How to fall in love with Belgium — a convert’s guide – POLITICO
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After 28 years, I think I finally fell in love with Belgium.
These are not easy words to write because Belgium is not an easy country to love. It doesn’t have majestic mountains, stunning shorelines or forested wilderness. The weather is gloomy, the bureaucracy is bloated, the service culture is uneven, and tax rates are stratospheric.
Nor are they buzzwords to write. Cool people like Bali, not Belgium.
And these are not easy words to write, because for 25 of the 28 years that I lived in Belgium, I wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.
Unable to leave for a host of personal and professional reasons, I turned moaning about my adopted home into an art form. I’ve complained about crazy drivers, infuriating traffic rules, pot-hole streets, archaic schools, Sunday store closings, payment for peeing in cafes, and even the lack of decent Indian restaurants.
In hitting Belgium, I followed a long tradition of exiles and expats complaining about the place while enjoying its largesse. Karl Marx, who wrote “The Communist Manifesto” in Brussels, called the newly created kingdom a haven for capitalists. And Charles Baudelaire denounced Belgium as “lifeless, but not without corruption”.
Even Belgians find it hard to love their country. King Leopold II slammed the “small country, small spirit“of the country he ruled. Jacques Brel sang of a “sky so gray that a canal hung itself”. And 180 years after the creation of Belgium, a large part of the Flemish electorate would prefer that it disappear from the map.
Looking back, my love for Belgium didn’t happen overnight. I’ve always loved Antwerp, the Ardennes, comics, thick fries and strong beers. I slowly started to support the Belgian Red Devils in football almost as passionately as I support the Welsh Red Dragons in rugby. And I started doing very Belgian things like dipping cheese cubes in celery salt and changing cars every four years to please the accountant. But until a few years ago, I still spent more time grumbling against Belgium than singing their praises.
So what made me go from Belgian basher to Belgian believer?
Brexit played a big role in prompting me to finally apply for Belgian nationality. The reason I did so was rational: to maintain my rights as an EU citizen. But the effect was emotional. Having the right to vote in regional and national elections gave me an interest in the country. And when my Belgian passport arrived, I felt proud of my new nationality for the first time.
The confinement also pushed me to get to know Belgium better. Before that, the only time I left Brussels was to leave the country. I knew the Eurostar terminal intimately but was largely unaware of the rest of the country.
With the borders closed, I set out to explore Belgium and found a country of breathtaking natural beauty, cozy towns and courteous people with a surreal sense of humor.
As a result, 28 years after my arrival in Brussels for a five-month internship, I have finally fallen in love with the country I have moaned about so much. If you live in Belgium and are wondering how to do the same, here are six tips.
1. Explore more
If you miss Belgium, you need to get out more. Not just to obvious tourist traps like Bruges, but to lesser-known spots like underrated Tournai, charming Lierre, breathtaking Bouillon or quirky Reduced — which has 16 bookstores for a town of 500 inhabitants. If you like kayaking, head to the meanders of the Semois for a paddle. If you like hiking, try the heather-clad dunes of Kalmthoutse Heide straddling the Dutch border or the deer forests of St. Hubert in the Ardennes. And if you like cycling, pedal along the tree-lined canals around Damme, the hills of Pajottenland southwest of Brussels or through the apple orchards of Limburg.
2. Accept Belgium for what it is, not what you want it to be
It is true that the Ardennes are not the Alps and that Blankenberge is not Brazil. But did you honestly expect them to be? If so, perhaps you should have consulted a guide before coming.
Similarly, complaining about the weather in Belgium is as useless as complaining about too much sand in the Sahara. Instead of bitching about something you can’t change, buy a decent raincoat and go for a walk in the Fôret de Soignes, one of the largest beech forests in Europe. Visit the Kazerne Dossin Holocaust memorial in Mechelen. Or watch a silent film with live piano accompaniment in the Cinematek in Brussels.
And on the gastronomy side, instead of focusing on the fact that baguettes are better in Bordeaux, why not revel in the simple and guilty pleasures that Belgium does better than almost anywhere in the world? Like a cone of fries washed down with a cold Leffe beer in a friendly bar. Or prawn croquettes followed by mussels in an unpretentious brasserie.
3. Get to know the locals
Many expatriates complain about Belgians without knowing any. They accuse the natives of being distant when addressing them in a foreign language. And they lament sloppy service without appreciating the refreshing honesty of a salesperson who tells you to buy a dishwasher from a competing store because it’s cheaper.
Get to know Belgians and you’ll find they have a biting sense of humor, a healthy disrespect for authority and a bacchanalian taste for the finer things in life. They’re also adept at concocting solutions to intractable problems, whether it’s fixing subway signs with duct tape or keeping the country glued together with clever compromises. No wonder two of the three presidents of the European Council were Belgian.
4. Get involved
It doesn’t matter if you’re a rugby coach, marching for migrant rights, organizing neighborhood barbecues or doing sumo dubs for Flemish TV – all the things I’ve done over the years. The important thing is to participate in the community of which you are a part, rather than growling on the sidelines.
Send your children to local schools, if you can. Pay your taxes, if you have to. And learn French or Dutch, if you don’t. At the very least, vote in local and European elections – something most locals have the right to do, but few care.
5. Keep calm and love Belgium
Part of the reason many expats dislike Belgium is that northern Europeans think it’s too southern and southern Europeans think it’s too northern.
As a stuck-up Brit, I always speak out against the fact that speed limits are flouted, drunk driving is tolerated and tax avoidance is a national sport like football. But recently I learned to keep calm and to love Belgium. I am no longer frightened by live electrical wires hanging from subway stations. And like most of my compatriots, it didn’t bother me that the country recently went 589 days without an elected government or that its COVID vaccine rollout was slow to kick off (it’s now stung more of its people than almost anywhere). Living in Belgium has taught me not to hyperventilate, indulge in melodrama, or live in a constant state of outrage like some neighbors.
6. Don’t believe the reproach
Once you write off a place, like I did with Belgium for 25 years, you see evidence of its desperation everywhere. These dislodged cobblestones? Evidence of Belgian administrative incompetence. Terrorists nestled in a dilapidated Molenbeek under the eyes of the authorities? Confirmation that Belgium is a “failed state” – as an article in this publication claimed in 2015.
Yet look at the facts and by any measure Belgium is one of the richest, safest and most prosperous countries in the world. It ranks 14th out of more than 200 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index — above the United States, Canada, Japan and France. It has the highest higher education rate of all OECD country. Its healthcare system is one of the best in the world. And a higher percentage of Americans, Germans and Dutch think their society is broken than the Belgians. Not bad for a “failed state”.
Belgium is not a perfect country – far from it – but it is an interesting, intriguing and, in some ways, inspiring country. It’s not engulfed by futile culture wars or a desire for global dominance in anything but hockey and chocolate exports. This is proof that very different peoples can, even grumpy people, live side by side without attacking each other. And Belgians’ lack of national pride is a refreshing break from the raucous nationalism in Russia, China or even the United States. In fact, the most frequent complaint about Belgium is not that the state has too much power, but too little.
It’s easy to fall in love with countries like France and Italy, which exude style, seduction and self-confidence. Belgium is more of a slow burner. It is a country whose attractions are more subtle and whose inhabitants are less garish. But once you start loving it for what it is rather than not loving it for what it will never be, you might just fall in love with Belgium like I did – hopefully -the in less than 28 years.