My secret life

No, we can

Non, c’est ne pas possible – No, it’s not possible, said the friendly plumber who had come to fix the boiler. He didn’t have the right certificate to do the repair, he explained, shaking his head sadly.

In France, yes, he continued. In France, you need just the one certificate, and you can repair anything. But here in Belgium, you need six different certificates, depending on the type of work you have to carry out. And in addition, you need a separate certificate for each region. One for Flanders. One for Wallonia. One for Brussels. So that makes nine different certificates, compared to one for the whole of France.

It’s complicated, he says.

No one understands Belgium, not even the Belgians. The country has four regional governments. It has three linguistic governments. It even has four national anthems. And no one knows the words, no matter which one they sing.


Non, peut-être, they often say. No, but maybe.

It was different when Belgium was created in 1830. The official language was French. The capital was Brussels. The Constitution could be read in ten minutes. Simple.

But the country changed over the years in response to democratic pressures. The country split into four regions. Dutch and German became official languages. Namur and Eupen became regional capitals.

Now the country has 60 government ministers. Its environment policy, for example, is decided by four different ministers, each with a different plan. It has different speed limits in different regions.     

Some people argue that it is an impossibly complex system that needs to be radically reformed. But no one knows how. And so we just have to put up with it.

I have just been to the local commune to apply for a Belgian passport, which I need because my country has decided to leave the European Union. Without Belgian citizenship, I don’t know what will happen. I could end up living in a damp cottage in Scotland with a wet dog as my only friend.

So on a recent Monday morning, I set off in the rain clutching a fistful of documents that cost a small fortune to obtain, including a birth certificate and an authenticated translation done by an odd Belgian woman with a cluttered office in her front living room.

Anyway, I wait in line in the town hall, clutching the little ticket with my number. My slot arrives and I proudly hand over the pile of documents. It is all going smoothly, until –

Ah non, monsieur, the woman says, shaking her head sadly.

My birth certificate is the wrong size. It should be long and thin, like the example she shows me.

I try to explain. She is showing me an English birth certificate, but I was born in Scotland, where they issue a different type of birth certificate. Ah non. It does not conform.

I remember when Barack Obama was running for the office of president. “Yes we can,” he told the voters. He wouldn’t stand a chance in Belgium. No we can’t, is how you win an election here.

           I guess it will all work out in the end. It usually does. Except when it doesn’t. Non peut-être. No but maybe, you might say.