Becoming Belgian

Becoming Belgian
Participants in Belgian National Day parade in Brussels (Photo by Arie Asona/Pacific Press)

For decades, Geoff Meade generated a reputation as a quintessential English expat abroad in Belgium. But when circumstances forced him to seek Belgian nationality, it prompted some quirky questions about his identity

If I had a euro for every time someone has asked me in the last 12 months what it’s like being a Belgian, I’d have enough money to buy a round of every kind of Belgian beer for every citizen of Brussels every day for the next 12 months.

On the other hand, I’ve only once been asked what it’s like being English, and the question came from a curious Belgian. Or more accurately, a Belgian who was curious.

That happened when I’d been in Brussels for about a year and, on a whim, had recently moved to a place in the countryside, just because of its quirky name.

My closest neighbours in the forest of Erps-Kwerps, situated between the separate parishes of Erps and Kwerps (it sounds funniest in a flat English accent), were a local couple and their lanky, charming and very inquisitive late-teenage son.

The boy immediately adopted me as a sociological research project and spent much of his spare time popping across to my place without warning to study this fine English specimen from across the Channel.

He was concerned that I should appreciate Belgium, especially its beer and food, and that I shouldn’t underestimate the country because of its small size or because it seemed to be cobbled together from various bits of other countries and didn’t have its own language.

What’s Belgian for ‘Exit’?

On one occasion he wanted to know if I agreed with him that it was a disgrace that Belgian supermarkets usually marked their exit doors with the English word “EXIT” instead of the Flemish and, where appropriate, French equivalents.

Another time he expressed great interest in the fact that my English sports car was still on English number plates even though by Belgian law I should have replaced them with Belgian plates after six months.

But I liked his direct manner, even if diplomatic replies were usually required, and his most interesting question turned out to be the most unanswerable: “What’s it like being English?”

I told him that I didn’t have any choice about my birthplace and joked that being English was a bit of luck because it turned out that I could speak the language fluently. He liked that one.

Then, early in the evening of April 19, 1980, he crossed the road to tell me that the Eurovision song contest was on, his parents didn’t want to watch it, and could he watch it with me because he was sure the Belgian entry, by a trio called Telex, would win.

I hadn’t planned to watch it either and had never even heard of the band – we expats can be notoriously insular – but he was so insistent that I got him a (Belgian) beer and switched on the telly.

I shouldn’t have. Telex, with their electronic pop parody of the Eurovision contest itself, entitled “Euro-Vision”, came in 17th out of 19 entries.

My neighbour was distraught and close to tears. The fact that the UK managed third place made things worse. I told him the song contest is just a bit of fun, and it doesn’t mean anything.

He shook his head and said: “You must be very proud of your country” before going back to his own house with shoulders slumped.

Potverdekke!

But I wasn’t proud at all, any more than I was mocking of Belgium’s poor result. I only hope that 18 years later, in 1998 he was mightily cheered when an English-language song lauding the delights of being Belgian hit the Belgian music charts and stayed there for 26 weeks and, legend now has it, boosted this nation’s morale.

‘Potverdekke! (It’s great to be a Belgian)’ was written and performed by John Makin, a very good friend who came to Brussels from Liverpool as a quantity surveyor. He evolved into a professional musician called Mr John, whose finest hour was his novelty song about his adopted country.

He was even called upon to sing it live that year in front of the king (and many other people) as part of Belgium’s national holiday celebrations.

The cheery tune accompanies an uplifting, affectionate tribute to Belgium, referencing icons of what is now known as Belgitude, including mussels, various beers, Tintin, Captain Haddock, Hercule Poirot and the saxophone, invented by a real Belgian, Adolphe Sax.

The song begins:

Potverdekke! it’s great to be a Belgian

I’m not English, I’m not French and I’m not Dutch

I’m not Spanish Portuguese or German

I’m a Belgian, so thank you very much!

John, of course, was not Belgian and although he loved the place and its passions, I doubt that he had plans to apply for a Belgian passport: he died a few years before Brexit prompted a dash by expat Brits to swear allegiance to the Mannekin Pis.

And we BBBs (Brexit-British-Belgians) must own up to being motivated by practicality more than passion. Nevertheless, the formal welcome from the authorities in our commune was gracious and even enthusiastic. The paperwork was minimal, and nobody posed tricky questions.

Mind you, my wife and I were fully prepared: we had memorised all the verses of ‘Potverdekke!’, which is, after all, the unofficial alternative Belgian national anthem. And if asked, I would have pretended to like moules-frites and to be a mega-fan of Plastic Bertrand.

We’d even mugged up on some key Belgian facts, which is why I can tell you that this nation produces 600,000 tonnes of chocolate a year. And that the man who most helped an Englishman invent the World Wide Web was a Belgian called Robert Cailliau.

But unlike Britain, where wannabe nationals are expected to understand cricket and be able to name Alfred the Great’s cousins, it turns out that Belgium doesn’t set a general knowledge quiz.

Some communes of Brussels, though, do gold-plate the country-wide minimum nationality requirements by setting language tests, which produce strangled cries of “Dammit!” – or “Potverdekke!” in the local patois – from some of our fellow Brexit asylum-seeking friends.

And although our town hall didn’t invite us round for a celebratory glass of fizz like some other communes did on completion of the formalities, we received a very nice phone call from a chap who declared, in French: “I am delighted to inform you that, as of April 23rd, you are Belgian citizens. Congratulations!”

I like to think that this would please my young Erps-Kwerps neighbour of 40 years ago. But I think that he, now in mid-life, would have a fit if I told him that my old sports car stayed on its English plates for all these years – finally taking Belgian nationality when we did and still going strong.


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