Wrapping Up the Belgium Trip
June 29, 2007
Last travel entry, written on the 16th and finally typed up on the 29th...
Back stateside now, sitting for a while in Philadelphia. One of America's oldest cities, it clearly has nothing on Antwerp. But then again, maybe age isn't everything. Maybe the Liberty Bell, Constitutional Conventions, and the other historical features make this place every bit the equal — in broad, non-aesthetic terms — of Brussels, Antwerp, or Amsterdam. Speaking of Antwerp, I finally had a good look at the old city yesterday.
I previously said that Amsterdam was old. Antwerp is older. The name, by the way, means "hand throwing," look up the legend on wikipedia. The Hapsburgs took control of half of the Netherlands after one of the big Renaissance wars (30, 80 years?) and forced the 50% Protestant populace of Flanders to convert or head north. Many did. According to my walking tour guide, this migration promoted Amsterdam to its gold age and, thanks to the Dutch/German closing of the river Scheldt (and hence Antwerp's giant port), caused Antwerp to fall into deep poverty.
Today the port is operational (4th largest in the world), and the city is once again rather well off, particularly due to the diamond and petro-checmicals businesses. I got a glimpse of this aspect, but of course it was the old city I was interested in.
The hour long tour was great. I don't mind being a pure tourist for a few minutes. I just wish we'd been able to eat outside in a café attached to a 500 year-old building. On the other-hand, eating inside the 16th-century town hall, still sporting its original wall paintings and woodwork, was really quite special as well.
There we were treated to several pithy but powerful statements from the directors of the URI and the Flemish Partnership for Interfaith Dialogue, the vice-mayor for culture, and an official from the province of Flanders. I wish I could remember the content of their speeches, which were a fine introduction to this new Flemish Partnership.
Though Dutch-speaking, Flanders remains largely Catholic to this day (I think). Nevertheless, with its heart in the port of Antwerp, the region has attracted many immigrants in the post-war boom. Not least of these are the many Muslims from Turkey, North Africa, and elsewhere. To that add many migrants from Francophone Africa and many Indians, the latter of whom have joined the large and ancient Jewish population in controlling the diamond trade (so I'm told).
In a country still struggling to unite across the Dutch/French divide, this new influx offers much potential for discord or strife. But to quote one of the speakers, diversity is no the problem — it is the solution. This new FPID program, then, hopes to use proactive dialogue and programs of interfaith exchange as a means for enriching life in Flanders, rather than dividing it.