30 things I’ve learned about Belgium in 30 years

30 things I’ve learned about Belgium in 30 years

Long-time resident and new Belgian Gareth Harding shares his thoughts about life in Brussels and Belgium

I arrived in Belgium in March 1993 knowing next to nothing about the country except what I’d learned reading Tintin, drinking Stella and staring at Brueghel paintings. 30 years later, I’m slowly getting the hang of this intoxicating gem of a place I’m proud to call home. This is what I’ve learned so far:

  1. You can eat consistently better in Belgium than in any neighbouring country. And that includes France.
  2. If in doubt, order the shrimp croquettes. You’ll rarely be disappointed – unless the chef forgets the deep-fried parsley.
  3. Never say French fries in Belgium, unless you want a cauldron of boiling beef fat dumped on your head.
  4. Dunk your frites/fritjes in mayonnaise, not ketchup. Or in one of the 101 varieties of sauces on offer in fritkots – like spicy Andalouse or Samourai.
  5. Paying for water in bars and restaurants is still a thing. So is paying to pee it out.
  6. Why do strong beers have names like Duvel (devil), Mort Subite (sudden death) and Delirium Tremens? Drink a few too many and you’ll know why.
  7. Belgian service is better than it’s made out to be - if you’re looking for honesty rather than obsequiousness.
  8. The capital of Flanders is not in Flanders, but in Brussels.
  9. Brussels airport is not in Brussels, but in Flanders.
  10. Brussels South Charleroi airport is nowhere near Brussels.
  11. Belgians love building so much it sometimes feels like the whole country is one gigantic construction site. No wonder locals joke about being born with a brick in their stomach.
  12. In a country known for its creative chaos, Belgian healthcare is stupendously well-organised and well-funded. Especially compared to Britain.
  13. Belgians are mild-mannered people - until you stick them behind the steering wheel of a car and they undergo a Hulk-like transformation into aggressive, horn-honking speedsters.
  14. Mons and Tournai are underrated. Charleroi is not.
  15. Antwerp is not only one of Belgium’s greatest cities; it is one of the world’s greatest cities. Visit once, return often.
  16. Brussels is not Belgium. But with its anarchic planning, mongrel mix of people and irreverent disdain for pomp, it’s by far the most Belgian city.
  17. The Ardennes apart, Belgium often looks like one massive suburb, with towns morphing into each other along roads one-house deep.
  18. You don’t need a government to run a country - as Belgium proved in 2010-11 and 2019-20 when there was no elected government for over 500 days.
  19. Nobody knows the words to the national anthem – not even former prime minister Yves Leterme, who in 2007 sang ‘La Marseillaise’ when asked the lyrics to ‘La Brabançonne’ by a TV reporter on Belgian national day, which few celebrate.
  20. Obeying rules is optional. It’s not what you must or should do that counts; it’s what you can get away with. This applies to speed limits, drink-driving, paying taxes and parking on pavements.
  21. The differences between people from the north and south of the country are exaggerated - often for political gain.
  22. Rumours of Belgium’s impending disintegration should be taken with a healthy pinch of salt. The disunited kingdom will probably outlive the United Kingdom in its present form.
  23. Belgium is a musical superpower. Not just Stromae and Angèle, who hoover up French music awards and play Coachella. But also Deus, Damso, Lost Frequencies, Hooverphonic, Girls in Hawaii, Selah Sue and many others.
  24. Belgium is also a sporting superpower. They’ve been the number one football team for most of the past decade, are Olympic champions in hockey and are currently by far the top cycling nation in the world. In May, ‘Belgian bullet’ Luca Brecel even became the first player from the European continent to win the world snooker championship.
  25. English is Belgium’s unofficial national language. The country’s football team is called The Red Devils, its national airport Brussels Airport and its national airline Brussels Airlines. All in English, the language most young Belgians use to communicate.
  26. Belgians have a wicked sense of humour. They’ll joke about everyone and everything, all the time - even if it’s completely inappropriate or politically incorrect.
  27. Belgians take their comic strips seriously. In fact, so seriously that characters from Tintin, Lucky Luke, the Smurfs and others adorn the latest passports.
  28. Bergen is Mons in Dutch. And Luik is Liège. Quite useful to know if you’re driving to those cities in Flanders and their French names suddenly disappear.
  29. Belgian French nonante (90) makes much more sense than French French quatre-vingt dix (four times 20 plus ten).
  30. If you’re bored of Belgium you’re bored of life. Few countries pack so much culture, history, fine food, world-class cities and endearing weirdness into such a small place.

And five things I haven’t got yet:

  1. What’s with the bonnen/jeton at concerts and festivals? Queuing twice to buy something reminds me of Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s.
  2. Why a country of under 11.5 million people needs six governments.
  3. What’s inside a frikandellen or bitterballen (probably best off not knowing).
  4. The attraction of celery salt with rubbery cubes of cheese.
  5. Why eggs are left outside in supermarkets but everyone puts them in their fridges when they get home.

What have you learned about Belgium since moving here? Share your thoughts on TwitterFacebook and Instagram. You can also follow Gareth on Twitter @garethharding

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