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After a long history of occupation by foreign powers, Belgium has emerged as a site for European nations to come together. Brussels -- which hosts the headquarters of both NATO and the European Union -- is now home to the world's largest concentration of international diplomats.

Modern Belgium is a parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarch, King Albert II. The government exists in a more-or-less permanent state of crisis due to the cultural and linguistic divide, with ambitious regional politicians, particularly in Flanders, often pushing the country to the brink of dissolution.

For a graphic picture of Belgium's two ethnic regions, Dutch-speaking Vlaanderen (Flanders) and French-speaking Wallonie (Wallonia), draw an imaginary east-west line across the country just south of Brussels. North of the line is Flanders, where you find the medieval cities of Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp, and Belgium's North Sea coastline. South of the line is Wallonia. Then there's Brussels, the capital, roughly in the geographic middle, and going off on a trajectory of its own as the "capital of Europe."

It has been said that Belgium suffers severely from linguistic indigestion. The inhabitants of Flanders speak a derivation of German that evolved into Dutch and its Flemish variation (Vlaams, or just referred to as Dutch; or Nederlands). The inhabitants of Wallonia speak French (a minority still speak the old Walloon dialect). In Brussels, the two languages mingle, but French has the upper hand. So strong is the feeling for each language in its own region, that along the line where they meet it's not unusual for French to be the daily tongue on one side of a street and Flemish on the other. Throughout the country, road signs acknowledge both languages by giving multiple versions of the same place name -- Brussel/Bruxelles or Brugge/Bruges, for example. There's a small area in eastern Belgium where German is spoken. Belgium, then, is left with not one, but three, official languages: Dutch, French, and German.

In short, far from being a homogeneous, harmonious people with one strong national identity, Belgians take considerable pride in their individualistic attributes.

The vast majority of Belgians are Catholic, though there's more than a smattering of Protestants, a small Jewish community, and a rising proportion of immigrant Muslims and their locally born children. Throughout the centuries, Belgians -- nobles and peasants alike -- have proclaimed their faith by way of impressive cathedrals, churches, paintings, and holy processions. The tradition continues today.

Folklore still plays a large part in Belgium's national daily life, with local myths giving rise to some of the country's most colorful pageants and festivals, such as Ypres's Festival of the Cats, Bruges's Pageant of the Golden Tree, and the stately Ommegang in Brussels. In Belgium's renowned puppet theaters, marionettes based on folkloric characters identify their native cities -- Woltje (Little Walloon) belongs to Brussels, Schele to Antwerp, Pierke to Ghent, and Tchantchès to Liège.

Undoubtedly, Belgians have a finely tuned appreciation for the good things in life; when standards are met, watch Belgian eyes light up. Appreciation then moves very close to reverence, whether inspired by a great artistic masterpiece, or a homemade mayonnaise of just the right lightness, or one of Belgium's more than 450 native beers. If you have shared that experience with a Belgian companion, chances are you find your own sense of appreciation taking on a finer edge.

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