We’ve been staying at the Novotel in Lens, northern France.
The stairs were too much of a hassle to attempt twice on crutches so Himself bought up a breakfast tray for me in the room and took the kids downstairs afterwards so that they could get hot chocolate, yogurt and croissants.
We packed up after breakfast and once in the van it was a relatively short distance to the Belgium border.
Land border crossing points fascinate me, New Zealand of course only sports it’s natural sea border so the possibility of simply driving into a foreign country has always held a fascination for me.
Before we had kids, Himself and I had to deliver a friend to Strasbourg, since the friend hailed from a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and also found land borders to be a novelty, we thought it would be fun to drive in five countries in one day. We started in The Netherlands, transversed Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and France and delighted our friend with the small tour.
It’s also amazing for me because when I first visited Europe as a kid, crossing each border was a long long hassle that involved queues of vehicles at the border crossings, customs, currency exchanges and passport checks and spot car searches.
The spot checks for cars still go on, and I think that all trucks are checked for customs and excise reasons but these days the border buildings are a shadow of their former selves and pretty much the only thing that really tells you that you have passed from one country to the next are the standard European Union border signs.
It’s been a decade since we had to check around the junk draw in the house to grab any leftover Belgium money before a trip to France so that if we wanted a sandwich or a toilet stop in Belgium on the way we would have the right currency to pay with. Heaven help you in those days if you offered to pay in Dutch Guildens in Wallonia or with French Francs in Flanders. The reception you would get upon attempting this was frosty to the point that you risked being snap frozen.
I know that the introduction of the Euro wasn’t without it’s troubles in the initial stages of the changeovers but wow, it makes travel within the EU member states that use it so much easier now.
One thing always makes me smile, our dear friend across the border Belgium, oft only famous for the fact that no one can think of much famous from it at all, (actually I can think of quite a few things after a little think: World class beer and chocolate, Frittes “french fries”, Yes indeed, French fries are not from France !, Mannekin Pis, sprouts, the capital of the EU , the comic book hero Tin-Tin and the movie actor Jean-Claude Van Damme.)
Mostly though, it’s lightly ridiculed and plagued in it’s short history by the ongoing internal conflict between the Dutch speaking Flemish population in the North of the country (Flanders) and the French speaking Walloon population in the south (Wallonia) and it suffers the indignation of being the butt of both French jokes and Dutch ones too.
Such is the discord within the country that many inside and outside think that partition may be the only option in the long run.
The economic wealth in the country is concentrated to a large extent in the Flemish section of the country but the Wallonian section of the country is bigger than the Flemish section, so when it comes to electing a government their differences have been so great that they have been unable to get any coalition government formed at all, resulting in a “caretaker” “temporary” government who have now been in power longer than the elected one it was supposed to replace.
It’s clear when we cross the Belgium border that their political problems aren’t going to be easily solved any time soon. The name of the country in French is “Belgique” and the Vlaams “België” and it is telling that when you cross the border that they even keep these name boards separate, just a few meters away from each other, but separate. So many fabulous things in one country but they can’t resolve their differences. I think it’s a shame.
Crossing Belgium doesn’t take long, about an hour and then it’s time for our final border crossing of the day: Nederland. Once we see some of the “big rivers” with the busy barge traffic it’s clear that home is not far away at all now…