Saturday, December 16

War, of words (phew), between Belgium and Germany

With Franco Belgian relations still at a bit of a low ebb following the Michelin saga, now relations with even larger, scarier, eastern neighbour, Germany have taken a bit of a tumble.

The trouble is that Volkswagen has decided to shut its factory in Vorst, one of Brussels' 19 communes. The future of the factory has long been a matter of speculation but the announcement of the end of the production of the Volkswagen Golf there was nevertheless met with howls of disapproval. The suspicion is that the Germans have played a very dirty game sacrificing the Brussels location simply because it is not in Germany.

This touches a very raw nerve with the Belgians, for they have been here before. In 1997 Renault closed a factory in Vilvoorde, just north of Brussels. It was not that productivity there was lower than in other Renault facilities, rather that, yip you've guessed it, it was not in France. The national trauma was captured in, what I originally thought was the world's least appealing title for a porno, La Vie Sexuelle des Belges Nr 3.

Whatever your position on the sexual life of the Belgians, it seems unlikely that we will be treated to a(nother) sequel. Relations between Germany and Belgium have picked up in recent days. When VW revealed its plans for redundancy pay - up to EUR 150,000 for the most experienced workers - there were queues to take them up on their (kind) offer.

Sunday, December 3

Star Wars

In search of a restaurant to satisfy his sophisticated palate the Witloof discovers that Revenge is a Dish Best Served Froid.

The day before the official publication of the 2007 Michelin Guide, every news bulletin in Belgium was dominated by a single headline: the expected net loss of Michelin stars enjoyed by Belgian restaurants.

In a country short on things to boast about - eddy merckx, being overrun by Germans in record time, and having highways visible from space, being the things most commonly cited as obviously Belgian - the fact that they have more Michelin stars per capita than any other country is an important pillar of national self-confidence.

The reliance on a French company for this boast has always made the Belgians uncomfortable. The suspicion has always been that sooner or later the (perfidious) French would tilt their heads slightly (further) backwards, peer down their (considerable) noses at their small, vulnerable, Northern neighbours, and with a cold (Garlicy) Gallic snigger, order the pillar demolished, the stars removed.

And so it came to pass in late November. In the culling of stars that rocked the nation, there was no more controversial case than that of Comme Chez Soi. The VRT's 'But two 3-star restaurants left in Belgium' headline was pale in comparison with the leads in other publications: 'Michelin seeks attention', and 'Michelin creates other Belgian victims' were two from normally stoic De Standaard, which also sarcastically topped another piece with 'Michelin calls loss of star for Comme Chez Soi an encouragement'.

In truth the trouble has been brewing for quite a while. In January 2005, the new edition of the Michelin Benelux was unveiled and included in it a favourable review - and the award of a 'Bib Gourmand' - of a restaurant called The Ostend Queen. The trouble was that the restaurant in question was not yet open for business. Michelin was forced to recall up to 50,000 unsold Guides as a result.

It is this incident that the Belgians believe turned Michelin against them and made November's humiliation inevitable. Michelin was unavailable for comment (admittedly I didn't try).

Saturday, October 7

Tintin goes to the polls

This Sunday, 8 October, Belgium goes to the polls for its local elections. I will be voting to. Non-Belgian EU citizens have enjoyed this right for quite a while now. Those from outside the EU are eligible to vote for the first time in local elections, however.

The official figures show that 20.05% of the non-Belgians eligible to vote have actually enrolled to do so. Of the 529.878 EU citizens here, the figure is 20.94%. For the 108.617 officially known non-EU citizens, the figure is 15.71%.

So are you going to vote? And if not why not? There is no excuse for failing to exercise your democratic right. Or is there? A quick review of some of the options available for organising elections and ensuring turnout, suggests that yet again the Belgians have not made it simple.

Scenario 1 - no enrol + obligation to vote - is being obliged to vote, what is called stemplicht in Belgium. Without having to enrol in the register beforehand, citizens have the right but also the obligation to vote. This is what applies for all Belgian citizens in all elections. It is the system that leads to the highest participation (over 90%).

A second scenario - no enrol + no obligation - is that without having to enrol in the register beforehand, citizens have the right to vote but no obligation to do so. In the Netherlands this is the system in operation for both Dutch and foreign citizens (for local elections). It led to a participation rate of 58% of Dutch citizens and 41% of foreigners in the Netherlands at the local elections in March 2006.

A third scenario - enrol + no obligation - is one in which you specifically have to enrol in the electoral register in advance but this does not oblige you to turn up on the day to cast your vote. This is the way it works in the US, where participation stretches from 5% to 30% depending on the state. In very few districts are non US citizens allowed to vote. Where they are – for example in the district of New York – enrolment rates barely reach 3%.

The fourth and final scenario - enrol + obligation - is that of having to enrol in the electoral register in advance and then once you do being obliged to turn up on the day to vote. This is the system which is least likely to tempt non-nationals to vote. Obviously it is the system that the Belgians have opted for.

Why did I bother?

Friday, October 6

and another thing

If anybody doubts the veracity of my claims that the Eurovision song contest is fatally flawed, I point you in the direction of the recent academic study conducted by two academics from the financial engineering laboratory and the department of applied mathematics of the University of Twente, the Netherlands. While it makes a somewhat confusing distinction between geographically and politically inspired voting, it provides comprehensive evidence that the Nordic and Baltic states are stitching us up on an annual basis.

If it wasn’t such an important issue, cough, it might make you wonder about the types of things that universities appear to permit their academics to spend their time on….

Wednesday, October 4

The Perils of enlargement

The Witloof takes a look at the enlargement process and makes some ridiculous comparisons to a football tournament and a music competition.

And so in the most easily predictable result since Don Quixote did more damage to himself than to the windmill, the European Commission has recommended that Bulgaria and Romania should be allowed to enter the European Union on 1 January 2007. You can read the entire (52) page turning report here.

With Bucharest and Sofia (in EU speak most countries seem to be referred to as their capital cities – ‘Warsaw today said that it was aware of the obligations of membership of the European Union but that it couldn’t give a fiddler’s toss about the free movement of goods or capital’.) now safely ensconced at Europe’s top table, the whole show now moves on to Croatia and Turkey. And then to Macedonia. Then to Serbia and Montenegro, possibly followed by Albania and Kosovo and why not Moldova? Ukraine? Where does the whole process end? Does it end? Does the visit of the Mongol hordes to Hungary in the thirteenth century bestow on them sufficient link to Europe to perhaps think of filling out the application forms?

Quite possibly if we take a look at what has been going on with the membership of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). For some years now it has included in its ranks countries such as Israel, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Ok, so I can see that charity was probably necessary in the case of Israel. Can you imagine the reception the travelling fans would receive on an away trip to Tehran for a crucial qualifier in the Asian zone? But what the hell have Kazachstan got to fear? And more to the point what do they have to do with Europe? As a Danish pal ranted at me shortly after Denmark’s hopes of reaching the 2006 world cup had been fatally damaged during a visit to Astana: “Kazachstan?! That’s not Europe. That’s eight flipping (I’m sure it was flipping he said) time zones away!”

This time it is poor Belgium that has to make its way out central Asia to visit the Kazakhs. They’ve also managed to land themselves in a group with Azerbaijan and Armenia. Which makes me wonder what happens if the Nagorno Karabakh suddenly manages to free itself from the Azeri yolk? Would the Belgians have to play them too? Or what if Vlad Putin decided that the Chechens were getting just too Bolshy for even the Kremlin to maintain an interest? Might UEFA just think ‘Ah feck it, just throw them in with the Belgians, they’ll probably be somewhere out there now anyway’?

There are signs that the EU may not be about to expand at quite such a UEFA like pace. The European Commission, in ‘welcoming’ Bucharest and Sofia on board, has announced that further widening of the union is on hold until vital institutional reforms can be agreed. Now you look at this statement and conclude that given the fate of the EU Constitution that the reforms will never be agreed and therefore the enlargement process is complete. Indeed in the short term this is may well be exactly what happens; nothing. Eventually, however, the political will will undoubtedly be scraped together to ensure that things can still get done while the membership of the club continues to widen and possibly even embrace Turkmenistan. The different methods of doing this will be debated and will undoubtedly fail to stir the interest of the voters who will prefer to make jokes about Regulation X concerning the curvature of proper bananas. However, if it all sounds unimportant or dull, just consider the frankly shocking example of what has happened to the Eurovision song contest in recent years.

Much like UEFA, the organisers of the Eurovision song contest appear to regard geographical distance from Europe as a distinct advantage in gaining entry. This has led to familiar faces such as Israel, Morocco, Ukraine and Armenia popping up with regular abandon in Europe’s annual search for its ‘best’ song and it can only be a matter of time before Kazachstan knocks on the door.

Unlike UEFA, however, the Eurovision apparatchniks realised that the influx of new ‘talent’ could not be accommodated within the existing framework. Listening to the ‘musical’ offerings of 45 entrants would test the patience of even the most diehard eurovisionfreak. In response to this threat, they opted for a two tier system in which those with the worst record in recent events would have to qualify for the final. While this has had the desired effect of ensuring that not all 120 million viewers are asleep by the time the winner is crowned, it has had the (presumably) undesired consequence of making it more than likely that the victor will hail from one of the Nordic or Baltic states.

A quick look at the winners podium over the last decade should prove any doubters wrong. In the ten years between 1997 and 2006, they accounted for 5 of the 10 victories including a seismic 4 in a row between 1999 and 2002. Even in Abba’s heyday this was unprecedented. Waterloo was the only victory in the entirety of the 70’s. In the 80’s things brightened a little with Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley from Sweden’s The Herreys and La det Swinge from the Norwegian Bobbysocks. But 5 from 10, it’s simply not fair. Something has got to be done.

