Die Belg bezoek het vaderland. – This Belgian visits his land of birth.

I’ve struggled with writing this piece. My problem has been trying to put a positive spin on this story. This of course wouldn’t be truthful story then, would it? The truth is I don’t need to add spin to it because it’s my experience. This wasn’t helped much by various blogs and posts advertising how wonderful my land of birth is once I arrived back in Belgium. It only went to perpetuating the feeling that I was somehow wicked and wrong to feel that resentment. It takes a massive amount of motivation to make someone change their circumstances as my little family has. I turned down two offers of an increase and an offer of my dream position in the company before they accepted the reality that I was leaving. We sold our dream house. It took us approximately two years to find our home and we sold it because we were motivated enough (in a completely negative sense) to disassemble our lives, sell everything we could, give the rest away and flee. So there we go. I was forced, through circumstance, to return briefly to my land of birth. The circumstance being the happy union of my little brother and the girl he loves. Horrors – I had to leave Belgium and I wasn’t particularly happy about it. I wasn’t looking forward to this brief excursion for two reasons.

  1. My wife (due to some crazy Belgian red-tape) is not allowed to leave Belgian territory whilst applying for her residency.
  2.  I simply wasn’t looking forward to returning to a land I fled.

What I was looking forward to was seeing my friends and family! The flight was terrible because I was that passenger that you don’t want to sit next to. I was ill. Running nose, coughing, lightheaded and turning into a zombie sick. There was no other choice but to go though because I was flying in the cheap seats and couldn’t change or cancel the ticket without missing the wedding and losing all that money I’d paid! I deeply apologize for the zombie apocalypse I began as I’m quite sure everyone in that fast moving can-in-the-air caught what I had. In a way it was comforting to see that nothing had changed but that was also rather worrying. In Belgium I’ve seen my tax money at work. There are always refurbishments of services and alterations happening and plans underway.  I believe this is good.   My little brother and his (now) wife’s wedding was beautiful and exactly how I thought it’d be – tasteful and classy. I believe it matched their taste and wants perfectly and I feel honored that I was invited to attend their special day! The weather was much warmer than Belgium and visiting some of my friends and seeing my mom, dad and brothers was lovely. Beyond that, I have nothing further to say!

The Conclusion: It was good to visit because in no time at all (truth be told the moment I approached passport control) I realized that I had developed a greater allegiance and love for Belgium in the one year of my absence than I ever had for my country of birth. I have a king who was raised and bred for the express purpose. He has three masters’ degrees – no not honorary masters – he worked and studied for these and has military rank not because he’s entitled to it but because he earned it. If Belgium was attacked, it’s him I’d be aligned with. I cannot say the same for the leaders of the land of my birth. Belgium is home. Ciao for now.

 

This Belgian visits his land of birth. – Die Belg bezoek het vaderland.

Ik vond het moeilijk om dit stuk te schrijven. Mijn probleem was om een positief verhaal te schrijven. Dat zou dan een oneerlijk bericht zijn, niet waar? De waarheid is dat ik geen positief verhaal kan schrijven omdat dit mijn ervaring is. Deze toestand wordt niet geholpen door berichten en verhalen over hoe schitterend mijn vaderland is toen ik in belgie terug kwam. Ik heb het gevoel dat ik een slecht en verkeerd persoon ben omdat ik veel wrok voel. Dit vat enorm motivatie om mensen hun stand van zaken te laten veranderen zoals mijn familie heeft gedaan. Ik heb twee loonsverhoging en mij droom vacature geweigerd zodat de maatschappij aanvaardde dat ik emigreerde. Wij hebben ons droomhuis verkocht. Dit heeft ons twee jaar geduurd om onze huis te vinden en wij hebben het verkocht omdat wij gemotiveerd (in een slechte zin) genoeg zijn om onze leven te veranderen, alles te verkopen wat wij kunnen en de rest weggeven om te vluchten. Zo daar sta ik dan. Ik werd gedwongen door omstandigheden om voor een bezoekje terug naar mij vaderland te reizen. De omstandigheden was de trouw van mijn broer en zijn vriendin. Een verschrikking – ik moest België verlaten en ik was er niet blij om. Er zijn twee reden waarom ik geen zin had in de reis.

  1. Mijn vrouw (als gevolg van gekke Belgische wetgeving) mag niet Belgie verlaten (terwijl zij voor haar verblijf aanvraagd.)
  2. Ik heb geen zin om terug naar een land te gaan dat ik gevlucht had.

