Belgen mensen zijn vriendelijk – Belgians are friendly.

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 “organizedtrait 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.

The Application:

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.

Belgen mensen zijn bourgondiërs – Belgian people are long visitors (untranslatable).

Belgen mensen zijn bourgondiërs – bourgondiër: one of those words that I don’t think has an exact English equivalent. Bourgondiërs means that once you’re seated at a restaurant, pub, café, friend’s house or any other place you’re visiting and having a festive-drinky-eaty time that you’re not likely to get up and leave any time soon – you’re dug in.

The etiquette of drinking or dining (or just catching a bite) out is predicated on this bourgondiërs principle. In fact being at a café is so important that it has a special term! When you go to a café in Belgium you’re not in a café, you’re not at the café, you’re ON café! As in ‘Ik ben op café.’ and when you’re a patron at a café or any place that serves food or drink, you will never be rushed. This also means you’ll never be served if you don’t call for service!

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Café near Berchem Station

In Belgium it’s all about the visit and not about making sure you get rid of a “happy” customer. Once seated, you’ll be left alone with the menu. If you’re not used to this bourgondiërs principle, you’re going to feel ignored by your waiter instead of embracing the Belgian way and sitting back in your chair, relaxing and enjoying the company (whether it be exclusively your multiple personalities or other) and going’s on around you. When you’ve had your fill of the menu and wish to order something it would be advisable to attract your waiter’s attention with a deliberate hand wave or some such gesture. If you don’t, you’re going to be sitting there dry mouthed for a very, very long time. It’s considered incredibly rude to rush one’s patrons so waiters will only serve you if summoned. They won’t hover about you like overprotective parents with interjections of “So, have you decided on what you’d like to drink yet?” or “Have you decided on what you’d like to eat?” or “May I refill that glass for you?” That doesn’t happen here!

Coffee!

Coffee!

I have yet to be interrupted mid-mastication by a waiter with a cheesy grin asking me “Is everything okay? How’s the food?” Here in Belgium they assume, since you’re all grown up and stuff, that if something’s wrong with the food, you’ll call the waiter over and say something profound like “There is a fly in my soup” or “My steak is not steaky enough.”

Once you’re done eating and drinking, you’re welcome to sit as long as you’d like and absorb the atmosphere, décor or your company’s witty charm. Your waiter will never arrive at your elbow to give you the bill or see if you want anything further because that kind of rudeness is not done here! When you’re good and ready to go, once you’ve had your fill and would like to take your company home to show her anything kapot (Nederland word for broken among other things) you will need to summon your waiter again for the bill because he’ll ignore you until you do. He really isn’t trying to be impolite or deliver bad service – on the contrary! He’s trying to be as polite as possible by not rushing you! You really are expected to visit a little and be a grown-up about the whole outing and decide when YOU want to leave.

No gratuity needs to be added as this service charge is already included in the price however a little gratitude for a job well done never goes amiss if the job was indeed well done!

This bourgondiër concept can also be feared and discouraged. I remember inviting my friend around to Méme ’s house when I was maybe six or seven years old. She lived across the road and I’d always play at her house and today I thought it’d be a good change if she came across the road to Méme ’s place. When she went home at the end of the day, Méme  took me aside and explained in a few short expressions the rules she expected me to abide by.

“Never offer her coffee or food here. Friends will always come back like stray dogs if they think you’re going to feed them and overstay their welcome!”

This is shocking and somewhat nasty behavior at first glance but let’s looks at the history before making any judgment. Because Belgians are such bourgondiërs, visitors will often sit for hours shooting the breeze as it were. Méme , being of a working class simply didn’t have time for this kind of socializing. The best way not to socialize in this manner is to not draw out such visits with food and drink. Donald Trump employs this strategy at certain functions and meetings. If he wants a short meeting he doesn’t serve any drink, food or water and his advice for a really short meeting? Have it around bar tables where the participants have to stand…because you’ve removed the chairs. A guarantee of a short-to-the-point meeting, but I digress…

The second factor is WWII (World War II) which Méme  lived through and experienced in Belgium. Food has always been a precious commodity to her because food was in short supply during her childhood years during and after the war. Sharing food was simply silly and paramount to giving visitors your wallet and saying “There we go, help yourself!” That bourgondiër lifestyle became the property of the rich or entitled during those dark times.

