British expat John Miller has lived in Belgium twice, first in Brussels and now in Bruges. He tells Expatica about his ongoing relationship with the country and why he now prefers to live beyond the nation’s capital.
The first foreign country I ever visited was Belgium. Barely alive after a four hour crossing from Dover during which we school kids had to sit outside on deckchairs in a blizzard, I’ve never been so glad to see terra firma!
With three hours before the train left for Switzerland, we wandered round Oostende. To kids who’d hardly ever left Scotland before, it seemed impossibly exotic: cars zooming down the wrong side of the streets, cafés festooned with adverts for strange-sounding beers, frites with mayonnaise. I loved the place immediately.
Next visit, I was a student trying to hitch a lift south. I and my equally hirsute companion looked like we’d just come straight from Woodstock and the locals weren’t impressed: lifts were few — even buses wouldn’t stop for long-haired weirdos! Eventually, we staggered into a bar, called for a taxi to the nearest station and arrived in the Ardennes by train.
It was an interesting holiday all round and not just for us: the friend we visited was working as a summer waitress in a hotel across the border in Luxembourg.
Unfortunately for her, she shared a bedroom with another waitress supplementing her wages by entertaining a constant procession of local lads who would climb in the window and then sit at the bottom of our friend’s bed waiting patiently for their turn with her roommate. For different reasons, neither of them got much sleep that summer …
Belgium from within the EU
I first worked in Belgium for the EU Commission, transferring to Brussels after becoming fed up with working for a boss in Luxembourg who slept on top of his desk when he wasn’t off selling life insurance to colleagues around the office. Brussels seemed very much the ‘big apple’ compared to sleepy Luxembourg back in the early ’80s.
Apart from pervasive bureaucracy, the main drawback to working for international institutions is that you mostly meet international people — good in one way, but limiting in others. To feel really at home anywhere, you need to make local contacts.
In Brussels — in those days a resolutely French-speaking place: it was rare to hear anyone speaking Dutch — we made relatively few Belgian acquaintances. Most of our circle were expats, and if I had my time over again, I would make much more effort to break out of expat circles into the wider local world beyond.
On my first working day, I discovered the Belgian languages issue — I was staffing the Enquiries Desk of the EU Commission’s Central Library and my first call came from a Fleming who was NOT happy at my utter lack of Dutch.
Soon after, I moved into an office with a woman undergoing a mental breakdown and spent a nervous year trying to avoid being murdered at my desk by a staring-eyed paranoid wielding a large pair of scissors …
We lived in Woluwe and in the spring the cherry blossoms fell like snow — truly magical. One spring, our first offspring also arrived and shortly after that I transferred to Paris.
My Parisian colleagues were as disparaging about Brussels — which they saw as the boondocks — as they were about English wines. But sitting stuck in traffic on the Periphérique, I thought the laugh was on them — everywhere in Brussels is relatively easy to get to and the city is a manageable size, with every facility you could ever seriously want easily to hand.
Bruges or Brussels?
I resigned from the Commission at the end of my time in Paris and wandered the world for 13 years before returning to Belgium to work at the College of Europe in Bruges.
Bruges is very different from Brussels. At times overwhelmed by hordes of tourists, it’s a benign invasion and tourists help to sustain large numbers of interesting bars and restaurants in the city, which we residents can patronise throughout the year. And the beers and chocolates are superb!
The city is firmly Dutch-speaking, of course, but — for Anglophones at least — life is easy because Flemish people speak great English. I can now fill in my tax forms in Dutch (is that progress?) and I can understand quite a lot of Dutch now, but a more systematic learning approach would have been better.
I’d like to see all new non-Dutch speaking employees here receiving some basic language training as part of their work induction programme. Dutch isn’t scary once you get started.
I walk to work in Bruges and it’s a quiet, non-threatening place to live. Our other house is in Liverpool and glass bus shelters there wouldn’t survive 5 minutes — probably true in some of the bigger cities in Belgium too.
Until a couple of months ago, the big problem I regularly faced was the lack of a late train back from Brussels, severely discouraging attendance at any concerts etc. which might overrun — it also made arriving at Zaventem on any late evening flight rather a lottery! Now that there’s a late train, the problem is solved.
I visit Brussels fairly often, but I’m not sure I’d like to live there again — maybe it’s just the perception of someone who has moved out, but it feels less safe now than it did 25 years ago. A friend of mine was knifed near the Cinquentenaire recently, others have been burgled and the metro at night is vaguely threatening.
But as cities go, it’s not so bad: there’s lots going on, some lovely buildings and beautiful parks and great shops, bars and restaurants.
And for a real taste of urban life as you don’t want to live it, try Tashkent in Uzbekistan — being out at night there is REALLY scary!