Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Student Humor

Even on a quiet Sunday morning, it is obvious that Leuven is a student's city when you come across a trail like this along the road.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Very often I've been tempted to join on Facebook one of the many many "I hate Crocs" groups eg. I Dont care How Comfortable Crocs Are, You Look Like A Dumbass. because I think they are really ugly shoes. But since this weekend, there are Crocs in our house as well. Big black ones with that winter wool in it. There are Jan's, not mine.

But I have to confess that they are pretty damn easy to slip into when I am running around on my socks and I realise that my mobile is still the car on the other side of the street. So I've been spotted crossing the street with a pair of Crocs that is many many sizes too big combined with white socks. Me! I guess I'll better stop making fashion statements about Crocs huh :p.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Good weekend

Tomorrow I go back to the office after staying 2 weeks indoors. The healing of my cyst is going really well this week and the pain is now totally gone. So I start mingling in the masses again and my friend Sandra came over this weekend to make the transition smoother.

We visited downtown Leuven and Heverlee trying to show her unknown places, we shopped together, we tasted samples at the market, we played boardgames, we fantasized about our diving vacation together next spring, .... Good times!


I have to admit that I am very pleased to see my blog in the recently published " Metatale's top 100 of most influential Flemish blogs" on number 68. Holy cow, I didn't know I was doing so well :p. I wonder how long I'll be in there before I drop out (the list is renewed each week).

According to the explanation here, the influence of a blogger "is the power to incite other bloggers to action" and it is calculated based on the number of comments, on incoming and outgoing links, the frequency of posts etc but not on its visiter numbers. So I must thank you all in fact, my dear readers, for leaving so many comments and for linking to me, to get me this score.

It is calculated in an ever growing database of blogs via algorithms that I wouldn't understand at all. I have no clue how it's done, but I trust that Bart (a far relative of mine) has got it all figured out and that he can make Metatale a succesful company as he already did with Netlash. He and his business partners sure created the necessary buzz in the Belgian blogosphere last weeks and all kinds of bloggers published their metatale ranking (on a logarithmic scale of 1-25). So now I jump on the bandwagon :p.

MetaTale widget

The Martha Stewart in me

Blame it on the forced partial inactivity during 2 weeks,
blame it on too much time to watch tv the last 2 weeks (incl lots of Martha Stewart shows) or
blame it on an early Christmas mood I am in, ...

...but I really felt like crafting a decorative (advent) wreath this year. It was my first time ever, so I was happy to use a pre-moss-covered wreath and stick the other decorations on it. It was fun and I even ended up having 2 of them :p: one for outside at the door and one for on the table inside (with a white little christmas rose in the middle of it).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Interviewed by Carol and Jenn

A few weeks ago Northwest Ladybug was interviewed by one of her blogging friends. She made up some questions for me and also for other people such as Jenn at A2aetwrite. Jenn has already answered Carol's questions and has invited her readers to play along. Since I still hadn't posted Carol's interview myself, I figured I could combine questions from both of them. So here they are.

You know what is funny? both Carol and Jenn asked me 2 almost identical questions :p. Haha host parents of international exchange students must think alike :)

C1: What were the best and worst parts of your year as an exchange student?
J1: What was the best part about being an exchange student? What was the most challenging part?

Best part:
all the new experiences, all those things you can never do in your life again (e.g. spend a day with the avalanche control experts up in the mountains), the travel, the self-confidence you gain when settling in in ever new experiences and environments (eg. multiple host families, new school, public speeches about Belgium for all kinds of organisations, ...), the meetings and gatherings and frienship with the other exchange students, etc...
It's really impossible to pick one best part. It's the sum of that many new great experiences all grouped into one incredible year.

The challenge:
is settling in in an environment where you don't know anybody. Your host family, your teachers, ...everybody is new and you don't know their personalities at all. You don't have friends at the beginning, ... Although you get overwhelmed with all the new experiences and boredom is usually something that doesn't exist, it felt lonely sometimes as nobody truly knows you in the beginning. When moments of homesickness kick up, it can be pretty hard. In a small town people know you pretty fast and wave at you, but it takes months before you have a clue who you are waving back at. You simply have to make the click to wave back with big movements and a smile whether you remember the person or not :p. And not to get emberassed too much when you go and introduce yourself to someone and this person replies "oh but we've already met 2 weeks ago."

After a while the challenge becomes dealing with the time. The time flies by ; your year flies by before your eyes and you can't slow it down. You are having the time of your life and you know you are running out of time. There was so much more I wanted to do, so much more time I wanted to spend with my new friends and family, so much more travelling, etc... And yet I wanted to enjoy it all without a rush either.

The hardest thing was probably coming back. Not that I was not excited to come back home and being with my family and friends. But the acceptance that my special year was over and that I had to move on to make my next year at home special too didn't come easy. I knew that I would be with my family again for the coming years but I didn't know when I would see my host families and exchange friends again. I had to move from high school to university, my old friends were all one year ahead and had made already new friends, ... so in a way I needed to settle in once more. Did you know that I did not switch my wrist watch to European time until 5 months after my arrival back???

