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Aux armes, citoyens!

Brussels, 21 July 1831. On the Place Royale, 40-year-old Leopold of Saksen-Coburg-Gotha takes the constitutional oath and becomes the first King of the Belgians. Brussels, 21 July 2007. The Kingdom of Belgium commemorates the event and celebrates its national holiday. In a minor key, for the small parliamentary democracy seems to be hopelessly divided over a petty language-related community squabble called Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde or, for the initiated, BHV. Basically, it all boils down to the fact that Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloon politicians are convinced that all their other-language colleagues are pigheaded nitwits, rejecting patently legitimate demands only to deviously impose their own blatantly frivolous conditions. A journalist of the RTBF, the public broadcasting organization of the French Community, shoves a microphone in the face of Yves Leterme, the Flemish Christian Democrat who's just won the national elections and is now struggling to form a new government. He asks the likely next Prime Minister if he knows why Belgium's national holiday is celebrated on the 21st of July. "I believe it's the proclamation of the Constitution", Leterme says. His French is impeccable, but his answer is wrong: The Belgian Constitution was proclaimed on 7 February 1831, about half a year before the accession of King Leopold I. The journalist corrects Leterme and asks him if he knows the lyrics to The Brabançonne, the national anthem. "Only a little", the good man answers. Whereupon, in an eardrum shattering falsetto, he breaks into The Marseillaise. Hilarious! Except, perhaps, for his former history teachers, the nation is
hardly dismayed by the fact that its would-be Prime Minister does not know what exactly its national holiday commemorates. But to confuse the Belgian anthem with the French one? No, that is simply unacceptable! The gaffe causes a great stir, especially in the francophone media. One would almost think Leterme had sung The Flemish Lion, the abominable official anthem of Flanders. A clip of the interview goes viral, makes the poor man the laughing-stock of Europe, and will probably haunt him for the rest of his living days. When I first hear our much-harassed aspirant primus inter pares smirkingly squeal
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Easily confused with the common wasp and the German wasp, the European paper wasp is far less aggressive.

Allons enfants de la Patrie, I burst out laughing. It is, after all, a priceless blunder, especially in a political climate where yes-sayers on both sides of the linguistic border are rallying behind either Mrs No or Mr No, the Walloon and Flemish politician that are held responsible for the deadlock in the government formation negotiations, which will eventually last for a record 196 days. Deep down, however, I feel privileged to live in a country where even the nation's leaders appear to be ignorant of both its history and its anthem. No matter how thrilled I am to see Barack Hussein Obama win the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, it still makes my stomach turn each time he calls America the greatest nation on earth or concludes another one of his speeches with that accursed God bless America. No Belgian Prime Minister could still afford to proclaim that kind of bullshit. No Belgian King would still dare to publicly call upon a divine being to bless the nation. Belgium may not be the best country in the world, and it certainly isn't the most beautiful. For the time being, however, it is without doubt one of the most civilized. But what, you may well ask, does all this have to do with the European paper wasp in the photograph? Little or nothing, I'm afraid. Of course, its black and yellow pattern brings to mind Flanders' Lion flag, while its Dutch common name – the Franse veldwesp or French field wasp – clearly refers to the language of Molière. Polistes dominula flaunts the Flemish colours, but hums a French hymn. A Belgian compromise, as it were. And Yves Leterme? Well, in December 2011, following a bumpy career as Vice Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and, finally, Prime Minister, he goes to work in Paris as Deputy Secretary-General of the OECD. In October 2012 he wins the local elections in Ypres, the city notorious for the first use of chemical weapons ever. When his term of office as Deputy Secretary-General expires, he plans to become city mayor*. He who laughs last, laughs longest.