The other major innovation of the previous few years, phone voting by the public, has failed to eliminate the political bias of the voting patterns. It has probably increased it. As Terry Wogan so eruditely put it when Denmark was awarding Sweden its annual ‘douze points’: “hands across the Skaggerak”. What is needed is to completely democratise the system. One vote should be worth exactly that, one vote. So if 36 million Germans vote while only 1 million Romanians do, the Germans have 36 times the impact on the final result. And because nobody is allowed to vote for their own entry, the result cannot be abused.

This is what is really up for grabs in the ‘vital institutional reforms’ that the Commission is referring to. Artificial voting schemes favour those tightly nit snow laden communities. Democracy must out. The one Commissioner, one vote rule needs abolishing. Qualified majority voting should be extended to everything. And if this sounds like anathema to many of the (smaller) member states they should consider the alternative: Nordica Baltica über alles.

Tuesday, September 26

The Sprout 2003-2006

Call it vegetable solidarity if you like, but the Witloof would like to mark the passing of Brussels' foremost printed satirical publication, the Sprout. For 36 issues, stretching over three years, the Sprout has provided the European Union with that which any healthy democracy requires, a good solid satirical spanking.

I can think of quite a few people who might breathe a sigh of relief at its passing. Thankfully for the rest of us, the failure of the Sprout to hit paydirt quite as effectively as to report it has not left the Brussels political landscape entirely free of querying eyes and razorsharp typewriters. Now derailing the gravy train is the Berlaymonster.

Monday, September 25

Links to Belgium. Belgium to links.

Perusing the Sunday Times at the weekend I discovered that one of their most entertaining columnists, India Knight, is actually Belgian. And she used to be called India Somethingelse. Quite how she thought that dropping a, probably slightly aristocratic sounding, certainly sophisticated continental surname, for Knight, was ever a step in the right direction is beyond me. However, she does a very good job of both appearing to be full of remorse for the decision and of articulating just why Jacques Brel should be cherished by all. So I'll forgive her.

Which brings me to the possibility that search engines providing a link to a newspaper article such as Knight's homage to Jacques Brel could actually be illegal, if a court ruling in Belgium last week were to set a precedent for references to other print media. The ruling has forced Google to cut links in its news service to any articles from a number of French and German language publications in Belgium.

It seems odd to me that newspapers would band together to sue a internet service that actually aims to provide them with web traffic but the copyright laws appear to support them even if logic does not. But decide for yourself, here's a link to Google News' links of the coverage.

Tuesday, September 19

Language Troubles #2 : Jean-Marie Pfaff Style

For football supporters the world round, Jean-Marie Pfaff is best known as a tremendously curly haired Belgian goalkeeper, at his best in the mid 1980s when the national team was at the peak of its powers. Most would probably presume that since retiring from the game he has gone on to calmly wile away his days as a goalkeeping coach or a cafe owner and hopefully, while he was at it, had a haircut.

Jean-Marie has, however, refused to go gently into that dark night of retirement. His hair style has altered not one iota and in Belgium, or in Flanders at least, he is inescapable. Every Monday evening the nation can tune in to the latest episode of 'the Pfaffs' reality tv show to find out what Jean-Marie and his offspring, their partners, and children have been up to over the past week.

This week for example, one of his daughters held a 'baby shower' at which nothing much happened except for a bit of a downpour. Another daughter fell over while attempting to iceskate. Yet another daughter visited the doctor to assess the likelihood of her giving birth within the next two weeks. One can only presume that the producers are desperate for something slightly momentous to happen.

Quite why any of this is deserving of academic analysis is a good question, yet that is exactly what Alexander Dhoest subjects it to in his essay 'The Pfaffs are not like the Osbournes: national inflections of the celebrity docusoap.' Dhoest argues that while both shows are 'superficially similar, they also show many differences, which are partly related to their respective national contexts. Although eccentric, The Osbournes is typically American in several respects, referring to American myths and themes. The Pfaffs, in contrast, are presented as typically Flemish, most clearly through the emphasis on their simplicity and ordinariness.'

Well I'm sorry to blow Mr. Dhoest's arguments out of the water but there are some important similarities. For a start both shows make absolutely excruciating viewing. Secondly, both Jean-Marie and Ozzy have daughters called Kelly. Thirdly, and most importantly, both men would probably sell aforementioned progeny if it would make them a quid or two. Jean-Marie is well known for the prominent sponsorship on his shirt collars.

But back to yesterday's show, and the point. Pfaff had been invited back to Germany to attend the Beer Festival. I say 'back' to Germany because in the 80s he stood between the sticks for none other than Bayern Munich. And it was here, after one of his first matches for Bayern, that he made the contribution that will outlast any cameras up the nose episode of reality tv in the folk memory. It was here that, having saved a crucial penalty, he attempted to speak German.

