Thursday, April 29, 2010

Priorities

I might have given some of my readers the impression that the Belgian politics were now totally paralyzed and ineffective. I feel obliged to add some nuances: our politicians do realise that our country needs some urgent decisions & government in these times of economical crisis so when needed they do overcome their differences and disputes in the parliament to pass some important issues

....

So the federal Chamber of representatives voted the prohibition to wear a burqa this evening. I'm glad they are so concerned and that they know what the priorities are in this country.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Made in Belgium: Fiocco

It's only in the last couple of years that I have discovered the many Belgian rock groups. As a teenager & student I was mainly listening to whatever popular music was in the hit charts (often being a lot of commercial dance music) and I balanced that off with a strong love for folk music :p.

In the summer of 1997 I was finishing my first year at university and I remember this hit being a tremendous song to crank up the radio, close your eyes and shake off all study & exam stress while the beats roll over you. You can totally submerge in it. Unlike the hits from 2 Unlimited last week, Afflitto by Fiocco did survive the test of time and will get me on the dance floor easily.


afflitto short





afflitto long



Monday, April 26, 2010

BHV or B-HV, that's the question....or why the Belgian governments keep failing

The world press was present in Brussels last Thursday since we'd be one of the first countries voting a law to prohibit burqas. It was the European headline on CNN & BBC. But we never voted the law as instead our prime minister went to the king to resign his government. The king had anticipated the crisis and had cancelled his plans while he was waiting for Yves Leterme to come. It's only the 5th time in 3 years that this scenario was happening. (see the saga here).
Our king assigned some consulting politicians who needed to cool down the situation and see if there was still room for negotiations before he accepted the stepping down of the government.
Today the assigned politician stepped down failing in that role as well and the government fell this time for real.

So is there a war as The Independent stated last week? No!
After half a year without a government (2007) and 4 government switches since that moment, our lives don't stop anymore at yet another political crisis in our country. The sad thing is that we're still fighting about the same thing. Despite many bold statements, deadlines, tactics & negotiations we seem to be in a deadlock over BHV.

BHV?

Well in Belgium there's different cultural & linguistic groups ( more background in my old post here). Then you must make choices as a country how to organize your administration and relationship with your citizens. Usually the territorial principle ensures that withing a defined territory one government agency is entitled to rule. In the first part of the 20th century all towns in Belgium had to organize a "language count" every 10 years which determined if the town was considered as French or Dutch speaking. This was the base of communication by the government in that area and that could switch every 10 years. In some towns this system caused switches back & forth and the necessary discussions when counts were contested. Especially the region in and around Brussels was becoming more and more French speaking, although traditionally a Flemish region, an evolution that a pro-Flemish movement hoped to stop.

In 1963 a compromise was found in drawing a formal language border across Belgium trying to make most provinces unilingual and therefore reducing administrative complexity. Some towns shifted from province and several got special "facilities" for the minority group in that town including 6 towns around Brussels. Brussels itself was the only region in Belgium with an official bilingual status as an island in the Flemish region.

From the very start however the 2 groups had a different vision on this point. For the Flemish Dutch speaking in the north, the language border is a state border. The territorial principle was in the constitution and determined that in the north all official communication was in Dutch. The creeping French expension had been stopped and the facilities around Brussels were to be seen as temporary measures to help the French speaking minority to integrate and adjust and learn Dutch in the transition period. For the Wallonians all of this isn't so strict and the right to speak your own language is primary above all.

And there it is: the seed of ongoing political instability.

Belgium evolved in the last 40 years to a federal state with extensive regional powers, several regional governments and a shift in economical weight from the south to the north. The process has taken quite some hick-ups (and governments resigning so hey....we are used to it in some way) but always ended in a compromise with give and take on both sides. This federalism stressed the importance of the language border even more.
The Frenchification of Brussels continued and expended into the towns around Brussels (although even French is becoming a minority language due to the expansion of many international immigrants). The mandatory Dutch nature of these (with mandatory city councils in Dutch, voting ballots in Dutch, ....) has truly become rather forced and unnatural in a couple of them.

