It’s been just over a year since I’ve been back in Belgium full time, and I recently had some house guests who’d never been here before, which is always fun because not only is it important that we stuff them with beer and chocolate and fries, but I like to try and impart to visitors who come here some essence of what it is to live in this little country. Too often it gets pushed aside by the glories of France or the hallmarks of Germany. It’s like nobody’s ever been to Belgium. Or no one bothered to stop by when passing through.
Admittedly, it’s hard to boil Belgium down. Like all countries it’s defined by its idiosyncrasies but also its contradictions to them. And for a country so small (you can drive from one end to the other in about two hours, north or south, east or west), it’s quite complicated. While only 10 million people live here, they are divided into three regions defined largely by language and history. To the North, the Flemish, who speak a softer sounding Dutch (like British English to American English), to the South, the Walloons, who speak a quainter sounding French. And way down in the Southeast, you even have a small German region. The two largest regions are often at logger heads, mostly because the Walloons used to be rich and used to treat the Flemish with disdain. During the war, the officers spoke French, the soldiers spoke Flemish. Guess in which language the orders were given? Nowadays though, the tables have somewhat turned, and it’s the Flemish who have the wealth, who don’t want to pay for their neighbors down south. As a result, if you tell a Belgian, oh I know another Belgian, really it means very little to him, if he happens to be Flemish and your buddy is a Walloon.
Full disclosure: I live in Flanders. I’m married to what we call a Fleming. The Belgium that I know inevitably is probably more a reflection of Flanders, which depending on your point of view, helps or hurts my credibility.
But still it’s November; none of you are likely to go on holiday any time soon. So in honor of my one year anniversary here, I thought it’d be fun to offer ten (absurdist) truths about what life is like here in Belgium, among Belgians. Very scientific, you understand. And not taken without some risk that my Belgian friends (or husband) never speak to me again.
1. Belgians are never wrong. At least that is the starting point from which all discussions and arguments must begin. I come from a country where we apologize for bumping into the furniture, where we apologize over ourselves to make the dissent go away. Here in Belgium, your initial stance when you’ve rear ended someone is that it’s their fault. That stance is often denoted by crossed arms and an odd frowning lip pout. Defensive until proven otherwise. And even then…
2. Belgians are stoic. And not easily impressed. They are a tough crowd to please. Do not smile at them in the street, you will weird them out. Ask a waiter: Can I have a cup of coffee? They will reply: Can you? Why not? Better to just say: cup of coffee. Perhaps this is what happens when your country’s been occupied by the Germans (twice), the Dutch, the Spanish. When so many of your touristic attractions revolve around death and war. Where it rains half the year, more often than not in August. True, there are strategies to get around the sobriety and gloominess such stoic-ness can bring, and the Belgians have mastered those too.
3. Belgians are irreverent, making them funny, but not. If a Belgian is laughing at you, chances are that in their cruel but charming way, they like you. Even those who love Belgium most, the country’s great patriots, show their affection through mockery. Jacques Brel’s Le Plat Pays, hardly showers praise. The greatest piece of contemporary Belgian literature is by Hugo Claus and it’s called The Sorrow of Belgium.
Personally, I find their humor runs dangerously close to crude, rude, obscene. Nudity, sex, bodily functions tend to play a role. My husband buys Humo magazine, whose covers I have to turn over when I walk by because I find them so repellent. The idea of my stout and prudish mother in law buying them for him still blows my mind. A Flemish friend tells me I’m just too politically correct. Apparently, my sensitivity is just subterfuge for how people truly feel. As he said: he is a little racist but is trying not to be. That we all are. Which is not what he means at all. I know him. What he means is, we all have prejudices and stereotypes and fears which we try to mitigate against. Which I think is a pretty good thing. Good to admit it, and good to work to overcome it.
The upside of all the irreverence is that Belgium has taught me that there is something more honest about airing out our naughty thoughts in the open, if only so we can learn how to get over them. And the thing to remember here is no one is immune. The insults and mockery is equally distributed to all, so it’s rather hard to complain of hurt feelings. Best to just give as good as you get.
4. Belgians do eat chocolate every single day. Spread it on your bread for breakfast, shake hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles) on the top (they call them mouse turds. Refer to to number 3 for an explanation on that). Hey, just break a piece of chocolate bar and roll it in some bread. Yes, Belgians eat chocolate a lot, maybe every day. Yes, we have incredible chocolate shops, we have a mind boggling selection of the good stuff at the grocery store. And it’s not just chocolate. Mussels, fries. Not French. Beef Bourguignon? Just add beer and you have a Flemish stew. All those yummy things you thought came from France?They really come from Belgium.
5. Belgium is small. And then again it isn’t. It’s simple. But it’s not. Nothing is as it seems here in Belgium and it’s no coincidence that surrealism flourished here. Magritte, Delvaux, the way they say reality isn’t reality, that ceci n’est pas un pipe, seems to me a product of their country’s dark history, twisted humor, and sobriety. Victor Horta, Art Nouveau, same story. More recently, there is a very healthy line of fashion designers doing weird and wonderful things here. Antwerp is more hipster, more ironic than Brooklyn can ever hope to be.
Here, a provincial town will opt for some pretty odd art to dot the square. The waiter who may have less years in school than you will speak at least 4 languages, rather well. Belgium is a bit like those pastoral Breughel paintings, yet it’s been the cross roads of international trade for centuries.