The Application:

In my country of birth, eating out at a restaurant or coffee shop is quite the thing to do but there the waiter will try to serve you, sell you the most expensive items on the menu and try to get you out of the establishment as quickly as possible to do it all again to the next customer. This way they can turn over as much profit as possible in the shortest amount of time. The service is quick, efficient and you don’t have to do anything barring getting the food in your mouth and chewing! The service of waiters is usually swift and expensive much like a tonsillectomy.

My wife and I have never bought into this. Waiters in my country of birth would hate us by the time the evening was done. For an appetizer and a dessert – no main course (one of our favorite outings) it’d take us three hours to get done! I’ve never taken much notice to waiters buzzing around the table waiting eagerly or continuously asking if we’d like the bill.

Being a bourgondiër must come naturally! I think I have this one nailed – “onder de knie” I believe is the Flanders way to say this.

Ciao for now.

Belgians are hard workers – Belgen mensen zijn harde werkers.

Belgen mensen zijn harde werkers – well, yes. They are indeed hard workers. They prize hard work both on a personal level in a self-satisfaction way and of course an employer prefers a hard worker.

My earliest memories are of working. I thought it was fun, but I was being taught to work. My great grandparents looked after me during the day from a very early age as both my parents worked full time. Méme Maria and Péter Jerome had a sizable back yard in my land of birth. In that back yard was a chicken battery, pig sty, storage, rabbit runs and a vegetable field, which was probably more a vegetable patch but because I was so small it felt like a field.

Méme Maria and Péter Jerome had immigrated to my land of birth not in their teens or even twenties, but when they were in their fifties. Quite a feat considering there was no Google Maps, no cellphones, barely any telephones and everything was done with mailed letters and postage stamps and an awful lot of trust.

Anyway, back to that vegetable field. One of my earliest memories was being taught what green bits to pull out of the ground by Méme Maria and Péter Jerome. It was called weeding. Thinking back, these old folks didn’t stop working until they dropped dead. They were indeed true Belgians with no thought of retirement. Retirement simply wasn’t something one did.

The work ethic in Belgium is very different to my land of birth. Here one does his allotted employment with everything he can and all the gusto that can be mustered. Belgians do their work impeccably well with no thought of how the next fellow does his. In this respect I find it a little short sighted but it’s one of those things I need to accept if I’m to be Belgian.

Being a hard worker is expected of you and, unlike my land of birth, is seen as something to be proud of. There are numerous after hours courses that may be taken at CVO’s (Centum Volwassenonderwijs – Adult Learning Centres). Vrijwilligers Werk (Volunteer work) is also big here and can be incorporated with hobbies or leisure activities.

There’s even a sculpture piece that caught my eye at Antwerp’s town hall that illustrates this point. To most I’m sure this sculpture looks almost communist to most but to me it’s a matter of being Belgian. Learn the language at CVO’s, go to the Inburgerings Course and be as Belgian as possible in Belgium especially if I want to be known as one! The sculpture sports the motto “ARBEID VRIJHEID” which are the words ” WORK FREEDOM”.

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ARBEID VRIJHEID statue at Antwerp Town Hall.

The Application:

To be more Belgian, I need to stop questioning further than my realm of expertise or what I’m expected to do in my work. Perhaps I shall enquire, but with more discretion. I cannot help it – I need to know!

I look forward to learning the extra skills I need to be able to work effectively as a Belgian. That means I must become familiar and learn the mathematic skills I need. A tall order for someone who hates mathematics but there’s no other way!

When there’s work to do, I need to jump right in and do it. Procrastination is a thing for a non-Belgian. This is another tall order as procrastination is a bad habit of mine.

Ciao for now.

Belgians are Organized – Belgen zijn Georganiseerd.

Belgen zijn georganiseerd – this means they’re organized and do not like chaos. In practice this means they cannot handle change in routine. Even a little disruption in the normal schedule and Belgians find themselves lost.