Politically & juridically Belgium is divided in voting districts and those also match this territorial principle: in Flanders dutch speaking political parties can form lists and get elected...in Wallonian french speaking political parties can form lists and get elected and then they all form a coalition with a regional majority in the parliament and federal government.

But here's the catch: the political district in the center of Belgium is an exception and includes Brussels+ the Flemish towns (eg Halle & Vilvoorde) around it (=BHV, Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde) .....so a bit of bilingual region and a bit of Dutchspeaking region. Which means that in the "Flemish towns" around Brussels, the people can vote on French speaking politicians. And those defend their rights and therefore reinforce the French expension in and around Brussels. (what is almost never mentioned is that the Flemish around Brussels also can vote on the Flemish candidates within Brussels and top up their votes in a primarily French speaking area despite the bilingual status). On top of that our constitutional court has ruled in 2004 that this situation must change as it prohibits that all Belgiums are equal to the law (and only can vote following the territorial principle). So BHV must get split into Brussels and Halle/Vilvoorde as a concentric Flemish district around Brussels. And this must be done before the next federal elections or they might be ruled unconstitutional.

The Flemish around Brussels feel threatened by the the French speaking unwilling to speak their language, to adapt, to apply the law. They reason that if you consciously move to Flanders, you also must learn the language and adapt. Extending the facilities or expanding the borders of the bilingual Brussels is out of the question. They feel they must defend the Flemish nature and are victims of the French arrogance.

The Wallonian feel threatened by the growing Flemish nationalism. They feel bullied around Brussels, the rights of a minority disrespected with demands that are far away from all reality. They want to connect with Brussels or have a territorial "corridor" with Wallonia to have a link with their roots as being trapped in a Flemish territory without connection to their 'compatriotes' would be their nightmare.

And there you have all ingredients for 3 years of political disputes, threats, deadlines, negotiations, bold statements and immobilized governments.
  • Some Flemish political parties do not want to negotiate as BHV simply needs to get split without any compromise. It's the law and nothing more. So they put it on the agenda of the federal parliament and we could vote it with a majority of all Flemish against all Walloon.
    (Oh wait a moment, we have already done so 2 years ago and it let to no solution since we have a lot of protection measures to prevent one cultural group bullying laws over the other one. So all political parties claiming we "only need 5 minutes of political courage" and that we'll vote in a couple of days are just fooling their voters. It is only a guarantee of longer political chaos, with the vote being put on hold, transformed to the government who has to find a solution...which they've not managed to do in 2-3 years.)
  • Some Flemish political parties say that the only solution is to negotiate until we find a compromise. That's true. But how much patience do we need to have? How much patience can we have? How much counter demands can we accept?
    None of them dares to sell out their voters by accepting Brussels growing larger, by assigning more budget to Brussels, by giving the minorities of the French speaking the right to vote in Brussels rather than in their newly split off Flemish district, by no longer letting the Flemish government approve the mayors of the problematic towns, .... All of them made such bold statements that none of them can agree upon any of these counter agreements without losing their face. And electoral gain seems more important right now than finding a solution.
  • Most of the Walloon political parties say they want to negotiate and are willing to split BHV...but they are throwing a long list of counter demands on the table. A huge list. And they drag and drag the negotiations endlessly because the status quo isn't really an issue for them. Why are the Flemish fussing so hard anyway? And how dare they to claim they want a solution whereas at the same time they set negotiation deadlines. A good compromise takes time.
    (Hmm...would 3 years of ongoing discussions, work groups, mediators, ... not be enough time?)
And so a dozen of smaller towns circled around Brussels have become a symbol of Belgium. The unability to find any compromise, not even on the method how to tackle this issue has become the symbol of a paralysed government. And as long as this issue is outstanding, they can't focus on any other issues.

