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 wooded wilderness areas. The weather is lousy, the bureaucracy is bloated, the service culture is uneven, and tax rates are stratospheric.
These aren’t buzzwords to write either. Cool people love Bali, not Belgium.
And these are not obvious words to write, because for 25 of the 28 years that I have lived in Belgium, I wanted to be elsewhere. Anywhere else.
Unable to leave for a multitude of personal and professional reasons, I made lamenting over my adopted country an art form. I complained about crazy drivers, infuriating traffic rules, rutted streets, archaic schools, store closures on Sundays, paying to pee in cafes, and even the lack of decent Indian restaurants.
In hitting Belgium, I followed a long tradition of exiles and expats who complained about the place while enjoying its largesse. Karl Marx, who wrote “The Communist Manifesto” in Brussels, called the newly created kingdom a paradise for capitalists. And Charles Baudelaire criticized Belgium as being “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 land he dominated. Jacques Brel sang of a “sky so gray that a canal hangs itself”. And 180 years after the creation of Belgium, a large part of the Flemish electorate would prefer it to disappear from the map.
Looking back, my love for Belgium did not happen overnight. I have 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 spent even more time grumbling against Belgium than singing its praises.
So what made me go from being a Belgian basher to being a Belgian believer?
Brexit played a big role, finally prompting me to apply for Belgian nationality. The reason I did it was rational: to keep my rights as an EU citizen. But the effect was emotional. Having the right to vote in regional and national elections gave me a stake in the country. And when my Belgian passport arrived, I felt for the first time the pride of my new nationality.
The confinement also encouraged 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 largely ignored the rest of the country.
With the borders closed, I set out to explore Belgium and found a country of breathtaking natural beauty, cities full of cozy charm 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 finally fell in love with the country I have complained about for so long. If you live in Belgium and are wondering how to do the same, here are six tips.
1. Explore more
If you are bored of Belgium, you have to go out more. Not just to the obvious tourist traps like Bruges, but to lesser-known places like the underrated Tournai, the beautiful Ivy, the Breathtaking Bouillon or the eccentric. Redu – 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 dunes of Kalmhoutse Heide straddling the Dutch border or the deer forests of Saint-Hubert in the Ardennes. And if you’re into cycling, cycle along the tree-lined canals around Damme, the Pajottenland hills 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, you might have had to consult a guide before coming.
Likewise, complaining about the weather in Belgium is as pointless as complaining about too much sand in the Sahara. Instead of complaining about something you can’t change, buy a decent raincoat and stroll through 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 piano accompaniment live in the Cinematek in Brussels.
And when it comes to food, instead of dwelling on the fact that baguettes are better in Bordeaux, why not revel in the simple and sinful 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 shrimp croquettes followed by mussels in an unpretentious brasserie.
3. Get to know the locals
Many expatriates complain about Belgians without really knowing it. They accuse the natives of being distant when they address them in a foreign language. And they bemoan the sloppy service without appreciating the refreshing honesty of a salesperson telling you to buy a dishwasher from a competitor store because it’s cheaper.
Get to know the Belgians and you will discover that they have a biting sense of humor, a healthy disrespect for authority and a Bacchic taste for the finer things in life. They are also masters of the art of concocting solutions to intractable problems, whether it’s fixing subway signs with duct tape or keeping the country stuck 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, walk for migrant rights, host neighborhood barbecues, or do sumo wrestling voiceovers for Flemish TV – all of which I have done over the years. The important thing is to participate in the community you are a part of, rather than complaining about the touch.
Send your kids 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 people have the right to do but few care.
5. Keep calm and love Belgium
Part of the reason many expats don’t like Belgium is because North Europeans think it is too southern and South Europeans think it is too northern.
As a stuck Brit, I always protest that speed limits are broken, that drink driving is tolerated and that tax evasion is as much a national sport as football. But recently I have learned to stay calm and love Belgium. I’m no longer panicked by live electric wires hanging from metro stations. And like most of my compatriots, it didn’t bother me when the country recently spent 589 days without an elected government or the rollout of its COVID vaccine was slow to start (it has now stung more of its population than almost all over). Living in Belgium taught me not to hyperventilate, not to indulge in melodrama or to live in a constant state of indignation 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? Proof of Belgian administrative incompetence. Terrorists nestled in a dilapidated Molenbeek in the sight 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 all accounts 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 – over 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 is not engulfed in futile culture wars or a desire for world domination in anything other than hockey and chocolate exports. This is proof that very different people can, even grumpy, live side by side without attacking each other. And the Belgians’ lack of national pride is a refreshing break with the bathtub-beating nationalism of Russia, China, or even the United States. In fact, the most frequent complaint against 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 rather a slow burner. It is a country whose attractions are more subtle and whose inhabitants are less garish. But once you start loving her for what she is rather than hating her for what she never will be, you may fall in love with Belgium like I did – hopefully in less. 28 years old.