Things that work in Belgium

by Maria on July 6, 2006

Well, this will be a short post…

Usually I avoid writing about annoying aspects of Belgian life and its weird mix of individual opportunism and ossified institutional arrangements (what I call ‘the dodgy and the stodgy’). There are endless examples; landlords that leave their non-Belgian tenants without power or water but sic the authorities on them at even the threat of non-payment; the ISP I never received service from which nonetheless billed me for months, ignored registered letters, and only desisted when the very efficient Dutch debt collection company they used reviewed the correspondence and sighed ‘yes, this seems to happen a lot, there’. And then there’s the schizophrenic Belgian tendency to ignore people in distress in public places (ask any ex-pat whose been knocked off their bike, attacked, mugged, or just fallen over in the street) yet go on enormous public protests following murders. And don’t get me started on the bizaare collective amnesia about the Congo.

There is something stolid and almost leaden about interactions with official Belgium. At least in France you could develop the front of a Parisian and enter into the theatre and power play of, say, getting a refund on your train ticket. But in Belgium you might as well be talking to a bag of flour. It’s very trying. Even though my French is probably better than it was in Paris, the cultural gap can make some communication a complete pain for both sides.

Anyway, this post is about the things in Belgium that work. When things work in Belgium, they really, really work. Especially in contrast to the usual lumpen state of affairs.

Take the trains, for example. Tell a Belgian you’re going somewhere by train and they’ll sigh sympathetically and apologise for the inadequate train system and all the strikes. Actually, the Belgian train system is superb. Belgium is criss-crossed by a dense rail network with frequent, comfortable and reliable trains. You can turn up at any major train station and not have to wait more than 30 minues for a train to another Belgian city or major town. (When I get my paycheck and grumble at taking home about 45% of my gross pay, I think of all the lovely redundancy in the train system and compare it to the Tube. Call me a communist, but that always makes me smile.)

Recently, I bought a bike. A solid, manly Dutch bike. This bike has been all over Brussels, and all over Belgium. Countless train conductors have heaved it into the baggage van and stamped its own little ticket. The bike almost doubles the price of the ticket, but it’s still less than a third of what rail travel costs in the UK, and a quarter of the Irish price. And at the other end we freewheel out into the centre of a Flemish market town, or a dustly little village. It is beautifully liberating to own a bike in a small, flat and densely networked country.

Just as efficient as the train system is the cable company I phoned yesterday and who turned up at my flat at 0815 this morning to give me the gift of BBC. I will make an effort to tune into the Belgian channels and overcome this cultural gap, but mostly I expect to curl up in the autumn and watch series 5 of Spooks. (spoiler/teaser: Rupert Penry Jones seems to have survived his end of season cliffhanger – I saw ‘Adam’ alive and well and filming a dull tracking shot on the South Bank a couple of months ago.)

And then there are the unexpected things that work very well. Like the police. I had a pretty low opinion of them after I was followed and threatened on my walk to work a few months ago. Once in the office I prepared my statement, phoned the police, and was fobbed off and told to report the incident to the tourist office in the centre of town. But this morning, my mobile phone rang the police from the bottom of my bag. I didn’t notice until they called back a minute later, checked that everything was ok, and were extremely forgiving and polite at having received a careless nuisance call. The mad thing was, the policeman carried out the entire conversation in English. From the very beginning. I was too surprised and embarrassed – and felt I’d wasted enough of their time already – to ask how they knew I was an English speaker, so I presume it must be from how I set the preferences on my phone. But how clever is that? Of course the moral of the story is to remember to bring my phone with me on the days I’m being followed by a lunatic. Still, impressive system, though, eh?

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Crooked Timber » » Engerland, Engerland
07.13.06 at 11:54 am



Antipholus Papps 07.06.06 at 3:49 am

I don’t know why you describe BBC as a ‘gift’. Post-Hutton, I can’t watch it anymore. I may as well buy a copy of Pravda.


ajay 07.06.06 at 4:05 am

Ooh, a BBC troll! And posting from a US timezone – what a surprise.


Chris Bertram 07.06.06 at 4:42 am

Yes reliable and cheap, but often so slow ….