Talk about an impasse. Now that the government crashed once again the different political parties aren't even sure if we can organize new elections or not (not surprisingly those parties who fear the result claim there is no way we can organize new elections now since they will be unconstitutional, ....the others say that an emergency law or a validation by the parliament will do the trick).

I don't know what will happen. New elections probably will create a bigger polarization as I fear the most extreme points of view will gain the most votes...making the new coalition forming rather hopeless again. When I read the comments below many news articles online, I often feel sick. All sense of nuance seems to be gone while demagogy rules.
Yet the new elections would have one great benefit: there would theoretically be no new elections in 4 years and the cycle of regional & federal elections would fall together enforcing symmetrical coalitions at all levels and preventing the schizophrenic position some political parties now find themselves. That would be a great step forward at least.
A new generation of politicians that have not burnt themselves and that dare to be realistic or progressive (not to strangle a 'European capital' by unrealistic language laws out of nostalgia to something that is lost anyway?) yet would be great too, but I guess I'm dreaming on that point. A country where all citizens are so respectful to become bilingual is probably an illusion too. I don't feel much optimism tonight.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Singing for the street children in Santa Cruz

Today we had our choir concert in Leuven in order to support VIVE , an organization in Santa Cruz Bolivia who helps street children. Here's 2 of the songs we brought this afternoon (in slightly different arrangements) which I loved a lot: the powerful accusation of children as victims of wars and violence contrasted with the Bolivian joy & pride of Viva Santa Cruz :)


"Pour les enfants"


"Viva Santa Cruz"

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Made in Belgium: 2 Unlimited

I'm taking the "Made in Belgium" quite literal here as the 2 Unlimited duo is made up by the Dutch rapper Ray Slijngaard and Dutch singer Anita Doth but produced by 2 Belgian producers that were already active in the vibrant Belgian dance scene at the beginning of the nineties (remember eg Technotronic).

2 unlimited is one of the rare bands that were well known when I crossed the ocean on my exchange in the mid-nineties. The computerized dance music was a welcome familiar sound as a buoy against my culture shock when I discovered part of my class was into line dancing on country & western music whereas the rest of them had Alanis Morisette's "Jagged Little Pill" on an eternal repeat.

Currently there's some 'back to the nineties' hype in Belgium, with parties, new cd compilations & radio stations that replay nineties music during a week or so. For some music that's really great but I have the impression that 2 Unlimited didn't age well. It sounds so coarse-grained & unsubtle.

Nevertheless Ray & Anita are trying to come back with a slightly more modern sound (they are in dispute with one of the former producers who owns the name of 2 Unlimited so they can't use it anymore). I don't think they'll make the same level of success anymore but I'll leave that up to you to judge. It was also in the news this winter that Anita is currently fighting breast cancer. I wish her a good recovery.


No Limit






Tribal Dance






In the name of love - 2009




Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mijn restaurant

Yes it's that time of the year again....Mijn Restaurant. And finally the restaurants are open and it's about cooking & serving. No more fighting candidates that need to be thrown out of the contest, no more infiltrated journalists, no more previous candidates with relationships problems and almost deadly car accidents...

....no finally we can see how the services run smoothly or not at all. I like it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

ashes to ashes

Who would have thought a week ago that a volcano could cause

* > 100000 Belgians that can't return home from there Easter vacation ...causing absences in companies & schools tomorrow
* tour operators organising "air bridges" to Spain from which several dozens of coaches are now scheduled to pick up tourists
* car rental company find their cars scattered over Europe since who has a car drives it across the continent to get home (often renting out the spare spaces )
* taxi drivers get the rides of their life with trips to Vienna, Oslo & Milan for a few thousand euro
* ferries are fully booked and remarkably all cars have 4-5 passengers :p
* organ donor lists being reshuffled to give organs now on a "nearby" base priority
* cycling tours need special permission to get a helicopter in the air to film & broadcast the images
* a Polish state funeral for the victims of a plane crash cannot be attended by other state officials since they fear...a plane crash (hmm wouldn't the Polish have wished this volcano started a week earlier?? how ironic is this?).
* all cargo companies have sent their people 4 days ago home already on 'technical unemployment'.



