Will Belgium crumble? I hope not. Gloomy Belgians often say the Flemish and Walloons live wholly separate lives, from the news they consume to the celebrities they gossip about. With respect, I disagree.
My favourite book about Belgium, “De smaak van de Belgen”, by Eric Boschman and Nathalie Derny, asserts that north and south are bound together in shared memories of childhood Cecemel, melo-cakes or chicons au gratin. They are surely right.
Eat tomato and grey shrimps in the glazed terrace of a café in Ghent, De Haan or Dinant, while your children tuck into meatballs and tomato sauce and the rain lashes down outside: you can only be in Belgium.
It goes beyond food. Spend a weekend morning in a provinciedomein like Kessel-Lo or Huizingen, and observe the other families. There will be fathers drinking 11am Leffes (because beer is essentially a soft drink, as every Belgian knows), and mothers dunking speculoos biscuits in their Rombouts coffee. It will all feel rather old-fashioned. There will be grandparents guarding pushchairs and older siblings looking after toddlers. In the distance, there may be gangs of the world’s scruffiest scouts, their shambolic uniforms only identifiable by a flash of a knotted scarf, being led on a treasure hunt by gangling teenage leaders. Some will be speaking Dutch, others French: to me all look distinctively Belgian.
Plenty of countries partly define themselves by not being a neighbour (Canada is the non-America, for example). Belgium is uniquely not two neighbours: the French speaking place that is not France, the Dutch speaking place that is not the Netherlands. This is handled with a self-deprecating humour bordering on genius. My favourite song about Belgium is Dick Annegarn’s “Bruxelles”, in which the singer defines the city by considering the ways in which it is not Paris. Mr Annegarn, a Dutchman who sings in French, suggests it is a “cruel duel” to pit “neurotic Paris” against decadent, beer-soaked and frankly “moronic” Brussels. Nonetheless, he sings, he will return to Brussels, because France has left him a broken man. Mr Annegarn was duly made an honorary citizen of Brussels, for services to the worldwide image of the Belgian capital.
Is any of this enough to keep a country together? That is not a question a foreigner can answer.