This video link may not be that funny for many outside Germany or Belgium (could that be the definition of 'not funny at all'?) but it captures exactly what most Flemish people do when they try to speak German. Speak Dutch but weirdly. Take it away Jean-Marie....

Tuesday, September 12

The origins of the word quiz

As originally told by Niall Stokes - while driving 120mph through the fair city trying to make the kick-off against Kilbarrick Rovers or some such - and confirmed by Ask Oxford.

"The story goes that a Dublin theatre proprietor by the name of Richard Daly made a bet that he could, within forty-eight hours, make a nonsense word known throughout the city, and that the public would give a meaning to it. After the performance one evening, he gave his staff cards with the word 'quiz' written on them, and told them to write the word on walls around the city. The next day the strange word was the talk of the town, and within a short time it had become part of the language."

Now that we are all feeling informed, let's see how you fare in Belgium for Beginners. I scored a dissappointing 60%, the main dissappointment being my failure to answer the witloof question correctly. Putain.

Sunday, September 10

The definitive guide to Belgium

This A - Z tickled me; it includes a tremendous summary of the role of witloof..

"A curious bitter vegetable that is positively venerated by Belgians. Surprisingly good in soup, but best drenched in cheese and baked thoroughly. Adoration of this vegetable reaches its peak during the winter season, when crowds can be season inspecting and sniffing candidate purchases at market places. Referred to as "chicory" in other countries and usually fed to pigs."

Thursday, September 7

Be aware of the tree

Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg, otherwise known as Jean-Claude van Damme, aka the muscles from Brussels, the self-proclaimed Fred Astaire of Karate, crashed into a tree in Knokke, Belgium, in the early hours of 4 September. reports that the ‘actor’, the only person involved in the collision, gave a breath test at the scene of the incident, claims that have since been contradicted by reports in the Belgian press that he refused the breathalyzer.

It is not clear whether the police felt that a breath test was appropriate because of the unusual action of crashing into a tree for no apparent reason on a deserted road at six o’clock in the morning or because they couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Van Damme is renowned in Belgium for speaking Franglais, a mix of French and English, with what he says never making any sense. Aware in particular appears to be a word that he has picked up over the years in America and failed to translate back into his native French:

"Il faut etre aware"

“On fait des films, on les envoie par ondes, par waves, par radio waves. Et sous cette compression qui est raw, qui est plate, ça devient du feeling, et le feeling c'est l'amour, et l'amour c'est be aware."

The police have made the Timecop star aware that the incident will cost him a minimum of €1,100. He is said to be bearing up.

Monday, September 4

“Man evicted from Dansaert resto for saying ‘Bonjour’”

A young European Commission official was controversially evicted from up-market Rue Dansaert eaterie ‘Bonsoir Clara’ for breezily saying “bonjour” as he arrived to claim his pre-reserved table. The incident which occurred at approximately 20.30 on a busy Friday evening is said to have left the young British fonctionnaire ‘inconsolable’, and caused a food fight between rival factions in the smoking and non-smoking sections.

Police who arrived at the trendy brasserie were confronted by chaotic scenes. “The windows were coated with duck a l’orange”, reported police Commissaris Dentergems. Three people were last night being treated for minor injuries, two others for shock. According to Dentergems, stunned female staff of the hip bistro gave new meaning to the term ‘Dames Blanche’.

Restaurant critics are unsurprised by the turn of events, one calling the incident “an accident waiting to happen”. Another noted that although the more seriously anti-social waiters generally inhabited the older café’s, standards across the industry are generally “merde”.

The restaurant worker involved has, however, staunchly defended the actions which provoked the mayhem. “I just cannot abide by people who insist upon saying bonjour after sundown,” he says. As police continued their enquiries the young man was unrepentant. Complaining about plummeting standards of speech and grammar, he talks about “the last straw” and sighs audibly at the memory of a recent request for a steak tartar ‘bien cuit’.

Inside: A short history of why the service charge is included in Belgian restaurant and café bills.

Friday, September 1

De Gordel (or bizarre tribal rituals #1)

The Flemish love their cycling. So much so that tens of thousands of them will take to their bikes to cycle around (literally around) Brussels this Sunday, 3 September. The event, which is known as De Gordel (the belt), began in 1981 when 1.302 hardy souls cycled around the city and is now firmly established in the calendar with over 100.000 taking part in last years 25th anniversary edition.

De Gordel is, of course, highly political. Those who initiated the event in 1981 did so to demonstrate the Flemish character of the city's outer suburbs. If you look closely enough at the map of Belgium you will notice that Brussels is entirely surrounded by the Flemish province of Vlaams Brabant. The issue with this is that Brussels is about 80% French speaking as are many of those who live in the periphery (i.e. Vlaams Brabant). The problem for those in the periphery is that they are in Flanders and the people there speak Dutch.

