Not quite speaking French - A country hidden by a large dog - CycleBlaze

August 24, 2019

Not quite speaking French

Wyompoint to Buissonville

Laundry in the old-fashioned way
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WHEN I lived in northern Belgium, you could turn on the morning news and barely know that the south existed. In the north, we spoke Dutch. In the south they spoke French. Two different worlds.

You'd hear about a tram strike in Ghent and a bank robbery in Antwerp or a shortage of roadmenders in St-Niklaas. And then, just before the weather, you'd hear that there were thousands dead of the plague in Charleroi.

That's an exaggeration, of course. But this was the early 1980s and Belgium was going through one of its bad moods. The south had for long tried to suppress the language in the north and to keep the people impoverished, the north reckoned. Now the tables had turned and the steel and coal industries that made the south so rich had closed and it was the north supporting the south through its taxes. Many people had had enough and they wanted the north to declare independence.


Cycling magazines in Britain and elsewhere reported that Roger De Vlaeminck, one of Belgium's top cyclists of the period, was  so much a Flemish separatist that he refused to speak French. And once printed, it became fact.

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But it never was fact. De Vlaeminck will speak good French to anybody. But he got so many angry letters when he spoke it to a journalist on television after a race that he stopped, preferring a quiet life. From then on he spoke only Dutch when the cameras were on him and both Dutch and French when they weren't.

The company I worked for once sent me to Brussels. When I got back, I complained to my pal Willy, the driver, that I'd gone to the capital and spoken the country's majority language and that nobody had understood me.

"Now you see our problem," he all but shouted, almost banging on the table. "You are a good Flandrian, my friend."

Next morning he brought me membership forms for the Volksunie, the extremist separatist party. I think we go around painting rude messages and blowing up bridges.


Here, we are in the French-speaking southern half of the country. And when we got into conversation with another cyclist, he started in French and then asked to continue in English.

"I live in Leuven," he said, "and there are students everywhere and they all speak English, so I've lost the habit of speaking French."

Leuven is just a wheel's turn north of the linguistic border that runs horizontally across the centre of the country. A little further south they speak French rather than Dutch and the city becomes known as Louvain.

The same happened in La Roche, where we found a cycle-tourist sitting on a bench and trying to make sense of his GPS. We asked if he had come far and he looked up puzzled and said "Jij spreekt Vlaams?"

A lot of people in the north refer to Dutch as Flemish, but it's the same language.

I said I did but that I'd forgotten a lot.

"Oh," he said, "English is fine. But not French."

He'd just spent three months in South America and we got the impression that for someone from Antwerp it was a lot less foreign than the south of Belgium.

La Roche came at the bottom of a seemingly endless descent on a narrow road through trees and fields dappled by morning sunshine. Tourists were everywhere and we felt the attraction of a hot chocolate to watch them all pass.

In peace, cyclists pass with barely a glance
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We stopped at a moderately interesting museum recalling the Battle of the Bulge, which was fought here. The Germans hadn't been expected to come through the Ardennes and so that's the way they came. They pushed out a big bulge in the American lines, which is where the name comes from, and things could have gone either way until the British arrived and numbers settled the affair.

The British arrive and numbers swing in favour of the Allies
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Soldiers' comforts
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The Ardennes are behind us now. The houses of red limestone are still there but the area has a more workmanlike air, as though  it had never intended to compete with the Ardennes for the top of a chocolate box.

In a village called Humain we dropped in at a new and fancy village hall to ask for water for our night's camp. Outside a woman was dealing cheerfully with two children, saying "Attends!" to one and "Wait!" to the other. Inside, tables were being set and food cooked.

"It's my father's funeral," she explained. "We have relatives coming from as far as Canada and lots locally because he was a professor of archaeology and he knew everybody. And he loved this village."

She smiled and wished us bonne continuation. We freewheeled down a hill and we've set up our tent in a field and out of sight to all but the most inquisitive.

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Mike AylingFlemish language/dialect.
I grew up in Sarf Efrica and we were told that Flemish was a mixture of Dutch and French and was very similar to Afrikaans.

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2 years ago
Leo WoodlandTo Mike AylingHi
Thanks for that.
Flemish and Dutch are the same language. The formal name is Nederlands but that to some Belgian people is too close to "Nederland", the country from which Belgium separated in 1831.

That was an era, there and everywhere else, of limited literacy, not helped by Walloon insistence that Dutch shouldn't be spoken and still less written in the north.

The language therefore came close to collapse and, yes, many French words crept into colloquial speech.

But that era has long passed. Dutch is the official language of Flanders and, written, it is barely distuinguishable from the Dutch of the Netherlands. The difference isn't strong enough to call a dialect.

The accent, though, is different. Belgians tend to separate dipthongs, creating an extra syllable, and they tend to go up at the end of sentences where the Dutch typically go down.

Belgians also pronounce G without the guttural sound of the Dutch midlands, so that Ghent becomes more like Hent. But then that applies to the southern provinces of the Netherlands as well, so it's just a regional variation.

Dutch and Belgian people have no trouble understanding each other. They speak the same language.
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2 years ago