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Seven things you should know before moving to Belgium
Don’t be ashamed to admit it: Like many expats moving to Belgium, you don’t know much about the country – apart from rumours about the chocolate and the beer.
Belgium is complex in ways you cannot even begin to imagine. Therefore, before your arrival, take a few minutes to peruse some of The Bulletin’s essentials. It really is a unique country – for better or worse.
1 Geography: Where is Belgium exactly?
Covering a total area of 30,528 square kilometres, Belgium is small: in fact, it’s the fifth smallest country in the EU (ahead of Malta, Luxembourg, Cyprus and Slovenia). This may explain why people abroad mistake Belgium for a city in France, but suggesting the same here will get you a cornet of pommes frites in the face.
Belgium – very much a country – has a shoreline along the North Sea and for the rest is huddled among France, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg. While this proved not the most strategic position during wartime, Belgium’s location today puts you just a stone’s throw from some major European cities, including London (320km), Paris (265km) and Amsterdam (173km). This means your options for weekend city trips are enviable.
2 Language: Do you speak…Belgian?
Even better than one non-existent Belgian language, Belgium has three official real languages: French, Dutch and German. Although you might not realise it if you live in Brussels, Dutch is the country’s majority language.
“Dutch? I thought that was the language they spoke in the Netherlands.”
Correct, but it is also spoken in Belgium by Flemings – people from Belgium’s northern region, which is called Flanders. Some (even the locals) say that these people speak “Flemish”, but what they mean is that they speak a form of the Dutch language (often called Belgian Dutch) that differs somewhat from the Netherlands’ Dutch, having its own expressions and pronunciations (think of the differences between British and American English).
As for the term “Flemish”, it is properly used as an adjective meaning “from Flanders” and refers to the people and the culture, not to the language.
French, meanwhile, is spoken by Walloons in Belgium’s southern region, Wallonia. Although exact figures are hard to come by, with some Dutch speakers living in Wallonia and some French speakers living in Flanders, some 57% of Belgium’s 11.3 million population live in Flanders. That is why Dutch is considered the majority language.
The rest of the population speaks French, except for a little pocket of German speakers in an area bordering Germany called the East Cantons, or East Belgium.
To sum up: People living in the northern half of Belgium (Flanders) speak Dutch, and people living in the southern half (Wallonia) speak French. Brussels is officially bilingual, though French is the majority spoken language.
But wait... there’s more
Now you are ready for the advanced section: The Brussels periphery. Many French speakers and expats who work in Brussels live just outside of the capital-region’s borders. Because Brussels is geographically located fully within the province of Flemish Brabant, that means that those people live in Flanders.
As previously mentioned, Dutch is spoken in Flanders, but that’s not just about the habit: It’s the law. All administrative and governmental communications must be delivered in Dutch. That includes everything from campaign literature to your mobile phone bill. The same holds true for French in Wallonia.
EXCEPT: There are six cities in the periphery that are called ‘facility municipalities’. That means that residents can request official communications in French. (Not English, don’t even go there.)
Next to the six ‘facility municipalities’ are an additional 13 cities that make up what is referred to as the Brussels periphery. But those cities do not have language facilities; everything is in Dutch.
The ‘Frenchification’ of this area in general has created endless debate among French and Dutch speakers and the Brussels and Flemish governments. A clue to the politicisation of the periphery can be seen in the names given to it: It is the ‘Brussels periphery’ to French speakers and the ‘Flemish periphery’ to Dutch speakers.
Before you break out your old language books in a worried frenzy, rest assured that, as the capital of Europe, Brussels houses many Europeans and other internationals who speak English as a common language. In fact, it’s rare to find waiters, shop owners or strangers on the street who cannot give directions or offer helpful information in English.
Still, when moving to Belgium, you will discover that language, culture and politics are tightly sewn together. Therefore, having a good basic understanding of who speaks what is a key building block to understanding how the country functions (not to mention sparing you the lecture from a local on the matter).
3 Politics: It’s complicated
As the preceding paragraph partially revealed, Belgium has a quite complicated governmental system for such a small country. As once speculated in The Guardian, one could imagine the country’s famous painter René Magritte having said: Ceci n’est pas une nation. And he wouldn’t have been far off.
Belgium is divided up geographically and politically along its language borders. Flanders and Wallonia: The two regions live in different, if parallel, universes. There is a common royal family, national football team, army, justice system and a few federal institutions. But not a single political party, TV station or university serves them both.
So: There is a federal government, three regional governments (because Brussels also counts as a region) and three “community” governments - one for each language group (French, Dutch and German).
A number of years ago, the Flemish regional government merged with the Dutch-language community government and became one and the same. So the lucky Belgians are today ruled by a mere six administrations rather than seven. For 11.3 million people.
Brussels, or to call it by its full name, the Brussels-Capital Region, is made up of 19 municipalities. Called communes in French, they each have their own mayor, their own town halls and their own city councils. So where you go to handle administration depends on where you live.
