Can Europe Save Itself? What I Saw in Flanders.

Forgive my long opening discourse. I need to set the stage.

Most Americans don’t know much about Belgium and Flanders. It’s a shame.

For a quick summary, Flanders is the region that stretches from Belgium’s northern border with the Netherlands, west to the  English Channel and into northern France (including Dunkirk). It is home to two of Europe’s most spectacular medieval cities, Bruges (aptly nicknamed the “Venice of the North” for its myriad canals, bridges and medieval architecture) and Ghent, another canal-laced jewel of city anchored by a 1,000 year-old castle. To walk into any church or town hall is to walk into an art museum. Belgian beer, fresh from the tap, is in a category of its own  (I forget, were there 440 or 660 different beers on the wall? It’s all so hazy to me), the food is great and my brother-in-law and I spent too much time navigating our spouses through vaste archipelagos of heady chocolate and nougat shops this summer (had it been Antwep, it would have been diamonds, so let me count my blessings). It’s a great place.

I lived in Belgium during a good part of my youth and speak both French and a “passable” conversational Flemish (dialect of Dutch), which eases discourse with the locals. French is the language of Belgium’s southern (Wallonia) region and Brussels, while Flemish is the language of Flanders. The two peoples are like oil and water: due to a long, complicated and unfortunate history mired in injustices, the two groups dislike each other intensely and refuse to speak each others’ languages. (something that those that promote balkanization and bilingualism in America should try to understand). Memories are long: a rallying cry of Flemish independence is a successful battle waged against the French Bourbon (no, not the drink) governor in 1302 AD, a battle memorialized in the charming provincial town of Kortrijk. Yes, it is unfortunate that Europeans remain so imprisoned by history, which is something else that our own Democrats should keep in mind as they rub salt into historic wounds to divide and conquer for cheap political gain.

To try to define a Belgian national character is to frolic in oxymorons: grumpy and friendly; rumpled and dignified; regulation-obsessed scofflaws; cheerfully pessimistic and gloomily optimistic.  They can be both unassuming and single-minded. My wife, though, has one word for them: “solid”. Good word. “Tell a Belgian he has to go in one direction and it will guarantee that he go in the opposite way,” a Belgian family friend told me. As a confirmed Midwesterner and libertarian conservative, I can relate to that.

I like Belgium and the Belgians, but sadly, far too many Belgians don’t. They have been beaten down for years into well-honed self-loathing. I can’t tell you how many times I have relayed my admiration for Belgium to Belgians, only to receive expressions of embarrassment, shock or sneers. Once, speaking to two young students at a trade show, I went through my list of reasons for why I liked Belgium. After a shocked pause, one of the girls turned to the other, “You see? Maybe our country is worth saving after all”. I hardly think Belgians are alone in this.

Today, the country, created from the ruins of Napoleon’s depredations, is on the verge of dissolution. Belgium’s Leftwing bureaucrat-laden government is totally dysfunctional, unable to cobble together a working coalition of competing Flemish and Walloon factions. The Belgian national psyche has been under assault for years from non-stop disclosures of government perfidy and corruption, a stifling bureaucracy, breakdowns in the social order and, more recently, paedophilia outrages by the Catholic Church. Most Belgian transplants that I have met in the U.S try to disclaim their national origin out of sheer embarrassment.

Grim as this portrait may appear, though, I did see rays of bright sunshine breaking through the ever-present clouds in Flanders.

Europeans like to comment about how we Americans like to fly our flag all the time and everywhere. Rather jingoistic, wot? I say it’s healthy. A French niece once gave me a very puzzled stare when I explained to her that “we Americans tend to be very proud of our countries and communities”. Love of place: what a curious concept! Well, one of the things one notices in Flanders is love of place. There is a) a near absence of Belgian flags and b) a total profusion of Flemish national flags, everywhere, depicting a black, rampant lion on a field of gold. There is, today, a fierce and rising Flemish pride in their heritage. As Belgium’s long under-represented industrial dynamo, the Flemish are fast approaching a state of open revolt against the Belgian government and, as I also suspect, the EU. Nationalism and tribalism, in other words, are on the rise. I say, “hooray!” I know, this requires an explanation and herein I finally get to the point of this post with another segue.

