Wednesday, 21 July 2010
"Ah well, it's Belgium"
Born in Flanders and a native Dutch speaker, she sings in French in order to be understood by her whole country - as Francophones rarely speak Dutch but the Flemish usually speak French. She is also, and I think most Belgians agree on this subject, objectively terrible. Her most well-known tunes are catchy enough, but they are all just dance remakes of old French songs from the 1980's. But she persists in Belgian celebrity status, headlining festivals and somehow considered a national treasure. And yet when she came on stage last night, I couldn't help but notice the profound looks of disinterest on everyone's faces. Ryan, who's had a modest string of hits on dance charts across Europe over the last 8 years, is probably the most well-known Belgian singer of the moment outside the country.The disinterested Belgians at last night's concert seemed less than enthused about that fact.
The celebrations of Belgiumhood went well into the night last night, and I was probably wise to elect to work from home today. At the moment huge fighter jets are flying over my apartment, spraying coloured gas in the form of the Belgian flag. I wasn't even aware Belgium had an air force! The gaseous flag in the sky is hanging over many smaller Belgian flags on the streets below. In fact the past few days have been notable for the huge number of tricolour national flags on display, something I usually never see here.
when I first moved here I said I would try not to make a habit of writing about the odd aspects of life here, as British and American expats complaining about life in Brussels is one of the worst clichés this city has to offer. But it isn't just the British and Americans who complain, and the uniquely bizarre aspects of life in Belgium are not just a product of differences between continental European and Anglo-Saxon ways of life. My friends from all over Europe complain about this country - the absurdities, the hassles, the inexplicable beaureaucracy and the glacial pace at which everything here seems to be done. The Northern Europeans complain about the disorganisation, the chaos and the mess. The Southern Europeans complain about the obsession with rules and procedure. And the Anglophones complain about all of the above!
Don't get me wrong, I'm really enjoying my time here so far and I hope to settle down here and stay awhile. I came into this country already aware of some of the strange aspects of living in Belgium, so I knew what to expect. Beyond the hassles, this is still a great place to live. So far I haven't let the little annoyances of daily life here get to me. But they are numerous, and I will list some below. Strange inexplicable absurdity built into the Belgian systems and culture are such a regular part of life here that it's produced its own expression for Brussels-based expats. Whenever we encounter some new kind of absurd obstacle, we throw up our hands, shrug our shoulders and say "Ah well, it's Belgium". It's really more of a survival technique than anything else. You have to accept things the way they are, because there's no point in getting worked up about it - there's nothing you can do.
Living on the fault lines of Europe
In my opinion, so much of this country's dysfunction (some examples are outlined below) stems from its own confusion about what it is and where it belongs. Putting aside the obvious identity problems between the Flemish and the Walloons, and obvious analogies I could make to the fact that Belgium yet again has no government, this country is also torn in two different directions in terms of how it organises itself. Belgium literally straddles the dividing line between Latin Europe - with its more relaxed, chaotic and improvised way of life - and Germanic Europe - with its obsession with rules and beaureaucracy. The unfortunate result is that it does neither system well, and manages to embody the worst aspects of both ways of life.
Living in these cultural blocks often require trade-offs. For instance in Germany or Switzerland, one has to deal with a vast array of rules and regulations and an obsession with order. But the trade-off is that you get an orderly society. The trains run on time, there are clear operating rules and you can know what to expect when engaging with government services or with private enterprise. In Latin Europe, there is less predictability and order, and you often have to get things done by using outside-the-box methods or personal connections. But the trade-off is that you're not burdened with countless rules and regulations, and there's a feeling of greater freedom and relaxation. There's also more of a personal touch in the way those societies are structured.
In my experience, Belgium manages to combine all the disorder of a Latin society with all the inflexible beaureaucracy of a Germanic society. There's tonnes of rules, but they are inconsistly applied and many lack clarity or purpose. Historically caught between the Germanic world of the Holy Roman Empire and the Latin world of the French kingdom, it is easy to see how Belgium developed in this internally conflicted way. This history was also used as part of the justification for making Brussels the "capital of Europe", sitting as it does between these two worlds. But unfortunately, I've found, that straddling position can make life here rather perplexing, particularly for foreigners who come from firmly within one of these four cultural blocks.
The list of Belgian absurdities - a work in progress
The difficulties one encounters here come both from the public and private sectors. This is a country, as many before me have said, that never quite grasped this whole "capitalism" concept. Legal codes are awash with rules about when stores can or can't be open, what they can sell and how long they can make people work. These rules permeate every area of life - from decreeing that apartment rental contracts can't be signed for less than three years to requiring that you wait for four hours at the local commune to register each time you move or take on a roommate.
But back to commerce. By law, stores here are only allowed to have sales two months of the year - January and July. It is literally illegal to have a sale during the other 10 months. This is supposed to support small mom and pop stores who can't compete with the sales offered by big chains, but in effect it just makes products here drastically more expensive than in neighboring countries. I usually try to buy everything when I'm in London - even food! And even if I did want to overpay for my items here in Belgium, good luck making it within the opening hours. Large grocery stores close at either 6pm or 7pm (as do all stores in general) during the week, and are closed all day on Sunday. When you can manage to get to one (which is difficult for someone who works 9 to 6), the line is always about 40 minutes long. Why don't they open more cashier desks, you ask. Well, there's really no expectation that these stores would want to make life easier for their customers.
I encountered a particularly infuriating instance of this when I was trying to get one of the new electronic "mobib" swipe passes they are transitioning to for the metro here. Up until now the metro has operated on a trust system, like most metro systems in Europe, where there are no turnstyles but instead you stamp your ticket when you're going to take a ride. There are ticket inspectors who randomly check people and fine them if they don't have a stamped ticket. Usually this system works fine, because the fear of getting caught motivates people to stamp their ticket. But it's never worked very well here because there are so few ticket inspections. And, incredibly, the metro company posts the locations where ticket inspectors will be on its website!
6 locations, at these little ticket centres called "bootiks" (you can't buy them at the regular ticket counters in the metro stations). These "bootiks" are only open from 10 to 6. I have been unsuccessfully trying to get one of these stupid cards for two months now. Twice I have left work early to get to the Bootik before 6, only to find they have already locked the doors at 5:40. The one time I was able to get there early at 5, I found out I need to have a passport photo for these stupid cards! So finally I said screw it, I'm just not paying. Luckily their oh-so-helpful website says no problem, I can just order my mobib card online. I can expect to receive it in the mail within two months. Very helpful when the signs are telling me that at any moment I'm not going to be able to get into the metro without one.
I find myself asking that question with a lot of things here. There are so many rules and regulations, and yet none of them seem to make any sense or have any practical purpose. And when I talk to Belgians about these issues I am always given the same response - they shrug their shoulders and say that's just how it is here. For example, a homeless man has camped out in my friend's backyard. He's just had to come to accept it because he called the police about it a month ago and they never did anything. So he's just shrugged his shoulders and accepted that in Belgium, there's no way to get rid of a homeless man who has set up a little outdoor apartment in your backyard. And because everyone just accepts/expects nothing to work here, nothing does. And on it goes from there.
All this may be frustrating, but it does admittedly make for some great stories. I'm not sure if this is a country I could grow old in - I think my pent-up aggravation with the way things are done here would eventually come exploding out some bodily orifice. But for now, I'm enjoying it. That is, until a homeless man comes and camps out in my yard. It may be that I can only view these things with detached bemusement until one of them affects me in a very negative way. So far, that day has yet to come. So I'll just laugh about it for now. And on that note, happy Belgian National Day!