It is a weird place, isn’t it, especially in the way that the Flemings and the Walloons lead weird parallel existences, not interacting but doing the same things as one another. I remember taking the train in from Louvain-la-Neuve to Brussels, which means starting in a Francophone area, passing through a Dutch-speaking one, and then back to a French one. It was a Saturday, so the Belgian youth were indulging their strange passion for Scouting and as we stopped in each station a different group of scouts of guides would get one. The Fleming scouts and guides sat together, ditto the Waloons … no interaction whatsoever despite their common interest in scouting.

I also had a weird conversation about the ugly and anodyne Belgian issue euro coins. I asked why they didn’t have symbols reflecting the diversity of the country (as we have Scottish and English coins). Impossible, I was told. The Walloons would cry foul if the half the coins did not reflect their identity, and the Flemings if they were not issued in strict proportion to population numbers. So anondyne it had to be.

Finally, I remember the incredulity expressed by Francophones on learning that a Canadian had managed to get himself served whilst speaking French in the nearest Ikea (where the staff were Flemings). Utterly bizarre.

Good beer and chocolate though.


Maria 07.06.06 at 5:02 am

Ah, ‘les scoots’! Though I seem to remember there being an unbreachable gap betwee the original scouts and guides and the Catholic version in Ireland and also, I think, in the UK.

The French and Flemish speakers really do exist on parallel tracks, and anodyne or self-defeating ‘compromises’ abound. During the language crisis in the 70s, the university in Louvain/Leuven was split in two, with a new French speaking university created at Louvaine la Neuve (‘new Leuven’). The romance languages went to Neuve, and the Germanic ones stayed at Leuven (partly explaining why the Flemish speak such better English). The library was also split, with the odd numbered books going to one university and the even ones to the other.

It gets petty and self-destructive. A few years ago, a pharma millionaire left an important collection of primitive art to the state, in lieu of inheritance tax. But because he died in a Flemish speaking area and the bequest was to be exhibited in a French one, the tax authorities in the former refused to accept it. Mad!


Isabel 07.06.06 at 5:25 am

And a lot more worldly than the French, in my opinion. My French-challenged American husband seems to have carved for himself a very exciting and varied social life, entirely on his own, something that would have been impossible in France without the support of very specific professional niches, like academia. And the Belgians also seem to be aware of the fact that not all Portuguese are concierges, although, for the first time in 20 plus years, I had some doubts about it yesterday: I had a letter in Portuguese in my mailbox that seemed to be offering me a job as a cleaner. Considering that said mailbox is in a very bourgeois building (and not on the ground floor!), I was slightly surprised. On second reading, maybe the letter can also be read as an advertisement for this cleanig service. I think I’ll give them a call to find out.

Concerning the sclerotic and maddening administration, utility companies, etc, I don’t think that having a perfect French, or even being a national will protect you. In that regard, I take the Belgians to be marginally better than the Portuguese (with whom they share this strange schizophrenic thing of having oasis of efficiency in a general landscape of customer-unfriendliness).


a 07.06.06 at 6:12 am

“…A solid, manly Dutch bike…” Better than a flimsy, womanly Walloon bike I guess…


Isabel 07.06.06 at 7:03 am

As far as I know, the Louvain/Leuven university question (that is still stuck in many a Belgian throat) arose due to the fact that the French speaking bourgeoisie/intelectuals refused to consider Flemish in equal terms with French in the whole country. Therefore, the Flems said “OK, you teach in French in your side, we will teach in Flemish in our side. Tough luck for you that the most prestigious Belgian university is in the Flemish side”. That explains also the absurdity of the way Belgians learn the two languages: kids in French speaking schools learn Flemish with French native speakers and kids in Flemish speaking schools learn French with Flemish native speakers.

Yep, the borders of the Roman Empire are still alive and well.


Scott Martens 07.06.06 at 7:06 am

Yes, Belgian life is not without its compromises. Ironically, the Vlaams Belang seems to be trying to run on a platform of police incompetence, which lends itself neatly to their real platform of “it’s all the Moroccans’ fault.”

