Belgen mensen zijn vriendelijk – Yes, Belgians are generally friendly as most people on this planet are but I’ve found foreigners to Belgium to be particularly inclined to find Belgian people friendly. I think they mistake this “over-friendliness” with two other qualities that, when mixed, could be construed as “friendly”.
I’ve already explored the “organized” trait of Belgians. If you mix this trait with another trait (not yet written about) they have – the trait of punctuality. There’s another trait, civility, which is also often mistaken for friendliness.
As a newcomer to Belgium, I found that Belgian people were immensely curious about where I came from as I definitely had an accent. My initial reaction was always “what accent?” although I never voiced this. They would always guess, mistakenly that I was Australian. The second reaction was always, without fail, a look of amazement and to ask why I’d leave such a beautiful, sunny, hot country for this grey, rainy cold place. Belgians are immensely fascinated (although they’re very quiet about it) by other cultures but they have a failsafe when all that “other culture” gets too much. They enjoy the security and safety of knowing they can go home and everything will be normal and oké. That’s a good thing and something I like here too.
As a newcomer to Belgium, I would marvel at the etiquette used for public transport. When travelling by De Lijn bus, tram or train there’s certain civilities that are adhered to. Those not adhering are either badly mannered youngsters or uncivil foreigners and are most often found in the big cities. Most people even in the cities still abide by this fundamental public transport etiquette and the people in the smaller areas abide by it completely. Here’s how it goes:
People disembarking have right of way.
Beautiful to watch and appears friendly – once everyone’s off, everyone waiting to get on floods on.
The elderly, pregnant or parents with children get seating preference.
If any one of these category of people board the bus, real Belgians will lift their bottoms and stand so that they can sit.
As a newcomer to Belgian there was something that really amazed me and that’s how anyone and everyone would help a mother with a child in a stroller, the infirm or wheelchair-bound off and onto public transport. Once a whole group of guys helped an elderly lady get her wheelchair bound middle-aged child on and off a bus with a narrow door. They hoisted this person out of the wheelchair, got her, her wheelchair and mother into the bus and helped disembark them again! I found it quite touching until I got into the swing of the Belgian lifestyle.
These things I was mistaking as imminently friendly (shock – horror) were merely functional!
Here’s the trick. No-one, especially Belgians, can afford or want to be late! This friendly help with strollers and other people needing assistance is more about getting the bus to move (because the bus driver won’t go until it’s done) than anything else!
The elderly, pregnant and parents with children getting seating preference is simply civilized isn’t it?
Having an order for embarking and disembarking merely helps it get done faster and has nothing to do with friendliness.
Does this shock you? Did you think these actions friendly? Well, strangely enough they inherently are! This may sound like I’m making an about turn and perhaps I am but think on this. Even if the action doesn’t come from deep blubbering pink fluffiness with rainbow unicorns of friendliness, it certainly makes for a pleasant, friendly environment!
Footnote: I’m editing this post because I have been reminded by a Belgian that “er zitten ook vriendelijke belgen hoor” which means “hey dumb-dumb, you know me and I’m friendly”. Yes, there are indeed friendly Belgians here. One of them at the Biodome in Linkerover gave my little girl a whole bowl of fresh strawberries still warm from the sun. I assume from her little garden project simply out of pure pink friendly niceness. However I maintain my view that the general “friendliness” perceived by foreigners as encountered in general daily activity is merely a symptom of a functional society.
So how do I become more Belgian? Well, by watching the actions of born-and-bred Belgians and falling in with their social behavior and etiquette even after understanding that it isn’t purposefully friendly but simply more practical. Even the social graces I don’t understand fully I shall abide by until I do even if that means making the odd faux pas like asking an Afghanistan refugee why he left his beautiful, hot, sunny land to come to a cold, grey, rainy land like this!
I will try not to smile so much and “just get on with it” when on public transport.
Ciao for now.