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Phuket Community: The Belgians

PHUKET: Stereotypes are ugly, lazy, nasty things that serve no purpose other than reducing a person to a national characteristic and segregating people according to race, gender or nationality.

By Jody Houton

Friday 20 July 2012, 02:19PM

For instance, not all British people have bad teeth, not all Americans are obnoxious and not all Belgium people are obsessed with food and drink – though most, admittedly, are.

Four of the five Belgians I recently met whilst researching opinions on the upcoming Belgium National Day on July 21 were restaurateurs, the other I met in a bar enjoying a bottle of Belgian beer.

“I’m somehow proud to be Belgian,” begins Arnaud Verstraete in a rather ominous fashion, before explaining, “I was born in a Flemish part, raised in a French part and attended the military in the German part.”

Belgium is a small Western European country with a population of just over 10 million, which is divided into the Dutch-speaking Flemish, the French-speaking Walloons, the 75,000 residents of the eastern German Cantons, and the bilingual capital of Brussels.

For Arnaud, this divided and unified Belgium was something that he has actively and physicallyembraced, yet there are many Belgians well aware of their country’s division.

For Alain Tabruyn, the owner and manager of the Brasserie Belgium restaurant in Phuket town, the very real physical divide, is actually far from a hindrance and is actually what makes Belgium, well, Belgium.

“One thing about the Belgian people is their ability to adapt and live with many different types of people with different kinds of personalities.

“We are such a small country that we have to learn many languages just to be able to communicate with each other. This is one of our main strengths: we are very adaptable.”

Alain even believes that this virtue is one of the main reasons that Herman Van Rompuy, the former Belgium Prime Minister, was named as the first long-term, full-time President of the European Council.

Mr Van Rompuy’s ability to maintain stability in Belgium during various tensions between the French and Flemish speaking communities was seen by many as invaluable experience, making him an obvious diplomatic choice for his role in the multinational European Council.

For others, however, especially those who live in the capital city of Brussels, they are somewhat geographically and metaphorically caught in the middle. Olivier Shakers, from a small village located just outside the perimeter of the 14 villages or cities that are part of Brussels, and who therefore fidns himself politically in the Flemish area, owns a restaurant in Patong.

He said, “I am not one of the extremists who hates the other side. To me you have the ‘Francophones’ [French speaking Belgians] and the ‘Nederlandstaligen’ [Dutch speaking Belgians] and then you have those like me who are bilingual and who will find it hard to answer the question, ‘What is your mother tongue?’ So no, to me it's not important [whether I’m Flemish or Walloon].”

One thing that does seem to unite all the Phuket-based Belgians, at least, is good food and wine, which is unsurprising, considering the majority of them make their living from it.

Corry Ringoet, the co-owner of Royale Nam Tok in Kathu said, “Belgian people work hard, and slave for their luxuries and houses, but we have a very rich food culture. Belgian people like fine dining and spend quite a lot of money and time in restaurants, this is why we have the most Michelin star restaurants per square mile than in any other country.”

Speaking at a full bar on a Wednesday night, both Alain and Arnaud enthusiastically agree with this.

“Belgian people work to live, not live to work. The restaurants in Belgium are always quite full despite the recession. We like to party,” said Alain.

Although Arnaud is drinking a bottle of the popular Stella Artois lager, Alain takes the opportunity of extolling the virtues of ‘other’ Belgian beers.

“There are around 2,000 in Belgium, with at least one in most villages. There are ales, wheat beers, even cherry beers, we also have the biggest brewery in the world [InBev].”

Indeed, even the monks in Belgium make beer, with many of its monasteries busy on a daily basis making the hugely popular trappist beers.

Interestingly many of those whom I spoke with said that it was through food and wine and their work that they managed to still feel part of Belgium culture.

Olivier Julien Dubois, Regional Manager of Belgian Beverage Asia – a company that specialises in importing Belgain beers into Thailand said, “Sure, I still feel connected with Belgium because I’m talking about my culture’s produce everyday. I’m passionate about it, much as Thai people are passionate about their food.”

Olivier is also from Brussells, “It’s the heart of Belgium and the city of industry. I hope it won’t change and become more divided, I wouldn’t like to think that someone one day can say to me that you are no longer Belgium, you are French.”

“But we do all right,” added Olivier, “We have not yet had a civil war.”

What is unlikely to change is the respective communities’ pride, whether they classify themselves as Fleming, Walloon, Geman Canton, or from Brussells.

That’s why, other than a small minority of Flemish who celebrate their Flemish Community Day, Belgium’s National Day on July 21 will be marked by almost all Phuket-based Belgians.

“As an ex military man, I of course swore allegiance to Belgium. I was raised a Royalist and still am, even if I live abroad. I have a Belgium flag in my house,” said Arnaud, who will most likely to be found at the Brasserie bar enjoying a bite to eat on July 21, as will Alain most certainly be.

“We are proud to be Belgium sure, but we are not like the French or English and silly with it,” said Alain.

“In Brussels there’s a big parade and lots of food and a few parties and things like that. But in some parts of Belgium, they do nothing.

“For most Belgians it’s just a day off,” he added.

Unlikely to be taking a day off is Corry, and even if he did have one, it is unlikely he would be celebrating it with much gusto, “I don’t celebrate Belgium day,” he said, “since I live abroad, I feel more like an international citizen.”

Likewise Olivier from Belgian Beverage is unlikely to be painting little Belgium flags on his cheeks, “I never really celebrated it back in Belgium, only watched fireworks mostly under the Belgian ‘drach’ (heavy rain).”

Over at the Shakers bar and restaurant in Patong, there is every chance there will be a party, but not necessarily to celebrate Belgium national day.

Olivier said, “I normally do not celebrate July 21, but as it is a Saturday and we are running with the Hash House Harriers they will make sure I celebrate it.”

Most likely with a beer and some really, really good food.

This is a new series of profiles on the many different communities that make up the vibrant population of Phuket. Next month, Jody Houton meets with the island’s growing number of South Koreans.


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