Wednesday, 21 July 2010

"Ah well, it's Belgium"

Kate Ryan is a peculiarly Belgian singer. The young Belgian pop tart, who headlined the Bal National celebrations in Brussels last night celebrating the eve of Belgian independence day, might sum up all the contradictions of this strange little country.

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.

As this is their national day, perhaps its a good occasion for me to reflect on some of the observations I've made of this strange little place. I'm really enjoying it so far, but there is plenty about Belgium that is just downright strange. I know 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.

I've thrown together this crude little map to illustrate the point. This is drawn up just from my own experience and observations, and it is of course one massive generalisation. It doesn't relate to language groups or ethnicities, but rather to basic cultural blocks that define life in the EU (and the patterns of conflict that frequently arise between member states from different areas). Though I've used ethno-linguistic terms to define the areas, it should be noted that for instance Greeks are not "Latin", Hungarians and Romanians are not "Slavic" and Finns are not "Germanic". But they fit into cultural groups in which the majority are of those ethnicities. Similarly, I've included all of Switzerland in the Germanic block because I find that Francophone and Italophone Switzerland is still very Germanic in terms of order and efficiency. As they say, Ticino is Italy with on-time trains.

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.

Everything here is geared toward the retailer - not the customer. A prime example is the concept of closing time. If a store here has a closing time marked on its door as 6pm, it actually means they shut their doors at 5:40pm, and they won't let anyone in after that. The idea is that the 'closing time' is for the employees, not for the customers. And if they let people in up until 6, the employees would have to stay later than 6 (god forbid). Of course this makes no rational sense, because the official opening times are supposed to be for the guidance of customers, not employees. They're supposed to tell you when you can go to the store and expect to find the doors open. At least, that's how it works in every other country. But here every store seems to have the attitude that they're doing you a favour by being open at all. It's literally as if they could care less whether they sell you anything or not.

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!

They're trying to put an end to this system where so many people don't pay (and with a system like this why would they?) by putting in turnstyles and transitioning to electronic cards like the oyster cards in London. But they've managed to botch this roll-out in a way only Belgium could. They've put up signs warning people that they will have to switch over to the mobib cards in order to get through these new turnstyles they've been installing, but they've made the mobib cards almost impossible to buy. They sell them in only 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.

Belgium is full of examples like this of concepts taken from other countries and then fundamentally misapplied here. In this case they took the oyster cards of London - which can be bought in about 3 minutes at the ticket window of any station any time from 5am to midnight - and made them incredibly inconvenient to get. Here's another example of this (this is one of my favourites): you know how when it's busy in a lot of McDonalds in the UK and Germany now they have a person come to the end of the line, take your order and place it so it's ready for you immediately once you get to the counter? Well the McDonalds in the centre of Brussels has adopted this concept, but in a hilariously misapplied way. The person comes to you at the end of the line, writes down what you're going to order on a little slip, then proceeds to tear it off and hand it to you. You then bring that slip up to the cashier when you get to the front of the line and hand it to her, and she goes and starts preparing the food. Congratulations Belgium McDonalds, you've saved a whopping 0 minutes and 0 seconds, and managed to employ someone for a completely pointless task.

I have so many examples like this, I actually collect them on a little note file on my iphone called "Belgian absurdities". These are just my favourites. But I'll leave you with one final anecdote. Another concept Belgium seems to have tried to borrow from other countries is the debit card. All banks in Belgium (even the foreign ones) give you two separate cards when you open an account, one Belgium-only debit card and one mastercard/visa debit card. The first debit card is on a Belgium-only system called "Mr. Cash". Many stores and vending machines will only take "Mr. Cash" cards for purchases. This includes the ticket vending machines for both the metro and the overground trains. But "Mr. Cash" exists only in Belgium. So this means that in Brussels, the "capital of Europe", non-Belgians cannot use the ticket vending machines unless they have enough coins. Which is why you always see a queue about 40 people long at the ticket office at Gare de Midi train station. Why was this overcomplicated system ever developed? What is its purpose?

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!


Alfredo said...

Ha ha yes this is all very true. Funny story about McDonalds, you should say something to them!

Axel said...

I concur. You get used to these things though. After a while it starts to seem normal!

- BK - said...

Good post - its a cycle of emotions one goes through when they come to Belgium. It starts with total confusion, to aggravation, then frustration and then finally you adopt a "if you cant beat them, join them" and realization dawns that you are finally at peace of mind. If you need to get to the commune, you need to take half a day off, because ANYTHING can happen!! I have left BRU but miss it hell of a lot, one of those places when you are there you complain but when you leave, you cant wait to get back....

Amritha said...

haha classic examples of Belgian absurdities..thanks for a good laugh. I left Brussels 8 mths ago after 4 years there and have to admit - despite all of its illogical absurdities not to mention the unheard of concept of customer service I do miss Brussels very much :)

Brad Zimmerman said...

I've spent the last five years living in Krakow, Poland and can echo many of the comments and opinions from the original post.

Knowing that Poland and Belgium are quite different I've started wondering if we Americans are more rule-following than we might imagine. At any rate, I can definitely sympathize. My wife and I are in the process of selling our apartment and have actually encountered official paperwork that we've been told we MUST have but that absolutely no one will check or verify. When getting this bit of paperwork from the local government/municipal office the bored clerk just more or less glanced at our ID cards and didn't even look at our signatures. Pointless paperwork, pointless bureaucracy - it drives me insane.

Michael Warhurst said...

The metro ticket machines used to take notes & coins - then they 'upgraded' to new machines, that just take coins & Belgian bankcards...

If you're coming by Eurostar the solution is to get the metro tickets at the buffet!

(and don't mention the way they've managed to 'improve' the simple metro system so that each end of one line is called 'Simonis'....a new way to confuse visitors

Anonymous said...

What a stupid post. The Irish are not part of the so-called ´Anglo Europe´. The Irish are Celtic Europe, which is a totally different race, not even closely related to the Anglophiles. ha ha ha. Pathetic attempt to seperate yourselves, the english, from the Germanic group. You are Germanci! Get over it! And Ireland will never be related to you, no matter how hard you try to convince people.