Visiting Comines / Komen, Belgium, and its railroad station: travel and linguistic history intertwined

Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
Comines / Komen Station
Comines / Komen Station | Source
Comines / Komen railroad station
Comines / Komen railroad station | Source
Map location of Comines - Warneton / Komen - Waasten, in Hainaut / Henegouwen province
Map location of Comines - Warneton / Komen - Waasten, in Hainaut / Henegouwen province | Source

Belgian politicians, by any other name...

This railroad station is a pleasing, solid redbrick building in Comines (Dutch: Komen ), Belgium.

Some history and features

It was built in the aftermath of World War One, when the previous building suffered severe war damage. This edifice is long and solid-looking, and exhibits a conspicuous, sloping roof at various angles. It may thus be said that, with its typical, redbrick solidity, the Comines / Komen railroad station looks typical of a past era of Belgium.

The railroad opened at Comines / Komen as early as 1853, its company being: Compagnie des Chemins de fer de la Flandre occidentale (West Flanders Railroad Company — note that in those days it was often referred to by its French name, even though West Flanders is mainly Dutch-speaking). The West Flanders here (Dutch: West-Vlaanderen ) refers to the Belgian Province of that name,

(And this is where it gets interesting...:) Except that Comines / Komen isn't in West Flanders. Not any more. Instead, it is in the province of Hainaut (Dutch: Henegouwen). And here it gets even more interesting: this former piece of Flanders, attached in the mid-20th century to Hainaut province, is not geographically contiguous with the remainder of Hainaut. Comines / Komen is mainly French-speaking, but does not border on the remainder of Belgium's French-speaking area. Wrapped up in the act of travelling to and using the railroad station at Comines / Komen lies a lot of linguistic Belgian institutional history. The railroad personnel is under strict instruction to be correct about which language they should use to initiate conversations with passengers.

Thus it comes about that when the Brussels-connecting trains come to Comines / Komen, they must pass through the neighbouring station at Wervik (1), which, being in solely Dutch-speaking West Flanders, means for the train personnel that they dare not initiate conversations with passengers in French. Then, the moment the train passes over the provincial boundary between West Flanders and Hainaut as it approaches Comines / Komen, both French and Dutch may be spoken. Then (and you will hardly believe this), a few minutes later, after the train pulls out of Comines / Komen station, the guard has to start speaking Dutch only again, because the line leaves the bilingual exclave of Hainaut once more.

When I say that the bilingual exclave around Comines / Komen (2) is bilingual, however, it is in actual fact predominantly Francophone, even though for political reasons it is deemed bilingual. Every last square metre of Belgium has been divided by its politicians into membership of one particular language group, with — in places — 'facilities' for minorities. (The problem lies in when a particular minority or majority thinks its status is somehow threatened with change without its consent.)

Thus also, the guard of the SNCB / NMBS (3) train arriving in Comines / Komen makes an announcement in French, about its arrival in the town: Nous arrivons à Comines . But also, 'in case' a hypothetical Dutch-speaker arriving in this mainly French-speaking town 'doesn't understand' French, the guard will also make the same announcement in Dutch (4).

Interestingly, Comines - France also has a railroad station, and for many years there was an international passenger train service linking the two stations in France and Belgium respectively.

Whenever I have used this Belgian railroad line, it has actually run reliably and punctually. But even so, in the Belgian scheme of things, a train running late would pale into insignificance compared with the truly dreadful hypothetical possibility of the guard on the Comines / Komen train omitting to speak French or Dutch at the correct juncture!

(Truly, there are no limits to the ingenuity of Belgian linguistic politicians!)

July 12, 2012

Notes

(1) Wervik, officially designated wholly Dutch-speaking in West Flanders, within the Flemish region (Dutch: Vlaams gewest ), forms a conurbation with a town in France known as Wervicq-Sud, which — officially — is wholly French-speaking.

(2) Comines / Komen forms a single municipality with Warneton / Waasten. Within Belgian, Comines / Komen is part of the Walloon region (French: Région wallonne ), the name given to the federal state which occupies much — though not all — of Francophone Belgium. the name of the region refers to the Walloon language and culture which, however, has never actually characterized Comines / Komen at all; in fact, a local dialect, Picard, has been spoken instead, and there are Picard enthusiasts locally who have written stories full of local colour through this medium.

(3) These letters, in French and Dutch respectively, stand for the national Belgian railroad company. SNCB: Société nationale des chemins de fer belges ; NMBS: Nationale Maatschappij der Belgische Spoorwegen .

(4) In fact, while I love the Dutch language, yet to the uninitiated Anglophone visitor, the Dutch for 'We are arriving in Comines' — Wij komen aan te Komen sounds almost comical, given the similarity of the sounds to English words! meanwhile the guard seriously does his linguistic duty. (In the vicinity of the railroad station, I think I once somewhat confused a local person when I addressed a sentence to him beginning in French and finishing in Dutch.)

Also worth seeing

In Comines / Komen , Belgium, the town hall and the church of St, Chrysole are worth seeing.

In Comines , France, the town hall and the church of St. Chrysole are worth seeing.

(Wait a minute: didn't the writer just say this? Well, it's true, this conurbation called by the same name in French, has two town halls and two churches named for St Chrysole, all withing a few minutes' walking distance with each other.)

...

How to get there: Brussels has the nearest large international airport to Comines / Komen . Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. The Belgian railroad company SNCB / NMBS maintains a service between Brussels and Comines/Komen. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. You are advised to refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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