Or the Flemings as some English-speakers call them, even though I think it sounds like an animal (lemming = lämmeldjur)!
We spent Tuesday evening in a suburb to Antwerp[en] together with three of my / our Flemish friends. Both O and I have very good friends that are Flemish, the difference between us is that I knew my Flemish friends before moving to Belgium (I studied with them in Italy), while O has always worked with more Flemish than French-speaking Belgians. It is always nice to leave our little “European expat / French-speaking bubble” in Brussels and meet up with people who live in that other part of Belgium…
The Flemish constitute more than 60% of the Belgian population (6 million out of 10 million) and they live in Flanders, more or less the northern parts of Belgium. Flanders is 13,522 km2 (from Wikipedia.com), which is just a little bit bigger than Maryland (US state) or Uppland in Sweden, but it still has so many different dialects and accents that almost all tv-programmes in Flemish are subtitled!
Flemish is actually not a language (sorry!) but a dialect of Dutch, which is one of 3 official languages in Belgium – together with French and German. However, even if my Flemish is not great, I can definitely tell the difference between Dutch and Flemish. The pronunciation of Flemish is much softer and not as “guttural” as Dutch, in other words it doesn’t sound like the Flemish are trying to cough something up when they pronounce “Gouda” (a Dutch cheese).
The West Flanders representative on Tuesday evening told me that he can immediately tell if a book has been translated by a Flemish or a Dutch translator, and that he doesn’t like reading Dutch translations. I was once in Amsterdam with him and I completely sympathised with him when the Dutch bartenders spoke to him in English (as a person from Skåne, who have been told time and time again when in other parts of Sweden that people don’t understand her).
When I was commuting to work by metro, I discovered something interesting (that was confirmed by another colleague): I usually took the metro around 9 o’clock in the morning and almost all the passengers were reading Metro in French. However, a few times I went to work early, around 7.30 and my fellow passengers were reading Metro in Dutch! Maybe I shouldn’t read too much into this (some hard-core Flemish would say that the French-speakers are more lazy…) but regardless of the reason, I thought that it was fascinating.
Of course we could not not discuss politics on Tuesday evening since this week is the 50th anniversary of independence of the former Belgian colony Congo coincide with the Belgian presidency of the EU (from today until the end of the year) and the efforts to form a functioning government after the elections a few weeks ago. Even though the participation or not of the Belgian king in the celebrations in Congo has been hotly debated, he did attend but as a passive non-speaking representative (this is at least what I have heard, I haven’t had it confirmed). The split of Belgium was naturally discussed between us, and our Flemish friends were all convinced that it is not going to happen for another 30-40 years because there isn’t really a pro-split majority. Nevertheless, when I suggested that they might need a referendum before such a huge decision would be taken by the politicians, I was told that “Belgium is not Scandinavia!”. The only (?) referendums held in Belgium are very local ones.
Regardless of how much or how little the Flemish and the Dutch might have in common, depending on with whom you to talk, I discovered that there is one thing that was just according to my Dutch* textbook in the Flemish home: the birthday calendar in the toilet!! Our Flemish hostess questioned where you would otherwise put the calendar with all the family members’ and friends’ birthdays marked… I suggested maybe in the kitchen? But I can agree that it is quite a good place to be reminded that it is your mother’s birthday today** 😀
*) My Dutch friend who lives outside Maastricht also has her birthday calendar in the loo!
**) Or actually our Belgian-born Spanish friend R – hooray for him! (and I keep our calendar in the kitchen…)