C2: If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be? Why?
J2: Of all the places you've visited/lived, which is your favorite and why?

Oh I'd construct a new continent that is a mixture of Flanders (old cities full of historical buildings, bikes, small distances, my family and friends,...) and a mixture of Canada (lakes, mountains, wildlife, ski slopes, my host families, available space, true nature, ...) and there'd be a mediterrean area as well with hot beaches, nice diving spots and some spectacular ancient ruins.

In Western Canada I miss history, in Europe I miss nature and everywhere I miss a warm climate :p. But since we've put so much effort in renovating our house and I totally love the result, I think I'll stick around here :D.

C3: Everyone has that "crazy" uncle (cousin, sister, aunt, whatever). Tell us about yours!

Pff this was the toughest question from the list. Honestly, no family member came to my mind. Surely some family members have some peculiar charachter traits, nice or less enjoyable but none that would be "crazy" enough to blog about. And I feel limited in what I want to write about family members on a public blog anyway.

I was thinking of my dad's older sister who is at her high age still kept young at heart from all her grand and great grand children and took her challenges in life eg her leg amputation with an amazing good spirit.

I was thinking of my dad who has never backed up from some good practical joke or for an evening of giggling with me in the sofa over some stupid comedy on tv after I was done studying for my exams late at night.

I was thinking of my sister and the tickle fights we had in the past.

I was thinking of ...

Finally I think my 2 nieces and my nephew are the biggest clowns in the family. 2,5 years old, great age for some mischief :p.

C4: What's your favorite dessert? Got a recipe?

Honestly I am not a dessert person as I don't eat chocolate at all and in general my taste isn't much into (very) sweet things. I prefer appetizers, salty things (mmmm chips and peanuts...MMMMMMMMMMMMM my weakness) (gosh, I get hungry now) and entrees. In restaurants I usually go for soup and entrees and by the time you get the choice of dessert I am so stuffed that my stomac can't take anymore. Beside it is not unusual that the desert menu doesn't appeal me at all. So I almost always skip dessert and take some herbal tea to end, preferably mint tea.

J3: How did you and Jan meet?

Well after I got my economics degree I joined an international consulting firm. And they sent me over to The Hague to join a big team of French consultants who were implementing a new CRM - billing and sales software for a big multinational company. We were a team of 30-40 expats having a good time. Whereas most of them were technical guys and programmers, I was responsible for training our customer's employees in these new softwares since I spoke both English, French and Dutch. I had to learn the software myself, make user manuals, prepare classroom training sessions and execute them all over Europe. This was my first job and I had a fabulous time.

In the begining of jan 2000 I had to train an international group of sales accounts that had been flown to the Hague. While they were there, the customer care department also came over to explain to them the customer care process. During the break of that meeting I realised that the guy explaining happened to be a Belgian as well: Jan.

After most of the software had been installed , the majority of the French were sent back to Paris to execute the last requested changes and updates from there rather than from The Hague , which would be much more cost effective for the project. All of a sudden I found my circle of friends drastically reduced since I had to stay in The Hague for my role. Our smaller consultant team also moved from one building in the city into our customer's main office. From then on I had to take the bus to the office and soon I learned that this other Belgian lived near my bus stop. After a while we got the habit of taking the same bus in the morning to try to go to work. And I got invited to his birthday party which he organised with another Belgian in the Hague...an invitation I gladly accepted since I really wanted to get to know some new people.

During the summer I started hanging out on almost a daily basis with Jan and his colleagues and some other Belgians in the Hague. We had drinks along the beach every evening! We had a fabulous time and lots of rumours started already :). But it's only after my assignment in the Hague ended and I returned to Brussels that we kept in touch and that we became a couple.

J4: How did you end up in your present career?

Well, just above I posted about my first job. I worked as a consultant for 3 years in which I was responsible for training software, writing design documents with the user's requirements so that it could be interpreted by the programmers, testing, making planning and strategy. Little by little I became more focused on different software programs and I forgot my economical background entirely :p.

I currently work for a brewery where I co-managed the implementation of a new ERP system (project management) . Right now I still manage anything relating to this software and some other software programs in the company: report errors to our supplier, test their fixes, design new requests from the departments, organise the planning, manage new projects (adding new modules and changes requested by the departments, interface with other programs, upgrading software to a new version) . I always try to be in a role where I bridge the operational departments and the techies. The non-techie in a technical environment.

Anyone who wants to play as well? Let me know in the comments (incl an e-mail address where I can reach you) and I'll try to come up with some interesting questions for you.

Monday, November 19, 2007

High tech television functionalities

There was an item in the news about the global footprint of Belgians and the environmental awareness etc... They interviewed random people on the street about what we can do to help the environment and reduce our footprint.

"oh yes we can do a lot. We have e.g. just bought a new tv where you can turn off the image so you only have the sound...."

Isn't that called 'a radio'?

Sunday, November 18, 2007


This morning the doorbell rang. 2 hot young guys in leather jackets were on the other side with a big toothpase smile. I expected some publicity for a neighbourhood party or something.

