Een vreemdeling altijd midden ouden / Жат кишинин түбөлүккө байыркы элдердин арасында

Салмоор ДЫЙКАНОВ, коомдук ишмер

I’m someone who always seems to half-learn a language. I can master the basics for negotiating costs and traveling, as well as the best snippets for intellectual conversation, but there’s a wide gulf of, let’s say “actual” or “useful” language in between. And although I typically turn out as a partial mute, paradoxically, I also typically end up with a pretty advanced reading comprehension (I’m most guilty about this with French: I can’t order a pizza but I can read Merleau-Ponty — not that I’d really want to, though).

I imagine that for all half-mutes like me, it’s a common experience every time we try our hand at another language, we inevitably have weird reactions inside our skulls. Sometimes my brain wants to reply in Dutch or Hebrew, even Spanish; other times, it can’t escape the grip of English, and the words of my conversation partner just seem to slam headlong against a blank concrete wall between my ears. Studying Kyrgyz has provoked yet another kind of reaction: fond recollections for Flemish, but also some regret about the language.

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Leuven, Louvain, Katholieke, Catholique — Ik weet het niet, Je ne sais pas!

Word in the Belgian press is that the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven shall be Katholieke no more — well, somewhat.

Although it’s still to be decided this week, officially, our Dutch name shall be “KU Leuven”, with the “K” no longer signifying anything (humorously, university officials like to emphasize that we shall also no longer be “K.U. Leuven”, either). Apparently, our English name shall be “The University of Leuven — KU Leuven” or “The University of Leuven (KU Leuven)”. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in terms of letterhead, website design, curriculum vitaes, etc.

This decision is part of the ongoing mixture of market- and identity-politics here in Belgium. It has been presaged by earlier identity problems (or continuities, depending on your view): previously, we were the Studium Generale Lovaniense (from our founding in 1425 to 1797), the Université d’État de Louvain (until the 1830s, with a brief closure during the Napoleonic regime), then the Université Catholique de Louvain/Universitas Catholica Lovaniensis until the political crisis of 1968 resulted in two universities with the same charter: the Flemish-Dutch Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in historical Leuven, and the Université Catholique de Louvain in the purpose-built town of Louvain-la-Neuve in southern Francophonic Belgium.

The latest change has been justified along two lines: first, that the Catholic Church is interfering with stem cell research (apparently, the change shall also entail removing the archbishop as chairman, leaving him as chancellor); and second, that the “Katholieke” adjective hurts our reputation in the United States, as it supposedly gives the wrong impression of us, i.e., that in order to have a degree from here means one must subscribe to the Catholic faith. Proponents for the change also argue that the university is becoming more and more pluralistic (that remains to be seen in some faculties, but as an official intention this is true).

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Inside Belgium’s heart of darkness

Yesterday Liza and I biked to Tervuren to visit the Musee Royal de l’Afrique Centrale, otherwise known more simply as the Africa Museum. In terms of sheer aesthetic creepiness, this museum is second only to Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, but in moral terms it may be far worse because of what it says about the history of Belgium, colonialism, and science. Briefly, for those of my readers who don’t know, the Africa Museum was established by King Leopold II to showcase the Congo Free State, but which was in reality an active act of apologetic for, if not even deception about, the horrible brutalization of the Congo’s native peoples. Much of the Africa Museum today remains relatively unchanged since its start, revealing much about the mindset that constituted it.

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