Expatica Pattern

Expat Voices: Same language, different people

Last update on May 16, 2014

Expat Voices: Belgian Gwendolyn Lootens speaks Flemish but she finds there are a lot of differences between Amsterdam and her native Ghent.

Name: Gwendolyn Lootens
Nationality: Belgian
City of Residence: Amsterdam
Date of Birth: 09-06-1981
Civil Status: In partnership
Employer: Cultvideotheek
Education: Art Academy (Rietveld), audio-visual design
In Netherlands since: 2004


I studied sculpture at the art academy in Ghent, Belgium for two years before coming to the Netherlands on an exchange programme for students. Ultimately I ended up staying longer because I had a chance to complete my studies at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam.

After graduation I started work with Cultvideotheek, a store that rents out cult and artistic films. It ties in well with my audio-visual studies.

Friends in Belgium said when they heard I was going to Amsterdam: “Watch out, they will laugh at your ‘little language’, your accent”. (Note: Flemish is the same language as Dutch but some words are different and the pronunciation is quite different).

But in reality I didn’t find it scary to go to live in another country; it was more of an enormous challenge. A different country, a different school, all different people and moreover the first time for me to live alone.

The Rietveld Academy has a very good name and that was the reason I came here, not for the Netherlands or Amsterdam. I have been struck by the fact the students come from all over the world; it is a very lively and international ambiance. The same applies to Amsterdam as a whole.

Belgium v. Netherlands

The greatest point of difference between Belgium and the Netherlands, I find, is that people are far more open and spontaneous here. They talk a lot more, a lot louder and they are quicker to begin a conversation with you on the street or in a shop. I think that is great and I find the Dutch are very friendly.

Belgians are more modest, closed. They more often walk with their head down and talk far less. Belgians also suppress more and there are more taboos in Belgian society. If you are open about something, people can respond with a look that says ‘you can’t say that!’ Here in the Netherlands you never have to hold yourself back.

Personally I am very open, like my father, and therefore not really Belgian. That has come to the fore since moving to the Netherlands.

I come from Ghent in Belgium and sometimes I felt restricted there. Should I return there I will certainly not let myself be limited again, never again. It is good to be open.

It costs slightly more time, all in all, to make contact with a Belgian, but when it works out it is more intense.

Straight talkers

It strikes me that Dutch people really take the time to explain their point of view. They finish their sentences, articulate clearly and say what they have to say. They are better talkers, in general, than in Belgium where people are often a bit bashful to talk. And, their articulation is not good, they mumble and don’t complete their sentences. This results in Belgians being slightly more ‘mysterious’. With Dutch people you know exactly what you have!

Another aspect of this is that Dutch people don’t ‘beat around the bush’. If there is something to be discussed they come to the essence straight away. It is totally the other way round in Belgium. They take a long time to get to the point. Remarkably, though, while the Dutch get straight to the heart of the matter, it can be followed by endless talk that can confuse the issue again.

The Dutch are far more businesslike, faster and directer, while the Belgians are slower and more agreeable. They are also ‘heavier’ and the atmosphere is more melancholy. My Belgian friends and I often proclaim ‘Ooh, het verdriet van Belgie!’ (Oh, the sorrow of Belgium) when there is yet another bad situation in our little country. This is a reference to a book by famous Flemish writer Hugo Claus.

European border

I believe that the border between northern and southern Europe passes between the Netherlands and Belgium. The Netherlands in terms of mentality inclines towards Denmark and the Belgium towards France – the culinary culture, that lavishness, that southern-ness.

Belgians are far less exact than Dutch people. They don’t always turn up at 9am for work but work slightly longer. They also take longer lunches and go out to eat with wine and all the trappings.

Another example is that bakeries are open in Belgium on Sundays, actually it is still their most important day! In the morning people come to get croissants and chocolate biscuits and return in the afternoon for a nice cake. That doesn’t exist in the Netherlands.

And then there are the restaurants. You get treated very well when you go out eating because the eating-and-table culture is very important in Belgium. My partner and I go to Ghent regularly and he notices things I don’t, like the craftsmanship of the butcher and the time they take for you, the client. I must confess I have had difficulties with Belgium for a long time but through him I value my homeland more.


In the Netherlands – well I really only know Amsterdam – everything is better organised in the street. It is cleaner and neater. Take, for instance, the street-cleaning karts. I think they come around twice a day. Quite irritating because of the noise they make, but it is very clean here.

The people in Amsterdam also look neater and tidier. The typical Dutch youth has short blond hair with gel, he wears jeans and a blazer and is clean-shaven. The Dutch girls are also tidier, wear what the latest fashions dictate; they are often blond, taller and more robust than Belgian girls. Dutch people are in general more sporty – at least that is how they look!

Same language? 

Flemish and Dutch are basically the same language so that isn’t a problem. Still, there are some funny words and expressions which mean different things in Belgium and the Netherlands. A Belgian mother can say to on your children that he “op zijn poep gaan zitten”. This just means he must sit down. In the Netherlands it would mean he should sit in his excrement. A “tas koffie” means a cup of coffee in Flemish but a bag of coffee in Dutch. 

Art world

There is also a difference between the art worlds of Belgium and the Netherlands. The art academy in Belgium is very theoretical; you have to learn a lot more about the theory and the background. The Rietveld was far more practical and result-orientated. There are far more possibilities to exhibit in the Netherlands, many galleries and art initiatives, but I have questions about what is being shown.

The Netherlands exhibits far too much and it looks like people here can’t make a real choice. Too many doors stand open. Art is displayed on the curb in the Netherlands and on a throne in Belgium.

Art is very important in my life and I will certainly continue with it. Whether it will be in the Netherlands or Belgium I don’t know.

Preferably, I would like to stand with one foot in the Netherlands and the other in Belgium.

14 September 2006


Gwendolyn Lootens told her story to Nicole van Schaijik, who owns and operates Talent Taaltrainingen (Dutch Language Courses), based in Amsterdam. (Tel: 020 420 66 59 or
email: info@talent-tn.nl).