"Could we ask you what you think of the bible?"

In Belgium most people are not actively practising a religion anymore and if they are they are mainly catholic or muslim. Any other church/religion is a very small minority , not well known to the world. There are Jehova's Witnesses in Belgium but I must admit I know little more about them than some well-spread stereotypes : they come to ring your doorbell and if you engage in a debate with them, you can't get rid of them anymore, they build their temples together , they don't allow blood transfusions, their bible is different than ours, ...
But young stylish guys in leather jackets did not fit my stereotype. The content of their little booklet which I didn't refuse , was more what I expected on the other hand.

This afternoon the doorbell rang again. 5 little boy scouts in their uniforms and with their little glasses not very straight on their nose staired at me. They were selling little bags of waffles. Argh, I hate it when schools and youth organisations ask children to go and sell stuff as a fundraiser. People feel 'obliged' to buy things they don't need/want , especially when they know the sellers and parents always end up buying half of the stock. Usually they sell those industrial boxes with cookies or something, which I truly don't like.
While I was preparing my sentence that I do not buy anything at the door, the little guys added "We've baked them ourselves"....and I turned around and got some money. They got me on that one. And they sure baked them themselves, because one of there ingredients was clearly concrete. These waffles are hard as brick. Argh.

Next time the doorbell rings, Jan has to answer the door.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sinterklaas is getting quite busy again

Since Nov 1st it is officially allowed to receive Sinterklaas or Saint Nicolas, the Holy man in the Belgian stores (and to make toy publicity for Sinterklaas). Some stores got into trouble for decorating the store already to early in his honor this year.

But now he is officially in the country again. He has set foot on the Belgian soil again, so all kids better behave in the coming weeks! From the sofa I am enjoying the national broadcast of the arrival of his steamship in Antwerp.
We saw the arrival of the boat on the river with Saint Nicolas on board and all his "Zwarte Pieten" and "Slechtweervandaag" the white horse,...
We saw the mayor of Antwerp welcoming him, the crowds with hundreds of excited children , the parade going through the city where Sinterklaas is lead to the town hall where he'll traditionally greet the crowds, .... Very cool, very exciting if you are a kid.

I just hope those kids cannot google too much or don't have access to all Dutch tv stations at home. If not they'd see on the Dutch national (commercial) tv, Sinterklaas's official arrival by boat in Kampen in the Netherlands, his arrival, the parade on his horse through the streets, .... and its own special child news broadcast.

Or they could see on the internet news about the arrival of Sinterklaas in Rotterdam today where he'll arrive in the port and listen to the kids singing to him and make a small parade through the city, .... but at the same time he also arrives in Breda and also in Enschede. And he's also going to greet all children in Amsterdam today. Hopefully his arrival in Vlaardingen is then already over :p. Apparently he could not add Leiden to his agenda anymore today, as he is going to 'arrive' in Leiden only next week :p

Unfortunately I apparently just missed his arrival and reception at the townhall of my own city Leuven. But if my mom still has to do some shopping downtown where she lives, she might get stuck in the children's chaos over there.

wow wow wow, hurray for Sinterklaas. He surely is extremely busy today. I never knew there was an international consensus that "His" arrival should be planned 3 weeks before the big children's holiday (Dec 6). On the other hand, children can only be at one spot at the same time, so a synchronised arrival everywhere, might be less confusing for them :p

Friday, November 16, 2007

Not working that much from home

Hmm yesterday my brave optimistic attitude from Wednesday shattered when I realised that my recovery would take longer than I thought at first. And that the pain was not gone yet at all, on the contrary. I had clearly underestimated the surgical incession and that was emotionally hard to take. Yesterday was a tough day!

I had to admit to myself (and my company) that I wouldn't be working from home yet. So today I went back to the doctor to get a sickleave note, which I had decleared unnessecary on Wednesday, after all. And I didn't fight the fatigue triggered by my medication anymore so I pretty much didn't leave the sofa at all today. But I feel more calm.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

working from home

Working from home is kinda cool...it's nice to just go upstairs and have lunch in front of the tv and get some snacks out of the fridge. Or to read your first e-mails in pyama's still. And to be 'home' from work so early without commuting.

...too bad that it comes along with a quite painful abscess in a rather incomfortable place, a much much more painful surgical incession and now one or two weeks of aftercare (with nurses coming at home for free!) as well. Pff I survived last week already with the infection by painkillers and antibiotics and I think I had the worst treatment today, it can only get better I remind myself. And before I know it I'll be picking up my busy schedule again.


As of today the Eurostar trains arrive in London in St Pancras station rather than Waterloo station. And it is finally running in the UK everywhere over its special high speed track.

That means that Jan will have 20 min's less travel time each time. He'll be in Brussels in 1h51 minutes (for approx 420 kms) ! Wooohooo :)

PS I commute 50 mins for my 40 kms to work. Pff

Monday, November 12, 2007

So nice

This summer I started getting these really sweet, interested, supportive comments on my blog from Jen in MI over at a2eatwrite. Since that moment she hasn't failed to comment on one single post so far. Check it out, scroll down...she is everywhere boosting me up.

