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.

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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!