It’s quirky, diverse and has an open atmosphere. An expat lists her 10 favourite things about Belgium as she packs her bags for her next move abroad.
Alas, as they say, all good things have to come to an end and while I loved living in Brussels, the time has come to move on. Munich awaits and while I pack the cases and stock-up on tourist guides, here are some of the things – tangible and intangible – I know I’ll miss about life in the Belgian capital.
1. The openness
It’s not everywhere in the world you can have random conversations with people in the street, supermarkets, or on the bus – there are no boundaries. Exchanging comments on the ripeness of the fruit in Delhaize, the tardiness of the tram, or the state of the street with people you’ve never clapped eyes on is one way of not feeling so foreign. This openness is something I love about my home region and missed dearly in Paris and Verona. Sure, in Belgium you won’t be called ‘love’ (I can’t imagine you ever will outside of Yorkshire) but you won’t get a strange look from someone should you talk to them.
2. The food
Brussels is home to such a variety of cultures and nationalities that it’s pretty easy to get whatever your palate could possibly fancy, and the food is usually great. I love those little restaurants where you sit in candle-light and enjoy a cosy night out choosing from changing menus according to what’s in season and available at the market, as much as I love Brussels’ sushi restaurants where you can sit at the bar, mesmerised by the swishing of the knife of the sushi chef and feel like you’re across the other side of the world. Besides eating out, I also appreciated the range of foods in the supermarkets (Especially Delhaize – love their scones and crumpets) and the range of ethnic and oriental shops (for Asian goods, KY Supermarket on Rue Sainte Catherine is a must). For times when Oxo stuffing, a box of Typhoo tea or lemon curd was the order of the day, there was always Stonemanor. As far as the local cuisine is concerned, I became partial to speculoos (especially in banana smoothies) and endive, yum.
3. The International environment
One thing I appreciated most about Belgium was not only the openness of the locals but also of the huge expat community. I ran a wine tasting club in Brussels for an online expat community and at each evening – up to a maximum 30 people – we’d usually have 20 or so different nationalities. So much to learn and discover about the world can be done over a glass of good wine, beer, or if you’re lucky enough to have a Mexican neighbour like I did – tequila.
4. Park life
One of my favourite places to hang in summer was Bois de la Cambre – there’s nothing like grabbing a blanket and a good book and joining the rest of Brussels enjoying the sun after work. Joggers, cyclists, roller-bladders, energetic kids, and fussy dogs, you’ll see them all making the most of the good weather and the green space. The other great thing about Bois de la Cambre is that you just have to cross the road and you’re into la Foret des Soignes where you can ride, run or walk for hours in the woodlands. Pick up parts of the Groen Wandeling – a 65km route around Brussels – and you’ll enjoy many of the parks, woodlands and cycle paths the city has to offer.
5. Being in the heart of Europe
It may sound strange to say that the best thing about a place is that you can escape so easily, but for an avid traveller, there’s nothing better than knowing that in just a couple of hours, you can be in a completely different country. In fact within two hours from Brussels (by car or by train depending), you could be admiring the view from the Eiffel Tower, drinking beer overlooking the Thames or watching the bikes whisk by from a canal-side cafe in Amsterdam. With excellent air connections to much of the rest of Europe, there aren’t many places in the world that are difficult to get to.
Ok, some could say that this should fall under point no 2. Others would understand why I have to give chocolate it’s own well-deserved point. In Belgium, chocolate is not just food – here chocolate-making is an art. Step past the shop windows of Marcolini at Le Sablon and you’ll think you’ve just passed a jeweller. A couple of doors up, you’ll find chocolate hippopotamus in the window of the newest store in the area. And if you have wheels, a trip to the understated Yasushi Sasaki to admire his Asian inspired and fruity creations is a must.
7. Belgian French
Now I’ve been on the quest to master the French language since the tender age of 10 and I’m sure that anyone who has studied it knows that one thing that’s confusing is the numbers. Welcome to Belgium – within one week of living in Brussels I’d ditched the soixante-dix and quattre-vingt-dix for simple septante and nonante (just like the Swiss), avoiding endless confusion and many frustrating ‘wrong-number’ phone calls. The use of savoir (to know) rather than pouvoir (to be able to) is a little confusing to start but makes for some funny conversations.
8 The wine
I learnt to love wine in Italy – and it became my job – so perhaps saying that I’ll miss the wine in Brussels will leave some people a bit baffled. The thing is though, when the local wine is excellent and abundant, you drink that and only that. In Belgium, with such limited quantities of local vineyards and wines at such high prices, drinking local full-time is not an option. It’s not surprising that Belgium imports over 300 million bottles of wine from across the globe per year. Pick any appellation and you’ll probably be able to find it somewhere. In fact at a wine-tasting I organised at Etiquette (Ave. Emile de Mot 19) we treated guests to wines from Lebanon, Ukraine, Romania and Japan – now who can say that’s not an experience?
9. The diversity
Some may call Brussels ‘shabby’ but I would opt for ‘full of character’. I love the way you can step from one road to another and go from prim whitewashed buildings to dwellings covered in graffiti and peeling plaster. One of my favourite Sunday pastimes was wandering through the eclectic market and antiques shops of Place de la Jeu du Ball and Rue Haute, admiring the spotless windows in Le Sablon and then heading down to the awe-inspiring Grand Place.
10. The architecture
One of my favourite buildings in the world is the Atomium. It’s just a couple of hundred metres from the exhibition centre, and whenever I have visitors to show there, without fail they are blown away by it. Then follows the inevitable photo shoot which never quite manages to capture the magic of it as it twinkles in the dusk. I also the love the churches and buildings on the way through to the Atomium, the greenhouses of the Palace, the statue with the torch on Ave. Franklin D Roosevelt, the magnificent Grand Place and, coming from a city which also had two cooling towers by the side of the motorway until the local council had the bright idea of demolishing them, I also love the multicoloured light show on the towers on the side of the Ring to the west of the city.
It goes without saying that the main thing I’ll miss are my friends. I was lucky to have a lot of Belgian friends, they welcomed me with open arms, tolerated my dodgy French and my incomprehensible Dutch and showed me that there’s more to Belgium than meets the eye.
Thank you Belgium.