When Theres No More Belgium

Over the past 10 years, besides regularly visiting friends and family, I have taken countless train rides through and around Belgium.  Looking out the window from the quiet and comfortable SNCB trains at the beautiful green fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. Not quite as perfect and manicured as the Netherlands, not quite as spacious as France, no one could argue that in any part of Belgium there is great beauty to be seen and experienced.  This beauty extends beyond a nice looking bit of scenery, as this small nation is in many ways the heart of Europe, multicultural and multilingual, having overcome a sad history of wars and conflicts to build a country that at the very least, has achieved a quality of life for the average person that other people throughout the world can only dream of.

Problems? Sure they’ve got a fine list of economic, social, and political problems. Some that seem to get worse (like the national debt), some that are just made to sound worse by leaders who benefit from fear, anger, or some other form of rabid regional patriotism.

Even with these problems, the nation is still has a long list of successes and virtues, that would be the envy of pretty much any other continent on the planet.  Take any sector, from health to agriculture, to science and beyond, you’ll find plenty of achievements in Belgium.

Despite all this, we still sit ever closer to what seems like the break up of the nation. With every passing election, it feels like a loud majority have forgotten what a great place they live in, and all that they have in common with their neighbors.  Instead they believe the solution to all their problems will come with the end of Belgium. Putting an end to one of the most unique and beautiful nations the world has ever known.

Labor Shortage Dutch Style

On line at the grocery store, I read the big sign in the window: Seeking new colleagues to join our team.? Around the block at the caf? there’s a small paper in the window that reads: seeking wait staff.? The restaurant next door is full to the brim with customers everyday and employs only 2 servers and 1 cook, the entire staff looks overwhelmed.

No matter where I look in the service industry, the Netherlands seems to be lacking workers. Yet at the same time, I can think of many university students who would never take such jobs.? I’m also reminded of my fellow university graduates who are seeking work in the field of their studies and would not take up work in a restaurant or a grocery store.

All this to make the un-scientific observation that there could be some type of labor shortage in this part of Europe. And it is getting worse.

Meanwhile I read about the situation of detained refugees in Belgium, who are currently on hunger strike.? Belgium’s politics and economic reality is certainly not identical to the Netherlands, but I still think it says something about where this entire region is within the discussion of the right to work and immigration policy. For the neverending obsession with keeping people out, I’m wondering who they’re going to turn to when no one in the country will take essential jobs.

True Magic

I have experienced few more beautiful things than the simple act of sitting next to my mom and cousin as they go through black and white photos from their past in Portugal. Hilarious stories, sad stories, political stories, mysterious stories; I try to make mental notes and the occasional audio-visual recording of each one.

Recording or no recording, being in the room while these two reminisce… that’s what I’ve been enjoying most recently.

Sustaining Paris

Greetings from Paris, where I’m spending a few days to have a few meetings and mainly, to attend a conference dedicated to sustainable investment and corporate social responsibility. Ha.. some people are thinking “those are buzzwords!”… you might be right, which is part of why I came down to see for myself.

Travelling down here by hitching a ride with friends and co-workers, I’m once again exposed to the huge elephant in the room for Europe (among the other elephants): automobiles. Everywhere I look, from the Netherlands through Belgium, and into France.. it is so painfully obvious that this part of the world is living beyond its means… it cannot sustain this many cars, and yet people keep right on driving. Some of the best train systems in the world, and they keep driving. Traffic jams everywhere, and yet they keep driving.

They love to point to the United States and say, “Americans and their cars.. ha!”… but when one looks around Central Europe.. especially this region… it is the pot calling the kettle black. And symbolic carbon trading, token political speeches, or pointing a finger and holding a nose towards the US… that isn’t going to solve what has become a cultural problem.. the culture of the car.

Of course I will try and bring this topic up as part of a few podcasts I intend to record from the conference. Many attendees are so-called experts, which might be interesting to talk to but as a podcaster, I’m as interested in the regular conference go-er working to make companies act responsibly as I am to speak with some CSI rockstars.

As an added bonus, I happen to have arrived in Paris during the largest labor struggle in a decade, *film at 11.

*=old American TV expression.

Belgian Waffling

After my most recent trip to Brussels, I found myself extremely frustrated with articles I had read in the newspapers, conversations with my family and friends.. all revolving around what really does look like a country on the verge of breaking up.

It almost sounds like a relationship doesn’t it? Yes this old married couple called Belgium, more specifically Wallons and Flemish, seem to have reached a tipping point and will soon divorce. And like so many marriages gone wrong, the craziest part will be to negotiate who gets what and how.

But nevermind the analogy, Belgium is in a terrible funk that people in different parts of the world can probably never understand and even I, a frequent visitor to the country and someone who reads every bit I can on the topic, am still baffled.

Naturally a discussion of history is in order, to understand what happened in the past that resulted in the things we see today. Who took what from whom, who killed whom, and who deserves what, somehow, as a result. Like any European region there are plenty of wars, cultural differences, economic booms and busts, and yes … even a dash of colonialism.

But I’m not going to try to summarize the history right now.

For now all I have to say and I hope the world will take notice soon, is that there is a lovely country called Belgium, where people live a very admirable quality of life and have come a long way in terms of achievements as a nation. (look at their dominance of tennis!) But these same people are whispering about each other indoors. Their political parties spread untruths and revise history for the sole purpose of drawing on people’s anger and poor judgment. Everyone is convinced they’re being used, duped, or mistreated in some way. They fail to understand people who have been their neighbors and fellow citizens for many generations.

For all the achievements of the Flemish and all the achievements of the Wallons, in my eyes, the inability to stay together as a country or simply to view your neighbors as equals tells me that neither culture is as courageous or creative as I thought.

Intelligent Urban Planning

The city of Louvain-la-Neuve is located less than an hour south of Brussels. I had long heard that it was a major University City for the Franch-speaking Belgians. But what I never fully understood is the story of why and how the city was built, only 40 years ago, in a very unique manner.

So today, accompanied by my cousin, we headed down to LLN to see the city and how it all works. As we rode the train into town, I knew we had arrived when suddenly everything went dark and the train went into a neverending tunnel.

This is not only true for trains, but for cars as well, all traffic circulates underneath the city. As we got off the train and climbed the stairs up to street level, you look around and see people walking in every direction, the occasional bicycle, and only the sounds of people.

It was pretty amazing to see, a city who’s construction began only in 1968. And even back then, they understood that to create a truly vibrant and healthy city, you should find a way to have NO cars on the roads. Voila, you never see the cars because they are underground. Occasionally you run into a stairwell or an elevator to the sub-level street where there is parking. But otherwise, you see nothing but college students in their early 20’s, a beautiful site in such a calm environment.

A place like this amazes me when you consider the terrible cities that exist in this world. Obviously most of them were not properly planned and are so old that extreme circumstances led to some aspects getting out of control. But still.. then you visit Louvain-la-Neuve, and while it may not be the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen, it is still wonderful… especially when you think to yourself… people can create and live in a place like this.