In Brabant, a region that spans from the southern Netherlands well into central Flanders, there is a popular balladeer by the name of Guus Meeuwis who writes songs about Brabant and his fellow Brabenders. They are love songs. To get a flavor of his famous hit “Brabant”, view this video here: .

You don’t need to know Flemish to understand it, as the imagery pretty accurately conveys the lyrics. If you want to see and understand how real people in Brabant (Flanders and the Netherlands) react to this song at a live performance, then visit here:

(Dank je vel, Jan!).

What you see here, folks, are the sparks of a European awakening. And not just in Brabant, but all throughout Flanders, Netherlands and Northern Europe. I think it will spread. This is nationalism at its best, a love of one’s fellow citizens, community, region and, maybe eventually, nation. This is where it starts: in the dorp (village). There is nothing dark grey or threatening in this movement except, perhaps, the typical Flemish weather. These are people who, perhaps like that Belgian girl, are awakening to the realization that there is much worth saving. And this, in a part of the world for so long beaten down by a paralyzing helplessness in the face of the encroaching super-State. I detected no anger in Flanders, no gloominess, but instead a resolute optimism among a fundamentally decent people combine with a rising pride in their heritage. If this movement takes, things will change for the better and good things will get done. It is a transformation that I don’t think the ruling classes in Europe can ultimately withstand.

I truly believe that you have to be able to love yourself before you can love others. I’m not speaking, of course, of a narcissistic kind of self-love, but rather a love and appreciation of one’s place in the greater scheme of things. It comes through grace, through a sense of harmony with one’s neighbors and citizens. This engenders thankfulness for all that we have been given by the sweat, labor and suffering of those that came before us. With thankfulness, comes respect. And it begins with one’s immediate community. Look around us…do we see this same sense of harmony, grace and peace among the Ruling Class and the Left? How can anyone spout nonsense about saving the world if they lose their family and community in the process?

This what I read in Guus’ lyrics, what I saw in the faces of the concert crowd and what I detected among the people of Flanders. These are people that will defend that which they love. I never saw this before. I see it now. This is how Europe will save itself.

I have never understood how such a large faction of people in this country could fail to be thankful for all the blessings their country and forebears bestowed on them and would instead prefer to self-righteously wallow in its perceived shortcomings.

I see this same awakening happening here. Perhaps it took the anger, bile, bitterness and self-serving corruption of the Left to bring us to this point. If so, that’s been a good thing.

So, that is what I saw in Flanders.

I know that I promised to address the issues of Europe, Islam, anti-semitism and Americans, too. Next post. Promise!

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  • David Foster

    “A French niece once gave me a very puzzled stare when I explained to her that “we Americans tend to be very proud of our countries and communities”….I’m actually surprised at this from a French person…would have been less surprised had this been said by a Brit. My impression was that the French generally still had a very high level of national pride, and local/regional pride as well.

  • suek

    I know very little about Belgium, but feel a small connection. During the war, my father worked at the Pentagon. Somehow, he became the sponsor for citizenship for “Miss Mariette”, as we called her. I’m sure she had a last name, but I don’t know what it was. She had worked as a spy for the Resistance during the Nazi occupation. She absolutely hated all things, _any_ thing, German. She had experienced too much. Years passed, and she obtained her citizenship. She remained an honorary family “cousin”, and in time met a fellow Belgian, Jean van Noten. Jean was a recognized artist, and the designer of the first UN stamp (although I’ve looked for info about him on the internet, and have been unable to find anything…so I guess he wasn’t _too_ famous!).  In the period I remember them, they were married, and as a token of appreciation for his sponsorship, Miss Mariette asked Jean to paint our portraits – my sister and me together.  So we spent several hours a day at their apartment in New Jersey during the summer, and he painted a watercolor portrait of us.  I still have it – and it’s way too large to hang on the walls of my house – it’s about 3 ft by 4 ft.
    Miss Mariette died, Jean returned to Belgium, and asked my father to store some art work he expected to ship at some time in the future.  Somehow, that never happened, he died,  and I have one large oil painting plus a number of water colors plus some charcoals sitting in my house unappreciated.  I’ve considered selling them, but never got around to it.  One son likes the oil – it’s supposed to be a scene from the ship building yards of Belgium – but it would mean shipping…and that is _very_ expensive.  Maybe we’ll take a trip and take it to him – but not this year.  As for the water color of my sister and me…what the heck can I do with that?   I’d feel guilty selling it – and who would want a portrait of someone completely unrelated to them?
    So that’s my connection to Belgium – a bunch of artwork stored in my house!