As the Flemish have emerged from the cultural, economic and political shadow of their French speaking fellow Belgians, they have become increasingly assertive. In general they are withering in their criticism of the Francophones who simply can't or won't learn to speak Dutch. This issue is unsurprisingly particularly sensitive in the areas the French and Dutch speaking cohabit. Here the Flemish require all official business to be carried out in Dutch, much to the chagrin of the francophones, who are quite sure (and are generally right) that the officials behind the counter can speak French.

Fed up with increasingly restrictive rules on the (official) use of French in the periphery, a group of Francophones decided to petition the Council of Europe. The CoE produced a lengthy report criticising the situation in the Brussels periphery and detailing the situation of a number of different 'minorities' in Belgium.

One minority the report was silent on was the Dutch speakers in Brussels. The reason for the silence is that Brussels is officially a bi-lingual region and therefore the Dutch speakers can, in theory, carry out all of their official business in their own language. Except of course they can't. For the simple reason that so many people in the public sector positions cannot actually speak Dutch. This led to a Flemish petitioning of the Council of Europe for a resolution on language problems in access to public health care in the Brussels-Capital region in Belgium. This was duly provided and admits that the general level of bilingualism unfortunately remains rather low in the Brussels region.

So, 1:1 in the Council of Europe. The game is finely poised.

In the meantime, to cut a long and very sensitive story short, if you happen to be in Belgium this weekend and fancy going for a cycle....

Tuesday, August 29

Wie komme ich am besten zum Bahnhof, baby?

Europe loves nothing more than a big project, something to really put it on the map. It is constantly on the look out for ideas, so if you have any you should get in touch with the European Commission. I’m sure they’d jump on it. Particularly if the US has already been there and got the t-shirt, preferably several years previously. But don’t bother calling if your idea is a common currency - some member states managed to get one introduced in 2002 – or European search engine to try to curtail the influence of google - backed with a sizeable chunk of French and German funds, Quaero is apparently a soon to be unveiled attempt to create euroGoogle – or an aircraft company to rival Boeing.

Another idea already taken, I’m afraid, is that of a European GPS system. The Galileo positioning system - named after the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (was science really so rock’n’roll that they needed stage names in the 16th Century?) - is a proposed satellite navigation system, to be built by the EU as an alternative to the Global Positioning System (which is controlled by the United States military) and the Russian GLONASS. The system, which should be operational by 2010, is intended to provide:
· Greater precision to all users than is currently available.
· Improved coverage of satellite signals at higher latitudes, which northern regions such as Scandinavia will benefit from.
· A positioning system upon which European nations can rely even in times of war or political disagreement.

Now these may all seem like perfectly legitimate reasons for a European positioning system - or they may appear like ridiculous excuses - I just think that it is a valuable opportunity missed. What Europe really should have done is to focus on the end market applications. Its where the EU could make a real difference to the lives of its citizens. Here’s my thinking:

As a well-known comedian once noted, GPS is like your wife. When things are going well and you are obeying her orders, everyone is happy. As she (for GPS is invariably female – ironic given that gender’s reputation for map reading) purrs ‘please turn right here’ or ‘straight ahead for 200 metres’ you can almost imagine her being as a deliciously restrained Mrs Moneypenny. As soon as you put a foot out of line, however, she snaps utterly and immediately, ‘I said turn right HERE. HERE. NOW. FOR GOD SAKE MAN WOULD YOU EVER JUST LISTEN TO WHAT I AM TELLING YOU AND TURN RIGHT IMMEDIATELY’. A complete battleaxe. And what makes the wife comparison even more eerily accurate is that she is normally completely wrong.

Given all of this, what the Europeans need to concentrate on more than the space satellites that provide you with your position is on the actual GPS – or Galileo if you prefer - applications installed in your car. Give Galileo an upper class British accent and have her say things like ‘ooo you naughty boy, you were supposed to have turned right there but nevermind, you’re the boss.’ Or perhaps for the German market, Fraulein Ingrid could, at the end of a successful navigation, mutter things like, ‘Reinhard, you are so punctual, have you ever been late’? Imagine the commercial success you would be looking at in the respective markets.

It is here that the Europeans can steal a real march on the Americans. Now I know the Beach Boys were full of praise for the diversity of American women but they can keep the mid-west farmers daughters and even their Californian girls if a European GPS system could give us a glimpse of sassy Sweden or sumptuous Slovenia. Picture this, you step into your car and turn it on to be greeted by the following dulcet tones, ‘hallo its Inga here, are you gonna take me for a little ride today’. Goddamn right Inga, let’s get it on.

Jeremy Clarkson is on holidays

Wednesday, August 23

famous (ahem) Belgians

It is probably what Belgium is most celebrated for. Having very few, if any, famous people. How ironic then that when the time came to elect the greatest Belgian of them all, they held two separate competitions.

