Culture shock in Belgium was not something I expected
I’ve been living in Belgium now for a few months less than a year, so maybe it’s time to summarize the unexpected things that are waiting for you when you come here, but what you might not expect. I also have to say that my experience is largely based on the city of Liége and, as in the case of anywhere in the world, every city and country has its ups and downs.
OH LORD, TRANSPORT!
It is absolutely unbelievable how much any transport company and association can strike. And they are only forced to announce it 24 hours in advance, so if you are not following the news, you may find yourself waiting for a train or bus that will not come.
Delayed public transport
At the same time, you should not expect extreme accuracy from buses and trains on the move neither. When I have a photoshoot, I always leave home at least 45mins before just in case, because I can never know when the bus will actually show up. I have only been late once due to the train which left 15min later and was still in the tunnel for more than 10 minutes because of the constant changes in train traffic that probably messes up the schedule for rails.
Passenger sharing platforms are not allowed in Liége, so taxis can only be booked by calling or from the taxi parks. This means, however, that there is virtually no competition and prices are seriously high. Some time ago, I happened to read an article that ranked the world’s most expensive countries by taxi, with Belgium ranked fifth. For example, looking at my last ride with Bolt in April in Tallinn 10km, 12min and left me with a bill of 6.70 €, at the same time here i pay 15-18 € for 6km.
I will also add some observations on traffic:
The streets are insanely narrow and there is simply a massive shortage of parking spaces. This means that if someone brilliant parks on both of sidewalks, no one will get through it, because most of the time two-way roads are only passable by one car at a time. So, be ready to reverse to the front of a garage door or to a vacant parking space to let the car in the opposite direction pass.
The eternal right-hand rule, which otherwise is nothing new, but as Belgium has very few main roads, which means that you are constantly stopping in the city to not drive in front of anyone coming from the right.
However, all motorways in Belgium are fully lit at night. Apparently, this is where the Belgium 25-50% taxes go.
THREE REASONS FOR VISITING BELGIUM: FRIES, WAFFLES AND BEER
If otherwise Belgian food culture is a mix of French and Dutch/German specialties, there are three things Belgians can do better than anyone else.
When you come here, you have to get used to the idea that fries are a meal and definitely not junk food. It is quite common to order fries (!) with meatballs as take-away for your children at home. I know you’re probably used to grabbing a burger or pizza after a party, but here is the only way to take a decent cone of fries with plenty of sauce. And the best part is that you have in your choice not only ketchup and mayonnaise, but without exaggeration, every self-respecting establishment offers at least 10 sauces (mainly) based on mayonnaise. My favorites are Andalusian, Samurai and Brazilian, and since they are not holding back with their dosing, I recommend asking for half of one and half of another sauce.
Another world-class tourist magnet in the food world is their waffles. I don’t have such a sweettooth, but Liége-style cinnamon waffles get me every time, and I have to rationally remind myself that I don’t really need them every time I feel this mouthwatering vanilla-caramel smell in my nose. Last time I visited my best friend in London, I also turned their faith, though she was initially skeptical. But there are different kind of waffles – the Liége waffles is small with rounded edges, thicker and contains small pieces of sugar, while the Brussels waffle is larger and rectangular, lighter and sprinkled with icing sugar ( on the photo below Liége waffle on the left and Brussels one on the right).
Although the selection of Estonian handcrafted beers has been expanding every year, holy cow, Belgian beer bars and the selection therein. It is estimated that there are over 1000 different types of beer in Belgium, so you could try one each day for three years without having to repeat. When visiting Liége, I suggest you to go to Beerlovers and ask for their recommendation based on your preferences. They just have a frenetic selection and my suggestion is to try the De Leite Cuvée Mam’zelle, which is reasonably sour, strong but with the same time on your tongue as soft as velvet and a bit reminiscent of wine. Talking about another interesting thing for me, is that each beer has its own glass. I am not thinking here that their logo is only stuck on a glass, but there are different shapes and you can find a cupboard with different glasses in many Belgians’ homes to serve beer in a one designed just for it. The strangest of these are the horns and the shapes known from chemistry in wooden holders. And btw, just as you choose the right wine for your dinner, you choose the right beer to compliment your food.
And fourthly, you can add Belgian chocolate, which is definitely better than Swiss chocolate, if you you have the courage to ask from the locals. Personally, I will not debate as once in a quarter you find me buying dark chocolate with sea salt, which indeed is really good. At the same time, I have a couple of chocolate bars always waiting for me in Estonia, since I am not a big buyer of souvenirs, it is good to have something in case of need.
Shops are closed unrealistically early (6-8 pm) and on Sunday they are closed all-together, which means that on Saturday all places are flooded with crowds, because after work nobody has time to go buy new shoes, a microwave oven or perfume.
The milk is not stored in the refrigerators but on the shelves and needs to be put into one only once it is open.
The houses in Belgium are attached to each other, narrow and tall with a small backyard. Most of the houses are three-story + basement, and since I don’t wear shoes at home, socks mean that my main goal every day is to walk down stairs without falling down my bottom first. And unless you are at someone’s place who is very close to you, it is better not to take off your shoes, even when it is rainy and muddy outside. So probably most people at first thought I felt very at home in their place.
Compared to Estonia, Belgium is overcrowded and you feel like you have someone around all the time. The population density is 374 inhabitants / km2 in Belgium and 28 inhabitants / km2 in Estonia. There are 11.4 million people living here and it’s one third smaller than Estonia, which means that if you are hiking in Estonia and you are disappointed if you cannot enjoy your alone time because another family is there at the same time as you are in a bog, but in here walking in the nature means it’s like a big class excursion and not a time for yourself.
As a local walking on the street, you know that it is not wise to admire the clouds and people passing, but you should always watch the pavement with one eye, unless you just want to step into the dog poop every twenty meters. It is just anywhere and in any size and consistency.
I must say that compared to what I am used to, the streets are dirtier and garbage is everywhere. And not just on Saturday-Sunday mornings, when the night-time festivities have done their part but on a daily basis. And speaking of garbage, they generally don’t have garbage bins to collect trash, but everyone puts their garbage bags at the door once a week on a given day, where they pick up the garbage truck. This means, however, that if this bag breaks down during the night for any reason, its contents will be scattered across the street with the help of wind, wandering animals, or whatever else.
Belgium is one of the cheapest places to fly to the rest of Europe thanks to Charleroi Airport and Ryanair. From September to April, I usually fly to Charleroi-Riga for an average of ~20 € one way. To Israel I bought one way tickets through Ryanair for 15€ / person + baggage + seat (~95 € for round trip for two people). So, when our friends say that tickets to Spain are super expensive, that means they pay more than € 100 per person for a roundtrip.
In this mammoth post, I will not even begin to unravel the bureaucratic and cultural-linguistic differences between northern Flanders and southern Wallonia and how it affects daily life and attitudes. If anyone is interested, feel free to let me know and we can either discuss it with one another or I can write about it in the future.