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.

Expatica.com 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....