We Europeans

One of the things that sticks out in the perception of a foreigner is the overriding sense of fairness of the Belgians in their dealings with others. I say this as one of the English who supposedly invented the concept of fairness and gave the word to the rest of the world.

The people of this city earned their reputation for mutual support a long time ago, no doubt partly as a result of having to ‘close ranks’ in the face of foreign oppression, notably by the Spanish and the French. “In true Belgian style, the more pitiless the repression, the greater the resistance”, says André de Vries in his book, ‘Brussels’, on the city’s history and culture.

One of the moral judgments of the denizens of Brussels came from the Burgundian Cardinal Granvelle who, in a letter to King Philip II of Spain, said that “nothing can be done because they only think of stuffing themselves, having orgies and thinking bad thoughts” (“Il n’y a rien à faire de bon, parce qu’ils ne pensent qu’à bafrer, à organiser des orgies et mal penser”).

Three centuries later, an English visitor by the name of Henry Smithers paid a backhanded compliment when he wrote that the Flemish in particular “are not destitute of benevolence when excited thereto by great occasions”.

Some time afterwards, in a letter to a friend, the young Charlotte Brontë described her Brussels schoolmates as having “a character singularly cold, selfish, animal and inferior.” Not my impression of the people of Brussels today…

Concern for one’s fellow-beings should be a universal quality but isn’t. The impersonality of life in many of Europe’s cities, and the indifference it produces, is evident from the faits divers columns of the European media. Brussels is, maybe surprisingly, a bit of an exception. While history has taught its people – and, come to that, most Belgians – to be cautious and instinctively ‘keep their distance’, the barriers quickly come down when they see a genuine case of distress.

Most significantly this spirit of concern, which seems to come naturally to all constituents of the Belgian community (with a small ‘c’), seems to extend from the autochtones to underprivileged immigrants. I have been privileged to witness incidents where the human response of Bruxellois/Brusselaars of various convictions and colours – Spaniards, Maghrebians, Sub-Saharan Africans – has been equally spontaneous and warm.

Sadly but significantly the most notable exception to this rule is the privileged immigrant community – not necessarily the people actually working in the European institutions but the Eurowatchers and the other members of the parasite organisations surrounding them. They are the people who need to develop this human empathy more than anyone else, but they’re too busy catching up with endless Euro-developments to care…

On the other hand, this essential and very Belgian spirit of humanity does have its downside. The obverse side of the coin is that Belgians tend to ‘sell themselves short’, they are too self-effacing and too low-key in a world that is aggressively competitive. But there’s also a thing called appreciation of the human condition – something that, fortunately for us expats, comes naturally to many Belgians.

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