These are strange times but seriously, it's so quiet outside! And I don't think I've ever seen a blue sky without lines from the airplanes in it. I have never realized air traffic was so auditive & visible! It really is. It's strange outside.
And I'm also amazed by the number of people that I know that are affected by this. So many flying people. wow. I wonder if there will be colleagues absent tomorrow.

Concerts

Yesterday Caminhando brought our first of 2 annual concerts (ok numerous smaller activities and public performances not included). Our concerts are truly the highlight of the year with the selection of good project for our fund raiser in the summer , the choice of a theme, ongoing work groups for promotion, song & content selection, the reception, the decorations, ...

This year the concerts are a duo organisation with a Congolese choir. Their repertoire is quite complementary to the world music we tend to bring. The different cultural attitude towards organisation is sometimes apparent & funny though...or frustrating if you are trying to get some decisions made :p.

But it was good fun yesterday. We had not heard all of their songs yet but they sure can swing. And those African screams that get launched now and then...well we try to imitate that sometimes but we'll always be poor imitators.

And I dare to bet that their conductor has a spring in his body given the elasticity he moves up & down while conducting.

After the concert we were welcomed by a big buffet of food that we were asked to lign up for. After some quick reshuffling we managed to give all train travellers a place in the present cars so they could stay as well while missing their last train back.

With a fully filled car we drove back after a statisfying day in Namur. You know you are part of a 'solidarity choir' if you then notice a broken down car beside the road getting ready to be towed away and you recognize it and you turn out to be the 5th choir car that has stopped to offer help :p.

So one more rehearsal and we are ready for the concert in Leuven next weekend. Vive!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Made in Belgium: Vaya Con Dios

One of the most succesful Belgian bands ever is Vaya Con Dios. They had some hits when I was a child and their warm sound influenced by jazz & gipsy music was really contagious for young and old. Just listen to Puerto Rico and I promise you will sing it for the rest of the day!

Their biggest international hits were scored in the beginning of the nineties with "What's a woman" that's always going to stand the test of time. It was on top of the charts in Belgium and surrounding countries for weeks. It still gives me chills when I hear it and it's probably one of the first slows I have ever danced on.
Funny (or painful) that it was also one of the most used opening dances on Belgian weddings. Haha clearly I'm not the only one who grew up with English music around , without understanding the lyrics and when growing up ...still not being used to pay true attention to the lyrics. Gosh , can you imagine you get married to such a text?

In the mid-nineties I've seen Dani Klein perform as a guest performer at Night of the Proms. Trust me: she's got flair on stage and gosh...what a voice, what a voice!

It was a disappointment to hear in 1996 that Vaya Con Dios stopped because Dani had lost the joy of the band and wanted to flee all the pressure & commercial circus. It was a loss for the Belgian music scene.

But...they came back in 2004. On a smaller scale, more in the background but still good.



Puerto Rico - 1986



What's a woman - 1990




Nah neh nah - 1990



Pauvre Diable - 2006




Les voiliers sauvages de nos vies - 2009

Monday, April 12, 2010

I really wanted waffles

It was a grey cold winter day when our class was interrupted by a knock on the door. Our grade 3 teacher opened the door to reveal S's mother on the other side much to our surprise. S was a girl in our class and her parents owned a bakery with a little tea-room just one block away from school. We always joked about it since she often arrived late in class although she lived closest by of all of us.

Our teacher and S's mother had a brief conversation on the outside of the door after which our teacher came back in leaving the mother nervously smiling at us from the opening.

"The mother of S has invited us all to come and eat waffles in the bakery"

We were surprised & confused about this unexpected announcement during about 2 seconds after which a round of enthusiastic cheers took over.
"She'd like us to come right now, so you can leave all your stuff on your desk. Go to the hallway and put on your coats".
These instructions didn't need to get repeated to get us going.