And that's not all, last week she awarded me this "Nice Matters Award" "for her ever-present cheer and warmth and genuine interest in cross-cultural issues and facts. I can't visit Goofball's blog without smiling, as well as learning something new". Holy cow, how sweet can you be? And I am so happy that she did notice that I am interested in cross-cultural exchanges as I think those are so enriching to our lives!

[the following paragraph is added on Tuesday morning, so after the first publication of this post]
Look what I found out now: some of my "northern" neighbours thinks I am nice as well! Not only Jenn has bestowed me with this button, apparently Fourier Analyst was sharing the same idea : "And my lovely "southern" neighbour at Goofballsworld as she is always leaving such funny, encouraging comments and I am dying to meet her in person someday!" Well, FA I am really glad that you find my comments encouraging and funny. To be honest, sometimes it is hard to leave comments for some posts, sometimes you don't know how they'll come across, if they'll be meaningfull or meaningless, sometimes you are looking for that right witty remark, etc... So I am glad that you appreciate them.

Wooooh all those kind words, I think I am blushing right now and have the feeling I can fly!

So on my turn, I'd like to share this award with my crazy Australian Hong Kongees host sister Creative Flair Chic whose blog I just recently discovered. Apart from her family blog, she dedicates her blog "All things great and beautiful" to all things beautiful in life: decorations, fashion, flowers and lots lots of colors. I so reflects her happy, warm, shiny outgoing nature. Hey "Zot Ding"...you so deserve this award!

I also want to award Allie at Life at the Whittinghams. Although living at great distance from me, she's a fantastic friend always ready to share laughter but also worries and pain. She genuinly cares!

I don't know if it is quite according to the rules but I'd like to return this award to Jenn in MI herself. The time she puts in reading all my posts in detail and giving me such supportive feedback while doing the same thing at other blogs and while keeping this wonderful writing at hers a2eatwrite, is amazing. She shares so much love with everybody that it gets contagious.

Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street journal ran an commentary on Belgium's political situation last weekend. You can check it out here. And totally below (some people might need to register, I see the entire article somehow but that's not the case for everyone?) they mention related articles and blog posts.

guess who is mentioned??? Guess guess...

Yes I am proud! Don't ask me how it got up there, probably through search engines...but I am proud that contentwise my ramblings match quite nicely what this expert is writing :). What can I say, great minds think alike :p. So nobody has an excuse anymore but to scroll down and fight themselves through my article...or the WSJ commentary (that is shorter!).

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Remembrance day

Images of 'Flanders fields'

Photographs courtesy Gary Benson

Photographs courtesy Gary Benson

Photographs courtesy Gary Benson

Yearly the army still has to come and pick up 200-250 ton of old munition found by farmers in their fields or during road works....still a daily reality after 90 years !!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Mystery cards on the workfloor

Finally she was working on a project that she had envisioned when she joined the company a couple of years before (the implementation of a new big software). Some projects had started and stopped, some projects weren't quite as exciting, but now they had launched the roller coaster ride and the ride was accelerating.

A nice big team had been assembled with people from different departments who were going to specialise and parmeterise and test their modules of the software. Slowly everyone was adjusting to his new role. They had arranged a project team space with little islands for all subteams. She was managing the overal planning, listing the tasks, monitoring the progress, next to her own portion of tests. She was still a littl uneasy in her role, but slowly she grew in it.

The weekend after her birthday she took some days off to enjoy a long weekend with her boyfriend. The day she returned one of her female colleagues Annette came to her desk with a big grin on her face. She looked up with a questioning face when Annette kept grinning. Finally Annette threw a postcard with a quick movement on her desk "I think you lost something last week". She took the card, thinking she had somehow lost one of her birthday cards last week in the office although that seemed a bit odd to her. While she opened the card, Annette was still grinning at her.

'I love you very much.....xxx Goofball' it said on a sweet card full of teddybears and red hearts.

"You lost it last week apparently on Roy's desk" , Annette continued while she was staring at the card. While it sunk in her mind that this wasn't one of her birthday cards that had gone missing, she also realised to her devestation what the others had been thinking.

"You found this where? What is this? This is not my handwriting"
"Seriously this is not my handwriting" she repeated quickly again while her stresslevels were rising. She quickly thought how many days she had been away and how quickly gossip would have started circulating.

"Oh well we found it behind Roy's chair on the floor last week and I must say that it has given Roy quite a fright. We thought you had lost it after you had come by to check the status of our tests. Jeff was already happy to accept the card from you if Roy didn't want it and since they were discussing to whom it had been addressed, I have kept it safe until now. You know what they are like. They didn't have the guts to come and ask you. Yeah Leslee was wondering as well when we showed her the card, ...." Annette goes on and on.

Her mind went quickly...how could she make clear that she had not left love notes to her colleages in a credible way? They did know she was in a relationship right? How many people had seen this card? Where did this card come from and who was this Goofball who signed it?
"Where was it when he found it?"
"Oh on the floor behind Roy's chair and then Kyle's back. We had asked Kyle whether he had lost a card but he had said no"
"Well is there anyone here in the team dating a Goofball?"