A few months ago the road was being worked on at the train station and the busses were being re-routed to other temporary stops around the station. The poor Belgians were so put out. Even though the road was closed off with really big and obvious red and white barriers with flashing orange lights on top, the Belgians would still congregate at these bus stops. They stood there and eyeballed the busses as they rode past the barriers of the road closure, some shrugging in disbelief and others grumbling to whoever would listen. Not one of them would look about to see if there was a notice or some sort of alternative or instruction.

There was instruction, by the way, in the form of posters stuck up at the disused bus stops giving detailed instructions on where to find the temporary bus stops so you could catch the bus you needed and exactly how long this situation would continue.

This shows exactly what I’m trying to illustrate on two separate levels:

The absolute disbelief that the routine of catching the bus has changed – the unacceptance of even the slightest chaos – to the point of ignoring massive barriers in the road and the expectance that the bus will magically hop over these barriers to pick them up.

The absolute organization of the bus company by placing notices up to inform it’s clients where the new temporary bus stops are so that they won’t be inconvenienced and the expected time period of the works – which were completed exactly, EXACTLY on time. No rubble left lying around, no sign that the road had been worked on except for a brand new road.

Now that’s organized.

This love of organization impacts directly on becoming a Belgian too.

If you move to Belgium, be prepared. You will have to take mandatory courses. Even if you are a Belgian citizen and you’ve been out of the country for more than five years, you have to do these courses. The Belgian Government says so and if you don’t do the courses you’re in for a heavy fine.

I have found this hard, good, frustrating, pleasing and highly recommended. The first of these courses is the Inburgerings course. These lessons inform you about your rights as a citizen, where to go for help on various topics and organizations in Belgium and how to use certain social services, such as schooling, and how they operate.

The second of these courses is Nederland lessons. Why? Because you cannot function in Belgium at an appropriate level with at least a basic understanding of the language which glues the Belgian people together – Belgian Nederlands. This course is also paid for by the Belgian government. The only thing I did have to pay for in these courses was one text book – the Nederland language course text book and that was ridiculously inexpensive.

The Application:

This one’s easy. I like routine and can frown and shrug at busses with the best of them.

When my day goes wrong in the early morning, when I forget to put sugar in my coffee or brush my hair before I’ve done my teeth, the day’s a write-off because that delicate routine I love and do every morning has been buggered up. Or at least that’s how I feel. To me that small misstep is utter chaos.

The organization thing I’ll have to work on. My sock & undie drawer is, well, not organized. The only organization in that drawer is that it contains mostly socks & underwear.

To be Belgian, I am going to have to organize that drawer – easy.

So here’s my sock drawer before:

Unorganized Sock Drawer

…and here it is post Belgian organization:

Organized Sock Drawer

You will notice the underwear is to the left, divided into winter and summer wear and closest to the bathroom door as this is the first to be donned. The colourful socks are at the back as required by conclusion by the previous post because colourful items are to be worn sparingly. The socks in the foreground are ordered by shade, lightest to darkest. The items in the utility drawer are items used daily and placed in pockets of the final outfit.

…and keeping  it organized – haha.

Ciao for now.

Belgians are Closed – Belgen zin gesloten.

Belg mensen zijn geslote – roughly translated this means Belgians are “closed” people. It’s a strange mixture of shyness and simply being ‘unfriendly’. They keep their emotions and feelings to themselves and expect others to do so to the extent that wearing a bright orange T-shirt could be considered bad manners. Even overly spiced food (any spice at all) is a little too extrovert!

It manifests on public transport like the bus, tram or train where the Belgians prefer to sit by themselves. Sometimes they’d rather stand than sit next to someone occupying a double berth seat. Eventually though, they do give in and begrudgingly sit with the occupant of the seat who in turn puts on their “begrudgingly allowing you to sit” face on.

For me, being a regular on a bus means I’ve caught it consecutively for a week and this, I feel, entitles me to nod politely and smile at the other regulars. This didn’t work.