* In the end, opportunistic as ever, Leterme declined the office of Mayor of Ypres to become Secretary-General of the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. In 2016, he retired from politics altogether to focus on his international career.
Two blew out off the pigeon's nest

Common wood pigeons have a bad rep, at least with farmers and market gardeners. That's because they are mad about the seedlings and young sprouts of peas, beans, cabbages and several other agricultural crops. And because, these days, there are millions of them. Hunters claim that it is absolutely necessary to keep their populations under control and that only shooting them can do so. Preferably all year round, but certainly in the final weekend of the hunting season. While most farmers are inclined to agree, bird-lovers, naturally, fiercely object. They point out that, in the Low Countries, the vast majority of wood pigeons are in fact migratory birds, while most of the damage is caused by resident wood pigeons that spend spring and summer in these parts too. Therefore, a massacre in the last weekend of February is pointless. Both sides belabour each other with arguments that are often just about as sound as the security of most computer networks. The truth, of course, is that hunters simply enjoy killing wood pigeons, while bird-lovers, on principle, are opposed to shooting them with anything but a
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A wood pigeon's nest is about as storm-resistant as New Orleans' levees proved to be when Hurricane Katrina hit the region in August 2005.

telephoto lens. The rest is mostly balderdash, mainly concocted to salve one's conscience or to rationalise one's emotional motives. Compared to the unbridgeable gap between hunters and birders, the one between Dutch and French speaking Belgians is little more than a hairline crack. There appears to be neither mutual understanding nor room for negotiations, so every mediator inevitably becomes a sitting target. I have no desire whatsoever to get mixed up in this dialogue of the deaf. Unlike our competent minister, I don't get paid for that. I wish him or her – these days, in Flanders, it's a her – much courage, strength and a dedicated bodyguard. While wood pigeons are exemplary parents, they are also miserable structural engineers. The nest in which they raise their chicks is not much more than a coarse sieve of fragile twigs, glued together with pigeon poop. When the eggs don't simply fall through, the very first spring thunder storm will often blow the rickety construction and its valuable contents
straight out of its tree. In the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat, nearly every year I discover several dead wood pigeon chicks and battered nests blown down to the ground. On 23 August 2010, after yet another stormy night, I spot an ominously empty nest underneath one of the tall silver birches at the back of the garden. Since I've discovered some broken egg shells in the previous week, I know the chicks have already hatched. Perhaps they've survived and can still be saved? Wishful thinking, of course, and before long I find two pitiful chick corpses*. I pick them up, put them in the nest and make some memorial photographs. If all goes well, a pair of wood pigeons can raise three and sometimes even four broods of two chicks each per year. Normally, however, there are just two broods, one of which, usually the first, is often lost. Not only as a result of foul weather, but also because carrion crows and magpies either destroy the eggs or fly off with the chicks. Nature knows no mercy. At the end of the day, it's every creature for itself.

* Once in a blue moon there's a happy ending. More about that in one of the next episodes.
Stand-in comedy

I might have known! In every self-respecting soap opera, sooner or later a look-alike of one of its protagonists will turn up, causing lots of confusion and all kinds of trouble. So why should my Garden Soap escape this iron law of the genre? When I find an eight-legged wasp spider in Mrs Five Legs' web, I initially believe in a miraculous recovery. A fortnight later, however, Mrs Five Legs, in all her differently abled glory, makes a stunning comeback. She is discovered by my grandchildren, barely thirty centimetres from the spot that is now occupied by her eight-legged impostor. One winter's day, early in the 1980s, the front page of the now defunct Flemish daily Het Volk (The People) features a photograph of an anti-nuclear protest march in either Copenhagen, Oslo or Stockholm, in
any case a Nordic capital city. My grandmother immediately recognises me and shows the photograph to my parents. They are staggered. For all they know, I am hard at work at the Free University of Brussels, diligently sticking my philosophical nose into musty smelling volumes on formal logic and Anselm of Canterbury's arguments for the existence of God. When, unsuspectingly, I come home for the weekend, mother confronts me with the incriminating evidence. I see myself marching behind an illegible banner, hand in hand with a dazzling Scandinavian beauty. "I wouldn't say no to her", I can't help thinking, whereupon I point out to mother that the young man's Afghan hippie coat only superficially resembles mine. He wears slightly different glasses too. Apparently, somewhere in Northern Europe, I have a double who somehow manages to attract gorgeous girls. The bastard! Even though it's only a grainy black and white newspaper photograph,
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Gimme five! The triumphant comeback of Mrs Five Legs.

the incident is slightly unnerving. Imagine coming face to face with another version of yourself, someone who could be your identical twin brother or sister. Creepy!