They both knew Roy was in a relationship with no Goofball, Jeff was married already a long time, Francis was in a relationship, ....They both turned around to Kyle and realised they had no clue what his girlfriend's name was. So they both walked up to his desk and now she was the one throwing the card quickly on his desk as if it was contaminated.
"Kyle, do you date Goofball?"
Kyle opens quite surprised the card at which his face promptly turns tomato red. Aaaaaah mystery solved.

Kyle's girlfriend had surprised him by slipping a love card into his backpack the week before. Only...he had not noticed it and while taking out his papers, the card had fallen on the ground and had been found by Roy. He had asked Kyle before opening it whether it was his card, but Kyle didn't know he was missing a card and had said no. After wich Annette, Roy and Jeff had opened it and concluded she had been the sender. It had given them a lot of inspiration to discuss in her absence!

....and Kyle....well he had some explaning to do at home why he had not responded to the card sooner...after which his Goofball has never taken the risk anymore to slip surprise cards in his backpack.

If you want to read more soap opera stories, check out Jenn in Holland this week in order to find the other participants. If you want to participate yourself, you can check out the rules at Brillig or walking kateastrophe.

Why is Belgium such a political circus?

I assume my last couple of posts about the Belgian elections and its aftermath must seem very difficult and complex and crazy for outsiders. Since I know I have many North-American readers, I thought I might try to explain a bit of the Belgian complexities that could clarify a bit what is going on here. Yet I am not a politician, not a historian and is so complex, so I don't even grasp it all. I'll just try to type down my understanding as good as I can.

So our tiny little country of Belgium holds 3 language groups (yes 3, not 2!): in the North is Flanders and the people there are Dutchspeaking (or a Flemish dialect version of Dutch). The South is Wallonia and the people are Frenchspeaking. After WWI, Belgium also inherited some German border towns and as a result, German is Belgian's third official language. There is 6 million Flemish, 1 million people living in Brussels (mainly frenchspeaking) , 3,5 million in Wallonia and 60000 Germanspeaking people near the German border.

The split between French and Dutch/German dates back from the Romans who have occopied 'Gallia' (current France/Belgium and part of the Netherlands) up to the Rhine river in the Netherlands. Their divide and rule policy invited some Germanic tribes to cross the Rhine and settle south of the Rhine. The Romans trusted that those tribes would protect their new territory against more hostile other Germanic tribes in north of the border. As a result, in the north of 'Belgica' the inhabitants started speaking germanic languages, in the south the rulers spoke Latin and local dialects which over the ages grew into French.

Over the ages these territories have belonged in the west to French kings and in the east to German kings during the middle ages, to the Spanish during the Rennaissance and contra-reformation , to Austria in the 18th century (transferred from the spanish Habsburgers to the Austrian ones). They got occupied by Napoleon and afterwards given to the Netherlands in 1815 by the allies who conquered Napoleon in Waterloo just south of Brussels. In 1830 we gained our independence in the middle of the industrial revolution. Steel industry and coal mines were flourishing mainly in Wallonia although Flanders was known for its textile industry. Nevertheless Wallonia was the richer region. Also the high society of Flanders (as was the case in the UK and other countries) was Frenchspeaking and the fact that we had just kicked out the Dutch only reinforced that anti-Dutch influence. So this brand new little country got a constitution in French and political institutes that governed in French.

Nevertheless the distinction and differences between Flanders and Wallonia has always been present. A well known anecdote is a letter sent by a Wallonian politician in 1912 to the Belgian King stating "Sire, il n'y a pas de Belges"..."Sire, you are ruling over 2 populations. In Belgium there are Walloons and Flemings. There are no Belgians. Belgium is the result of diplomacy".

It is a fact that Flemish and Wallonians don't interact a lot (unless professionally if you work in Brussels). We watch seperate tv stations, have completely different hit parades (and I don't know any of their artists and they don't know ours, whereas the Flemish do listen to a lot of Dutch artists and the Wallonians to the French!), ...When many countries organise a tv election on the Greatest Brit, or Dutch...the Belgians organise 2 elections: one of Flemish tv and one of Wallonian tv. Our top 10s didn't ressemble at all. Now we have 2 greatest Belgians :p. That's also why events like this summer where Leterme mistakingly sings the French national anthem rather than our own, makes us laugh and doesn't shock us the way it has shocked the foreign press.

Since WWI the Flemish movement has grown, unfortunately linked in both wars with collaboration to the Germans. Nevertheless resistance was growing to solely French political institutes, to a solely Frenchspeaking army top, ... After WWII economies shifted as well: the old industries like coal mines and steel industries were deteriorating whereas Flanders got to benefit from its location with 3 sea ports and its international trade and services industry.

