I owe a lot to Belgium. I came here as an Erasmus student in 2007 at the Universiteit Antwerpen where I first discovered the culture, the customs and the issues of this country. I even wrote my thesis about the Belgian federal system and its recent history and still I believe I’m in a sort of continuous learning curve.
Some time ago after a rugby game I was chatting with my coach, a French expat who’s been living Brussels for years. We were just talking about rugby over a beer, as all rugby teams do during a “third half” after a game where you fought hard against the opponent. Suddenly, completely out of the blue, a member of the opponent team starts talking to us directly in Flemish, assuming that nobody would understand him. My coach politely said “Sorry, I don’t understand Flemish. Do you speak French?”. The guy kept on going in Flemish saying that it is not normal that teams playing in Flanders don’t speak Dutch, that it is not normal that people come to Belgium and don’t speak Dutch and that, as a Flemish, he didn’t know how to speak French. I reply to him “What would you do if you were promoted to the national league and would have to talk to French-speaking refs?” His response was “if that happens we’ll stay in the Flemish league.”
He was clearly looking for confrontation, which is NOT what you do in a rugby third half. This is not the rugby spirit, which is based on aggression, rage and physical confrontation only and exclusively during the game. After that, it’s all over and both teams are bound to celebrate the beauty of the game and the happiness they share playing the best sport in the world.
This is not Belgium either, or at least, this is not what Belgium has taught me it is. I come from a country where populism has been a predominant factor in national politics for the last 20 years. I know how this works and I know how it plays out into society. I know that some isolated comments from an individual do not make the image of an entire population but it is worrying that a huge segment of the population are victims of populist propaganda. I’m proud of those friends of mine that say “I’m Belgian” and those who believe that unity pays off more than minor bureaucratic quarrels.
I’m part of the expats community of Brussels and consequently of Belgium. I play in a rugby team with people from literally all over the world who ended up here for work, for life or for whatever other reason. We all integrate, pay our (high) taxes here and get accustomed to the state’s system as all expats do in other countries.