June books 9) Avonturen van een Nederbelg

9) Avonturen van een Nederbelg: Een Nederlander ontdekt België by Derk-Jan Eppink

Derk-Jan Eppink is a Dutch journalist who covers Belgian politics for one of the main Flemish papers, De Standaard. He bills himself as the first Dutchman since 1830 to have taken a serious interest in Belgium, which can’t be entirely true, but he writes very amusingly about it. I learnt more about this country from this book in the last week than I had done over the rest of the five years we have been living here.

His first couple of chapters will endear him to his Flemish readers, as he lays into the Dutch for their uptight, complacent attitudes (and particularly into the Hague, where he had spent his previous journalistic career). Then in 1995 he moves to Belgium, and tries to get to grips with a completely different political culture, where “you don’t see things that are there, and you see things that aren’t there”, where “a detour is the quickest way to your destination”.

On a weekend visit to a prominent politician, Eppink is horrendously embarrassed by his own poor riding skills. Meeting the Queen of the Belgians, Eppink’s bow tie almost falls off and he is horrendously embarrassed (especially when it does fall off a few seconds after their conversation finishes). When he drops in on ex-Prime Minister Mark Eyskens (a nice guy who I’ve met through work) in his seaside cottage, a financial scandal breaks and Eppink is horrendously embarrassed. Covering a cycle race with two visiting Spanish journalists, their driver turns out to be utterly incompetent and… you get the idea.

Self-righteousness rather than embarrassment creeps into the longest chapter in the book, about his relationship with Guy Verhofstadt who has been Belgian Prime Minister since 1999. He chronicles Verhofstadt’s rise to power within his own party, his disappointment in the 1995 elections, and his victory in 1999, helped by the previous government’s mishandling of the Dutroux case and the chicken scandal. This is punctuated by a series of rows between him and Verhofstadt, each of which is resolved over lunch in an Italian restaurant near the Belgian parliament. (Oddly enough the one restaurant they go to which isn’t Italian, La Rotonde, is one I often went to in my previous job, as long as someone else was buying lunch; my then boss was the brother of the publisher of this book.)

So a fun book, about politics, about journalism, about the clash of cultures “divided by a common language” (gescheiden door een gemeenschappelijke taal), a little bit about what it means to be European, a lot about how the Flemings look to a sympathetic outsider. (Eppink actually lives in Leuven, not far from here.) I enjoyed it.

Finally, I’m very pleased with myself for reading a whole 240 pages of book in another language. I haven’t done that since my then girlfriend persuaded me to read L’Étranger by Albert Camus in about 1987. And I haven’t had to read anything in Dutch (other than official forms and children’s school reports) since 1980. Large parts of this book are untranslatable, rather like the word “ilunga” from the Tshiluba language, so it will remain inaccessible to most of the world. But I think he was really only writing for this small country, and for its even smaller number of fans from outside.

One thought on “June books 9) Avonturen van een Nederbelg

  1. I can’t really tell whether the first two are the same or not – therefore they look sufficiently similar for me to classify them as “the same”. The Reduced Planck’s constant is definitely different, though.

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