When we got into the hallway I noticed that both grade 5 classes next doors were emptying as well and I was confused that S's mom would have invited them as well? Why would she do that? Could we all fit in the bakery?
I did not get much time to think about it as we went downstairs immediately. From the next building more kids were getting outside. At this point our teacher didn't direct us to the nearby gate but we followed the flow of classes towards the high school's basketball field passed the playground. We started picking up parts of conversations in the other classes. Some words kept vibrating in the air and we repeated them among ourselves with question marks as if my friends would be able to confirm or not. Really, was this true?

I could see that my mom had gathered her grade 6 class on the field as well and I quickly ran towards her.
"Mom mom, we are going to eat waffles at S's...what's going on, is it true what they are saying? Why are you here too? Where are you going to?"
"Yes it's true, but you have to stay with your own class. Be happy that you can go to the bakery, everyone else has to go the the park or the city event hall if they'll open it up for us. Her mom must have heard the news on the radio. Come on, go back to your teacher. "

I ran back to my class where in the mean time G. was crying hysterically. We gathered around G. and tried to comfort her although I got quickly annoyed by her melodramatic reaction.
"The bomb is only going to explode at 4PM, we won't be here, nothing is going to happen to us." we said. "The police is coming to search the buildings. And the bomb can be hidden in a different school as well" "Come on, stop crying, why are you crying so hard?"

After a short moment the police indeed arrived at the school and we all left. Most classes headed to the city hall that had been opened up but we turned off towards the bakery. Halfway we were crossed by a class from a different school and I recognized my best friend from the neighbourhood in the group. "Hey where are you guys going?" "To the park" "Oh cool, we're going to the bakery" "Bye" "Yeah see ya!"
I was disappointed not to be going to the park either.

We all settled into the tea-room and filled the space with amazing stories of exploding buildings, spectacular fires and police searches through our class room etc... It didn't take long though before G launched another panic attack that forced us to quiet down.

And then we were bored. We had only our fingers to drum the table and S's mother made no move at all to make us some waffles. My suggestion to S whether I had to help to set the tables was ignored. And the clock simply didn't move. Not with the help of S's childish coloring books either. The cold city park looked so attracting!

And then all of a sudden it was a quarter to 4. And I couldn't help stare at the clock.
Did I hear sirens? Did I hear an explosion? Weren't we awfully close to the school? Wouldn't the bakery blow up as well? How on earth could the police search all schools of the city center full of bags & coats and cabinets in a couple of hours time and be certain that they had found the bomb or that there was no bomb? All of a sudden the thought that school would be closed for weeks wasn't so exciting anymore. Where would we go? I would have to buy new pencils and I'd loose my favourite binder as well.

Our teacher was making some phone calls and a little after 4 we were going back towards the school. I thought that was way too early. What if the bomb would go off a bit after 4?
But all seemed very peaceful and everyone returned to pick up their stuff in order to go home. Like any other day...without waffles .



some background info:
In the mid-80ies Belgium was in the grip of a communist terrorist organisation (the CCC) who were responsible for several bomb attacks on international organisations such as NATO and business organisations in the wide area around Brussels. They were "nice" enough to always warn their targets so they "only" caused 2 deadly victims. Their last bombing was in dec 4, 1985 in Antwerp. They got arrested that same month, served their time in prison and are currently free on parole. In the same period '84- 85 one of the bloodiest gangs was active: 'the Nijvel gang' or the 'killers from Brabant', responsible for severe hold-ups in Belgian supermarkets...usually with a lot of victims and extremely little stolen money. In total they made over 28 deadly victims. The investigation to the gang has been marked by blunders and has never had any result despite regular re-opening of the files. The entire story of the gang is often inspiration for many police/para-military/political conspiracy theories in the media, books and movies. Personally I remember asking my parents not to go shopping on a Friday evening as most hold-ups seemed to take place on a Friday evening.

