Friday, April 02, 2010

Philosophers And Enclaves

One of the best things about travelling is the people you meet. In your everyday life you generally see the same people day in day out or people from within your "circle". Travelling allows you to break out of your milieu and connect with people you would never normally encounter.

I met Saïd in a community centre in Antwerp where I was watching an "African dance" class and a practice session of a Brazilian percussion band (the players were Belgian, but the music and instruments were Brazilian) where my host, Saartje, is a member. Saïd was working behind the bar. He was born in Antwerp, but as his name (and features) suggests, he is of Moroccan descent. As well as working as a barman Saïd dabbles as a raï singer and is available for hire for marriages and other social occasions. He is one of those rare things (although more common amongst the bartending classes): a street philosopher. When he heard about my travel plans he began to expound, in broken English and thick, east Flemish, his philosophy on travelling.

"Some people travel to forget," he explained, adding a wide, backwards sweeping gesture with his arm for emphasis, "but some people travel to learn," tapping on the bar on the last word. "To learn is important when travelling." I had never heard it put that way but I liked the sound of it and it made sense to me. I got on well with Saïd - he gave me a bolleke on the house.

From Antwerp I headed north out of Belgium and into the Netherlands, and back into Belgium, and then back into the Netherlands, and then into Belgium again. I wasn't going round in circles, instead I was just passing through Baarle Hertog-Nassau, a small town that can perhaps lay claim to be Europe's oddest. Baarle's weird history dates back to various treaties signed between the Lords of Breda and Dukes of Brabant who divided up the land between them rather haphazardly. When Belgium and the Netherlands separated in 1848 the Duchy of Brabant became Belgian whereas Breda remained in the Netherlands. If you were to look closely at a map of the border area between the towns of Turnhout and Breda you would see a little blob of border a few kilometres into the Dutch side. Ah, you would say, a Belgian enclave. Enclaves are quite common around the world and so are not that special, but if you were to look even more closely, you would see that some of the Belgian enclaves within the Netherlands themselves contain further Dutch enclaves within them - see the map below to get a better idea (after a certain amount of research I've discovered that there are only 2 other places in the world that have similar counter-enclaves: India-Bangladesh and Oman-UAE). The town itself is pretty ordinary and apart from the joint Belgian and Dutch flags that fly from many buildings, as well as the border markings on the pavements, you wouldn't tell that you were crossing from one country to another. Although I expect the residents of Baarle were amongst the most content with the Schengen border treaty and the introduction of the euro.

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