Linguistic quarrels in the 60ies and 70ies lead to multiple changes: the constitution got written in Dutch as well, the university of Leuven got split into a Flemish university still in Leuven and a Wallonian version of it 30 km further in "Louvain-la-neuve" (Literally the new Leuven). In the 70ies all policical parties that had been up to this point covering all of Belgium , split up in a Flemish party and a Wallonian counterpart eg a Flemish socialist party and a Wallonian one. In the beginning they collaborated closely but they evolve now totally independent from each other.
In 1962 the official language border has been drawn as well making Flanders an official dutchspeaking region, Wallonia an official frenchspeaking region, Brussels an official bilingual region (being an island in Flanders!!!). Towns around Brussels with considerable Frenchspeaking minorities as well as some other towns were given "facilities". These facilities give the minority the rights to schools in their language, communication with their local government in their language etc... however the local government must function in the official language. The exact interpretation of those facilities continues giving tension: for the Flemish they were temporary to allow the minority to adjust and they have to fade out...for the Frenchspeaking they are a conquered right.

From the 70ies onwards some Flemish political parties have risen with their main goal to re-organise Belgium into a federal state with levels of self-government for the different regions and ultimately to the indendence of Belgium. Under their influence, the Belgian institutions have been reformed and in the 80ies a Flemish region, a Wallonian region and a Brussels region have been formed (for economical 'hard' matters linked to the surface) and a dutchspeaking community, a frenchspeaking community and a germanspeaking community (for the soft matters such as schooling, cultural reinforcement etc...). The Flemish region and the dutchspeaking community have merged into one political instute. As a result we now have one federal government and parliament governing over the entire Belgian region and additionally 5 local governments and parliaments/councils with self-governing powers in well defined matters.

Whereas in the 80ies multiple goverments never made their full legislative term since they fell over linguistic quarrels, whereas Belgium before was known for its political unefficient compromises (oh if you close a coal mine in Wallonia...you have to close one in Flanders too regardless its efficiency as we have to guard the equilibrium in Belgium at all times!) (if you renew a highway in Flanders, you have to renew one in Wallonia, regardless the fact that flanders is twice as densily populated, ...)..... the 90ies were known for much less quarrels in between regions and federal governments that did make their programs and ended their entire term. Belgium had become more stable than the decades before! Our political structure was studied by many other countries 'in difficulty' such as Tsjechoslovakia, South-Africa, Israel, ... And it was working.

Yet not all problems have gone away.
1) The more affluent Flanders became, the more criticism arrose towards the poorer 'lazy' 'inefficient' 'corrupt' Wallonia. Despite the fact that the Flemish demands for self-government had been greatly realised, a (growing???) group wants to go further to the ultimate independence. A political party known for its racism , extremism and radicalism doesn't stop spreading the prejudicsm against Wallonia in the media whereas in Wallonia the suspicion grows that the Flemish only want to break-up the country, stop all country wide solidarity, that they are arrogent and hautain, etc...

Last winter the Wallonion tv stations have reflected that Wallonian paranoia/justified fear by a special news broadcast that the Flemish parliament had unilateral voted its independance. As they had not specified it was not real and a "war of the worlds" similar panick grew in Wallonia with people going on the street etc... However we are apparently so enstrangered that none of them had the reflex to switch to a Flemish tv station to notice there that we were ignorantly still watching the same soaps and soccer games, oblivious to their panick.

Also after last weeks unilateral vote in the federal parliament, 43% of the Frenchspeaking think that this is truly the kick-off of a process that will result in the split of the country. So this fear is really alive in the southern part of the country.

2) Whereas Brussels is officially bilingual, in reality it has become mostly frenchspeaking, secondly englishspeaking (as being the european capital) and to a much lower degree dutchspeaking. Officially courts, hospitals, etc...need to be bilingual, in reality it is a struggle there to live if you don't speak french. And even when most the dutchspeaking also speak French, on vital moments like eg being taken to the ER for something, being charged in court, ...you do want to be able to communicate in your own language. This situation has already been studied by the European union and each comment and study is always the base for much more heated quarrels in the Belgian politics.
In companies and government agencies it is quite common (and I have lived through that much to my frustration!!!!) that an entire meeting needs to be conducted in French because one Wallonian person is present and openly declares not to understand Dutch, so the other 39 people need to adjust. You find less and less stores where you can get served in Dutch, out of inability...or out of refusal to speak Dutch to you. I've always heard that you become 'Flemish extremist' in Brussels and to a degree I can follow this. When you are confronted personally which such a lack of respect (I cannot call it any different), you get mad!
However the true original population in Brussels speaks a dialect that is a perfect mixture of Dutch and French and they feel no tensions at all. Sometimes I wonder if it is only the 'commuters' in who cannot adjust and make a fuss over nothing? Probably to a degree yes, to a degree no
3) The edge around Brussels (so legally in the Dutchspeaking region of Flanders!!) is also growingly frenchspeaking. Some towns have in reality a majority of Frenchspeaking people. here the tensions rise up really high (see my statement about the facilities). The political parties officially need to be dutchspeaking there...but they aren't in reality.
The voting district her is also part of the Brussels voting district (where frenchspeaking parties can compete as well) and as a result in 'Flanders' people can vote for frenchspeaking politicians whereas elsewhere in Flanders this is not the case.
This frightens the Flemish politicians and they fought this in court and the supreme court has indeed judged this electoral district illegal. It needds to be split between the Brussels region (bilingual) and the Flemish region. The Flemish claim that this is illegal so it just needs to be split like that...the French demand a compensation eg enlarging the Brussels region and to merge some of those flemish towns into the bilingual region and make them de facto officially bilingual.
=> This is in fact one of the main points whey we don't succeed in making a new federal government right now. They need to find an agreement on it, since they can't organise new federal elections before having executed the court order.

