Her name is Natalia Druyts, but she goes professionally by her first name and is known in her native Belgium simply as Natalia. Or rather, she is known her native Flanders, where she graduated as a translator in English and Spanish, and is not known much at all in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium. On one side of the cultural line, the beautiful and talented singer sells out concerts and has sold hundreds of thousands of albums in the course of her career so far, regularly performing with and recording hit singles with international superstars like the Pointer Sisters, Lionel Richie, En Vogue, and Shaggy . Yet despite a successful career or more than a decade, including superstardom due to her performance on the Belgian equivalent of American Idol, she is largely unknown and unheralded in Wallonia, despite having 2 #1 hits and ten additional top 10 hits on the Flanders side, an impressive haul for anyone on any national chart.
Such a tidbit might be a single odd and obscure bit of information, except that it fits a larger and more alarming pattern. Belgium’s political impasse after the 2010 election was an international scandal , and after the 2014 elections a similar outcome was avoided by a Flemish-heavy coalition that features a Walloon Prime Minister, who might uncharitably be called a doughface. The reference is not accidental. In recent years, Flanders has elected parties that desire greater devolution and autonomy, and that have a difficult time cooperating with the parties in poorer, more socialist Wallonia. The result has been a fraying of the implicit social contract between the two regions to keep power shared equally and bodes ill for the long-term well-being of Belgium as a nation. Belgium is a small nation, but its sharp linguistic and cultural divide and the fact that its Francophone capital, Brussels, serves as one of the capitals of the European Union, has put it under great strain and also great scrutiny, its central government rapidly devolving and seeking to get rid of any electoral districts that force the two largest segments of its country to work together at all, given their increasing unwillingness to do so.
In many ways, the situation in Belgium is reminiscent of the United States in the 1850s , even more than the current situation in the United States is reminiscent of that troubled decade. Political parties and coalitions dominated by one region can only form governments when they feature a figurehead from the other side to preserve at least the illusion of sectional bias. People on one side of the line have drastically different cultural interests than those of the other, and where there is a lack of appreciation of the art and culture of one side where politics are already sharply divided, it bodes ill for the future stability and unity of any realm. Miss Druyts does not appear to have been a provocative person in this regard—she performs regularly and successfully in the large arenas in Flanders and invites international artists to sing with her, but it is rather telling that she does not perform with singers or acts from Wallonia, nor tours south of the line. It is perhaps telling that she translates in English and Spanish but not French, a language spoken of by nearly half of her countrymen and neighbors, but who are largely strangers to her.
How does one resolve this kind of difficulty? This is far from an easy or straightforward task. It requires communication of a friendly and respectful manner, backed by the reality of that friendliness and respect and curiosity in what others are doing and how they are living, with the persistence to overcome misunderstandings. It requires the willingness to listen and the courage to speak honestly about one’s concerns. This is hard to do on the individual level, and it is even harder to do on a cultural or societal level, when two regions speak in different languages, have different cultural identities, have strongly different political worldviews, vote for different parties, some of which do not have equivalents on the other side, do not read the same books or listen to the same music. In such a sad state, it can be difficult for those who are geographical neighbors to act in a truly neighborly fashion, even if they might wish to do so. Among the many reasons this can be difficult is that there exist some serious grievances over historical favoritism of the French-speaking language and culture as a prestige culture, which put the more marginal Dutch-speaking Flemish culture under threat and encouraged the development of Flemish separatist parties. The two sides of Belgium even have different music charts, because the same music is rarely equally popular on both sides of the border, a situation that makes it hard for people to find common ground because even the trivial subjects that can preserve a superficial friendliness between acquaintances is lacking unity. In such a situation, how can neighboring regions unified only by their unwillingness to remain under Dutch rule and by their experience as historical victims in the violence of the 20th century stay united when they know or care little about those on the other side of the lines that separate them? Where the will to stay united is lacking, that unity will likely not long endure.
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