17 Degrees and foggy on the front porch this morning. Not your typical January weather around these parts. This damp cold reminds me of winter in Belgium. For the last 7 years fate had a habit of bringing me to Belgium in January. Winter in the low countries isn’t as bad as you’d expect. It’s mostly raw, damp, cold which only makes the inside of pubs and cafe’s all the more inviting. A nice plate of Witlof with Ham, swimming in a casserole of cheese, and a cold Belgian beer to wash it all down. That my friend is living.
But neither fate, nor my dark corporate overlords are bringing me to Belgium this winter. Which is fine by me. The fascination that I once had for the place has worn off. Sure, I still have fond memories of all my trips there, but I have been there so often that I now see the warts as well. And they tire me. Lord, how they tire me. But it wasn’t always like that. Once upon a time when I first started going there I couldn’t get enough of the place. The baroqueness of their culture, with all it’s Walloon and Flemish tension, full of small unwritten rules. The way that little gestures carried so much importance. It fascinated me, and seemed like a big riddle wanting to be solved. I liked the fact that few American’s even knew where the country was. (“Belgium, is that in Brussels?”)
My attraction to the place was the same as most posers, and wannabes. It was something different, that few people knew anything about. Even in Europe, other nations don’t bother wasting their time to figure out the petty, parochial issues that effect every facet of life in Belgium. I felt that this was one place that I could become an expert on. I could learn this culture, and it would set me apart as unique. I would bug my Flemish and Walloon colleagues for explanations about every little thing that caught my eye. At first they were puzzled by my interest, but they usually obliged by telling me the backstory. I augmented this new knowledge with reading about the place and it’s passions. I became a fan of cycling. And not just any kind of cycling, but of the spring classics. Races that have been contested on the farm roads of Belgium and Northern France every March and April for over a hundred years. I studied the history of the races, and learned the names and stories of the great cyclists of the past. Van Steenbergen, Van Looy, Brik Schotte, Frans “The Milkman” Verbeek, Roger De Vlaemick, and many more. I knew what towns they came from, and the cultural differences between East and West Flanders.
I studied their beer. The different types, and their histories. For a country the size of Maryland, Belgium has over 200 breweries, and over 100 distinct styles of beer. Belgian beer is so byzantine that I often found myself sitting in a bar explaining to Belgian’s things about their own beer that they didn’t even know.
But the thing that really turned their heads was when I came to Belgium in 1999 on my own, for vacation, to see Paris-Roubaix. This was unprecedented in our offices. They had never met an American that even knew about the race, much less wanted to come stand in a muddy ditch in Northern France to watch it pass. That got their attention, and I hoped, would endear me to them. And for a while, I thought it did.
My dark corporate overlord at the time saw the relationships that I was building there, and began to use me as a diplomat, to shuttle information and messages back and forth between our organizations and gauge the mood in their always moody office. I enjoyed the role, and it led to more trips. But after 4 years of this shuttle diplomacy, the more I learned about my Walloon and Flemish colleagues, the more I realized the walls that they hid behind. I made a few close friends, but most still viewed me with distrust. If anything my knowledge about them and their culture made them suspicious. Surely I had ulterior motives. Surely I was just a spy in their offices sent by their American Overlords to keep them under wraps.
It began to tire me. As I moved into management and took on more direct communication with them, and shared joint responsibility for parts of their organization, they really began to dislike me. Sure, I understood them and was open minded to considering their position on a subject, but I was still just another American carpetbagger. It was then that I began to realize I would never be accepted as “one of them”. I was naive to think I ever could be. The notion that people from different cultures, ethnicity, and religious beliefs can come together to form a cohesive whole is an American concept. It is not one that most cultures share.
It makes sense that American’s think this way, even if our actions don’t always bear it out. We are a nation of misfits. We accept that about each other, and are open to looking past the cultural differences. It is admirable, even if sometimes it is lacking in actual application. Yeah, we can be parochial too, as my experience in the deep South reminded me.
But to a Belgian this is a foreign concept. They cling to the things that divide them, because that is the only thing that defines them. A country “invented” in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, they were never one homogeneous group. They were two ethnic groups, with two languages, and very distinct cultures forced into living together under one flag, and one foreign king. A German Duke from Saxe-Coburg, with ties to the British Royal family. A weak little nation, wedged between two larger, warring nations, Belgium has always been the battlefield of Northern Europe. They have seen their borders over run by French and German troops several times in their history. They have paid the price of oppression, and only been reborn as a country through the benevolence of the British who have always viewed them as a strategic neutral port wedged between two historic enemies.
To my colleagues in the office, their local, regional culture was the only thing they had which history had proved could not be taken away. Which is why they guard it jealously. They will never surrender their identity to that of some “Belgian Nation” which has never existed, nor will they surrender it now to a European Union. No, they learned long ago that all foreigners are carpet baggers, there to extract their wealth, and that the only thing they can do is cut alliances, and deals, to try to get a commission on the transaction, by playing one power off of another.
It’s a convoluted little place. A muddy patch of beet farms, and scruffy woods, with a stubborn, insular group of people living on it. I don’t fault them for it. If anything, I respect them all the more. They are products of their history. A brute, conflicted history. But it is their history and they cling to it with all their might. In the end I accepted the fact that I would forever be an outsider there. A student, and a lover of the place, but an outsider none the less.