And the Word in Belgium was: chips, obviously. And mussels. Although that's technically two words.

Post date: Nov 03, 2009 9:15:20 AM

I had a delicious "moules frites" in a restaurant in the town of Huy, Belgium a couple of weeks ago. "Moules frites" often sounds like one word. People even say things like "on va faire un moules frites?", so it can obviously be considered as a single concept, even though it's usually written as two words. "Mussels and chips" doesn't quite have the same ring in English. Perhaps the Liverpudlian waitress at Haydock Park racecourse who asked my father "Who ordered the Moules?" (you have to do it with the accent) had an innate understanding of the issue.

I'm not going to go into the fun that can be had with menu translations here. It's not an area that particularly interests me. I am interested, however, in the multicultural, multilingual madhouse that is Belgium. And I mean that in a good way. Any country that has so many chip shops must be doing something right culturally. But the language situation in Belgium never ceases to amaze and baffle the outsider. Most people's heads start spinning if you even try to explain it.

Briefly, then: Belgium is divided into not two, but four territorial entities organised on linguistic grounds: Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region; Wallonia, the slightly larger but less populous French-speaking region; Brussels Capital Region, technically and legally bilingual, and located inside Flanders so therefore originally Dutch-speaking, but now mainly French-speaking; and a tiny, mainly German-speaking region in East Belgium (which is actually located inside the French-speaking region, and is therefore regarded as a community rather than a region). All of these entities have their own political, administrative and cultural institutions. Clear? (There will be questions at the end of class).

The best way to understand this apparent hotch-potch of a melting pot is to go there. And what a great place it is: the first thing you notice is the food and drink. In Ostend (a seaside town and fishing port in Flanders, and an easy first stopping-off point), fresh seafood is available from stalls on the promenade, with blackboards advertising wonderful things like "Warme Wulloks" ("hot whelks"). It's the same in Brussels and Wallonia (I've never knowingly been to German-speaking Belgium but I bet it's the same there too): what hits you is the array of food and drink on offer, and the sheer enthusiasm with which it is consumed. And don't be fooled: Belgian cuisine has an excellent reputation, with an array of strong beers providing a surprisingly refined accompaniment.

So a country apparently divided by its languages seems to be united by a love of food and drink (by the way, the Flemish say "mosselen-friet", and, for the completists among you, the German-speakers say "Muscheln mit pommes frites"). No wonder I like the place so much. Looking forward to the spring. Now, what seafood do they eat in Antwerp?