Other examples of it’s small/bigness. Back and forthness. When the gov’t wanted to pass a law allowing abortion, the King who is Catholic abdicated for a day so the law could pass. The day after, he was offered his post back. Pigeon racing remains an old world sport here, but it gets big attention (and big bucks) from Japan; there’s even a rather sophisticated doping racket going on (grenadine is the trick). A half serious documentary called Exotic Love explores Belgians who fall in love with foreigners (I have yet to be cast). Part circus act, part love story, part political statement. The children here think it’s completely normal to see a white man in black face, called Black Pete, help old St. Nicolas distribute presents. One of the region’s most popular politicians has a particular interest in fascist history, yet the country’s Prime Minister wears a bow tie, comes from an immigrant family, and is openly gay. If you have seven girls in a row, the Belgian Queen becomes the 7th’s Godmother. Her latest godchild is Moroccan. What can be out of place elsewhere can be banal here. And vice versa, of course. Belgium has some wonderful disorienting secrets to share.
8. Belgians like to keep secrets. Beer, for instance. Did you know they have over 300 different kinds?
Admittedly the secret is out now. Twenty years ago, no one knew about Stella Artois, or Leffe. Nowadays, people have an idea of what yeast and hops produce in Belgium. But for every Hoegaarden you sip, there’s a hundred other smaller brews the country doesn’t let you get near unless you come visit. They are quite content to keep it for themselves. People will line up in the middle of the night to secure a batch of the country’s best most exclusive brew. And yes, some will drink it before noon. And yes, your 11 year old son is introduced to a goblet of the yeasty goodness by his father. And yes, boy scouts get a weakened brew during camp (at least so says my husband).
It’s the same with chocolate- Godiva, Neuhaus, Leonidas, Guylian- this is the department store of chocolate. The really good stuff doesn’t get out of the country.
8. Belgium is a land of rules, of bureaucracy. Maybe you need the beer to cope with all the rules you have to follow. Where you must take your shoes off before entering the changing room at the swimming pool or the woman will scream at you if you don’t. Where if you dare to sneak an extra 30 seconds to finish your lap at the pool, the life guard (who looks like he might not really save your life) behaves as if you’ve brought upon him nuclear war. Where the train conductor not only shakes his head when you’ve forgotten to fill in your train pass, but takes it as a personal slight. Where the city hall sends you back for paper after paper after paper, who will tell you all those papers are not acceptable, but will be unable to explain why, or what you are supposed to do as a result. Often, the conversation ends with that lip pout. Maybe a shrug.
Now, this rule I know is not Belgium specific. I’ve heard whiffs of it exist in Germany and Austria and in France. Less so in England. But there’s something about personal accountability, personal judgment that must be dangerous for the average working Belgian. Some fear about responsibility.
I was in a shop the other day and a woman came by to explain the store had printed a roll of film twice (yes, they still do that here it appears). So she did not want to pay for it twice, of course. This led to a series of phone calls to head office where the store manager kept re-explaining the problem, reconfirming with the customer- are you sure you didn’t want this printed twice? Have you paid for the first print? On and on it went, while the rest of us waited in line for the drama to resolve itself. I gave up waiting around to see what would happen. I’ve read Kafka after all. The heart of the issue? No one dared to stick their neck out to solve the problem, no one wanted to get into trouble. To take responsibility. Maybe this is why Belgium has so many politicians, to help confuse where responsibility lies (fact: Belgium went 541 days without a gov’t, breaking Iraq’s record, trying to build a coalition. Popular opinion is the country ran just fine without them.)
Incidentally, this is also the reason why I’ve heard Americans say Belgians are rude. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen a Belgian stare at a woman who has filled in the wrong form, ended up at the wrong desk and heard her say, “well, that’s not my problem you did it wrong” and fail to be of help going forward. She just thinks, if you would just follow the rules…
9. The Rules apply to food. Belgians can have very strict ideas about food. First, nearly every Belgian brasserie has an identical menu. Lasagne Bolognaise. Spaghetti Bolognaise. Croque Monsier. Kroketts. Beverages are similarly regulated. Orange Juice, Cola, Beer, Wine. It’s quite difficult to find something out of the ordinary, very difficult to find soya milk for your coffee. Fries should be eaten with mayonnaise (actually, everything can be eaten with mayonnaise). Do not mix tuna fish with cheese. you may have ham and cheese but not salami and cheese. Chocolate spread is fine, peanut butter (peanut cheese, the literal translation) is odd. Only put spread on half your bread, only eat the bread open face if you’re royalty. Eat one hot meal a day. Eat pistolet buns on Sunday. Eat crepes and waffles between 2pm and 5pm. Never for breakfast. And make sure its the right kind of waffle. Eat your fries with a fork. Every house should own a deep fryer (what? don’t you make your own fries? Don’t forget to fry them twice).
10. The Rules are the Rules until they aren’t. Of course all this slavish following of rules and regulations ends if suddenly it turns out that the Belgian in question is in the wrong. Then, go back to rule number one. Stick your lips out. Show them whose boss.
Of course, for every rule, there is the exception. Which is what makes this list even more absurd. And while it’s been fun and frustrating hammering out what the rules are in order to live here, what makes this country tick, it’s been more fun finding these lovely exceptions. Like the chatty old man in the station who doesn’t think my funny eyes are a threat to his pastoral country. The government officer who thinks the rule is ridiculous and expedites your request; the Belgian who does not eat chocolate and offers you his.
Yes, Belgians are a tough crowd (and I’ve been tough on them), but the last thing I’ll leave you with the rule that makes all the other ones worthwhile: that once you win them over, they’re yours for life.
Happy Anniversary and much love Belgium.
What about you? What rules exist where you live? To anyone in Belgium, did I miss anything?
Still a few days to win some Belgian Chocolate by entering our giveaway…