Wat ik wel naar uit keek, was om mijn vrienden en familie te zien! De vlucht was afschuwelijk omdat ik die passagier was die je niet naast jou wil. Ik was ziek. Lopende neus, hoesten, duizelig en ik word zoals een zombie. Er was geen andere keuze dan de vlucht te nemen omdat ik een goedkoop biljet had. Ik kon dit niet veranderen of annuleren om het trouwfeest te mislopen of mijn geld te verliezen! Het spijt mij dat ik de zombie Apocalyps begon want ik ben zeker dat allemaal in dat vliegtuig mijn ziekte overnam. Het was troostend dat niets in mijn vaderland veranderd was maar dit was ook tamelijk zorgwekkend. In België heb ik mijn taks geld zien werken. Er zijn altijd verbouwingen van diensten en plannen onderweg. Ik denk dat dit goed is. Het huwelijk van mijn jongste broer en zijn vrouw was fraai en precies hoe ik dit zou verwachtte – elegant en eersteklas. Volgens mij was hun huwelijk volgens zijn wensen en ik voel me gelukkig dat ik zijn speciale dag mocht bijwonen. Het weer was veel warmer als België en dit was erg leuk om mijn ouders, broers en vrienden te bezoeken. Verder heb ik niets te zeggen!

De Conclusie: Dit was goed dat ik mijn vaderland bezocht omdat ik dadelijk (het moment toen ik paspoortcontrole aankwam) besefte dat ik een grotere affiniteit en liefde voor België gedurende een jaar ontwikkelde dan ik ooit voor mijn vaderland had. Ik heb een koning wie voor die roeping werkt. Hij heeft voor zijn opvoeding en zijn militaire rang gewerkt en niet eenvoudig gekregen. Ik zou hem volg als België ooit aangevallen zou worden. Ik kan niet hetzelfde zeggen over de leiders van mijn vaderland. België is mijn thuis.

Groetjes.

Belgen mensen zijn serious – Belgian people are serious.

Well, yes this is mostly true. If you upset a serious Belgian you’ll get the bottom lip, much like this:

Belgian Bottom Lip

Upset Belgians also make the most delicate of “popping” sounds, like a tender “pffff” to signal indifference or that they’re not in approval of something.

I have the feeling Belgians are very serious in public, but in the privacy of their homes they love a good laugh. Thinking about it a little more, I’m pretty sure that’s how it is! When we visit my second-cousin-once-removed (sounds intriguing doesn’t it?) the dinner table is always, always jovial, noisy, raucous with laughter and fun-poking which is anything but serious!

There are indeed times to be serious and Belgians are good at that too. Business is done in an impeccable manner here and it takes some getting used to if you’re used to doing business how my country of origin is used to doing business.

The Application:

There is a season and a time for everything and the trick is to carefully determine when it’s acceptable to be casual and funny and when to be flat-line dead serious, when to throw a cream pie and when to throw a grenade.

I’m still learning those lessons.

Ciao for now.

Belgen mensen zijn stipt.

Belgen mensen zijn stipt  – Belgian people are punctual.

Simply two minutes late for an appointment can land you all the way at the beginning of a sequence of appointments. It’s the equivalent of drawing the “back to the beginning” card in a board game. Starting at the beginning most likely involves making an appointment to make an appointment to begin the red tape process all over again.

When in Belgium, don’t be late.

Don’t do it.

Just don’t.

Don’t be early either. Where I come from, being 15 minutes early shows enthusiasm. Here it illustrates silliness or stupidity. You could have spent that time having coffee and something with vla in and not sitting waiting and doing nothing. Of course you could say it’d take too long because Belgians zijn Bourgondiërs but in this instance you’d make use of one of the many serve-yourself take-away coffee places and sit and waste your time there rather.

I marveled at my parents and Méme & Pépe telling me that people must make appointments to visit even if they’re family. As a young man I’d always simply arrive when I felt it was suitable at friends or family. Again, I can see why it’s a Belgian thing to make an appointment to visit. It’s not that my parents or Méme & Pépe were being difficult. Its something they were used to. Something that’s still done here in Belgium because if I were to travel 20 minutes on a train at 7euro and then 35 minutes on a bus only to find the family I was paying a surprise visit to was out – destination unknown, unavailable via cellular phone and no determined date or time of return – I’d be rather “sad” I think is the polite term.