Don’t necessarily expect that your administrative centre will handle things in the same way as another municipality does. And don’t necessarily expect English to be spoken. It all depends on who’s behind the counter. The good news is that in Brussels, you can choose French or Dutch for official communications. That’s the law.
And yet it works ... mostly
One would think living within this intricate governmental system would spell out constant chaos, but the reality is much less dramatic. Belgians live for the most part in harmony in spite of these politically charged linguistic and governmental differences.
There is the occasional political crisis or heated cross-cultural debate, including that one time when Belgium made international headlines by going 541 days without a federal government. It was a world record, go Belgium!
But all those governmental levels kicked in to keep Belgium from collapsing. In fact, most Belgians didn’t notice the difference between the ‘caretaker’ federal government and the one that finally formed.
Belgians are also pretty happy to poke fun at their country’s linguistic and governmental intricacies, like with this video.
4 Taxes: Take a deep breath
All those governments cost money, right? Belgium, with a marginal tax rate that goes as high as 54%, ranks number one among OECD countries for the highest tax rates. It charges a social security rate of 13% for employees and 35% for employers, municipal taxes of up to 11% and capital gains tax of up to 33%.
The country has the highest tax and social security burden in the world; single taxpayers take home less than 45% of their actual income, while those in the higher income brackets take home less than 40%.
There is a brighter side to Belgium’s tax system, however: Thanks to an outstanding social security system, the country ranks among the highest in the world in measures of wellbeing, says the OECD’s Better Life Index.
5 Weather: Not too hot, not too cold
It tops conversation at the morning breakfast table, simply because you never know what weather Belgium is going to throw at you on any particular day. Meteorologists class Belgium’s climate as ‘temperate maritime’, meaning it has both mild summers (July average temperature is 18.5°C / 65°F) and mild winters (January averages near 3°C / 37°F).
The Ardennes in the south of the country is the only place where you’re guaranteed to see snow every year - sometimes as early as November and as late as March. Though rain - that you’ll see plenty of whatever the season.
While many Belgian souvenirs coin the phrase “It’s always rainy in Belgium”, the better motto would be “Belgium has four seasons in one day”. One can have a warm sunny morning, an afternoon shower and conclude with a brisk foggy evening.
This is why Belgium’s Meteorological Institute tends towards generalities. “It will not rain in the morning, but it will rain later.” How much later is anyone’s guess.
The key word to surviving this is: layers. Belgians whip off their jackets or throw on their sweaters with casual regularity. Remember what your mum told you: Always, always take a cardigan with you. Also, carry an umbrella.
Belgians, however, are a hardy lot. A little rain won’t stop them going jogging or cycling to work or taking a tramp out into the countryside. And they are very big on popping into any local café (pub) if the going gets too rough.
6 Traffic: It’s going to be a long ride
Next to the weather, your new colleagues and neighbours will be talking about one thing: traffic. Brussels is one of the most congested cities in the world. The average Brussels driver spends more than 41 hours a year in morning and evening commutes. Belgium’s second-largest city, Antwerp, isn’t far behind. Belgium as a whole is the 27th most congested country in the world.
And yet, Belgium has an extensive public transport system. Aside from train lines pulling into Brussels from the other regions with great regularity, the capital’s own public transport system operates busses, trams and a metro system that snakes across - and even outside - the region.
Which leads us to another interesting thing about Belgium: the company car. There are about 650,000 company cars riding around in Belgium, or one in five of all autos. Belgium has its tax system to thank for its overflowing number of company vehicles: It is more tax advantageous for companies to hand out cars than higher salaries.
7 Food and drink: No, you won’t get fat if you live like a Belgian
You’ve probably heard that Belgium is the land of beer (several hundred and counting) and chocolate (producing 173,000 tons a year). Throw Belgian waffles and fries into the mix, and you immediately start thinking; “How am I NOT going to gain five kilos in the first month?”
The simple answer: Do like the Belgians do. Sure, Belgium is one of the biggest producers of chocolate in the world, but that doesn’t mean it's among the biggest consumers. The world’s leading selling point for chocolate is actually Brussels Airport, so a lot of that sweet stuff is going home with travellers.
The same goes for beer. While beer consumption in Belgium is still certainly strong - the average Belgian drinks 74 litres a year, putting it in 22nd place in the world - sales have in fact declined drastically over the last two decades. Exports, however, are up.
Real Belgians eat real food
The key is moderation. Belgians might have a beer or a glass of wine every night, but the portions on the plate are quite modest. And simple: Although the amount of processed food in the supermarkets is growing, Belgians have come to that fat- and salt-laden game rather late, putting a great emphasis on cooking at home.
Belgians also are great fans of sport. One of the first question you will be asked upon meeting a Belgian is not if you take part in a sport but which one. An easy answer: cycling. It’s one of their favourite pastimes and also the way a great many of them get to work or to school.
Belgians do of course occasionally indulge in their country’s specialities, but their day-to-day lifestyles means they weigh less than most European citizens.
Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Flickr/cocaobug & Roger Price