Belgian Waffling

by bicyclemark

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

by bicyclemark

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.

85% Voter Turnout

by bicyclemark

Greetings from an almost secret location in Belgium where I’ll be stationed for a few days. Coincidentally, just close enough to France so that everyone is this area is clinging to the French election results, and for the most part, pulling their hairs out in disappointment and frustration.

While it is hardly under-reported news, it is interesting, watching these elections in the global context. An old friend of mine in France once said, as much as his fellow citizens would never admit it, the French are very similar to Americans in many things. Every now and then, like in these elections, I think she was right.

He plays on fear. He threatens to be tough on immigrants and to cut taxes and benefits and whatever else he can cut. He goes on and on about national pride and what a great country it is. He could basically be a president candidate in the USA, but in fact, he is the new president of France, Nicholas Sarkozy. (or as I heard him referred to today, mini-bush)

As people learn the result of today’s election, you’ll hear lots of disgusted responses. “So embarrassing” people will say. Sounds familiar.

But unlike the US, where even if you bus people to the polls you can’t get a 50 percent turnout, reports from today say that turnout was at 85%! 85%! Now at first glance, that’s impressive. People can say, and they are, that it is a healthy sign for democracy because people are participating.

Then again, 85% voting for, with more than 50% of them choosing a pretty hardline conservative candidate also makes it hard for a country to deny who they are. At least in the US you can say “hey.. thats only half of the 40+% that vote who chose that bum, we’re not really like that”. In France, you can’t say that anymore. So if Sarko ends up rounding up all the immigrants and putting them in labor camps. Or joining the US military in its latest adventure to invade and bring democracy somewhere. It won’t be just a small percentage of crazies that took over the government. Nope… it’s a majority of the country that actually shares (at least some of) these values.

Once again, I don’t have a better idea yet, but western democracy is still overrated.

Dinner and WW1 Mines

by bicyclemark

You know its a good dinner conversation when we break into European History thru revolutions and wars. Shouldn’t be much of a surprise since in our spare time we also look up who the last King of the Austro-Hungarian empire was.

But this evening Krizu alerted me to something I actually had no clue about and am quite shocked to learn: They are de-mining Belgium from World War 1! I repeat.. WWI (1914 to 1918), there are still mines scattered about certain parts of Belgium that were put there around 90 years ago!?

This isn’t just a matter of fascinating tidbits of knowledge, this about a terrible war, so long ago, still able to claim victims. Apparently the Belgian army has a whole specific unit dedicated to finding these last land-mines. Obviously I now want to meet these guys, they must have amazing stories.

Beyond this I didn’t realize, and she pointed out, that only a few hours south, down there in Belgium, there are still plenty of old trenches and craters in the earth leftover from WWI. Why am I surprised? I guess I expected everything, beyond the occasional memorial or museum, to be cleaned up, renovated, built upon… in effect.. erased.

This gets me to thinking of other wars, including the current occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. What about the landmines? (several nations, including the US, refuse to stop using them) Or even the craters. How many generations later will still see these scars and live with the risk of potentially blowing up because of a landmine left behind, for another war that allegedly will end all war (or terror).