Thursday, February 13, 2003

During WWII, my great aunt met, and married, a Belgian naval officer. He was an adventurous, handsome young man and I was told many exciting stories about him and my great aunt, like when his ship was wrecked and he drifted on a plank in the ocean for two weeks until he was rescued; like their life on the farm near Charleroi; like the years they lived in Africa in the Belgian colony of Congo, after the war.

At 18, just before I went into the army, I went over to spend some time with my great aunt and her sons and their families. My first experience of Brussels was rather alarming. Not being able to speak a word of French, I got lost and found myself in a small street full of men sitting at little tables, drinking coffee, playing backgammon and speaking Arabic. I was sure they could all clearly see I was Israeli and felt very threatened. My great aunt, however, lived in a little olde worlde village in the south. A widow with a very common French-Belgian name, she knew everyone there, but she told me no one in the village knew she was Jewish.

My relatives were wonderfully hospitable and showed me all round Belgium. I ate the most delicious tomatoes I’ve ever tasted, fresh from my cousin’s garden, and I also ate rabbit. First and last time ever. It was a bit dry. I bravely tackled an enormous bowl of some slimy stuff, which made me feel rather nauseous. I think it was mussels. I saw the statue of the little peeing boy (a bit of a disappointment considering it's regarded as a national symbol). I saw a hill with a statue of a lion on top, where, nearly two hundred years ago, the world powers of the day, that happened to be passing through, staged an important, decisive and terrible battle. I also saw some castles and lots of countryside. And, most exciting for me at the time, I got to see NATO headquarters from inside. It was a memorable holiday.

What I liked about Belgium was that it seemed so unassuming. The Belgians seemed to me to be quite content to be a quiet European backwater, busy working out their own inner cultural differences (between the French and the Flemish). Very wise. Why look for trouble?

But all that was twenty years ago. The little boys, my cousins, with whom I couldn't exchange a word because I chose Arabic and not French in high school, are now long married with children of their own and successful careers. And it seems the Belgians, as a people, have also changed and tired of their inconsequential role in the world arena. They want us to sit up and take notice. They want us to be afraid of them.

Some countries would give anything to be a quiet European backwater. Others, it seems, have nothing better to do than go poking their noses where they don't belong.

[I would like to point out that I do not wish to offend my Belgian relatives in any way. For them I have only the warmest of words and I apologize if they happen to read this post and find it offensive]

Update: Haaretz editorial: “Belgium's status is no different from that of any other sovereign state, and it is entitled to enact laws and judge its own citizens, or anyone who commits crimes against them. But the Belgian legislature has elevated its country's justice system above those of every other nation, and is trying to impose its rule on the citizens of countries with no connection to Belgium.”