Must not be late!!!

Must not be late!!!

Yes, my parents, Méme & Pépe and all my Belgian family require proper preparation for guests. They found it silly and a little rude if you simply arrived at their doorstep. They obviously also found it rude if you were late or early (not stipt!). Thankfully Méme & Pépe never met my lovely lady’s aunt who makes it her absolute duty to arrive an hour before required and always does so loudly! She would never have copped another invitation, simple as that. It would have been funny to watch though.

The Application:

Simple. Don’t be late…and I hate being late. I’m the weird stalker-type when I have to be at a certain place at a certain time. I always arrive half-an-hour to 15 minutes early, hover and stare from outside to make sure I have absolutely the correct place and then make sure I get in 10 minutes before the required time. Rather fruit cake without the fruit and all the nuts I know, but it’s the only way I’m at ease with arranged meetings.

So, when in Belgium or dealing with Belgians, the first order of business is BE ON TIME!

Tot gauw!

Belgen mensen zijn niet chauvinistisch.

Belgen mensen zijn niet chauvinistisch  – when I first heard this phrase I thought it meant that Belgians aren’t chauvinists. I was confused, making the immediate association with male chauvinists. As obvious as this phrase sounds when converted straight into English, there’s a certain context here. It has nothing what-so-ever to do with women, bras, holding doors open for the ladies or employment ethics.

Correctly translated, the phrase means “Belgians are not patriotic”. Perhaps I still have a tainted foreigner’s view, but I find this phrase false or at least incomplete and misleading. I think the phrase should be elaborated on such: “Belgians are not patriotic like Americans.”

I think Belgians are deeply and privately patriotic but in a different, unique way.

Have you seen how the government’s made up? The general view of Belgians as far as I’ve been able to establish is that it’s a contrived or invented country with a royal family that had nothing or nowhere else to rule. This is mostly true, but it doesn’t make it any less legitimate as a country! As the lovely Mrs. Black so eloquently pointed out, it’s the chummy of Europe.

More explanation required? Yes, I think so. A chummy is a colloquialism for a friend where we’re originally from. A chummy is also the colloquial name for the useless (but very important) piece of meat that keeps your bum and fun parts apart. Without the chummy, your fun parts wouldn’t be that fun now would they? So yes, a chummy is completely useless and incredibly important!

Yes. Belgium is the chummy, the no-man’s-land of all those feuding, boiling lands in Europe. It divides and puts safe distance between Germany, France, The Netherlands and even though there’s a body of water to divide us from England, Belgium still seems to be a buffer of sorts to this land too.

A patriotic Belgian it seems!

A patriotic Belgian it seems!

So after this brief and cynical history lesson, let’s get to the Belgians. Most of them don’t know their national anthem. There’s the case of our Prime Minister, Elio Di Rupo, breaking into a lovely rendition of the French national anthem when asked to sing the Belgian one.

Most Belgians I’ve come across do not see any function for the Belgian Royal Family or the King. There is one Belgian who I believe did have an explanation – my Inburgering’s lerares.

She taught me that the king is the glue that keeps the political leaders of all the political parties and groups talking to each other. He is the mediator and the man who keeps the disagreeing political parties wheeling, dealing and compromising. He is also the man who signs all the (finally) agreed upon laws into power.

There are those Belgians that are chauvinistic about the royal family. Here’s proof.

A little royals shrine in a window.

A little royals shrine in a window.

As much as Belgian’s aren’t patriotic about Belgium, ask them about the piece of Belgium they’re living in and it’s a WHOLE different story! The Flanders (the Flemish that live in the north of Belgium and speak Flemish or Belgian Nederlands) consider themselves far superior to the Wallonian Belgians living in the South of Belgium and who speak French. Actually most Flanders don’t even consider Wallonia residences to be Belgian!

The Application:

I don’t know the French National Anthem and I’m not about to break into a rendition of the Belgian National Anthem because like our Prime Minister, I don’t know it!

I find it difficult to dislike my King and royal family or even be indifferent to them. I will therefore keep my tongue and try to keep my opinions to myself thereby portraying an air of indifference.

Inside I’ll love and cuddle them.

I will be (and am by blood as my mother was born and raised in Ardooie) , my emblem will be the lion of Vlanders and not the rooster of Wallonia.

Vlanderen Lion

Tot gauw.

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.