Brussels Bits – A rather discreet low land in the middle of Europe

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.

germany_and_belgium_map


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.

7 comments

  1. As an Italian, I recentlly admired very much Belgium for carrying on for many months (and even waging a succesful war, so to say) with a provisional government. Elio Di Rupo rocks! 🙂

  2. ^^^ Red Hen’s comment : that goes for most people! It’s the strangest little country. It’s a running joke that no matter how many people from every nationality that we have gathered at parties, never once an authentic Belgian…in a year. Why sign up to be the capital if you don’t want to be bothered. Looking forward to your new column to see what you think of it!

    1. Thank you for bringing this up. The point is, they didn’t actually sign up as capital of Europe. It sort of fell from the sky on them! I ll write a post on it next Wed:-)

      1. Ooo awesome! Would love to know! We heard its because we’re the only country that would let them come in and restructure the city…hence the beautiful antique butted up next to the new, glass, outta place EU buildings. That France would neeeever allow for preservations.

  3. It’s also that at the moment of the first European treaty there were not many other candidates: no one wanted the institutions to be in France (the EU would have been a very french thing, in that case) but Germany had lost the war and was still recovering from WWII. Italy was too south and had lost the war too. If you consider that just before the Treaty of Rome Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg had start negotiating a commercial agreement for the Benelux countries, it seems pretty logical that one of these countries would host the EU institutions. The paradox is that still today the city of Brussels doesn’t receive any money from the EU for hosting the institutions or being the capital of Europe. Of course they benefit from their position: the constant flow of EU citizens boosts commerce and real estate but, still, it’s surprising that the city is not rewarded in any way for keeping up with that.

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