The false bomb warning in my home town that had set 5 high schools & 3 elementary schools in the city center on the street was in this atmosphere. That same week a military robot has blown up a suspicious but harmless left behind briefcase at the train station.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Warche valley in Robertville

'It's been a long time since we've been in the Ardennes. ' announced Jan this weekend. That's all relative I suppose but we headed out for a nature walk anyway. This time we explored the woods around the valley of the little Warche river around the powerdam of Robertville.


Blooming daffodils in the woods. In some touristic brochures we read that this valley and some other nearby ones is one of the only ones where daffodils still grow in wild in Europe!



Little waterfalls & creeks crossing the paths in the woods



Walking along the valley slopes



The historic fortress Reinhardstein in the valley above the Warche river at 800 m from the power dam at Robertville, yet only reachable by foot.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Living in the virtual world

Last Wednesday I had the unfortunate experience of my first....my first facebook friend who passed away.

Have you ever wondered what happens with online profiles, blogs, etc....if the person behind them is no longer with us? What if their online contacts only have online contact...how would they find out what causes the sudden silence? How long would online blogs remain online? What if they've planned some posts ahead of time that would still appear afterwards? How creepy would that be?
What about online personal profiles on social websites? Would someone take the effort to let the site know that the profile can/should be removed or "memorialised" as can happen on FB to prevent "friend suggestions" & birthday reminders etc...?

Last Wednesday I started to see shocked, silent, mourning & sad statuses everywhere among a small network of friends of young Christians mainly living around Ghent. It didn't take long before I learned that a well-known vicar from the Ghent diocese responsible for youth & inter religious relations had unexpectedly passed away. I had known him from many youth gatherings, discussion evenings, the world jubilee days and he had been my parish priest when I was living in Ghent. I have always really enjoyed his gentle nature, his sense of humour and his gift for lecturing.

And now I can tell you what happens with a FB profile when someone passes away: it becomes a place where friends get together virtually to say goodbye, leave a last message and find memories.

Made in Belgium: Arno

For more than 3 decades the Belgian singer Arno brightens up the rock scene with his personality. I'll make a later post with his classics he made with TC Matic but he remained succesful in his solo career. In English, French or his Flemish coastal dialect , rock or chanson, soft or rough , a never compromising performer and a hell to interview....he's simply Arno.

In 2002 he got decorated in France as knight in the Order of Arts and Letters for his contribution to the French culture.



Dans les yeux de ma mère

- In my mother's eyes, there's always light -
a beautiful ode to mothers




Les filles du bord de mer
- a party classic where you get the entire hall waving across the floor shouting along CHOUETTE CHOUETTE





Brussels - 2010
his current single that has the gift to stick in my head all night long

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Reunions

Last weekend were filled with more family visits. After the reunion with my Australian host sister after 20 years at our wedding, she now returned to Belgium for the 2nd time with her lovely family. This time she fortunately stayed longer than one day and I wasn't tied up with a lot of other guests to truly meet and catch up.

We had the joy to finally meet her husband and children over the weekend and relive memories from long times ago while my nephew could make new ones with his new international friends. Needless to say that time flew waaaaaaay to fast and before we knew it we had to say goodbye again. Thank goodness I've been trained over the last 15-20 years in saying goodbyes but also in learning to trust that our roads will cross again somewhere here on the globe and that the bonds will remain. And that we'll laugh and talk again as if we've not been apart.

And in the mean time of course there's always the internet to keep in touch :)


My aussie sister and her husband

bonding in the kitchen

You clearly don't need to know English to goof over a plate of spaghetti :D...

....or to scream together in silly chasing games


Me and my mother


and my parents with their foreign host daughter



Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter with family

I'm back home exhausted from a weekend full of family gatherings, way too much good food and a lot of energetic children....an excellent easter weekend as always.