  • Gringo

    The dislike that many Europeans, especially of the interlekshul persuasion, emote regarding the US is often related to their disliking something about their own country. I recall reading about urinals in Belgium decorated with an image of Dubya.
    After a shocked pause, one of the girls turned to the other, “You see? Maybe our country is worth saving after all”. I hardly think Belgians are alone in this.
    Definitely a relation there. Not that the girl was one of those who supported the Dubya-decorated urinals, but that it is not a surprise that we would have had them in a country filled with such self-loathing.

    An example of self-loathing coupled with Ami criticism is Herta Daubler-Gmelin, fomerly Justice Minister in Germany when Schroeder was Chancellor. Eight years ago Herta Daubler-Gmelin created some controversy when she compared Bush to Hitler/Adolf Nazi and also called the US justice system “lousy.” Years later we found out that her Nazi father, Hans Gmelin, was Standartenführer in German occupied Slovakia, where Herta was born during WW2. In his position as assistant to German “ambassador” Hanns Ludin, Gmelin helped facilitate transport of Slovakian Jews to the camps, and served three years in prison as a consequence. That was a decidedly less onerous consequence than the Jewish citizens of Slovakia suffered when Hans Gmelin facilitated their transport to the camps.
    Puts Herta’s gratuitous criticisms of the US in a different context, does it not? Such as: “In an attempt to expiate my guilt feelings over my father’s conduct in WW2, I will attempt to show that the Americans are as bad as the Nazis.” I would have preferred that Herta had come to terms with her father’s wartime conduct- she was NOT responsible for how her father behaved when she was an infant- so that she would stop dumping on the Amis.

    The Belgians have King Leopold and the Congo, the Germans have Adolf Nazi, we have slavery.[Don’t we, Helen? :) ] Every country has less than stellar aspects of its history. We make sure we don’t do it again. We are human, and as such we will have imperfections, and lest we paralyze ourselves in guilt, need to remind ourselves that there are also parts of our past and present that are worth cherishing and continuing.

    BTW, a Belgian used to manufacture Celis Beer in TX, in various types, including a raspberry flavor, until he got bought out by Miller. A cousin of my father married a Belgian immigrant, but we saw each other only a few times.

  • shirleyelizabeth

    Your description of Belgians immediately brought my grandpa to mind.

  • Bookworm

    What a gorgeous post, Danny.  I was in Bruges, Ghent and Kortrijk back in the early, very early, 1980s, and carry in my mind images of the most beautiful town I’ve ever seen — and I’ve seen a lot of tbeautiful owns.  I also ate chocolate ’til it was coming out of my years, and I drowned myself in exquisite Flemish art, which is my favorite type of art.

    It has depressed me to imagine these sites in Muslim hands, their beauty destroyed, their art pillaged, and I’m awfully glad you saw reason for optimism.

  • Ymarsakar

    “I also ate chocolate ’til it was coming out of my years”
    You bet it was coming out of your youthful years!

  • Charles Martel

    Danny, as always, you write so well.

    The song is beautiful, and I was struck by how close Dutch/Flemish can sound to English, especially when sung. Take away a few of the sharp guttural sounds and you feel like you’re somewhere in the States, hearing music in the distance.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Whoa, Charles the Hammer – you hit it on the head! Flemish/Dutch is very close to “Olde” Chaucerian English. The Dutch/Flemish come from an Anglo-Saxon heritage.
    The pronunciation throws Americans off but, once you get past that, it is an easy language for us to understand and learn.
    Here’s an example, from the chorus:
    “En ik loop hier alleen in een te stille stad”
    And I walk/lope here alone in a too still/quiet city”
    Book…Islam will never conquer them!
    Cheers. Danny