Letter from a low country
A few months ago I was talking to a journalist from the Netherlands. I mentioned that I was coming to Flanders. "Do you speak Dutch?" the journalist asked. I said I didn't, but that I didn't think that would be a problem, most Flemish people seemed to speak English. "Ah yes," the Dutchman said with a faint smile, "Though of course they do not speak it properly".

Like the relationship between the English and the Scots, the one between the Dutch and the Flemish is not always an easy one. The Dutch tend to look on the Flemish as backward and parochial. The Flemish, as you might guess, consider the Dutch to be arrogant and patronizing.

Last Sunday evening, Catherine and I went to a barbecue organized by the Borgloon branch of the Davidsfond, a Catholic book club. Borgloon, in Limburg province, is the capital of the Haspengouw (the Flemish are fond of giving their towns and regions titles). The Haspengouw is Belgium's fruit-growing region. The narrow lanes around Borgloon wind through mile after mile of gently undulating cherry, apple and pear orchards. On specially marked routes, the local council has planted varieties of every fruit tree that grows in the Haspengouw so that touring motorists and cyclists can stop and try them fresh from the bough. The council can afford to be generous. The soil here is fertile. At this time of year practically every dish you order in a cafe, no matter that it's scampi tails or a steak tartare, comes adorned with clusters of strawberries from the owner's over-productive garden.

When you cross the provincial border from Brabant, Antwerp or Liege you are greeted by huge signs announcing "The Limburgers Bid You Welcome". Limburgers are the only Belgians who offer visitors such a cheery greeting. The sense of regional identity here is strong. Sunday was also the day of Borgloon's annual civic dog walk. In Britain it's the sort of event that might attract half-a-dozen die-hards, but here hundreds took part. We came across groups of them all afternoon and evening, the collars and leashes of their dogs decorated with ribbons in the town colours of yellow and red, wandering along a pre-planned route in an unthreatening, if slightly eccentric demonstration of local unity.

When I comment on this sense of place to the rotund bearded man sitting next to me at the barbecue he laughs. "Yes," he says (he speaks English quite properly), "Limburgers stick together because the rest of Flanders mocks us for being stupid". Not that the Limburgers are above a bit of mockery themselves. They call the citizens of Hasselt, the province's biggest and smartest city, Dikkeneke, "The Thick Necks", in honour of the stiff collars once worn by the upper classes. Hasselt is famous for its gin and the exclusivity of its shopping streets, where windows full of Christian Lacroix and Ralph Lauren stand in stark contrast to the usual provincial Flemish array of bakeries, confectioners, lingerie shops, wig emporia and poodle parlours with arresting English names such as "Dog's Toilet" and "Doggy Style".

Belgian Limburg borders on The Netherlands. By the standards of the Low Countries it is a sparsely populated region ("The Green Heart Of Europe" the Flemish have dubbed it, characteristically). Wealthy businessmen from across the frontier in Eindhoven, Tilburg and Maastricht seeking a bit of breathing space buy houses here and commute. It is a popular weekend destination for the Dutch.

Later on at Borgloon, after an "Irish" band made up entirely of young Flemish musicians have played a set concluding, somewhat confusingly, with a spirited rendition of "The Bonny, Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond", we buy tickets for the barbecue which, in a tradition honoured across the world, is presided over entirely by middle-aged men in elaborate aprons. For 300BF you get three pink tickets. "So you can go back for more two times," the wife of the man who told me about the Limburgers' proverbial stupidity says, "In any other place once would be enough, but in Limburg... She points at her husband's billowing waistline. The man chuckles merrily, "I am a Limburger here," he says touching his chest, "and here." He pats his bulging stomach, which wobbles proudly.

Appropriately, when I ask the Limburger about the Dutch it is to food that he reaches for an explanation. "The difference between the Flemish and the Dutch," he says, "can be seen in cheese. Here in Flanders we make many different kinds of cheese. Hard cheese, soft cheese, goats cheese, sheep's cheese. We make orange, white and blue cheeses. Cheeses with herbs and with rinds soaked in beer. Hundreds of cheeses. Great cheeses. But nobody outside Belgium has heard of them. The Dutch make one kind of very tasteless cheese and all the world knows about it. That is the difference between us and the Dutch," he says, "No matter how well we make something we are too shy to tell anyone about it, but the Dutch? Whatever they do..." He makes a talk- talking gesture with his hand, shrugs, then picks up his plate and goes off to get half-a-dozen more sausages