Two peas in a pod

doppelgänger is clearly a recurrent motif, not just in soap operas, but also in mythology, movies and world literature. It repels and attracts. We are fascinated by it. In September 2009, the American advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky launches its Coke Zero Facial Profiler on Facebook. Automatically comparing and matching profile photos, the application allows users to search for and get in touch with look-alikes from all over the world. If Coke Zero has Coke's taste, is it possible that someone out there has your face? Somewhat strained, but the campaign catches on and swiftly gains momentum. After only three months, no less than 288,000 people have installed the app. Another month, and the number of participants exceeds 600,000. Then, for legal reasons, the
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A wasp spider's egg cocoon.

provocative, much talked-about application is removed. There is concern that it may encourage and facilitate identity theft, an age-old crime already found in Genesis. Patriarch Jacob cunningly swindles his blind father out of the blessing meant for his twin brother by pretending to be Esau. Good old God, alias Yahweh – for once Allah is not playing along – is perfectly fine with that. He's always had a soft spot for Jacob and, of course, he has the morals of a psychopath and the conscience of a plague bacterium. From Jacob and Esau to Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, Chaplin's The Great Dictator, the alleged doubles of Saddam and Uday Hussein or the occasionally striking matches the Coke Zero Facial Profiler provided: look-alikes have been hot for centuries on end and continue to fascinate. They sell books, movies, magazines and even soft drinks.

Send in the clones

It is highly unlikely that someone out there resembles you so well that even your very own mother could be fooled for more than a few seconds. We are all unique, including so-called identical twins, and often pride ourselves on that, readily taking the credit for it. Yet, sooner or later, nearly all of us are mistaken for someone else or told that we are the spitting image of a celebrity or a perfect stranger. The last time this happens to me, is at the village Christmas market, four or five years ago. I am enthusiastically greeted by
someone who, as soon becomes apparent, mistakes me for an ENT specialist at the local General Municipal Hospital. To some extent, looking at a portrait of my alleged double on the hospital's website, I can see how this case of mistaken identity came about. We are hardly the spitting image of each other – I am, obviously, far better looking! – but the resemblance is close enough to cause confusion. Once scientists are able to clone people with impunity, they will definitely do so. It's the nature of the beast. Human cloning raises many questions, but it could also answer quite a few. Consider the impact of environmental factors on the development of our personality, our mental and physical abilities or even our looks. I suspect it is much smaller than most educationalists and left-wing supporters hope, but also much larger than most judges and right-wing supporters fear. Meanwhile, I sometimes wonder what became of my Danish, Norwegian or Swedish doppelgänger. Is he still alive? Does he still look like me? And, most importantly: With my looks, how in the world did that schmuck charm the pants off Miss Universe?
On the wings of love

