After 28 years I think I’ve finally fallen in love with Belgium.
These are not easy words to write because Belgium is not an easy country to love. It doesn’t have majestic mountains, stunning shorelines or wooded wildernesses. The weather is lousy, the bureaucracy is bloated, the service culture is spotty and tax rates are stratospheric.
They are also not fashionable words to write. Cool people love Bali, not Belgium.
And they are not obvious words to write, because for 25 of the 28 years I’ve lived in Belgium I wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.
Incapable of leaving for a host of personal and professional reasons, I turned moaning about my adopted home into an art form. I complained about the lunatic drivers, maddening road rules, pot-holed streets, archaic schools, Sunday shop closures, paying to pee in cafes and even the lack of decent Indian restaurants.
In knocking Belgium, I followed in a long tradition of exiles and expats who have whined about the place while benefiting from its largesse. Karl Marx, who wrote “The Communist Manifesto” in Brussels, dismissed the newly minted kingdom as a paradise for capitalists. And Charles Baudelaire dissed Belgium as being “without life, but not without corruption.”
Even Belgians have a hard time loving their country. King Leopold II slammed the “petit pays, petit ésprit” of the land he lorded over. Jacques Brel sang of a “sky so gray that a canal hanged itself.” And 180 years after Belgium’s creation, a large chunk of the Flemish electorate would prefer if it disappeared from the map.
In retrospect, my love for Belgium didn’t happen overnight. I’ve always liked Antwerp, the Ardennes, comic strips, thick-cut fries and strong ales. I slowly began to support the Belgian Red Devils in football almost as passionately as I support the Welsh red dragons in rugby. And I started to do very Belgian things like dipping cheese cubes in celery salt and changing my car every four years to please the accountant. But until a few years ago I still spent more time grumbling about Belgium than singing its praises.
So what turned me from being a Belgium basher into a Belgium believer?
Brexit played a large part, prompting me to finally apply for Belgian citizenship. The reason for doing so was rational — keeping my rights as an EU citizen. But the effect was emotional. Having the right to vote in regional and national elections gave me a stake in the country. And when my Belgian passport arrived, I felt pride in my new nationality for the first time.
Lockdown also spurred me to get to know Belgium better. Before it, the only time I left Brussels was to leave the country. I knew the Eurostar terminal intimately but was largely ignorant of the rest of the land.
With the borders shut, I set out to discover Belgium and found a country of breathtaking natural beauty, cities full of cozy charm, and courteous people with a surreal sense of humor.
As a result, 28 years after I arrived in Brussels for a five-month internship, I have finally fallen in love with the country I spent so long moaning about. If you live in Belgium and are wondering how to do the same, here are six tips.
1. Explore more
If you’re bored of Belgium you need to get out more. Not just to obvious tourist traps like Bruges, but to lesser-known places like underrated Tournai, lovely Lier, breathtaking Bouillon or quirky Redu — which has 16 bookshops for a town of 500 people. If you’re into kayaking, head to the meandering Semois River for a paddle. If you like hiking, try the heather-clad dunes of Kalmtoutse Heide straddling the Dutch border or the deer-packed forests of St. Hubert in the Ardennes. And if you like cycling, pedal along the tree-lined canals around Damme, the rolling hills of the Pajottenland southwest of Brussels or through apple orchards in Limburg.
2. Accept Belgium for what it is, not what you want it to be
It’s true that the Ardennes are not the Alps and that Blankenberge is not Brazil. But did you honestly expect them to be? If so, maybe you should have checked a guidebook before coming.
Likewise, complaining about the weather in Belgium is as pointless as complaining about too much sand in the Sahara. Instead of griping about something you can’t change, buy a decent raincoat and go for a walk in the Fôret de Soignes, one of Europe’s largest beech forests. Visit the Kazerne Dossin Holocaust memorial in Mechelen. Or watch a silent film with live piano accompaniment in Brussels’ Cinematek.
And when it comes to food, instead of fixating on the fact that the baguettes are better in Bordeaux, why not revel in the simple, guilty pleasures Belgium does better than almost anywhere in the world? Like a cone of frites washed down with a cool Leffe beer in a friendly bar. Or shrimp croquettes followed by mussels in an unpretentious brasserie.
3. Get to know the locals
Many expats complain about Belgians without actually knowing any. They accuse the natives of being standoffish as they address them in a foreign language. And they lament the sloppy service without appreciating the refreshing honesty of a sales clerk who tells you to buy a dishwasher in a rival store because it’s cheaper.
Get to know Belgians and you’ll find they have a mordant sense of humor, a healthy disrespect for authority and a Bacchanalian taste for the good things in life. They are also masters at cobbling together solutions to intractable problems — whether fixing subway signs with duct tape or keeping the country glued together with crafty compromises. No wonder two of the three presidents of the European Council have been Belgian.
4. Get involved
It doesn’t matter if you coach rugby, march for migrants’ rights, organize neighborhood barbecues or do sumo wrestling voiceovers for Flemish TV — all things I’ve done over the years. The important thing is to participate in the community you are part of, rather than grouse from the sidelines.
Send your kids to local schools, if you can. Pay your taxes, if you have to. And learn French or Dutch, if you don’t. At the very least vote in local and European elections — which most residents have the right to do but few bother.
5. Keep calm and love Belgium
Part of the reason many expats dislike Belgium is that Northern Europeans think it’s too Southern and Southern Europeans think it’s too Northern.
As an uptight Brit, I still rail against the fact that speed limits are flouted, drunk driving is tolerated and tax evasion is as much a national sport as football. But recently I’ve learned to keep calm and love Belgium. I’m no longer freaked out by live electric wires dangling from subway stations. And like most of my compatriots, it didn’t bother me when the country recently went 589 days without an elected government or that its COVID vaccine rollout was slow to start (it has now jabbed more of its people than almost anywhere). Living in Belgium has taught me not to hyperventilate, indulge in melodrama or live in a constant state of outrage like some neighbors.
6. Don’t believe the gripe
Once you’ve written a place off, as I did with Belgium for 25 years, you see evidence of its hopelessness everywhere. Those dislodged cobblestones? Proof of Belgian administrative incompetence. Terrorists nestling in rundown Molenbeek in full view of the authorities? Confirmation that Belgium is a “failed state” — as an article in this publication claimed in 2015.
Yet look at the facts and by any measure, Belgium is one of the richest, safest and most successful countries in the world. It ranks 14th out of over 200 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index — above the United States, Canada, Japan and France. It has the highest tertiary education rate of any OECD country. Its health care system is one of the best in the world. And a higher percentage of Americans, Germans and Dutch think their society is broken than Belgians. Not bad for a “failed state.”
Belgium is not a perfect country — far from it — but it is an interesting, intriguing and, in some ways, inspiring one. It is not engulfed by futile culture wars or a desire for world domination in anything except hockey and chocolate exports. It is proof that very different peoples can, however grumpily, live side by side without attacking each other. And Belgians’ lack of national pride is a refreshing break from the tub-thumping nationalism in Russia, China or even the United States. In fact, the most frequent complaint about Belgium is not that the state has too much power, but too little.
It’s easy to fall in love with countries like France and Italy, which ooze style, seduction and self-confidence. Belgium is more of a slow burner. It’s a country whose attractions are more subtle and whose people are less shouty. But once you start liking it for what it is rather than disliking it for what it will never be, you may fall in love with Belgium like I’ve done — hopefully in less than 28 years.