Here is how the Flemish voted:

1. Father Damiaan
2. Paul Janssen
3. Eddy Merckx
4. Ambiorix
5. Adolf Daens
6. Andreas Vesalius
7. Jacques Brel
8. Gerardus Mercator
9. Peter Paul Rubens
10. Hendrik Conscience

And the Walloon’s:

1. Jacques Brel
2. King Boudewijn
3. Father Damiaan
4. Eddy Merckx
5. Sister Emanuelle
6. José Van Dam
7. Benoît Poelvoorde
8. Hergé
9. René Magritte
10. Georges Simenon

As can be seen, there is very little overlap. The Flemish largely opt for their own, as do the Walloons. One more piece of evidence for those who believe that Belgium is really two countries anyway. Nevertheless, given that the split hasn’t happened (yet), the Witloof finds the lack of clarity to be thoroughly suboptimal and has come up with a very complicated manner of deciding who the single Greatest Belgian of all time actually is. The methodology, which is unlikely to keep mathematicians or those operating at the advanced end of the social sciences awake at night, is as follows:

Focussing entirely upon the respective top tens, 100 points are allocated to each of those toping their respective poll, 90 to those coming second, 80 to the third placed…right down to ten for those coming tenth. These scores are then multiplied by the percentage that roughly coordinates to the presumed relative size of the two main language communities in Belgium – 60% Flemish and 40% French. Finally after adding up the scores of any of those who came in the top ten in both Flanders and Wallonia we can see the following, entirely expected, top five:

1. Damiaan (92)
2. Merckx (76)
3. Brel (64)
4. Janssen (54)
5. Ambiorix (42)

So the Germans and the English went for the most important wartime and post-war figures respectively – Adenauer and Churchill. The Dutch went for another dead politician – granted he died in rather different circumstances – Pim Fortuyn. The Belgians on the other hand, although inhabiting the battleground for most European wars, opted, true to form, for someone I had frankly never heard of.

Now I am willing to admit that this says more about me than about the Belgians - I mean I thought that Emanuelle was a porn star, that Jose van Dam was a misspelling of Jean-Claude van Damme, and that Poirot and the singing nun should have been contenders for the title. It turns out that Damiaan, aka Jozef de Veuster, is the patron saint of those with leprosy and AIDS/HIV, was beatified in 1995 and is currently awaiting formal approval for sainthood. All of which helps place him above ridicule in a flippant blog.

One of the main debates in all of this was the respective worthiness of Damiaan and Merckx for the title. For a country that knows what the foreign perception of it is the temptation to vote for someone like Merckx, well-known abroad, must have been almost overwhelming. However, it appears that it is precisely the recognition of this which decided the minds of most Belgians. They would not be seen to promote the obvious candidate – the one man who most people outside of the country could readily associate with Belgium. Instead they went for Damiaan. I think that they can be proud.

Saturday, August 19

the one in which the witloof attempts to interact with his three readers

is there anything you would like to know about belgium?
or anything about the EU?

just ask the witfool (sic)
and see if he can answer you.

Manneken Pis: "I can speak!"

The Manneken Pis ( stunned tourists of various nationalites on Monday by speaking. Shocked visitors to Brussels’ most famous landmark reported his words to be "what are you looking at?" As men, women and children stared on dumbstruck, the Manneken is reported to have calmly continued urinating.

In an exclusive interview with your correspondent the little fella appeared determined to make up for almost four centuries of silence. Asked about his favourite tourist nationalities, he reveals quite a softspot for the Japanese. "Or are they Chinese, or Korean. They all look the same to me." He is clearer that he cannot stand the Germans. "Can anyone?", he comments, while also lambasting the Americans who sometimes obscure his view of the other side of the road.

391 years after taking his place in the rue de l’etuve it seems the little boy wouldn’t mind a change of scenery. "To tell you the truth" he confides, "I would quite like the chance to piss somewhere else for a while. I quite like the rarified atmosphere of the Sablon." He denies wanting to move somewhere closer to female colleague Janneke Pis. "I’m sick and tired of listening to tourists call her my sister, she is absolutely no relation," he says. Asked if he could foresee a romantic relationship blossoming between the two, he frostily responds "I’m six".

The Manneke’s hard cold exterior is briefly pierced with mention of his retired costume fitter. For fifty years his daily attire was chosen by the same man. Since September 2004, however, he has had to endure being dressed by a string of different people. "To be frank its embarrassing" he says pointedly, going on to lambast the city authorities for their failure to find a long-term replacement. "It’s fine for them in their air-conditioned bureaux" he squeaks.

He is not the only person irritated at the recent turns of events. The curator of the atomium is fuming at the loss of revenue at his own tourist attraction. "Its got everything" he groans, referring to his three foot nemesis, "the ideal location, and now the gift of the gab". "What am I to do with my rusty balls?"