Corpulent women are attractive and sexy. They meet the beauty ideal of nearly all ages and civilizations. Even in today's Western societies, at first sight exceptions that confirm the rule, fleshy females are actually in high demand. Larger-sized ladies are not well rounded; smaller-sized ladies are poorly flattened. The trouble with ideals of all kinds is that they almost always lead to excesses, some of which can be lethal. Food aversion is not a modern, typically Western disorder. Nevertheless, the slim body ideal rammed down our throats ever since the 1960s by the medical world, the media and the authorities is at least partly to blame for the growing number of anorexic teenagers and adolescents. I suspect that many people with morbid obesity are also victims of a runaway beauty ideal. Their food addiction is not so much the result of their upbringing, a mental defect or a traumatic childhood experience, but of an adaptation favoured by natural and/or sexual selection. In an environment where fat- and sugar-rich comfort food is almost always close at hand, this inevitably spells trouble. But just like peahens fall for the peacock with the largest, most impressive tail fan, some human males feel irresistibly drawn to females sporting the most kilograms, the deepest skin folds and the softest rolls of fat. They call themselves FAs or Fat Admirers, and the eagerness with which the porn industry caters to their particular fetish suggests there are many
of them. Fat worshippers spend fortunes on webcam sessions with scantily clad, excessively obese ladies that do little more than stuff themselves while alluringly jiggling their flab and wobbling their fabulous rolls of blubber. Super-Size Big Beautiful Women or SSBBWs are big business. Of course, most SSBBWs are not into porn at all, but even then they often attract Fat Admirers. Loving, respectful relationships between FAs and SSBBWs are undoubtedly quite common. Sadly, the romance is often not as innocent as it looks. Some fat worshippers, usually called feeders, purposefully fatten up their partner until she becomes utterly incapacitated and entirely dependent. Like a beached whale, the object of devotion spends the entire day in bed, wolfing down pizzas, hamburgers, chips and chocolates with gallons of Coke. Hubby dear bathes her, treats her pressure sores, wipes her ass and does good business selling pictures and videos of his helpless idol. Presumably, some feedees wouldn't have it any other way. In most cases, however, there are at least strong suspicions of emotional abuse and mental coercion.

Sex-crazed vapourers

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), an American organization that has been fighting discrimination against fat people ever since 1969, officially condemns
feederism and frowns upon all forms of enforced, non-consensual weight loss or gain. Watching a documentary on the issue on national television, I am presented with a quivering mountain of
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Vapourer caterpillar. What goes in at the front, comes out at the rear almost unaltered.

350 kilograms of human flesh. Single-handedly filling a king-size bed, the young lady concerned reminds me of the rusty tussock moths or vapourers in the garden. Females of this species have no wings and are so fat they can barely move. Their abdomens are bursting with relatively large eggs. As soon as they emerge from the pupae, they start secreting pheromones. With their feathered antennae, flying males detect these irresistible fragrances from far away. It rarely takes them more than fifteen minutes to zoom in on the source. Copulation lasts just a few seconds, whereupon the lepidopteran FAs fly off in search of another sex craving female. There's no time to waste. Vapourers have no proboscis, so they can't feed and only live for a few days. Almost immediately after mating, the female neatly deposits a few hundred eggs, usually on the cocoon she's just left. Her mission in life accomplished, she dies. My first encounter with this remarkable moth dates back to early June 2010, when I spot its equally remarkable caterpillar on the hawthorn at the back of the garden. Late August of the same year, dozens of vapourer caterpillars are eating their way through the elephant's ears and the viburnum in the borders lining the east wall of the house. The damage is substantial. The photograph above shows a caterpillar catapulting a pellet of poop over its back. Simply compare the pellet's colour to that of the elephant's ear leaf, and you know why these caterpillars have such a voracious appetite: What goes in at the front, comes out at the rear almost unaltered. The reproductive strategy of the vapourer has pros and cons. Since a newly emerged female stays put and lays all her
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Vapourer cocoon with pupa.

eggs in one batch soon after mating, there's little chance of her life being cut short by a hungry insectivore. The main disadvantage is that the caterpillars are not guaranteed to find enough food nearby. Thanks to the large eggs, however, they have sufficient reserves to survive a few days of fasting. Young caterpillars are hairy and able to spin long silken threads, allowing them to take to the air on the slightest breeze. Since they are extremely polyphagous, there's a good chance they'll land on a suitable food plant. That's probably how they colonized the borders by the house in the first place. In the summer of 2011, they practically demolish the square metre of elephant's ears by the front door. The following year, I can't find even a single vapourer caterpillar there and the elephant's ears are doing better than ever.

