Coming to Belgium: Life among the lunanauts
Tim Roux was parachuted into The North against his will but has since adapted to the Belgian way of life, though he still misses the call of the southern scrublands.
I never really intended to live in Belgium. Maybe that is what a lot of expats say. In my case, though, it was a bit different. I am here out of choice not because some megacorporation or mega institution has decided to plant me here as part of some complex three-year crop rotation process.
It wasn’t actually my choice to come here either, although as a brand marketing and business strategist, and as an author, I can live anywhere that has broadband (and Belgium certainly has broadband). It was all about schools. My wife, Ralette, determined that Belgium had the best school and the best schools in Europe and that France, where we were living before, didn’t. Actually the schools our children attended north of Montpellier were lovely. Whatever the system, the atmosphere of any school is down to its director or owner and in both the Montpellier schools they were outstanding. However, the next school up looked scary. I used to go to the post office next door as the children arrived in the morning. There were more police there than there were children, and there were more drugs there than both.
So, much to my disgust, we had to abandon the open countryside, warmth and wine of the south of France and head for Belgium. My wife started looking for houses here which depressed me further. Either all householders intentionally waited for a rainy day to come along before calling in the photographer for publicity shots or it rained a lot in Belgium, incessantly even.
I had actually been here quite often over the years as I used to work for 3M in Diegem. Strangely, whenever I came the weather was reasonably pleasant although Zaventem airport did have a tendency to close at the first wisp of fog.
Nonetheless, Belgium is definitely Northern Europe whereas I prefer the South.
Worse was to come. The ‘best school in Europe’ that our children first attended definitely wasn’t. It was a disaster, in fact. Our children knew less at the end of the year than at the beginning. The other parents were very friendly, though. Our children were doing sleepovers from the first week of our arrival.
I don’t think I ventured into Brussels itself more than once during the first year we were here. We didn’t have GPS in those days and without GPS you can get into Brussels but you will never get out again. We lived in Tervuren, which is on the moon as far as Brussels-based expats are concerned, and on the moon we stayed.
Living on the moon isn’t at all bad, I can assure all lunanauts. For a start, the food on the moon is excellent. I don’t think I have ever had a bad meal in Belgium. Hey, I come from the UK – I have had experience. The chocolates are obviously excellent, and I love the beers, the heavy duty ones anyway – Westmalle, Gold, Platinum (OK, I’m too old for Platinum, can’t take 12% any more), Duvel, Chimay. I drink Leffe, but I cannot get over the idea that it is the Ford of the Belgium beer world – incredibly reliable but a bit flat and boring.
And once we got the children into a Flemish school, progress was spritely. Having lived in the UK, then France, then another part of France, then Belgium, we have seen our share of schools. The Moorsel Basis School is extraordinary. I have never seen anything like it. I have never dreamt of anything like it.
I am going to say a very racist thing here. The Flemish must be strong contenders for being the most reasonable people on earth. I am sorry if I have upset any Walloons at this point, but I am not a comedian.
We were concerned that our elder son, at nearly ten years old, was starting in a Nederlands-speaking school, when he didn’t speak any Nederlands. We were also concerned that he doesn’t much like schools anyway. In France if you want to talk to the teachers about your children’s progress, they begin to waive inspectors at you, unless it is the one-way thing of their telling you how your children are performing. In UK private schools they simply threaten to kick you out. The Moorsel Basis School fielded five teachers for 1.5 hours merely to hear what we had to say. They delivered no opinions of their own. They merely sat and listened and took notes. Two years later they still do. Apparently a British schools inspector poked his nose around the place and observed that if it were in the UK it would be one of the best-run schools in the country. I can believe it.
Actually, I was wrong about the weather and the houses too. In the four summers we have been here we have had two with non-stop sunshine and two with non-stop rain. My wife, who is South African, was amused that the Belgian authorities declare a drought after it has failed to rain for thirty days. Where she comes from it often doesn’t rain for five years. So, I cannot really complain about Belgian weather although, on points, I would still prefer to live in the South of France. The Belgian houses are amazing too – large and well-designed. Even more importantly, they are mostly individually designed although we lived for a time in the one housing estate in the country. We have heard horror stories about Belgian landlords but I have to say that we have had three so far and they have all been extremely reasonable, at least with us.
The thing I really miss about Belgium is countryside. The farms around wherever we have lived have been more like lawns. I yearn for the freedom of the garrigue. I yearn for scrub. What I get here are extended allotments. Everybody tells me that there is an antidote. Go and live in the Ardennes. Maybe so, but it is a little far from Brussels now I have learnt how to navigate myself around it.
Oh well, there are always holidays.
Born near Hull in the UK in 1954, Tim Roux was called to the Bar before working for over 20 years in business strategy and strategic brand marketing for a major multinational corporation. Tim has a wife and two children, and has lived in Belgium since 2006 running Mud Valley which is an online strategy consultancy. Tim has published ten books (nine novels and a brand marketing guide). His latest novel is ‘The Blue Food Revolution’ which borrows a classic Belgian brochure format to present two back-to-back interlinked novellas set in almost every country in the world, real or imaginary, except Belgium. He has thought of translating one novella into French and the other into Nederlands but he hasn’t got round to it yet.
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