In our week dedicated to cars and roads in Belgium, V-grrrl asks, ‘Why go to Walibi when every outing is a thrill ride in Brussels?’
It’s spring in Belgium. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the flowers blooming, the fields and forests are green with new growth. It’s a time to embrace optimism and a positive attitude—unless of course you want to leave your neighborhood, in which case it’s a time to buckle up, grit your teeth, and abandon all hope of arriving at your destination on time.
Springtime in Belgium
Yes, spring in Belgium means road construction projects, and no matter what direction you head, you’re bound to encounter orange cones, heavy equipment, and piles of paving stone, dirt, bricks, cable, and pipe.
Omlegging. Deviation. Detour. In any language, it means the same thing: trouble. While my husband and I have recently been blindsided by closed roads, unexpected dead ends, lengthy backups, and orange arrows that point nowhere, the truth is that we’re not really surprised when we can’t get where we’re going.
Whether I’m behind the wheel or in the passenger seat, driving in and around Brussels is always a challenge. A native once described the local traffic as “a bit more dynamic than what you see in the United States.”
I smiled and bit my tongue, not wanting to offend her by telling her I thought there should be an international team of researchers investigating why the otherwise quiet, mild-mannered, and reserved Belgian people morph into assertive daredevils behind the wheel of a car. Perhaps if you live here long enough, you develop calc deposits in a part of the brain responsible for highway safety. It’s all clouded in mystery.
Not renowned for speed of efficiency
Anyone who’s lived here for any period of time knows that Belgians aren’t renowned for their interest in speed or efficiency when it comes to customer service or bureaucracy, but put a Belgian in the driver’s seat and all that he or she is concerned with is the shortest distance and fastest route between two points.
If this involves driving on sidewalks, passing on curves, speeding through residential areas, running through red lights, creating new lanes, or just cutting in front of other drivers and jockeying for position, so be it. C’est la vie. All’s fair in war and driving.
At first, I attributed the aggressive driving habits to the road conditions here. After all, navigating narrow bumpy streets clogged with parked cars, pedestrians, and cyclists is an exercise in frustration. Yet the longer I’ve lived here, the more I’ve begun to think Belgians secretly like all the obstacles thrown in their path.
Driving is about sport
Driving here isn’t about ease, it’s about SPORT. It’s all part of a national commitment to make some aspect of life in Belgium exciting. Deep in the heart of the city is place where government officials gather to create driving regulations and practices as twisted as a downtown alley.
Why else would people choose to park on the street instead of in their driveways and thus reduce two-way traffic to one lane? It’s part of a plot to create drama and near head-on collisions in their neighborhood.
Likewise, the thrill-seekers in charge make other nefarious rules to increase adrenaline levels in the otherwise calm populace: Let’s not mark the roads and see what happens!
Let’s have an ever-changing rule of priority and indicate it by at least three different sorts of signs so we can see who’s really paying attention!
Let’s print street signs in two languages and place them where they can’t be seen until it’s too late to safely turn!
Let’s see who’s bold enough to steal the right of way at this intersection!
Yes, the popular way to prove your mettle here is to barrel around blind curves, tailgate, invent your own passing maneuvers, and speed like a German on the autobahn.
Driving is the unofficial national sport and the Belgians want to see who triumphs in the end: you, the other driver, or the Grim Reaper.
This is the automotive version of a ménage a trois—and it makes me want to curl up in bed and stay at home.