Belgium has been my home since August 2010. Moving here from the United States was more of a transition than I initially suspected. There were things I found refreshingly different and some that were just plain frustrating. All in all, the standard of life in Belgium is very high, the social policy benefits natives and expats alike, and the country offers countless opportunities for exploration, both inside and around its borders.
Here is what an expat who speaks none of the country’s three official languages goes through to survive in this small but surprisingly diverse country each day.
7 – 8 a.m.
Rise and shine, or snooze alarm 6 times, then drag myself out of bed. After a shower and a quick breakfast consisting of muesli and a home-brewed espresso cup, I am off to work.
8 – approximately 9 a.m.
Off to work might sound like an ambitious start of the day, but that is not the case on a Monday, Tuesday or Thursday, when most Belgians spend disproportionately large amount of times stuck in traffic. Astonishing, considering the miniscule size of the country and the high quality of their roads. Still, armed with an iPod hooked up to the car speakers and a GPS warning of unfavorable traffic conditions and treacherous speed cameras ahead, I sit through traffic while eyeing nearby drivers occasionally to make time go by faster. Most of the time, I make it through traffic and to my job in Brussels in less than an hour (best case scenario).
9 – 9:30 a.m.
After multiple maneuvers, I typically manage to parallel park my too-big-for-European-standards vehicle in the tiny company parking lot. Since most people don’t get to the office until 9:30 or sometimes later, the first half hour is usually spent getting more espresso and catching up on recent world or personal events with other early office birds in the cafeteria. Just like in the States, although the coffee is stronger here and the working hours are shifted forward by an hour or two.
9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
The first half of the day is used for getting some hard work done at my desk, while trying to block all the noise in the room. I have the privilege of working with four Belgians, who speak an average of 4 languages each while going about their business in trilingual Belgium. While it is humbling to work in such a multi-lingual environment and it pushes me to work harder on my Flemish and French, it is also exhausting to listen to conversations conducted in French, Flemish, German, Spanish, Italian, or English, all in a matter of an hour and sometimes occurring simultaneously. Most of the time I try to block out the languages, with which I am not even remotely familiar, but I find that my brain subconsciously tries to sort the chatter out, making it difficult to focus.
12:30 – 1 p.m.
Lunch time at the office. Work provides the food (salads or sandwiches), which discourages people from leaving the office and boosts productivity, as most of us eat and get back to our desks shortly after. A win-win situation, as a typical lunch would not cost less than 5 euro. This model also aids the waistline, as the pre-defined European-sized portions make it impossible to overeat.
1 – 6 p.m.
With the help of yet another cup of Joe, I make it through the après-lunch drowsiness and finish the day off. Depending on traffic conditions, I may or may leave the office early, around 5:30. The problem is that everyone who lives outside of Brussels does the same and it results in massive congestion, which begins as soon as you merge onto the highway. It is therefore advisable to leave the Brussels area a bit later (after 6:30 p.m.), once traffic has cleared up a bit.
6 – 8 p.m.
If I happen to be staying in Brussels late, I like to try a new restaurant once in a while and I usually choose something ethnic. As Belgium’s population is becoming ever more diverse, you can find plenty of sit-down restaurants featuring close-to-authentic Thai, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Spanish and other world fare, in addition to the local fast-food staple, frituur(Flemish)/friture (French), or fresh potato fries dipped in mayonnaise, ketchup or another savory sauce. The latter are best enjoyed with one of the hundreds of Belgian beer varieties the country is well known for.
8 p.m. – end of day
Evenings are typically reserved for grocery shopping, Flemish or French lessons with Rosetta Stone, book reading, or catching a movie at the local cinema. Fortunately for me, movies in Belgium are subtitled in Flemish and French, and I can enjoy the Hollywood titles that make their way here in English, though I occasionally aid my language learning by peaking at the subtitles.
What about the weekends?
Just like in any other country, weekends in Belgium are much more enjoyable than week days, and for me they involve much less time wasted in traffic, a visit to a nearby town, abbey or castle, some type of outdoor exercise or activity, and indulgence in one of the three Belgian staples: chocolate, beer, and Belgian-style fries.
It should be noted that cycling is not only Belgium’s national sport but also its pastime. You will see many cyclists out on the roads and bike paths all year round, and when they are not doing it, they are usually watching in on TV. I have been cycling a fair amount since moving here but I am more partial to running. Although there aren’t as many routes dedicated purely to running as there are bike paths, running on cyclist routes is perfectly feasible, as long as you pack rain gear. Yes, Belgium is in close proximity to the UK and the climate is quite comparable to its Northern counterpart’s.
Next time you are in the neighborhood, pay Belgium a visit. Brussels, Gent, Antwerp, and Bruges are most definitely worth a visit and will surprise you with their architectural grandeur, museum options, superb cuisine and quaint shopping streets. The country of chocolate and beer is also only a couple of hours by train or car from the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, and France, making it a convenient stop in any Western European adventure.
Tot ziens, à bientôt!