Maria, when they split the university in Leuven, they didn’t split the library on language lines. They gave all volumes with titles indexed starting with the letters A through L to Louvain-la-Neuve and Leuven kept M through Z. Typical Belgian approach to problems. I tell them that if Canada had a 40-60 language split with four French provinces, four English provinces and one bilingual one, we could have solved our language problems in no time flat by doing absolutely nothing. They don’t believe me.

You missed a number of big bureaucratic contradictions. For example, it is impossible under Belgian immigration law to obtain a student visa to study in Belgium. In order to come to Belgium as a student, you must – before requesting a visa – have Belgian health insurance and a place to live. However, it is illegal for Belgian insurers to give you insurance until you have a Belgian ID card – which takes up to 9 months to get – and it is impossible to obtain housing except by showing your student visa to the police. Belgian consular authorities knows this, so they issue visas illegally. On the other hand, in order to work in Belgium, you need only show that you have an employment contract in a respectable trade. The paperwork takes about two weeks.

Or how, after living in Brussels for more than three years, and having lived in Flanders less than a year and half before moving to Brussels, I still have to pay taxes in Leuven.

You also missed the VAT rebate for buying a house. If you sell your old house and buy a new one, you get to apply the VAT you paid on the old house to the new one, unless you move out of Flanders into Brussels or Wallonia.

And I’m Canadian, I speak French with the accent of an unemployed truck driver from Hochelaga, and I’ve never had a hint of difficulty being served in French (or for that matter English or Dutch) at the IKEA in Zaventem.

As for cable, if you have UPC, you have my sympathies. They truly suck. Their service is Leuven is the best argument I’ve seen for non-monopoly cable services. Brutélé is pretty bad too for service quality, but not nearly as bad as UPC. I’m thinking of switching my cable over to Belgacom, but I don’t trust them to provide TV, phone and Internet at cable modem speeds over a single ADSL line; and I would lose BBC1 and 2 if I changed.

But the thing that convinced me that there is a lot that works in Belgium is this: A couple months after arriving here, my wife fainted. I took her to the emergency room. We had no insurance because you can’t get insurance until you have an ID card, which takes months and months. The university says it will backdate your insurance once you have an ID card, but I didn’t believe them. I was terrified that without insurance, we would get a bill comparable in size to what you pay in the US for using an emergency room: several hundred euros.

When the bill came, it was 18 euros total, without insurance.


Cranky Observer 07.06.06 at 7:18 am

> That explains also the absurdity of the
> way Belgians learn the two languages: kids
> in French speaking schools learn Flemish with
> French native speakers and kids in Flemish
> speaking schools learn French with Flemish
> native speakers

I noticed that a lot of safety-of-life signage in Belgium is in English, and my Flemish friend told me that was not an accident: it is the easiest way to make sure that everyone in mixed Flemish/Walloon areas can read those signs. Bizarre.



Isabel 07.06.06 at 7:28 am

I never had any problem anywhere in Belgium for not speaking Flemish, either, in spite of the fact that I don’t sound foreigner (certainly not to Flemish ears) and that I have a Belgian plate. When in Flanders I start my sentences tentatively in French and English to give them a chance to chose, and I don’t remember any instance where they didn’t pick French. On the other hand, I’ve heard Flemish people saying that they don’t have any problem answering in French anywhere in Belgium except in Brussels, where they do want to make a political point. And if you have your car towed away in Leuven, for example, you might have to wait for the boss in the police station to show it’s OK to communicate with you, poor dumb Flemish-challenged foreigner, in a language you understand: until then, the grunts following orders will probably refuse to understand French at all. Of course, IKEA is there to sell furniture, not to take a political stance.

On the other hand, it’s the only place where I overheard two people (actually, twice two people) chatting in a restaurant changing in midsentence from one latin language to a germanic one, back and forth. Yes, it’s a funny country.


SamChevre 07.06.06 at 7:36 am

I thought Belgium was very like non-Prussian Germany (that is, like the society Scott Martens and I grew up in).

Things can only be done if there is an applicable rule.

But no one has bothered to make rules for all situations (except the Prussians).

So some things “can’t be done”.

And the weird squabble between Flemings and Walloons, and the counter-productive responses, look VERY familiar to someone who grew up in the Plain world.


