Life in Belgium

I moved from The Netherlands to the Flemish part of Belgium last September in order to do my masters abroad. Many people question the ‘abroad’ part of that reasoning: however, yes, we have a language in common and yes, we both like *Flemish* fries; no, there are definitely differences between the two countries.

  • A grand majority of Belgian students go home every weekend to their parents and friends back home, accompanied by trolleys filled with laundry. The consequence: the otherwise vibrant night life of student city Leuven is mostly inhabited by international students and 17-year-olds during the weekend. The other consequence: as a general rule, there are no laundromats in student accommodation. And the worst part of it all: as laundromats charge 4 euros for a single load of laundry and the nearest one is about 500 metres away, I have now, to my own absolute horror, become part of the we-take-laundry-home collective on my occasional visits home.
  • Belgians never fail to refer to Dutch people as “Hollanders”, sometimes followed by a sneer or a sarcastic smirk. On the other hand, the Belgians I’ve interacted with have often adopted the use of “Nederlanders”, without a sneer or a sarcastic smirk, after my slight emphasis on the denomination. Holland =/= The Netherlands, do not generalise, thank you very much.
  • Belgian beer is (usually) better than Dutch beer, yes. But Stella is the absolute exception. Bleh, Stella. In fact, I still prefer Hertog Jan over any form of Belgian pilsner, even though Jupiler kickstarted my ability to drink pilsner. And they also sell La Trappe here, so they are appreciative of quality, even if it is “Hollands”.
  • The Flemish have fought long and hard to make Leuven as a Dutch-speaking student city in the ’60s, as the residents were mainly Dutch-speaking and lectures at that time were in French. As a result, lots of Flemish nationalist songs have entered the student codex and are sung at cantus. This does not necessarily mean those students are all Flemish nationalists, but they just like to honour history (or some other similar excuse). By the way: never do cantus with Stella. It has horrible consequences. Maes is a much better alternative. Since the rechristening of Leuven as a predominantly Dutch-speaking student city and the KU Leuven as a predominantly Dutch-speaking university, Wallonians have responded by founding a French-speaking equivalent of the Catholic University of Leuven in the inspiringly named Louvain-la-Neuve.
  • There is a constant stream of jokes about those Belgians coming from either West Flanders (“where the ‘g’ is a ‘h'”, ‘Bruhhe’) or Limburg, far more than the Dutch joke about the Limburgers (I guess the Limburgers are thrown upon the heap of ‘zachte g-mensen’ together with Brabanders and Belgians, and jokes about the latter are far more common).
  • Antwerp is the Belgian version of Amsterdam, with its view of ‘Antwerp is ‘t Stad and the rest is parking’ compared to ‘Amsterdam is the centre of the world and the rest is province’. It also is the Belgian version of Rotterdam at the same time with its harbour life (and according to sources, the local mob).
  • You can expect to be in a traffic jam anywhere from 16.00 until 19.30/20.00. Traffic jams are the worst near Brussels and Antwerp, because that is where most people live and commute. Lots of people commute since they remain put in their hometowns after they return from university. Trains are not seen as a veritable alternative as their running times can be a bit volatile at times and companies often provide lease cars to their employees. Biking to work is often not an option in the hazardous traffic that exists in the bigger cities.

Belgium has been good to me, but sometimes I miss the endless Dutch ‘geouwehoer’ en de ‘goede oude gezelligheid’ – and good bitterballen with mustard. Seriously, mustard is essential.

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