling is not easy to follow.
The free newspapers that you find all over Europe are also in two languages here. Nothing spectacular, but the point is that they don’t just translate but actually adapt their content to the different interests of both communities.
I also discovered that the newspaper that is sold on the streets by homeless people is released both in Dutch and French.
Let’s take the example of an edition of the daily free paper Metro. The lead story is on the government crisis, as the leader of the Christian Democrats met with the seven parties that accepted Elio di Rupo’s new proposal for a government.
The headline in the French version of the paper reads: “Towards ending the deadlock without the N-VA” – the N-VA is the separatist party.
The headline in Dutch: “All eyes are on Beke” -that’s Wouter Beke, the leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats.
There are similar differences in the content. The French language version is more optimistic that the Dutch one.
Territorial division also leads to some odd situations
‘Brussels’ is actually only one tiny district of the capital. What the rest of the world calls Brussels is in fact 19 different ‘communes’. The result is a rather different administrative system.
For example, a simple thing like joining a video club. I found one next to my place, about 500 metres from my front door. But they told me I couldn’t register because it is not on the same ‘commune’.
I also lost some personal possessions – my bad luck. I called the police and the ‘Lost and Found’ office, but they’re not centralised, so if someone found my things in, let’s say ‘Bruxelles’, they won’t know in, let’s say ‘Forest’ which is about four metro stops away.
I’m not an expert yet, but you don’t need to be one to see that Belgians have a very developed sense of division.