Barry 07.06.06 at 7:54 am

“Finally, I remember the incredulity expressed by Francophones on learning that a Canadian had managed to get himself served whilst speaking French in the nearest Ikea (where the staff were Flemings). Utterly bizarre.”

Posted by Chris Bertram

Somebody was commenting on this; I believe that they were from Canada. They said that the Flemish speakers were very accepting of non-Belgian/French French speakers. Apparently it wasn’t so much a matter of language per se as the politics.


Scott Martens 07.06.06 at 8:06 am

Actually, the Brussels Flemish school system consists primarily of francophone children whose parents want them to learn Dutch with Flemish kids. It’s gotten to the point that some of these schools don’t actually have any Flemish kids.

SamChevre, Belgium has a lot of quiet corruption that makes it possible to sidestep some rules. Not so much bribery but a system of personal relationships that enables you make sure that whatever reinterpretation of the rules you might be seeking gets some kind consideration rather than a flat “no”. Almost everything that isn’t really forbidden can be done, albeit not totally openly, or easily, or quickly.

Things in Belgium actually work. They don’t always, or even usually, work well. But they do work. Sick people get treated. Employers hire people. Commuters get to work. Goods and services reach their intended market. Homes are built and rented out. Business are registered. Bills and wages are paid. Taxes are collected. Belgium just sort of stumbles along. It has moderately corrupt institutions that prevent the truly stupid rules from actually being properly applied. Belgium also has institutions that prevent this corruption from getting too oppressive. In the end, most people are reasonably secure and reasonably affluent and reasonably content – or at least enough so to keep the system running so far. Sizable parts of the world – including large swaths of the US and the EU – have a hard time making comparable claims.


Isabel 07.06.06 at 8:23 am

“It’s gotten to the point that some of these schools don’t actually have any Flemish kids.”

Because the Flemish kids are in the francophone schools learning French? :-) Could very well be!

One thing is certain, in the past decades the children of Flemish upperclass families, whose mother tongue is still French, are sent to Flemish schools so that they learn proper Flemish, as opposed to their parents that went to francophone schools and learnt Flemish basically with the “help”. (Another thing that the Belgians haven’t forgotten yet is the number of Flemish speaking soldiers killed in WWI because they were unable to understand their French speaking officers)

That says a lot about the changing equilibrium of forces in the society.


Maria 07.06.06 at 8:53 am

Scott puts it beautifully. Anything that is not forbidden (and some things that are) is possible, but it depends on how you go about it, and especially on who you know. That’s the frustrating thing about being an expat here – you don’t have the dense social networks and know how required to route around the system. Belgium would collapse if Belgians had to follow all the rules, but expats have to just rub along with them.


garymar 07.06.06 at 9:01 am

Very interesting discussion, thanks for letting us listen in. My only experience in Belgium was going to the mall in Brussels. We were just changing planes at the airport and had some time to kill. I tried to order something at an early morning breakfast place — was it ‘gaufres’? — as was told that ‘we don’t use that word around here’ by the clerk.


marcel 07.06.06 at 9:10 am

Maria wrote (4):The library was also split, with the odd numbered books going to one university and the even ones to the other.

Many years ago, when my parents were in their early 60s, and my youngest sister was not yet in her 20s, my parents hired a friend, with a newly minted law degree to redo their will. She advised that we kids go through the house and claim items that we wanted, including the more than 5000 hardcover books, to avoid fights later on. One sister said absolutely not, and the younger one just burst into tears. For my sisters’ sake, I put a stop to it by assuring my parents that there would be no fights, we’d split everything evenly. For instance, each of us would take every third page of each book.

a(6) wrote: “…A solid, manly Dutch bike…” Better than a flimsy, womanly Walloon bike I guess…

In Belgium, the counterpart to a solid, manly Dutch bike is a flimsy, effete French bike!

Isabel (10): What is a Belgian plate?


Isabel 07.06.06 at 9:36 am

“Belgian plate”:

I meant to say “licence plate”, “plaque minéralogique” (French version of “plaque d’immatriculation”, that made go look the origin of that silly name, that according to Wikipedia is due to the fact that it was originally issued by the “Service des mines”), “matrícula”.

