The best of Flanders Today: Some of our favourite stories of the past 13 years

Summary

Flanders Today is coming to an end, so we thought we’d take a trip down memory lane and share some of our best and brightest moments

The good, the bad, and everything in-between

Flanders Today will cease publication on 31 December. We have spent 13 great years serving the international community inside and outside of Belgium.

The foreign affairs department in the government of Flanders has decided to end the contract with Ackroyd Publications to publish Flanders Today. We find this a very unfortunate decision, especially as so much of what we have published was not available in English anywhere else.

Here are a few of our favourite stories from the past 13 years – the stories that amazed us, touched us or otherwise made us realise, once again, that this tiny region is so hugely rich in history, diversity, culture and innovation.

The goat-riders of Limburg: In 18th-century Flanders, rural farmers were convinced that satanic gangs flew through the air on the backs of goats, trampling the populace and drinking potions to secure a pact with the devil. Stemming from thieves who would threaten to burn farms to the ground, the belief led to Flanders’ own version of witch trials.

Roma at school: Sometimes a journalist would come back from an assignment with a story that was so much richer than we imagined. What we thought would be a simple education article on how teachers integrate Roma children into the classroom (picture above) turned into a heart-warming story on travelling communities, parents’ dreams for their children and kids’ natural desire to learn.

Interview with Helmet Lotti: One of those faces expats are used to seeing everywhere but don’t really know much about, Helmet Lotti spoke candidly to our music journalist about being pigeon-holed and the struggle with choosing in which language to record.

Yvonne and Armand of Geel

Coming home to Geel: The town of Geel in Antwerp province has captured the world’s attention for its collective care of people with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities. Through an innovative foster care system, steeped in hundreds of years of history, the people of Geel really put into practice what others only talk about – putting people first in an atmosphere of respect and kindness.

The volkscafe: Some of our greatest stories have involved explaining Flemish culture to newcomers. One of our favourites is this one about the treasures to be found in local bars, into which tourists fear to tread.

War children: “When adults start whispering, that’s when you have to listen closely.” Gerlinda Swillen’s captivating story of her birth to parents on either side of the WWII conflict led her to do research on the children born of war.


The arrival of Black:
In 2015, directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah burst onto the international film scene with Black, a movie unlike any other Belgium had produced. The Romeo & Juliet love story amidst the Moroccan and black gangs of Brussels finally put actors of colour in the lead instead of on the sidelines. It also sent El Arbi and Fallah to Hollywood; their most recent movie was Bad Boys for Life.

Saving lives: Bart Weetjens knew that rats weren’t just vermin when he began his efforts to train them for landmine detection. He went on to found the international organisation Apopo, which saves countless lives around the world every year.

Down memory lane: Flanders has a reputation for innovation, and we’ve covered many of the cutting-edge developments coming out of the region. One project in a care home showed how simple solutions can harness tech to make a huge difference to people’s lives – using an exercise bike hooked up to Google Street View to take elderly residents on a voyage of nostalgia.


Terrorist attacks:
Belgium was shaken to its core on 22 March 2016 when suicide bombers took to Brussels Airport in Zaventem and Maalbeek metro station in the European district. Two bombs at the airport and one in the metro killed 32 people and injured hundreds more. We delivered confirmed accounts of the entire event, from the first reports of explosions to the ensuing responses, manhunt and political fallout – to the hearings that started this month in the lead-up to the trial.

Speaking your language: Flemish universities attract international students by providing programmes in English, but researchers in Ghent wanted to know if that puts Flemish students at a disadvantage. Exploring a topic relevant to many of our international readership, we asked: “How exactly do people learn in a second language?”

Interview with Simon Gronowski: One of our greatest honours was bringing our readers fascinating stories from Flemish history. A bright moment in this mission was our interview with Simon Gronowski, who in 1943 escaped from a moving train travelling from Mechelen to Auschwitz. The 11-year-old boy ran through the woods and found safety with families until the end of the war. He is a living legend of local bravery and survival.


Of okapis and men:
We went behind the scenes at Antwerp Zoo to find a fascinating world of laboratories, genetic records and animal poo, as scientists and care managers work to protect some of the world’s most endangered species. Our guide was Europe’s number one okapi expert. What’s an okapi? Let us jog your memory.

Syrian refugees: Over the years we’ve brought you the stories of Flanders’ top chefs, because if there’s one thing we love here, it’s food. Knowing full well that the way to the heart is through the stomach, a collective of Syrian women in Antwerp uses the food of their homeland to tell a different story of refugees and integration.

One last wish: A trip to the sea, a final family meal, dropping in to a grandchild’s birthday party, being at home when the kids come back from school… Dying wishes can be simple things, and a group of volunteers in Limburg are there to make them happen for patients at the very end of their lives. We met the founders and heard from some of the families they’ve helped.

Away from it all: In a year where many people have reassessed their priorities, it seems fitting to look back at our writer’s encounter with two locals who sought a more sustainable way of life.

A year like no other: Indeed, 2020 turned out to be quite a year for Flanders Today, as it has been for all other media concerns. We have striven to provide accurate and clear information about federal and regional coronavirus regulations. We will not be able to continue that coverage, so we suggest you visit our sister publication, The Bulletin, which publishes daily updates on figures as well as any changes to requirements and regulations.

Photos: Schoolchild ©Marlies De Boeck, Geel ©Lisa Bradshaw, Terrorism ©Geert Vanden Wijngaert, Okapis ©Bart Van der Moeren