I discussed this in the last column, which resulted in several emails from readers. “I have been in Antwerp for a little over a year now and it still amuses me,” reader Diane Porcella writes, in a discussion of what she calls the “pout-head-nod combo”.
She agrees on the general meaning attributed to it but says the gesture can have a different meaning when in response to the question “Hoe ist?” - a popular contraction of Hoe is het? or How is it? How are things?
I’m sorry not to have answered all of you. But een goed begin is het halve werk, well begun is half done – or literally, a good beginning is half the work. I say it to oblige another reader who proposed to “dive into the vast and rich collection of Dutch proverbs.” It may be a good idea to have at least one every week. We zien wel. We’ll see.
It took a while. The process leading up to this wonderful event began almost a whole year ago, with the appointment of Mr Bart de Wever, leader of the N-VA, the biggest party in the country, as informateur, another title without an English-language Wikipedia page. "Hij onderzoekt de mogelijkheden voor de vorming van een kabinet," the Dutch version explains. He investigates the possibilities for the formation of a cabinet.
Inburgering has a different ring to it, and it’s not McDonald’s or Quick. Burger means citizen. It used to refer to the free city folk who had acquired a certain status and political power: de burgerij, or bourgeoisie. They lived in a burcht, a fortified enclosure, rather than out in the open. The head of the city was the burgemeester, master of citizens. (Burgemeester is still the word for “mayor”.)
Belgium was even the hottest place in Europe for a minute or two. Take that, Barcelona! In your face, Rome! The image of five shiny yellow zonnetjes, little suns, one for every day of the week, is engraved into my mind. It was going to be lekker weer, so much was for sure, the weather was going to be nice.
Belgian politics remains a mystery even to the most battle-scarred expat resident. That is why last week the Flemish non-profit organisation de Rand, or the Rim - referring to the Brussels periphery - hitched a ride with your favourite English-language newspaper to distribute their new booklet, Living in Translation, which aims to unravel the administrative knot of regions and communities, languages and facilities.
First, the title. The official English translation is Bullhead, which is not at all wrong, but not exactly spot-on. Rund is bull, no problems there. It is with kop that things go astray.
You and I have a hoofd, a head, and benen, legs (as do paarden, horses, because they for some reason are special). Animals, though, have a kop and poten. Use the bestial form for humans, and you reach the realm of colloquialism. Hou je kop! is a popular way of telling somebody to shut up. Poten thuis! is equally popular to tell the touchy-feely to keep their hands where they belong.
"Well, it basically means something like cosy," I often try, but then immediately feel obliged to crush the hesitant hope I see appear in the eyes of the one who asked, "but not exactly."
It is more than that. It is a credo, a philosophy; it is the battle cry of the people of the Low Countries in the face of unfriendly elements.
I know the people behind the bar, and the people behind the bar know me. Or at least, we recognise each other; it's not the kind of place where you bond with the staff much. One of them, a French speaker, is always keen on learning Dutch and wants me to order in my native language: een kleine koffie alsjeblieft, a small coffee please. Or, if I haven't eaten yet, de ontbijtformule, the breakfast formula.
But not so with the past, which we feel the urge to preserve. Take the re-laying of Fochplein in the centre of Leuven. When replacing pipes, workmen came across archeological remains, in fact middeleeuwse kelders - mediaeval cellars. And when the archeologists start digging, they expect more: er zouden ook Romeinse restanten kunnen opduiken - Roman remains could also appear.
This should come as no surprise since onder elke middeleeuwse stad gaat een schat aan informatie schuil - under every mediaeval town a treasure of information lies hidden.