The point I wanted to make is that, in spite of the fact that I don’t have any distinctive signs of being non-Belgian, I never had any problem in Flanders for not speaking Flemish (as some posts suggested). Of course, that tolerance only applies to the general public, shopkeepers, etc, and not to administrations, for political reasons (as it has already been pointed). It is another demonstration, I think, that the “private” society in Belgium works more smoothly then the “public” one. Many Belgians attribute their streak of anarchism or statelessness to the fact that they were most of the time ruled by distant, foreign governments: that taught them to take their affairs in their own hands.

Bear with me and my English, because it must be way above 30 degrees celsius in my office, whatever that is in Farenheit…


Ajax 07.06.06 at 9:55 am

The Belgian language divide throws up some Flann O’Brien-type absurdities: I have colleagues at the Flemish-speaking Free University in Brussels (VUB) which is physically adjacent to the French-speaking Free University in Brussels. But they may as well be on opposite sides of the earth, for all the contact they have with one another.

The Flemish-speaking VUB has a collaboration agreement with a University in . . . France! Of course, the French University is in Lille, northern France, where there are apparently still French people who speak a version of Flemish. So, this foreign collaboration can in practice be conducted without anyone having to speak French.


Isabel 07.06.06 at 10:08 am

(16) Gauffres??? That surprises me. Stands that sell “Gauffres de Bruxelles” are fairly ubiquitous in …Brussels. Could it be any of the many different items that have a different name in Belgium and in France? I’m sure you didn’t try to order a “steak tartare” so early in the morning, but if you did, you should of course have ordered an “américan” (can ANYBODY explain the origin of this oxymoron?).


tzs 07.06.06 at 11:23 am

That comment about the books in the library reminds me of how Japan used to split up who was to handle technology on their rockets: one establishment got to handle the liquid hydrogen part, the other establishment got the liquid oxygen part….


franck 07.06.06 at 11:32 am


That doesn’t surprise me so much. As Belgium has become more democratic and politicized, the Flemish majority is going to start to reassert itself more and more. I’ve heard it said that the problem with Belgium is that the minority acts like a majority and the majority like a minority. If it weren’t for the French cultural colonization of Brussels, the country could easily have already split apart into two parts (or three if Eupen and Malmedy went back to Germany).

It seems to me that political power will continue to shift to the Flemish as long as their economy (and thus population) continue to outperform Wallonia.


aretino 07.06.06 at 11:39 am

There is also a first-rate network of bicycle lanes all over Belgium. From my experience, however, bicycling is primarily a Flemish inclination, so the Walloons make a point of parking in the bike lanes in their parts of the country.


Bro. Bartleby 07.06.06 at 1:03 pm

I must add that Belgiums are very good at ringing cowbells. Several years ago a tourist van passing through the Mojave Desert got lost and found themselves at the monastery, and with a language gap, they were having trouble communicating their plight, where upon one of the Belgium gents in what I believe was a yellow cycling outfit, producted a cowbell, and with that he sought to communicate his message, ringing the bell as Harpo Marx would honk his horn, and in the end we discovered they were out of gas and left most of their money behind in Las Vegas.


JP 07.06.06 at 1:05 pm

Great timing on this post, what with the Henin-Hardenne vs. Clijsters semifinal at Wimbledon today. I understand that the two don’t get along.


Tim McG 07.06.06 at 1:08 pm

So does Tom Boonen lose manly-Belgian-man cred for riding an effete, flimsy, French bicycle?


teppof 07.06.06 at 1:42 pm

“And then there’s the schizophrenic Belgian tendency to ignore people in distress in public places (ask any ex-pat whose been knocked off their bike, attacked, mugged, or just fallen over in the street) yet go on enormous public protests following murders.”

My father has been mugged in Brussels several times, each time with people around – apparently no one really reacted despite the fact that some were well aware of what was happening – very odd!


