For reasons as prosaic as going to somewhere in northern Flanders to collect an old Belgian oak mirror, (from an Indian bloke from Leeds) myself and family ended up in a theme park. Which was fun. For only 2 euro a head. Which was fantastic. With over 10,000 members of the Vlaams Belang, which was at the very least odd.
Realising that we were up near the town of Mol, I had phoned Paul Belien, an old friend and the editor of The Brussels Journal (where I contribute). He had always suggested that we pop by if were ever in his neck of the woods. We did, and had the pleasure of looking around the rather fine restored 300 year old farmhouse that he has recently moved to. He took great pleasure pointing out the proof that the house had previously been destroyed by the English in 1945 as they bombarded the northern bank of the Antwerp canal.
Anyhow, at home with Paul were three of his children and his with Alexandra Colen, or Sandra. Sandra is a Belgian Federal MP with the Vlaams Belang, (Flemish Interest) the Flemish separatist party, and has been since 1995.
After a very pleasant impromptu family lunch, As we had our smalls with us and had seen one of those brown sign signifying 'place to visit' and as the weather was balmy spring, we asked if they knew anything about this place 'Bobejaanland', signs to which we had passed on the way.
It was a theme park, but it was closed. But they were going that afternoon. And it would only cost 2 Euro a head. But it was a Vlaams Belang family day, would we like to come? So, after a quick word with management, who to my surprise assented, we found ourselves at the theme park surrounded by over 10,000 Vlaams Belang (they say 13,000 - I believe them) types and their families.
So what was it like, or more importantly what were they like? Well as Sandra said as we arrived, "You will be able to see if we have horns and we smell of sulphur".
Here are some impressions.
Normal, deeply normal.
The social cross section was representative, with an average age of about thirty (not counting children), but as you would expect for a theme park. Maybe a few more olds than one would expect, but they came with youngs attached. I was one the look out for those not native to Flanders and I saw a few but not many, mostly Asian.
I noticed one young man with a white power logo on his jacket, but again, with that many people at a theme park, not out of the ordinary in itself. Perhaps there was a greater preponderance of short hair amongst the young man, but not so one would notice anything untoward.
There were a fair few black, yellow and white balloons, the party colours, and there were two stands selling party literature, but they were hardly doing any trade that I could see. There was no rally planned (though we did miss the balloon release later in afternoon).
We were briefly introduced to Filip de Winter, the party leader, who was with Frank van Hecke, who I vaguely know by name and face as an MEP. After that it was big dippers and baby trains.
Did I feel threatened? No. I was impressed by the numbers and the societal cross section. My wife talked about the normality of those who supported Hitler in the early thirties, but I didn't feel that at all. Would I do it again, probably not, but why?
Well I did find myself at times avoiding camera crews and photographers.
However, if I am to live in Belgium, then surely it is responsible to actually meet those who are members of the single biggest political party, and to see whether they fit the picture that is so often accorded them by the media and 'bien pensant' thought? On this showing in no way did they.
Maybe it would be different if I had witnessed a political rally rather than a family day.