As of today, I will be starting a weekly post on Belgium. I realized after many months of blogging that it is actually unfair that I never spent a word on the country I have been living in – embedded – since my mid 20s. I have been researching the web for a few days, trying to find out what were the most important things one could say of Belgium and Belgians and I found out that not much has been written on this small, discreet land squeezed in the middle of Europe, between titans as Germany and France.
Hundreds of webpages analyze the character, traditions, qualities and flaws of larger countries and their citizens – just try to google “Italian traditions”, “how are French people like?” or even “things to know about British” – while not many seem interested in what Belgians are doing, thinking or eating. Well, Belgians are certainly happy of that. It means that less foreigners will come visit their country, leaving them the proper time and space to enjoy it.
One of the reasons Belgium still is one of Europe’s best kept secrets is its over complicated political structure and organization. Ten years a resident, I still struggle with the subtleties of the situation but if you’re interested in knowing a little more, you have to watch this video.
Discretion is the first adjective that comes to my mind when I think of Belgians, French- and Dutch-speaking alike. They love to party, are not ashamed to indulge in life’s little pleasures as eating and drinking and having a comfortable home but will do so only behind closed doors. I am now convinced they are somehow proud of being called Belgian Bores. They don’t aspire to be kings of the show, or to be internationally admired (as Italians and French often do). They are not interested in setting standards or in giving an example to the outer world (as British and Americans tend to do sometimes). They stick to the essentials and will go a long way to preserve their comfort.
As people raised in a country with a history of foreign occupation, Belgians harbor an innate diffidence against the government and politics in general. The French-speaking citizens tend to follow more passionately the French political elections than their own, being worried about losing their privileges more than about changing the current situation.
Family and personal connections are the backbone of society in the low land. The relatively small size of the country means that inside the French-(around 4 millions) and the Dutch-speaking population (6 millions) everybody tends to know each other, have worked or crossed each other and be related. I have learned the hard way that whatever you say in public (and sometimes in private) will be repeated and that gossip and people-watching are national sports, as in any small community.
Living among Belgians (and not simply in Belgium) has its undeniable advantages: despite the awful weather (awful, yes, it is AWFUL!), life is comfortable. Housing is considerably cheaper than in the rest of Europe, the crime rate in Brussels is low for a big city, restaurants are excellent and healthy, organic food is widely available. If that is your thing, you can also have superb beers!
So what are the flaws in this apparent paradise?
Lack of passion. Living in Belgium is the joy of the senses: it is all about physical comfort but there is not much left for the mind, or for the soul. Belgians don’t like confrontation and will avoid at any price an heated exchange of political opinions. People want to be nice, and to get along well with everybody. They don’t need intellectual stimulation, will run from provoking thoughts and challenging visions.
When one has been raised in a big country, that is sometimes uncomfortable. Most Italians, as French, of my generation were brought up in public schools (that, at the time, were really good) talking literature, and philosophy and the importance of dialogue and confrontation. You won’t find any of that in Belgium. Choosing to live in the capital of Europe leaves you two possibilities: hang around with fellow expats and avoid all of the above or stay embedded, enjoy the comfort and start blogging.