Bro. Bartleby 07.06.06 at 1:55 pm

27. Perhaps they didn’t react because they forgot to bring their cowbell.


Isabel 07.06.06 at 3:03 pm

Since this thread seems to be still alive, and Belgium is such a fascinating surreal country, I’ll add my two cents to comments (11) and (13):

Samchevre sees the Belgians as Germans sin hueso (an apt comparison), but I think he is ignoring their equally strong latin side, that shows in what Scott calls corruption and I would call nepotism (a very latin feature, of course). I guess that it is because they all are more or less “zinnekes” that I feel so comfortable here, Portuguese being also the less latins of the latins. (I do NOT feel comfortable with the Belgian bureaucracy, of course, but I have the same feelings about the Portuguese one, to say the least).


ingrid robeyns 07.06.06 at 3:58 pm

Oh, this is my favourite sport, complaining about Belgium — and about other countries too…
I lived 23 years in Belgium, 2 in Germany, 4 in England, 6 months in the US (NYC) and 4 in the Netherlands (where I seem to be stuck). So here’s my go at it:

Best things about Belgium: Health care system, child care system, primary and secondary education, people knowing their languages.
Worst things about Belgium: Vlaams Blok/Belang, widespread hypocrisy, too much hierarchy, tax evasion as a national sport, too many professors who are mediocre and have never left their university but still believe they are the best in Europe. General denial of what happened in the Congo. And too many Belgians who do not realise at what extreme high levels of material affluence they are living.

Best things about Germany: Die Zeit, Berlin.

Worst things about Germany: almost impossible for non-natives to write German without mistakes, not many people with a great sense of humor.

Best things about England: many friendly people, some of the best European universities, the BBC, Indian curries.

Worst thing about England: railway system, quality of housing, average cost of living, poverty- and inequality levels.

Best things about the Netherlands: extremely bicycle friendly (yes, even considerably better than Belgium!), less hierarchy in organisations, genuine equality for gays in large parts of society.

Worst things about the Netherlands: too many rude people, too many overconfident people, strong mother ideology.

Surely I forgot half of what I normally list when I play this sport…


marcel 07.06.06 at 9:48 pm

I lived in A’dam for several months in my teens, attending a Dutch school. Belge (pronounced as Belgche – recall the Dutch “G”) jokes played the same role as Polish jokes used to in the states. The one I remember (unfortunately, it’s both a visual and a sound-effect joke, not so good in this medium, but read it out loud):

Q: Why do Belgian cars have the windshield wipers on the inside?

A: Because the Belges all drive like this: (with tongue sticking out touching both lips, do a raspberry).


richard 07.07.06 at 4:26 am

The thing with living abroad is: It’s a “one-package-deal”. You cannot choose. You cannot say: This is good, but that is wrong. Back home this is better or that is worse. It doesn’t work like that.

Either take the whole package and live with it, or go somewhere else.

No arguments, no dealing & weeling, no discount, no upgrades.


John Emerson 07.07.06 at 6:12 am


Isabel 07.07.06 at 7:35 am

The best thing of living abroad: when you get pissed off, you can always say “I’ll leave this rotten place and go back home anytime I want!”. So… never go back home, you won’t have anywhere else to go!


Peter 07.07.06 at 9:37 am

I noticed that a lot of safety-of-life signage in Belgium is in English, and my Flemish friend told me that was not an accident: it is the easiest way to make sure that everyone in mixed Flemish/Walloon areas can read those signs.

Better that than the pictograms that are used for many warning signs in the United States. For instance, my lawn mower has a yellow and black warning sticker with a drawing of fingers being severed by a blade. The warning stickers on hot water heaters (“geysers” to the British) show the skin on a forearm turning red and blistered from the scalding water.


Uncle Kvetch 07.07.06 at 11:38 am

Belge (pronounced as Belgche – recall the Dutch “G”) jokes played the same role as Polish jokes used to in the states.

The same applies in France.


Richard (no relation) 07.08.06 at 9:50 pm

re: 32 above – I respectfully disagree. In my experience living abroad was only a “one-package-deal” for the first 4 years or so, until I managed to get my filters in place. I now live in a sympathetic little corner of my foreign land, where I indulge in some familiar comforts and avoid unfamiliar jolts, and have a circle of friends who are unlikely to remind me of majority opinions, all without hiding away in an expat enclave.

I used to feel twinges of guilt about all of this, that I wasn’t entering into the real spirit of travelling or sojourning or whatever, not being open to new influences, until I realised that it was exactly how the locals lived.

PS: it’s amazing how far a good supermarket can compensate for being uprooted from your cultural values.

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