Don’t be ashamed to admit it: like most expats moving to Belgium for the first time, you don’t know a lick about the country – apart from rumours about its good chocolate and beer.
Yet Belgium is so much more than beer and chocolate. Therefore, before your arrival, take a second and learn some of The Bulletin’s essentials about this unique country – for better or worse.
- 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 (in front 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 – is smack dab in between France, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg. While this proved not the most strategic position during wartimes, Belgium’s location today puts you just a stone’s throw from some major European cities, including London (320km), Paris (265km), Amsterdam (173km) and Luxembourg (187km). This means your options for a weekend city trip are virtually endless.
- Language: Do you speak…Belgish?
Even better than one Belgish language, Belgium has three official languages: French, German and Dutch. Although you might not realise if you live in Brussels, Dutch is the country’s majority language, with 57% speaking it (42% speak French, and less than 1% speak German).
“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 called Flanders as well as in parts of Brussels. Some (even the locals) say that these people speak “Flemish”, but what they mean is that they speak a dialect of the Dutch language (often called Belgian Dutch) having its own expressions and grammar constructions (think of the differences between British and American English). Therefore, someone speaking Belgian Dutch could communicate with somone speaking Hollandic (from the Netherlands) Dutch, once both sides adjust their dialects to a more standard Dutch. As for the term “Flemish”, it is an adjective meaning “from Flanders” and refers to the people, and not to the language.
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 Belgian commuters who cannot give directions, answer questions 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).
- Belgium: It’s complicated
As the preceeding paragraph partially revealed, Belgium is quite complicated for such a small country. As 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.
To quickly summarise:
Belgium is divided up primarily between Flemings (Dutch-speaking people in the north) and Walloons (French-speaking people of the south). The two communities lead pretty parallel lives; besides a common royal family, national football team, foreign office, justice system and army, no national institution – not a single political party, TV station or university – serves them both.
This byzantine-like structure makes running Belgium even more complex: there is one federal government, three regional ones (because bilingual Brussels also counts as a region) and another three on top of those – one for each language group (French, Dutch and, just to make matters more interesting, a small German-speaking community in the east). Thankfully, the Flemish regional government and the Dutch-language community government are one and the same, so the lucky Belgians are today ruled by a mere six different administrations.
One would think living within this intricate governmental system would spell out chaos and immanent collapse, but the reality is far from that: Belgians live for the most part in harmony in spite of these politically charged linguistic differences. Yes, there is the occasional political crisis or heated cross-cultural debate, but Belgians know that these small crises always blow over, so they go on living their lives as usual. They are even willing to poke fun at their country’s linguistic intricacies, like with this video. As for the Belgian administration, it holds things together quite efficiently.
- Taxes: Take a deep breath
Belgium, with a marginal tax rate that goes as high as 54%, ranks number one among OECD countries for 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.
- Weather: Not too hot, not too cold, with quite a few drops of rain
It tops conversation at the morning coffee table, simply because you never know what weather Belgium is going to throw at you on a particular day. Meteorologists class Belgium’s climate as ‘temperate maritime’, meaning it has warm-ish (July-August average temperature is around 17°C/62.6°F), accompanied with mild winters (averages near 4°C/39.2°F in December-February). Then there’s a little snow – and quite a bit of rain the whole year round.
Still, 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. To deal with this the Belgian way, wear layers that prepare you for all temperatures: having a sweater ready all year round is not a bad idea. Also, carry an umbrella and rain-resistant shoes for the surprise pelting of rain. Finally, on those days where the rain just doesn’t let up, dive into the warmth of one of Belgium’s many cafes and enjoy a coffee. You’ll be joining the hundreds of Belgian locals who do the same, therefore discovering why Belgium is the world’s sixth largest importer of coffee (spending €878,087.95 in coffee imports a year).
- Traffic: It’s going to be a long ride.
You thought you had it bad sitting in morning traffic in your home country, but the numbers don’t lie: Brussels is the absolute champion when it comes to traffic. Drivers spend more time – an average of 83.2 hours per year to be precise – stuck in traffic jams in and around the country’s capital Brussels than anywhere else in the world. Belgium’s second-largest city, Antwerp, follows closely behind with 77.5 hours per year. The whole of Belgium also tops the traffic charts, with a driver spending on average 58.1 hours in traffic each year.
You may be thinking, “With all that fantastic public transport, why is everyone taking their car just so they can sit in traffic?” So comes another interesting thing about Belgium: the company car. According to reports, there are about 786,000 company cars riding around in Belgium, or one in five. The highest in Europe, Belgium has its tax system (see above) to thank for its overflowing number of company vehicles: it is more tax advantageous for companies to hand out cars than higher salaries.
Speaking of odd Belgian traffic traditions, the country’s highway system is also world-renowned; from the moon to be precise. Due to an apparent surplus of nuclear-powered electricity during off-peak hours, most highways in Belgium are illuminated at night. There are has so many lights that it is known to be the only man-made structure visible from the moon!
- Food and drink: No, you won’t get fat (if you eat and drink like a Belgian)
You’ve probably heard that Belgium is a land of beer (800 kinds to be precise) and chocolate (producing 220,000 tonnes of chocolate a year). Throw Belgian waffles and fries into the mix, and you immediately start thinking; “How am I NOT going to gain 10kg in the first month?” The simple answer: do like the Belgians do.
Sure, Belgians are the largest producers of chocolate, but that doesn’t mean they are its largest consumers: the world’s biggest chocolate selling point is actually Brussels National Airport. The same goes for beer. According to the latest figures released by the Union of Belgian Brewers, beer consumption in Belgium has declined by about a third in the past 20 years, the average Belgian drinking 74l of beer per year.
Instead, the typical Belgian eats three meals a day: a light breakfast (consisting of a Boterham/Tartineor Koffiekoek); light or medium-sized lunch (often a soup or belegd broodje/casse-croûte); and larger dinner (often involving seafood, meat, vegetables and potatoes). While Belgians do occasionally indulge in their country’s specialities, they stay active enough in between mealtimes in order to actually weigh less than most European citizens.