Force-fed child brides

Today, what pheromones do for the females of the rusty tussock moth, the Internet does for the SSBBWs of the planet: It allows them to lure partners without having to move a muscle. Their bed is their cocoon; their fat is their peacock's tail. In the Islamic Republic of Mauritania (western Africa), in remote encampments little girls and teenagers are force-fed like foie-gras geese to increase their value on the marriage market, a Berber tradition known as
Leblouh. Here, women do not use slimming pills and appetite suppressants, but appetite stimulants and hormone cocktails intended for cattle and body-
builders. Maggie De Block*, currently Belgium's Secretary of State for Asylum, Immigration and Social Integration, is a classic example of a Big Beautiful Woman. Except for her complexion, she has all the makings of a Mauritanian beauty queen. Apparently, the former family doctor and mother of two has little or nothing to complain about as it is. In interviews, her husband never fails to call her his ideal woman. Is he a fat worshipper? I doubt it, though he's certainly not averse to it either. I do wonder to what extent Mrs De Block regards her morbid obesity as a problem. She is, after all, a trained doctor. She knows perfectly well that her life expectancy is way below average and that, in a decade or so, she will no longer be able to function normally. She's fifty now. I wish her a long and happy life, but I'm afraid her genes will decide otherwise. But, of course, that's really none of my business.

* On 11 October 2014, De Block became federal Minister of Social Affairs and Public Health. Understandably, given her morbid obesity, that last field of competence raised more than a few eyebrows. According to some opinion polls, up until the end of 2016, she was the country's most popular politician. Today, following some less popular austerity measures and unfortunate statements, her star appears to be waning.
Drift with the tide

The European peacock is one of the largest, most beautiful and most common butterflies in Belgium and the Netherlands. The species can be found in just about every garden with flowering herbs, shrubs and trees. Some years, so many peacocks are fluttering about that I soon barely notice them anymore. In other years, they are so rare that my heart skips a beat each time I get to see one. Unlike most butterflies in the Low Countries, peacocks do not spend the larger part of their lives as caterpillars or pupae. They overwinter as adults, a feat only three other native butterfly species achieve: the comma, the small tortoiseshell and the brimstone. When the days grow longer and temperatures rise, the peacocks become active again and leave their winter shelter, commonly a barn, attic, cellar or garden shed. The first specimens of the year may well appear while there's still snow. They are accomplished flyers and immediately set off in search of nectar from early bloomers, such as dandelions and blackthorn. The peacock's reproductive strategy is almost the reverse of that of the vapourer. In April or May, in
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Peacock caterpillars are monophagous. They feed almost exclusively on the leaves of common nettles. To me, that's a good enough reason to give this plant a place in the garden.

sloppy batches of fifty to several hundred, female peacocks deposit some thousand eggs on the underside of the leaves of common nettles. Other known food plants, such as dwarf nettles and common hop, are clearly second choice. The caterpillars emerge after only a few weeks. About one month and four moults later they pupate. Within a fortnight or so, the metamorphosis is completed and in June or July a new generation of peacocks brightens up the garden. In warmer years, when conditions are just right, a second and from time to time even a third generation may
follow. The photograph of the caterpillar dates back to 25 August 2010. Searching for food, these butterflies can cover large distances. Some years they show a tendency to flock and migrate, though, unlike the red admiral, rather haphazardly. They simply swing with the wind and go with the flow. Quite similar to a substantial part of the Belgian electorate.