It is my personal opinion that here the Flemish overreact and that we are trying to hold on desperately to something we've already lost: the flemish status of some towns in the edge of Brussels. yet this is soooooooo sensative here to say that out loud!

the voting about a split in my previous message is all about this problem.

5) Since we have regional governments that influence our daily lives more and more, politicians in Belgium also make more and more career in the different regions....where they can make bold statements without consideration of the other language group.
This is now painfully proven in last election where in Flanders Yves Leterme (the former minister-president of the Flemish government) has won a monster score and cannot be ignored in federal negotiations. He won based on his bold pro-flemish statements and as a result he is totally distrusted on Wallonian side. The fact that he still has not been able to find a national agreement and has needed the help before of old 'federal' politicians shows that the new generation has not learned the skillset to gain federal consensus, the art of national compromises etc...

6) In many nuances that escape the Wallonian press and the foreign press , the Flemish quite like the federal state with self governance for the different regions and they really want to eleborate this self governance to different degrees.
- Some just want to rationalise some things (there sure can be made some improvements, I totally agree with that!),
- some want to split up some things because in some matters we simply need different measures (Flanders is densily populated and therefore wants to reduce the default speed limit from 90 to 70...Wallonia refuses. Since this is a national decision to take, Flanders has put exception signs on all their roads. So we have reduced the speed limit, just not in a very efficient way!) (Flanders is economically flourishing and has an unemployment rate of 5% which is for economists 'no unemployment'. Flanders needs measures to attract new labor, etc.... Wallonia has an unemployment rate above 15%¨and clearly needs different measures...and no the Wallonian can't get a job in Flanders since they don't speak dutch well enough).
- some want more self governance just because they think "what we do ourselves , we do better'
- some want to evolve further to the independance of Flanders

Yet there is a total Flemish consensus that a new state reform is needed and there is a total Wallonian refusal to that since they see it as a declarance of hostility and a start to break-up the country.

...Hence the difficulties to form a new federal government in Belgium :). Hope this clarifies a bit and also brings some necessary nuances.

In foreign press we see remarks like "it is as if there is no blood in the Belgian veins: they see their country falling apart and nobody demonstrates in the streets"
=> well, first of all, there are no "Belgians" remember? So what do we need to go on the street for: for the split of Belgium, for the split of the electoral district with or without compromises, for more regional autonomy, ... We all have different opinions and in these troubled times they are already polorising quickly enough. Any demonstration would trigger a reaction and that one would as well, etc... so I surrely hope things don't escalate more than they already do in the parliament!
I do see that moderate comments on blogs get quickly flooded by extremist comments, in cursing and shoutings. I do think this struggle at the moment is hurting the relations in this country very much and that we are now growing apart even quicker than before! New elections will probably result in bigger score for the most extremist parties, making it even harder to form a new federal government. So please, lets all remain serene!

We read in the foreign press that we are strangely not worried, indifferent etc... Maybe that is because this is not new for us. All my life I've known the tensions in our country. We all know this is a country that exists still by the grace of a delicate equilibriums and if that breaks, that it takes time to rebuild the equilibrium. All my life I've heard bold speeches of non tolerant politicians all my life, I've seen seperistic graffiti slogans spray painted on buildings etc... We are used to these tensions in contrast of foreign press who only (re)discovers them now.

Although we've never experienced a government formation that took so long and that at > 150 days is at a standstill again. Not good! We need urgently some mature politicians, as others claim as well. Some that do not only have ambition like Leterme but some that also show leadership. Help.

5 months after the elections: a crazy circus

Since much to my surprise I always get interested comments on my political posts, I am motivated to continue them. For those of you who are not interested in the crazy Belgian politics at all...don't worry I have more posts in my head that will have totally different topics!

My last post ended with "to be continued" and it was indeed a very eventful political week in Belgium. Whether it was 'historical', 'shameful' or just a big farce, the future will sort that out.

As the negotiations about splitting the electoral district around Brussels didn't work out (as predicted) neither was there any progress on instutional reform...the Flemish kept their ultimatum against the Frenchspeaking and showed their self-acclaimed 5 minutes of courage to vote their own proposition of the split for the electoral district in the parliament. A historical never shown where there is truly a vote in our federal parliament: Dutchspeaking against Frenchspeaking. The cold war between both country parts is now complete and official. It was widely covered in our media from minute to minute as it was also visible in foreign press (eg Washington Post). Since you can consider this vote as a clear provocation, the Frenchspeaking representatives walked out, also as predicted. And now they'll start up a protective process which should prevent one language group bullying or dominating the other one. A process where the bill will end up at the governments table a couple of times for feedback...if there is a government of course.
Result of those "5 minutes of courage": the bill is now ending up in a long slow administrative process so the split is not there yet at all. The king has urged Leterme to continue government negotiations with a focus on economical-social points whereas he has ordered the heads of parliament and senate to continue work on how and when to progress an institutional reform. If the king has ordered that...Leterme has done so, since the king cannot make political decisions on his own.

