Visiting the Lys River at Halluin, France: scenes of tranquil greenery at a formerly acute, border flashpoint
Speak French and Dutch (but do so quietly...)
Near Lille, France, the course of the Lys River at Halluin, on the border with Menen, Belgium, has been altered to form an island separated from most of the town of Halluin by a new channel of the river, though which most of the through-traffic on the Lys River travels. A number of results have materialized, one of these being that the international border continues to run following the course of the former meander of the Lys River. The development of a marina in waters now less busy from commercial, river traffic has also been facilitated. Former, heavily commercial space has undergone the creation of greenery, in a recreational environment.
The situation of these two border communities is intriguing from a linguistic perspective, because officially Halluin in the French department of Nord is solely French-speaking, while Menen in the Belgian province of West Flanders is solely Dutch-speaking. The situation of the marina right on the border can for some people imply a certain degree of practical bilingualism, as can the fact that after the Lys Island the Lys River enters wholly into Belgian territory in the Flemish Region, leaving a small part of the town of Menen south of the river, thus making it geographically contiguous with Halluin, while being joined to the main part of the town by a bridge. Thus, it is in the interests of store-keepers and employees of Menen businesses within metres of the border to be willing to speak French with customers arriving from France.
Particularly prior to World War Two, smuggling was such a way of life in the area that confrontations between customs officials and clandestine carriers of merchandise were common. A fictionalized description of such a confrontation at the Lys River near Halluin is found in Maxence Van der Meersch's L'Empreinte du Dieu (The God's Imprint), 1936, later made into a film. In this poignant scene, a smuggler is pursued and wades into the Lys River, with customs officers waiting on the river bank and the smuggler struggling to remain standing in deep water during a long standoff.
Nowadays, it might be thought that language disputes — a perennial source of political disruption and controversy along the French-Dutch language boundary in Belgium, have replaced cross-border confrontations between smugglers and customs officials. At different locations further east along this boundary in Belgium, regular demonstrations and public arguments have arisen, as busloads of demonstrators arrive from other parts of the country in order to protest alleged breaches of language regulations.
However, at Halluin's border with Menen, such confrontations seem to have been largely avoided; a number of reasons may be discerned for this. In the first place, there are almost no sole speakers of French residing in Menen and similarly almost no sole speakers of Dutch residing in Halluin. Furthermore, the nature of using a yachting marina, right on the international border and linguistic boundary, would militate against the idea of visitors arriving there with the principal purpose of demonstrating about some, alleged breach of language rights. Furthermore, even the keenest defenders of the Dutch language among storekeepers close to the border with Halluin are unlikely to wish to antagonize French-speaking clients without a knowledge of Dutch, who, as French nationals, may have arrived on foot in the past few minutes to spend money, shortly before returning again to France. Thus French-speakers from Halluin and Dutch-speakers from Menen tend to lead their lives relatively quietly with their cross-border neighbours.
Also worth seeing
In Halluin , the church of Saint-Hilaire is a noted, neo-Gothic structure. An arboretum at the Manoir aux Loups attracts many visitors.
Menen , Belgium (distance: approx. 2 kilometres) has a striking 16th - 18th century town hall with an octagonal tower.
How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. Brussels is the nearest large airport to Halluin (distance: 115 kilometres). The Belgian railroad company NMBS/SNCB maintains a service between Brussels and nearby Menen. For up to date information, you are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent. For any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities, please refer to appropriate consular sources.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada