Ten (Possibly) Absurdist Truths About Belgium

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.

Map of Belgium. In carpet form.

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.

Jacques Brel. Born a Fleming, but sang in French. Made fun of the poor flemish girls. Notice how lips are designed for pout.

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.

Bricks of Chocolate

Family lunch, Belgian style

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.

from Walter Van Beirendonck’s latest exhibition

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.

This is not a pipe

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.

uh, meet Pete.

8. Belgians like to keep secrets. Beer, for instance. Did you know they have over 300 different kinds?

a small sample

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).

Cookie Beer, anyone?

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.

Belgian beer vespa. Not for export.

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.

Too many politicians? (Magritte Image)

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.)

Pigeons (Magritte)

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…

Of course, Horta never quite followed 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).

Luikse Waffles are snack waffles and can be eaten generally anytime.

Brussels waffles must be eaten only between 2-5.

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.

Chocolate?

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.

Gotta love them… eventually (Breughel’s Wedding Dance)

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…

Advertisements

32 thoughts on “Ten (Possibly) Absurdist Truths About Belgium

  1. Love, love, love this! Isn’t it amazing to go somewhere else and try to sort out the rules there? My little Canadian heart quails at number one. But I do enjoy a good un-PC sense of humour. The rules remind me of the Germans. There is sometimes comfort in knowing how things must be done, and yes, they can get to be a bit much – and of course it’s delicious when they are broken. Chocolate every day? How lovely. I think if I lived there, I’d eat nothing but mussels and fries for the first month. Happy Anniversary!

    • Hi,

      Been in Belgium since 1999. Married a Belgian.

      The more I learnt about Belgians the more I wanted to leave. Rude insolent irreverent nasty vicious unkind racist foreigner-hating intolerent unfunny and mean. Maybe funny of ridicule is counted as being nice. First time I’ve lived anywhere and treated as sub-human. They are not nice people.

      In 2014 I finally managed a divorce. Because I don’t wish to deprive my son from seeing my in-laws I am doomed to stay until I die.

      Since 1999 I’ve met one Belgian that I liked! And that’s for both francophones and nederlandophones.

      “…once you win them over, they’re yours for life”. No. They take you for granted and abuse you until death of divorce.

  2. These are spot on… and you’re making me miss it so!

    As for rules in Los Angeles… even having grown up here I still feel completely out of place, just not in sync with how things are done. There is a group of gallery-girl type friends that I see only occasionally and they always show up with the same (I can only assume most up-to-date) nail color. I show up with dark purple, they’re all wearing bright red. I show up with a mauve-y pink, they all have black. How do they know?? This is so petty but symbolizes everything I hate about LA and the kind of thing I could never imagine happening in Belgium.

    (By the way, I think BE went without a federal government for a lot longer than 250 days.)

    • Yay! So nice to hear from you! And you are right, it was over 540 days, so I’ve corrected it. Thank you. I think there is some kind of conformity to belgians too, but maybe because we’re outsiders, we don’t see it the same? But then again, it’s antwerp, don’t you want your nail color to be a different shade than everyone else? I remember standing outside the Grand Cafe Horta and I saw this sixty something woman in all black, with her black matte bike and her incredible midnight blue nail polish. In August. And I fell in love with Antwerp all over again. I think in another country we’re allowed not to feel in synch unlike in our own home. come back soon…

  3. Pingback: Fire Dance – allaboutlemon

  4. Love this so. It takes, I think, quite a lot of love and patience and very open eyes to get to know a place in the way you know Belgium– in all its complexities, seeing the things you love and the things you dislike and the things that you simply have to accept and try to understand in order to remain sane. What a very lovely way to relate to the place where you live.

    I love the question of the rules of a particular place. West Glacier certainly has rules, especially regarding living in the presence of dangerous wildlife, bears and mountain lions and wolves and the like. We speak loudly while walking alone on trails — saying things like “hey, bear” and “go on, bear” — to announce ourselves to the potential animals behind the trees. We bear-proof our trash cans . And then there’s the set of reclusive small town rules. We lift a few fingers from our steering wheels in greeting when we drive past each other (well I do at least, like my ranching family), but we largely stay out of each others’ business otherwise. Only the out-of-towners, who come for a month in the summer to stay in their vacation homes, disobey the Golden Rule of don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-and-I-won’t-tell-you-what-to-do-either. And then there are the rules of driving on two-lane highways, rules I impose (loudly) on tourists from my driver’s seat.

    You’ve inspired me, BeZ, to try to be a little more willing to at least let the wonderful and frustrating pieces of a place coexist without cancelling the other out. Thank you.

    • I love hearing about your rules too! And I think Lemon Tart has some of those same rules where she lives. I know a few people here who really struggle to adjust to Belgium, often they are people who came for someone before knowing Belgium. In my case, I suppose I not only fell in love with the belgian but the country that came with it. i confess I feel a huge sense of accomplishment when I can look at a place and see its wonderful and its frustrating- it means somehow i’ve survived it, I’ve seen through to what it really is. I like that kind of secret.

  5. I’ve worked in Belgium on short contracts on and off since 2008 and I have to say the rude comments (from my very English point of view) really throw me off. I’m about 6ft 2ins of medium build, black and female so I stand out a lot. I’m not very good with confrontation and no one openly talks about your looks in public here in London. So hearing such comments on a day-to-day basis is a bit tough to take. Does this mean they love me, judging from the volume of such comments? if so i think I will enjoy my net trip there…

    • I find it interesting that someone who, I can only assume, grew up in London would find us rude. My other half is from Cambridge and I can’t say that he’s ever mentioned anything of the sort. If anything, my friends generally find his sense of humor quite dry and sarcastic, and have a lot of trouble getting close to him. Which isn’t to say that your concerns aren’t valid, of course. I suppose nothing is really off-limits to us. Everything’s pretty much fair game. That doesn’t, however, mean that everything we say is intended as an insult. A comment along the lines of “Wow, tall much?!” is usually more curiosity than anything else.

      Also, just as a slight criticism… While a lot of what is written in this article is true, eating fries with your hands is kind of a grey area. Technically the rule – as I was told growing up anyway – is that you can eat chicken and fries with your hands. However, it is never done that way in public.

      • Hi Kat, I should clarify. I’m Canadian. So really we think nearly everyone is ruder than us. It’s all that political correctness.

        Thank you for the clarification on the fry/finger conundrum!

        Sent from my iPhone

  6. As a belgian, I feel you went soft on us. I do however feel like you’ve forgotten ‘the belgian compromise’, which basically is a compromise where both parties are unhappy.

    • Belgian compromise is a polite way of one party winning and the other party losing everything. The loser is then beaten up either financially mentally or physically or all three.

  7. As a Belgian, I found in fun to read and love to live what you wrote. About the Belgian compromise making both parties unhappy, I guess that’s what happens when you get 2 people with crossed arms and an odd frowning lip pout to find a solution. 🙂
    Bitter en zoet, you should try and live in the southern part of Belgium for a while and end living close to our “language wall”, you’ll be experiencing even more fun we have to offer on a daily basis…
    And I was happy to see you mention my hometown.. Hoegaarden, you should come and visit and learn to know our real Hoegaarden beer Alpaïde.
    Or the best chocolates I’ve ever eaten, Duc de Praslin in Linkebeek(a town which is absurd in it’s own way)
    The real stuff does’t get exported as you already know… 😉

      • I think there is a difference between brands of beer (Karmeliet, Duvel, …) and kinds/types of beer (ale, triple, lambic, geuze, …, cherry beer, banana beer, …). I believe the writer was referring to the last category.

      • Well yes I was there tonight, with a chum who is teetotal. So I ordered a beer and my friend, for reasons of his own, inquired if they could perchance do an alcohol free mojito. Replied the waiter: “sir we are a beer cafe so we don’t do cocktails.” Bam. Thanks Bitter en Zoet for explaining our mistake. We should have known the rule: you don’t enter a Beer Cafe and ask for an alcohol free cocktail. I was also able to pick successively 3 beers from the list that were out of stock, which didn’t elicit an apology from their end but more a look that implied I was really making his life difficult.
        (I came home still rankling a bit and to let off steam googled “are all belgians impolite” which landed me here, unexpectedly bringing me full circle with the comment by Anonymous above. I promise I didn’t go trolling for a place to sneak a bad review for this establishment which I will probably keep frequenting).
        BnZ’s train conductor story reminds me of the time I tried to pass security at Brussels Airport with, shock horror, a 125ml tube of toothpaste. The security guard said that only up to 100ml was allowed and fixed me with a stare as though asking what I had to say for myself. I shrugged to indicate that I’d be happy to move on sans toothpaste but I pretty much had to grovel before, still eyeing me balefully he contemptuously deposited the offending item in the bin and let me go, probably only because letting rule breaking passengers accumulate would be untidy.

  8. I love what you write about my country.
    This is why people should move and live in at least one other country. The make you realise the different rules we have internalised.

    one small remark, yes we went days without a federal government, yet we still had 5 others left… Which is for most foreigners even more insane. Such a small country and then 6 governments.

  9. The Watered Down Brew is called Table Beer and is quite tasty. Back in ye olden days when I still went to catholic elementary school they actually served it to us with lunch. So I wouldn’t dismiss what your SO says about it.

    I agree that the Belgian Compromise deserves a noteworthy mention.

    That said, I think the list applies more to Antwerpians than to Belgians in general. I grew up in the countryside and moved to the city later. Other than the non-PC humour, all the rude parts were completely unfamiliar to me … until I lived in Antwerp.

  10. As a flemish belgian, I liked reading your love story. And I think you are quite near to the point as well. The thing is that we don’t have that many rules, we just have many habits, like the english having tea.
    It is true that belgians in generally don’t like people taking initiatives, belgians like things the way they are. On the other hand, we are all individuals, and we do have an opinion. I like the fact that you consider that our rudeness is a matter of love, I got that remark often when I lived abroad.
    Nonetheless, we are lovely, and kind, and we do like to help foreign people. And though I like your analysis, I do believe that there is no truth, it would be the same as considering all american housewives to have their boobs and nose done, praise the lord for his beautiful creation, and cry out loud at dr. phil, ’cause the daughter had loud sex before her marriage.

    Take care!

  11. Hmmmm the chocolate line, SUCH a hole in your wallet but SO yummy! The part about Belgians being stoic gave me a giggle. It was a biiig change coming from Holland where things are a lot more lighthearted.

  12. You’re married to a belgian guy, so of course now everyone around him has a predisposition to like you, and I am sure you would be likeable anyways.

    But it’s different when you’re not related yet!

    I lie here for 2 years now and everytime I meet a new international(which is almost every 2hours and 4 minutes) we eventually come down to the same rants about how the intense stupidity of a Belggian is taking its toll on us.

    Belgians a lovable, kind, like to help you as much as they can. So thats the good part right.

    The less good part is how closeminded they are to engaging in conversations with others.

    They are almost scared to talk to a stranger, especially a foreigner.

    Everyone here has to have girl- or boyfrienfriend that they met at age 11 years and 2 monst and 3 weeks. And that love is what their entire life will revolve around.
    No new people allowed. No new interactions, of cours unless they break up.

    Its i think because the upbringin here is so strict that children just work a way to get out of their pigeons stalls and find freeedom in the love with someone else.

    The girls out here are beautiful> but that’s all they are because other than that they stink and are loud and are probably as nasty as men are.
    Spreading your leggs 180 degrees wide wearing a skirtless skirt, in front of everybody is Class, pure gold, more like 100 carat shit.

    Putting your legs up on everything wehere other people are supposed to sit or place stuff is the Belgians girls do it. Yelling loud on streets iis Classy.

    Every girl of course has to wear ZARA and has to have an iPhone 5S. NO exceptions allowed. The peer pressure out here is prob soaring. You’re either part of the bunch and in sync, or you might as well get an appartment on the Moon.

    The guys are chill, but overly feminine, always drinking beer.
    FOOOD, is a major part of their entire exisctence.

    As fr the flemish language, being a native dutch speaker, it sounds horrific and like crap. Its stupid how the beautful sounding, soft dutch is transformed in a rude sounding silly rant.

    Belgian jokes are so dry, no plant would survive on them, yet so funny to them.

    And the GOLDEN Cherry on a nice MOkka vanilla Cake:

    Everyone out here at any given moment of the day is complaining about anything, repeatedly, and that is the way a normal conversation must go.

  13. Europe! Belgium But they are pretty looking people and hardworking i think and i think they are colonized by Spain and Germany so that’s how they do.i just like them. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s