I guess in Belgium you have to travel on the same bus for a lot longer before you’re a regular and entitled to the same nod and smile. It took four months before I got a slight head squirm and a corner of the mouth spasm attempt at a smile from a regular traveler. I also understand that this was a major feat as the usual time (a measure based on my aunt’s experience as she’s been here years longer than I) is approximately a year for this kind of reciprocal response!

Don’t get me wrong though. Belgians on public transport are the most helpful people I’ve come across. They will help a mother get her stroller and baby on board or on disembarking and I’ve even seen men help a lady lift her daughter out of a wheelchair to get them on and off the bus with no prompting or pleading – they simply jump in and do! Where I come from this is unheard of. People don’t help like that without expecting a gratuity.

Personally I think this “geslote” attitude comes from the big World War II.  My Méme used to tell me that you couldn’t trust anyone, even your own neighbor. Anyone could be friendly with the occupying Germans so it was survival to mind your own business and keep your head down. So you help where it’s evident that help’s needed but that’s all. It may sound strange but even now, there are still throwbacks from the 2nd World War. There’s a poster at the station that outlines that there could be delays during the Mechelen Station refurbishment if during the excavations they come across any unexploded World War II munitions!

The Application:

Right, so how do I incorporate this to become Belgian? Well, I’ve always been shy and introvert in person – not so much on blogs and other social media. Okay, so one thing covered then.

When it comes to clothing, I’ll have to review what I wear before I step out the door. Having moved here with my “foreign wardrobe” means I own lots of vibrant and colourful clothing. Instead of that bright orange shirt with the green Hulk cartoon coming at you picture, I need to choose something in grey or black perhaps. If I’m really feeling sassy I can maybe go with white!

I must behave myself on public transport and not smile at fellow Belgian travelers that I may recognize from the day before or (god forbid) sit next to them!

Hmmm. I’m not entirely sure I can do this…urm…entirely. I’m usually quite pleased to see a fellow traveler waiting at the bus stop because that usually means I haven’t missed the bus and the knee-jerk reaction is, well, to smile!

I shall have to practice this Belgian trait and become more “geslote” – just out in public though to ensure the natives aren’t made to feel uncomfortable – I will try my utmost NOT to bring this trait into my home!

How to be Belgian – Introduction.

If you’ve ever moved to a foreign country, or plan to perhaps you can relate, or learn from what I’m doing and experiencing.
I’m a foreigner in Belgium. Well no, that’s not entirely true. Here, let me explain…
I’m technically half a Belgian (from my mother’s side) but this comes with it’s own set of problems. Being born in South Africa makes me a South African but being born of a Belgian mother makes me Belgian. My grandmother, Méme, used to say that if any of us returned to Belgium we would live out the rest of our lives as foreigners, never really fitting in or accepted by Belgian neighbours as Belgian.
There’s more. I don’t think my Méme realized that we, her family that were in South Africa, really fitted there either. It’s my aunt who finally told me the truth. A truth I at the time really didn’t believe because I didn’t want to.
In reality, we don’t really belong anywhere. We’re too African to be Belgian and too Belgian to be African.” Is what I think she said?
In fact, there’s some gypsy in our blood somewhere down the line which makes it even worse.”
All this came as a bit of a blow when I took cognizance of these thoughts and realized after moving to Belgium that becoming a Belgian was harder than I thought it’d be.

I naively thought it’d be a few months and the people, the government and the royal family would embrace me with open arms and loving smiles!
What I got was a comment from a Moroccan shopkeeper.
“You speak with an accent. Where are you from?”
My mind said “What accent?”
My mouth said rather sullenly “Zuid-Africa.”
So I realized with a rather sudden bump on the butt that I was nowhere near being a Belgian. A half-breed in a country and culture I love which feels so normal and exotic in one. What do I do? Lose my identity and conform? Not change at all and not fit in?
I decided this was it. I’d have to learn, study, be all socio-anthropological and come hell or high water I’d practice and adapt, act like I was up for an Oscar if needs be but I will be seen as Belgian!
Until next week then, here’s a picture from my lovely country – Belgium.

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Ciao for now.