From Antipodes to Antwerp: The Belgian lesson of patience
The Belgian 'phlegmatic' approach to life taught Richard Croad the valuable skills of patience and peace.
It's just after 4.00 in the morning and I'm blogging about patience. I'm sure there is something ironic about that, though it eludes me for now.
People who know me well, will know I don't have a wonderful history of being patient. Now that I'm starting to develop better skills in this area, I realise that it is one of the key gifts I can pass to my children.
Funnily I have Belgium to thank for this.
Firstly, why do I consider it so important?
Well, for me, what usually sat at the middle of most of my ‘stressed' moments – and many of the times in the past when I used to get angry – was a lack of patience.
Almost every time I could see a replay of my childhood; watching my father curse at a queue of traffic, a nut that wouldn't go on a bolt, a drawer that wouldn't open, a child who couldn't complete a task as readily or as well. And not surprisingly, I picked all of this up and thought that was the way to behave.
Secondly, being patient makes me a nicer person to be around. I feel better, operate more effectively, and keep stress at its lowest possible level – that has to be worth a few more years with my girls, and for them, it has to be a life skill of immense value.
Belgians have a different view on patience to anything I have encountered before. I wonder whether their somewhat phlegmatic approach to things – which can drive you insane at the first, second and one hundredth encounter – is the reason that despite their smoking rate they live to an old age quite nicely, thank you. Stress just doesn't seem as prevalent here as it does back in New Zealand. Belgians take their time over things in a way Kiwis seldom would.
People stand patiently in queues, wait at pedestrian crossings while people dawdle across, consider dining out as something that lasts the whole night (a single table turn is the accepted practice here – Chrissy waited almost two hours for a main course the other night, and so did everyone else), are happy to sit on a single beer for a whole afternoon, and a number of other subtle little signs that really show ‘time' is not a reason to get upset.
Of course it is not perfect, and neither is everyone in Belgium Belgian.
In my mind, it is part of why it took to so long to form a government over here – what was the hurry?
The traffic jams here are something else – not because of the size of them (though my commute can vary from 35 minutes to 2.5 hours!) but because people drive into the middle of intersections with nowhere to go once the lights change to orange then red. The only time I really encounter obvious impatience is when I refuse to drive out onto an already jammed intersection and wait patiently for someone coming across in the other direction so traffic can start to move freely. I do this at the personal cost of being honked at as if I am unreasonable. I typically conclude the person honking can't be Belgian!
But the ironic is, while exhibiting all this patience, jumping a queue or pushing in for service is quietly accommodated as well – nobody really complains.
I have become a lot better at getting to the front or ensuring we get served ‘in proper order' – so certainly patience does not mean you are not assertive.
I do think the one downside to patience is that without focus and priority, it can be a disaster, or if not a disaster, it can lead to some bad habits. Most evident of this, is the time it does take you to get served in a lot of places and the disinterest shown by people in serving or assisting you (which in fact is probably not disinterest but just a lack of urgency – ‘what's the hurry'). This can manifest in many different ways, from phone calls to friends or family while you wait in line, conversations with other staff with no regard to you or the queue, and then of course the wonderful tradition of shutting up shop for lunch or otherwise – I mean who really needs a hot lunchtime siesta in Antwerp!
Anyway, I'm pleased to report my driving has improved (slower, more patient, and not concerned about being passed); I plan for the ‘longest' time a task might take rather than the optimal / fastest time it ‘should' be done in; I get less frustrated on a daily basis; I ensure I build time into outings and don't over commit myself; I enjoy the girls more and allow them time to develop skills (so what if it takes them five minutes longer to do up their shoes up than I could do it in?); and generally get more done with much less stress and more enjoyment.
The simplest way to reality check your impatience is to ask yourself the next time you are stressing about being held up in traffic – "What will I do with the 10 minutes I would have had at home without this traffic jam?". Remarkably taking 10 minutes off the end of your day is not that difficult – in fact, if you keep the stress down, you may not even need it.
Hard not to like really.
Richard Croad started his blog From Antipodes to Antwerp after relocating to Belgium from New Zealand. His blog was an avenue to reflect on life as an expat, as well as to record a journal for his two young daughters. As a ‘later in life’ 50-something father, Richard believes leaving a trail of his own struggles and celebrations in a foreign culture is a valuable gift for his children, and is happy to share the same musings with others in this global e-community.
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