Loss aversion

Perhaps because they are too closely involved, many party bigwigs, political journalists and commentators are blind to two fundamental, entirely irrational motives of the growing group of floating voters: the thirst for winning and, especially, the aversion to losing. Like butterflies fluttering from flower to flower, they flit from party to party. They drift with the tide and vote for the hot favourite. The party programme is irrelevant, and more often than not they are barely aware of it. They simply rally behind the supposed front-runner and will sooner vote against their own interests than pick a probable loser. Every opinion poll showing that one or another party is gaining ground will yield it a good many additional votes*. It's really no coincidence that the most successful professional cyclists or
soccer teams also boast the largest fan bases. The number of hardcore fans that support their cyclist or team through thick and thin will always be relatively small. Most people don't like losers and prefer not to be associated with them in any way. When the political party they have just voted for wins the election, for a couple of days they feel like winners too. Like the fans of a soccer team that's just won a competition, they rejoice and cheer. They are the champions! The Vlaams Belang (VB, Flemish Interest) is a Belgian extreme-right party that fosters and feeds on xenophobia, racism, resentment, fear and a couple of other equally bad counsellors. When, in 2007, for the first time after over two decades of steady growth and consecutive electoral successes, the VB loses votes, that is the beginning of the end. The momentum is lost. When some of its ringleaders, elected representatives and hardcore members defect, the party's fate is sealed. The floating voters sacrifice the waning Vlaams Belang of Filip Dewinter for Bart De Wever's waxing Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA, New Flemish Alliance).

Beware of sore winners

Bart De Wever, mayor of Antwerp and leader of the N-VA, used to be a Big Brainy Bloke. Unfortunately, he emerged from a crash diet as a Sad Ugly Bastard. I still kind of like him. Sure, I detest his ultra-conservative liberal ideology and his pathetic Flemish nationalism. But I do appreciate his debating style, his dry wit and the fact that he actually seems to believe in the
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First generation peacock on lavender, one of the favourite nectar providers of this gorgeous species.

desirability and feasibility of his own project. In this respect, he sometimes reminds me of young Guy Verhofstadt at the time of his first Citizen Manifestoes. Although he probably thinks of himself as a Realpolitiker, De Wever is essentially an idealist doomed to fail. Today, the N-VA sails before the wind and will likely win the regional, national and European elections of 2014**. But then the party will go off the boil. It is, after all, not a cherry with a solid stone, but a grape with a handful of pips held together by the gravity of Sun King De Wever. Poor Bart. In 2009, taking part in the seventh season of the TV quiz De Slimste Mens ter Wereld (The Smartest Person on Earth) greatly boosted his popularity. Today, the bulk of both his supporters and his opponents still labour under the delusion that he's actually won that edition of this hit programme. Once the polls show that the N-VA is losing ground, they will suddenly remember how, by the smallest of margins, he actually lost the final to Freek Braeckman, a journalist of the Flemish public broadcasting organization. A good thing too, for while many people are sore losers, De Wever is one of those wretched sore winners. His victory speech after the 2012 local and provincial elections says it all. He looks like a beaten dog, as if he's just learned that his wife is cheating on him with a French-speaking, sub-Saharan refugee. He is obviously not comfortable in his surplus skin. Winning does not become him. And he'll never get a chance to learn how to cope with it.

* In Belgium, voting is mandatory. In all likelihood, this increases the effect of opinion polls and loss aversion on the outcome of our local, provincial, regional, national and EU elections. On the other hand, voter turnout is affected by neither fortuitous factors, such as weather conditions, nor by polls predicting a clear win for one or another party, possibly causing voters to stay at home. I think of voting as a civic duty, akin to paying taxes. But while the latter is compulsory in every democracy, the former hardly ever is.

** The N-VA did win the elections of 2014 and is now the dominant partner in the ruling coalitions of both the Flemish and the Belgian government. Two years on, however, the party is clearly losing ground, mainly to the VB.
The Luck of the Irish

If you had the luck of the Irish
You'd be sorry and wish you were dead
You should have the luck of the Irish
And you'd wish you was English instead!
A thousand years of torture and hunger
Drove the people away from their land
A land full of beauty and wonder
Was raped by the British brigands!
Goddamn! Goddamn!