Inside: Danes' praying for Little Mermaid to abandon her silence

Monday, August 14

Je ne comprend rien

I had a stopover in Delhi on the way back from China a few years ago. Driving into the city centre from the airport the taxi driver asked how long I planned to stay in his country.
"A day", I told him.
"One day", he spluttered, "for the whole of India? Its not enough time".

I have been living in Belgium for close to 4 years now. Sufficient, you may think, to get a good understanding of the country that put the be into benelux. I would have to beg to differ. It may be about the same size as a large postage stamp (the scale on the top of a map of Belgium probably reads 1:1) but it is impossibly complex.

There are seven parliament's for example. The House of Representatives, the Senate, a Parliament for Flanders, one for Wallonia, another for Brussels, a sixth for the German speaking stamp edge in the east, and finally one for the French speaking community, which appears to be to link the French speakers of Wallonia and those in Brussels (French speaking but surrounded by Flanders). Quite how these institutions interact with each other is anyone's guess. Not even the Belgian's seem entirely sure. The only certain thing is that it has led to an incredible complication of all aspects of daily life. Parliament's exist to legislate, so you do the math.

In July of 2003 , young Flemish politician Vincent Van Quickenborne was appointed Secretary of State for Administrative Reform/Simplification. His task: cut red tape, make the country comprehendable. Van Quickenborne enthusiastically took up the challenge, announcing several initiatives aimed at 'ridiculous regulations and pointless pedantry'. His department launched the website to track progress. Claiming (as of August 2006) that the job is 82% done, it contains such gems as the Kafka Index and 'Absurdity of the Month'.

By far the greatest innovation of the campaign, however, came when Van Quickenborne decided that he needed to set a personal example: he would call himself Q. The man decided to simplify his own name. James Bond fan's may consider it sacrilege but you can follow Q's exploits on:

If the Belgian's can barely get to grips with their own country, what chance does the outsider have? If the question appears rhetorical, that is because it is. The outsider is shafted. Without hope. Puzzled. Bemused. Lost. Literally.

When we moved here 4 years ago, we hired a removal company to transport our few possessions to our temporary residence in the outskirts of Brussels. As he loaded the last bits and pieces into the van, we gave the poor man directions for when he arrived in Belgium.
"You'll be arriving from the South, so take the ring of Brussels, direction Antwerp, exit for Liege", we explained, forgetting that the Israel Palestine conflict is probably less intractable than the fight over what language should be used on road signs around Brussels.
"Righty O", he chirped, " see yiz on Tuesday so, about 4ish".

6 o'clock Tuesday evening. Still no sign of our belongings.

6.15. Nothing.


6.45. The phone rings. "What the f*ck is going on?" screamed the clearly panicked voice on the other end, "I have been around this f*cking ring so many times I'm beginning to get dizzy".
"Calm down, calm down" we chorus, like a couple of scouse anger management therapists, "where are you?"
"If I knew that, I wouldn't be f*cking calling you."
"Just tell us what you can see on the signs."
"Well, I was heading towards the exits for L-i-e-g-e, but then it just f*cking dissappeared. Now I am going towards some place called L-u-i-k!"
"It is the same place".
"Don't be taking the piss out of me now, I'm really not in the mood".
"We're not, just follow Luik, then take the first exit for a place called Sterrebeek".
"Don't hang up on me", he screamed, clearly believing at this stage that he would rather have taken his chances with the Bermuda Triangle.
"We're here, don't worry. Just follow L-u-i-k, everything will be fine".

Some Belgian cities are easily identifiable in both Flemish and French: Genk is Genk no matter which way you look at it. Brugge and Bruges are not too disimilar. You shouldn't get too confused between Brussel and Bruxelles. Most, however, are less readily comparable and around Brussels where you are moving between French, Flemish and bilingual areas, this is crucially important. Antwerpen = Anvers. Gent = Gand. Mons = Bergen. And, of course, Liege = Luik.

As he rolled up the driveway, 15 minutes later, mobile phone still pressed firmly to his ear, he stammered, "that f*cking k-e-t-t-l-e better be on".
“Belgians wake up to discover that they actually enjoy living together”

Belgians went to sleep as usual on Thursday evening last, muttering insults about their compatriots. They awoke, Friday, to sweetness and light. “It reminds me of Woodstock”, commented one man, who skipped off whistling the tune to All You Need is Love before he could be asked his name. He looked Flemish, noted somebody, failing to adjust quickly enough to the new environment in which the language barrier fails to matter.

Initial reports suggest that the new spirit has infected each of the language communities, as we refer to them out of nothing more than habit. “I think that the last fifteen years of increasing political independence of the regions should be undone” was the initial reaction of Geert from Aarschot. “Absoluut” agreed Yves from Brussels, promising that he would follow his first public utterance in Flemish with an actual conversion of mother tongue. Nobody from the German east of the country could be found for comment. All Eurocrats had already left for the weekend and probably couldn't care less anyway.

