Despite the seemingly ‘unthinkable’ move from sunny Italy to Belgium, a blogger counts the loveable aspects of her first year in Belgium.
A year ago today I woke up in Brussels, much as I had done for many weekends in the later half of 2010, just that, different to all the other times, I was waking up ‘at home’. I’d left the sun, great food, amazing wine, and Mediterranean charm and moved to what many had told me was a cold, grey, dull place where no-one other than high-income Eurocrats would really chose to live. I had done what many (Italians) had called the unthinkable…
But it wasn’t. Here’s why a year in, for me, I can say that life in Belgium is more than bearable…
1) They know what customer service is.
You know those Customer Help lines? Well in Belgium someone picks up the phone and tries to help you out – in the language of your choice. In fact – seeing as the conversations are recorded and if they don’t treat you well they’re going to forfeit their lunch vouchers or something – they actually go out of their way to make sure whatever it is gets resolved. In Italy, you’re lucky if they pick the phone up to start with (Italian experience: one insurance company – 45 minutes and still no answer… another, a phone company, cut my phone line before required, charged me an extra month’s fee, and then, not being a customer any more, impeded me from getting through to their help line to resolve the question…arrgghh).
2) The television.
This may sound strange but unless you’ve spent time living in Italy it’s tough to understand how the BBC can be a life saver. A decade of television, which on the whole consisted of reality programmes with more plastic in places I wouldn’t like to mention and game shows where the real entertainment was two minutes of some young waif of a girl wiggling her booty half-way through the show and had no relevance to the show’s content nor theme, I am thankful for the range of channels we get on our Belgacom decoder.
3) On the whole people understand you.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love speaking foreign languages. I speak French reasonably well and am studying Dutch just so I can break the mould and not be ‘one of those Brits who thinks everyone should speak English’, but if you really want/have to, you can survive on English. Speaking English in Italy, you’d be able to order yourself a coffee and a pizza and that’d probably be about it. The amazing level of English the Belgians have makes moving here a less daunting task for those who don’t speak the lingo.
4) You can get food which isn’t just Belgian*.
I love Italian food. Italians love Italian food, and for that reason, it’s really tough in smaller Italian towns to get good food which isn’t how Mamma makes it. In Brussels, you can get pretty much any cuisine you want (not to mention some pretty tasty waffles), and most of the time, it’s good. My favourites are the Scandinavian restaurant Up North and Lebanese Al Barmaki. When I’m desperate for a pizza, I head to Rino Son resto at the Cimitiere d’Ixelles or La Barchetta in Stockel, and when I’m craving a taste of home, I nip to Carrefour or Delhaize for Cadbury’s chocolate and crumpets.
*The same principle applies to wine…
5) You’re in the middle of everywhere.
If I travelled two hours from Verona I’d still be in Italy. Admitted, I’d be in close to Austria or heading towards Slovenia, but I’d still be in the same country. Two hours (by car or train) from Belgium, however, you can be strolling the streets of Paris, in a cafe in Amsterdam or a pub in London, or gazing at the Cathedral in Cologne. It’s so close to France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK that a radical change of scenery is pretty easy to get when needed. Ryanair flights from Charleroi to just about any European country (even to north African countries) make it easy and cheap to escape, too.
6) Belgians are familiar to people coming and going.
Now I have some fantastic Italian friends, amazing people, who I am sure will be my friends for life, but getting them wasn’t so easy. In places where foreigners are not so common, you have to first get through that wall before you can really be considered part of the tribe. Outsiders are viewed suspiciously. In Belgium, where people come and go like the rain clouds, I’ve had people (locals and foreigners) talk to me in the middle of the road, in the car park, supermarket, chemists – you name it – without ever knowing me, who my family is, where I went to school, who I went out with or my in-depth medical history. They just talk, pass the time of day, or make helpful suggestions – it doesn’t matter who you are.
7) The weather changes – this might sound like I’m trying to ‘turn a negative into a positive’.
Weather in Italy was a lot more stable. That meant when it rained, it did so for three days non-stop; when there was fog (yep, there can be a lot in winter), you can hardly see the end of your bonnet; and when it’s hot, it’s sweltering day and night for 10 days in a row. In Belgium, you can be reasonably sure that if the day starts one way, it won’t be the same by the end of it.
As with many ex-pats, I have no idea how much longer I’ll be waking up calling Belgium home, but in the meantime, I’ll just keep making my list of why doing the unthinkable was the best thing I ever did.