hidden europe 17

Belgian border business: Moresnet

by Nicky Gardner


The easternmost parts of Belgium are home to a linguistic minority that rarely gets a mention in the Flemish-Walloon debate. For here the lingua franca is German. The border region is full of curiosities as we find when we visit Moresnet and the Venn Railway.

They're digging up the road outside the Hong Kong City, a rather down at heel restaurant in Paveestrasse. Outside the red frontage, embellished with Chinese dragons, there is a blackboard encouraging the punters to come inside for 'moules und frites' (mussels and chips). It is extraordinary that a humble bivalve mollusc should have become the culinary byword for a nation with a coastline that is, in its entirety, less than seventy kilometres in length. But mussels are big in Belgium. Even in Eupen, which is about as far from the sea as you can get and still be in Belgium.

The road workers put down their picks and shovels and sit on the kerbside outside the Chinese eatery and chat about last night's football scores. They speak mainly in German. The odd word of French here and there, but German predominates. A little dust devil catches yesterday's newspaper in the wind and a double page spread of Grenz-Echo (Border Echo) catches on the sign promoting mussels and chips.

Eupen is disarmingly difficult to place. An hourly train lumbers in from Oostende, and rolls to a halt at Eupen's windswept and only railway platform just north of town. A dozen carriages, most of which are usually empty. Eupen is the end of the line, and the train goes no further. The staff on the train play Belgium's delicate linguistic dance on the three hour journey across the country, switching from Flemish to French and back again as local culture demands. And then, as the train approaches Eupen, running through country with irregular fields, lots of hedges and stone cottages, German becomes the language of first choice in the on-board announcements. "Wir erreichen jetzt Eupen" says the proclamation from the loudspeaker in flawless and unaccented German.

Eupen is very firmly part of Belgium, yet it stands apart from the normal Flemish-French divide that gives Belgium such a binary identity. Nor is it alone, for people in a great swathe of land in the eastern part of the country speak German rather than French or Flemish. There's a smattering of French signs, especially on matters appertaining to food. "Une belle journée pour manger des moules" says the banner outside a Greek restaurant in Eupen, but the demeanour is more commonly German. Whether it be at the chemist, in the butcher's shop or in any one of the town's little cafés, the lingua franca is German. "But we are certainly not Germans" says the man outside Rick's Bar, a homage to Hemingway that evidently never quite took off with the locals. Rick's now stands sadly shuttered with a tattered sign stuck to the door saying "zu verkaufen" (for sale). Eupen is a shade different from Key West.

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