Suspicion rises now whether it hasn't all been an orchestrated crisis by the parties at the negotiating table: Flemish have been able to show that they are serious about reform and that they even dare to blow up the government negotiations etc...so if they form a government without institutional reform, they don't loose their face. The Frenchspeaking have in reality now the guarentee that this split is not happening anywhere in the near future.

Nevertheless the government negotiations have come to a standstill: the Frenchspeaking parties only want to continue when the Flemish give them a proof of "goodwill"...something the Flemish think of as insulting so they refuse. And the Flemish have realised now that their strategy has failed and that all constitutional reform is getting delayed now, they demand guarantees that an institutional reform will take place before they get into a government together.

So we head back to the start 5 months after the elections.

More background on all our government formations can be followed on wikipedia !

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A Belgian record: 149 days without government

Tomorrow is a moment of truth for Yves Leterme trying to form a new Belgian government. He has just broken a 20 year record when in '87 it also took 148 days to form a new government. Until yesterday we could say/joke this was not new for Belgium, that we've always been difficult in our coalition forming, that it is a tradition. Now we find ourselves in a new unknown situation.

It's also a moment of truth as he's finally negotiating over the twist issues in this formation: constitutional reform, split and reorganisation of election districts around Brussels. In the previous weeks they have slowly worked themselves through all the other points in the formation and signed multiple partial agreements: justice, foreign affairs, economics, immigration, ....but the break points were always pushed ahead.
Now they can't postpone it anymore: they need to deal with those issues.

It's also a moment of truth as the Flemish political parties (including those at the negotiating table!!) have set an ultimatum. If by tomorrow there is no agreement on the split of the election district around Brussels, they'll vote their proposition in the parliament (and the Flemish political parties all share an agreement there and can have a majority to win a unilateral voting). If they do so, the Frenchspeaking political parties leave the negotiations.
...at this moment the Flemish parties at the negotiating table have agreed the suggested compromise whereas the Wallonian parties had declared themselves unhappy with it last afternoon. There is one more discussion round tomorrow morning, before the federal parliament gets together. Mission impossible or not???

An internet poll of the biggest Flemish newspaper shows that 84% of the people think the vote at the parliament should take place tomorrow if there is no agreement by then, even if that means that the federal negotiations between the christian democrats and liberals end then.

....to be continued

Weekend in UK

Last weekend I've:

  • been probably the only girl with a big sweater on in a hip bar in the City

  • been the only girl going to the toilet in a hip bar in the City, only to pee and not to fix any make-up

  • seen girls drink waaaaaay more than it's good for them

  • found the place to be if you look for any crazy gipsy or kinky or punk outfit: Camden market

  • seen a very expensive controversial crack in the floor at Tate Modern : Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth

  • been reprimanded for almost taking a picture of Ellsworth Kelly's Méditerannée at Tate Modern

  • gazed at North American native art at the British Museum

  • been at a drink/small party in Jan's office

  • experienced a little bit what it would have been like to live in London during WWII blitz at the Winston Churchill's Britain at War Experience

  • strolled through St James' park and Regent's park

  • been amused by the little squirrels

  • taken the train to Oxford

  • seen 2 big owls there closeby

  • been in the room where some of Harry Potter was filmed (Dining Hall at Christ Church collage in Oxford)

  • seen wonderful other colleges and buildings in Oxford

  • had sore feet from too much walking

  • had muscle cramp from too much walking

  • eaten Chinese and Mexican
  • rented DVD's
  • ridden the Eurostar train for the last time to Waterloo station

It's been a fun weekend :)

Monday, November 5, 2007

Look up!

because ceilings can be wonderful. Here's some of this weekends ceilings. I wanted to write more about my trip of London tonight but I am too tired. So I'll stick to ceilings, modern and old.

Train station, Leuven

British Museum, London

Staircase, Christ Church college, Oxford

Christ Church cathedral, Oxford

Friday, November 2, 2007

London calling

As you could read over at Jenn in Holland this week: 1st of November is a holiday in Belgium. Not because we have to rest from all the Halloween parties over here (since a couple of years, thanks to the many many American media that flood us... there is actually some kids that do go trick or treating...I've noticed 4 of them on my way home last Monday) (but students and amusement parks etc do organise Halloween themed parties nowedays), but because Nov 1st is a national holiday in Belgium. It is the catholic holiday All Saints Day where we traditionally go to the cimataries with flowers and go and remember our dead relatives. I've written about that last year.

Since this year's holiday falls on a Thursday, I took Friday off as so many people did and I am enjoying a long weekend with Jan in London. So now I am off to explore a bit in this vibrant city again. Bye bye