Belgian politics remains a mystery even to the most battle-scarred expat resident. That is why last week the Flemish non-profit organisation de Rand, or the Rim - referring to the Brussels periphery - hitched a ride with your favourite English-language newspaper to distribute their new booklet, Living in Translation, which aims to unravel the administrative knot of regions and communities, languages and facilities.
"In België mag iedereen de taal spreken die hij of zij wil," it says in chapter one, reassuringly: "In Belgium, people can speak any language they want." You can smell the maar, the but, lingering in the air.
"De taal van de overheid is die van het taalgebied," it goes on: "The language of the authorities is that of its language area." In short, you may speak French, English or Swahili, but de Vlaamse overheid, the Flemish government, will respond in Dutch.
The leaflet, complete with graphs, tables and cartoons, makes an effort to explain and justify that stance, which is perceived as rigid by some. It does so by saying that it wants to preserve the Dutch- language character of its territory, notably de Vlaamse Rand, which has been subject to een sterke verfransing, a strong Frenchification (a word I don't like; it sounds like a disease). That is why the Flemish government compels the use of Dutch in scholen, schools, bedrijven, companies, or ziekenhuizen, hospitals.
"Waarom is Belgie niet gewoon tweetalig?" True, it would save everyone a lot of sweat and tears (no blood, so far) if Belgium would be simply bilingual. But it's not, the author explains with an almost fatalistic clarity: "de geschiedenis heeft er anders over beslist," history has decided otherwise.
Living in Translation is informative, comprehensible and a recommended read. It is available in Dutch, German, English and French, and its website is open for any additional questions you might have.
It even makes a genuine effort at objectivity, even though it is manifestly Flemish. In any case, it should make life easier for you next time you're soothing people far, far away. www.livingintranslation.be