Together Magazine offers a sideways glance on why it’s easy to love the flat lands of Belgium and its cultural quirks.
1. Best rain
Most countries measure rainfall by quantity, but Belgium’s precipitation can also offer a bewildering breadth of forms. From the merest hint of drizzle to torrential downpours, nowhere beats Belgium for getting wet. It’s stated in the holy scriptures that paradise is ‘a well-watered garden’ and who would doubt that, even if we don’t live in paradise, we at least have a very well-watered garden?
2. Best stereotypes
Think of Belgium and most people will conjure up images of beer, chocolate and frites. What’s so bad about that?
3. Longest non-existent government
All too often, the headlines report Belgium as being in crisis. How do people react? There’s no civil disorder, no panic in the streets, just people getting on with their lives. We’ll simply discuss it all over a beer or three, secure in the knowledge that we’ll muddle through somehow. We went for 589 days without a government, a world record. In many parts of the world we’d have been called a failed state, but we found that, if anything, things worked a little better than usual.
4. Best tax offices
When I went to sort out my taxes I found the people to be very friendly and helpful, so much that once we had finished, I said I had a bit of an embarrassing question to ask. That got their attention, so I asked: “So these are federal taxes, to the federal government?” “Oh yes, that’s correct,” they assured me. I went for the kill: “But we’ve had no federal government for a long time, so I would like a discount on my taxes because of this.” They were stunned. I suggested a 50 percent discount as being reasonable. They looked at me as if I was mad. I told them I was only joking and they burst into relieved laughter. Of course I was joking, I’d have settled for 30 percent.
5. National anthem? What national anthem?
The average Brit starts mumbling after the first couple of lines of God Save the Queen, so it was with utter delight that I discovered Prime Minister yves Leterme didn’t know the Belgian national anthem either (it’s called La Brabançonne, for those who don’t know) when he so memorably burst into La Marseillaise. Can you imagine any other nation’s leader being so bold? As I pointed out to my Belgian friends, at least he didn’t sing Deutschland über Alles.
6. You can knock down the PM
In November 2002, then Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt was out cycling when he was knocked down by a car at a roundabout near Gent, breaking his elbow. It was treated as a normal traffic accident, and no big issue was made. Try crashing into Silvio Berlusconi and see what happens. Here’s a clue – Bay of Naples, concrete overcoat.
7. Zen Buddhism is Belgian
Now this may be news to many, but it is true; I checked it in Wikipedia. Belgium contains two Zen koans – or instructional puzzles. The first is the country code, BE. What more concise exposition of Zen is there than the simple word ‘be’? Be alive, be conscious, be Belge! The second is the last syllable – ‘um’ – best illustrated by this ancient tale: A novice monk goes up to the Guru, who is busy contemplating a frite. “Master,” he asks, “how may I find enlightenment?” The Guru replies: “Child, canst thou explain the rules concerning whether Belgian establishments can or cannot allow smoking on their premises?” “Ummmm,” said the young monk. “Just keep repeating that until you get enlightenment,” states the Guru, and dismisses him.
8. Annoy extremists effortlessly
I’d only been in the country for a few days when I saw an old man shuffling along the street delivering free newspapers. As he came to my house he offered me a copy which I thanked him for. Then I noticed it was in Flemish. Demonstrating my newfound mastery of the bilingual system, I explained to him in my schoolboy French that I didn’t know Flemish so could I have a copy in French. He looked angry and stormed off in a huff. I turned the paper over and saw it was the Vlaams Belang newsletter.
9. The drive of your life
Priorité à droit exemplifies the line between madness and genius. Initially I thought it was the former, but now I finally get it. It’s a fantastic experiment in Darwinian Theory, which also ensures that there is a plentiful supply of transplant organs…
10. We’re here
Some expats whine and complain about Belgium, but surely it’s wise to make the most of where you are and, if you look positively, Belgium is full of interesting places and people. What’s more, we at Together will bring you the best of La Belgique, in a handy-sized magazine. What more could you wish for?
Andy Carling / Reprinted with permission of Together Magazine.