John Lennon)

Manhattan, 8 December 1980. A 25-year-old religious maniac pumps four hollow-point bullets into John Lennon's back. I have no aptitude for adulation whatsoever – a shortcoming that is rarely appreciated –, but the cowardly murder of the ex-Beatle, one of the greatest and most influential singer-songwriters ever, deeply affects me. Together with millions of people around the world, I am horrified. Geraardsbergen, 8 December 2012. On YouTube, as a kind of tribute, I listen to
Working Class Hero, my favourite Lennon song. A steel-string guitar and two chords: restraint reveals the master. Once again, I am deeply moved by Lennon's voice, the no-nonsense lyrics and the simple melody. Nostalgia? Perhaps*, but it remains a masterpiece that is as relevant today as it was when Lennon wrote it back in 1970. This is far less true of The Luck of the Irish. The Irish Question – in many ways a senseless sectarian conflict – remains to be fully resolved. Still, in Northern Ireland, British troops no longer mow down defenceless republican Catholics, while loyalist Protestants are no longer liquidated by vengeance-seeking
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You say goodbye and I say hello.

members of the IRA. But the wounds have not yet healed and the violence that marked The Troubles could flare up at any time**. Like Sunday Bloody Sunday on the same album and Give Ireland Back to the Irish by Paul McCartney, that other former Beatle, The Luck of the Irish was written in response to the tragic events of Sunday, 30 January 1972. In Northern Ireland's predominantly Catholic Derry, for no reason whatsoever, British soldiers open fire on unarmed protesters. Death toll: fourteen, including six teenage boys. Apparently, however, having the luck of the Irish is also an American expression, already so old that nobody seems sure of either its origin or its meaning. According to some sources, you have the luck of the Irish when you have all the luck in the world and simply stumble over a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. According to other sources, however, the phrase is used ironically and refers to someone being dogged by misfortune, going from bad to worse. Whatever the case, in at least one respect, the Irish truly are lucky: there are no moles on the Emerald Isle. Did the leprechauns wipe them out? Did Saint Patrick chase them into the Irish Sea, together with the snakes? As always, the truth is both more prosaic and far more interesting. If moles ever did mine the Irish soil, they did not survive the last glacial period. When, some 12,000 years ago, the climate gets warmer, they move northwards again. Meanwhile, due to melting ice sheets, sea levels rise and the Irish Sea is formed. By the time the moles reach England, it's too late for them to
(re)colonise Ireland too. Same story for the snakes. The less nature and animals around us, the more we seem to love them. Nowhere else will you find more nature and animal lovers than in the larger cities of Europe and Northern America. Because we sorely miss them? Sure, but also, and perhaps even more so, because they don't bother us. There are no stinging nettles in our city parks and most dangerous or simply troublesome animals are safely locked behind bars in our city zoos. I can waste hours sitting on a bench, smilingly watching a mole turning my lawn into a mountain massif. In the larger part of the garden, I leave the creatures alone. From time to time, however, like when a mole invades the vegetable plot, I have to intervene. I harden my heart, set a trap, and a couple of hours or days later the problem is solved. But more about that – and about some of the so-called animal-friendly alternatives of the most dewy-eyed animal lovers – in one of the next episodes of my Garden Soap.

* A note to my children, grandchildren and the health care personnel (sadly even then probably still severely underpaid) of the Golden Years Rest Home: When, in the not-so-distant future, wearing diapers and being pushed about in a rickety health insurance wheelchair, I don't even remember my own name, Working Class Hero will be one of the songs able to momentarily wake me from my comatose slumber. There's a good chance that I'll still know the lyrics by heart and will mumble them along at the top of my cancerous lungs.

** At this very moment – 11 December 2012 – there are riots in Belfast. After City Council voted to fly the Union Jack over Belfast City Hall only on special occasions, such as Coronation Day, angry Ulster loyalists took to the streets. Protests are spreading like wildfire and rapidly getting out of hand.
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Geraardsbergen, 8 August 2012.
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