Reaction from the political classes has been unanimously positive. Early speculation had suggested that the big losers from the new environment would be Vlaams Belang. However they no longer exist. A person who used to be referred to as woordvoerder, but never porte-parole, muttered something about “slight embarrassment”, adding “désolé!” Belgian Premier Guy Verhofstad told the assembled press corp, “it is the culmination of my life’s work”, and declared it yet another national holiday. Members of the few surviving opposition parties cried, possibly of happiness.

Urgent plans were being made for the re-unification of the Catholic Universities of Louvain-la-Neuve and Leuven. Professors in Louvain-la-Neuve were making plans to sell the ‘city’ to a multi-storey car park magnate.

Analysis P9: Thirty five mile daisy chain built round previously disputed Brussels a sign of the new age.

Monday, August 7

language problems

An evening meal in a local Italian eatery highlights the important difference between le (pain) and la(pin).

It is self-evident I suppose that if I simply learnt the local languages, I would have less difficulty speaking them. The problem is that fall into so many pits while attempting to speak that learning just seems hopeless.

I suppose you could call it entertaining. Take a recent visit to an new Italian joint not far from where we live. I ordered a pizza parmigianno, feeling reasonably confident that I had fully comprehended the menu:

Pizza Parmigianno, pizza avec tomates, aubergine et parmesan

I had reason to be extra confident when you consider that the each dish was spelled out in three languages, one of them my own:

Pizza Parmigianno, pizza with tomatoes, egg plant and parmesan

Tucking into some of the starchy bread on offer, I launched into a long discourse about the fact that as far as I was concerned the English for aubergine is aubergine. The Americans, as always, bore the brunt of my criticism for egg plant appearing on menus all over my adopted city, and probably well beyond.

I was still ranting as the waiter arrived with our dishes, a hefty steak for her, the so-called pizza parmigianno for me. I immediately caught the unmistakeable waft of copious amounts of garlic. Apparently emanating from my plate. Now if there is one thing I can stomach less than Americanisms, it is garlic. Dracula probably prefers it.

Having shed my plate of the most obvious shards of the offending vegetable (the garlic not the “egg plant”) I tucked in. A bit less than three-quarters of the way through, offended by the smell of my own breath, I had to admit defeat.

As the waiter arrived to clear up he asked whether everything had been to our satisfaction.
“C’était très bon”, smiled Barbara.
“Oui, ca était”, I confirmed.
He looked suspiciously at my plate and said something along the lines of ‘yeah right and by the way there is no way that they’ll believe me in the kitchen when they see what you’ve left over’.
Being over polite, I racked my brains for something to blame rather than the cooking style. “C’était a cause de la pain”, I stuttered eventually.
“Pardon?”, he said clearly puzzled. I ploughed on; “La pain, c’était a cause de la pain”.
“Ah oui, vous voulez le ramener pour le chien, peut-être?” he joked, hastily departing.

I turned to Barbara, who was grinning in an smug trilingual manner. “LE pain”, she scoffed, “bread is masculine”. I mulled this over. “I just blamed the rabbit didn’t I?”

“Man in the moon distraught over Belgian power cut”

The man in the moon has urged the Belgian authorities to act quickly to restore full power to the country’s highway lights, Russian cosmanauts reported Wednesday. Fresh from their latest moon landing the Ruskies painted a bleak picture of the psychological state of the moons sole dweller. “He is listening to a lot of Tom Waits up there, I fear for the future” commented Yuri, first commandant, adding that a copy of REM’s Man on the Moon had brought only “a faint hint of that old cheeky grin”.

“He is fed up just looking at just the Great Wall of China” commented the Omsk native, who was keen to add that the MotM encourages ambitious wall building in general. “You get a lot of time to talk on those cold lunar evenings” he commented coyly, “the MotM has often told me of his disappointment that Hadrians Wall hasn’t been extended”.

MotM is reported to “love the comical Belgian driving”. “He is fascinated by spookrijders” reports Yuri, who tells us that MotM just wishes that he could see more of the secondary road network. “We told him about the ‘priorité a droite’ and he thought we were pulling his leg” chips in the clearly well travelled Sergei, gravitational pull expert and flight deck controller (see Who Can Blame Him? on page 9). The love affair with the Belgian highways is tempered somewhat by his dislike of the extensive use of tunnels, we are led to believe. Displaying undeniable eye for detail, the moons first citizen is also reported to have complained about the lack of highway between Aalter and Knokke.

Overall, however, he commends the Belgian road system, prays for a speedy restoration of full power, and in common with many in Flanders’ first city, “can’t wait for the ring of Antwerp to be completely finished”.

Inside Exclusive: Michael Jackson to Moonwalk on the Moon in extraordinary bid to cheer moon man up.