What comes to mind when you think about Belgium? Do you think about fries, waffles, beers and chocolate? Or maybe you would think about Brussels, its various institutions and its Manneken Pis? Well, you wouldn’t be wrong, anyone who tried a proper mitraillette in Brussels, a warm waffle in Lièges, a speciaalbier from a Flemish Abbey or any type of Côte d’Or chocolate will tell you how Belgians know how to plentifully please their belly. Yet, you would be far from the full picture.
Belgium is a vibrant, diverse and extraordinarily complex country. It is tiny in size, but gigantic in culture, small in numbers, but enormous in significance. A pearl of the Low Countries, its eleven million inhabitants, thirty thousand square kilometers, seven — yes, seven — equal different governments and three official languages, “The Battleground of Europe”, as it used to be called, has much more to offer than you’ve thought. It is a country full of surprises. To discover Belgium is like going on an unexpected treasure hunt, where each discovery pushes you to dig deeper into this intriguing, yet so charming, country. Rent a car, mount your bikes or prepare your thumb to hitchhike and get ready to explore amazing, diverse, Belgium. From south-east to north-west, from the dense Ardennes forest to the wide coast of Oostende through the shiny buildings of Brussels, let’s hunt the treasures of Belgium !
The first thing that you will get struck by, when putting your first step on Belgian soil, is the diversity of languages, especially its salience in Belgian society. Indeed, Belgium is among those multicultural countries whose citizens bind their pride and sense of belonging to the language they speak, and particularly to the way they speak it. So much so that three “linguistic communities”, with their own borders, capital city, parliament and government, are formerly recognized by the Constitution. To give you an idea of the salience of language representation, the governments respectively representing the Flemish, French and German-speaking communities are granted as much power as the federal one.
Yes, Belgians give an important role to their language, but its bind to their identity will vary greatly across the country. Fault lines are not merely entrenched between the Dutch, French and German speakers. In the Province of Wallonia alone —which englobes both the French and German-speaking communities but excludes Brussels— besides French, hardened locals could speak to you in Luxemburgish in Arlon, Lorrain in Virton, Picard in Mons or Tournai or hundreds of different varieties of the Walloon language anywhere else in Wallonia. Cross the linguistic frontier between Flanders and the French community and your problems are just getting started. First, don’t even think about telling Flemish people they speak Dutch. Sure, it is technically their national official language, but Flemish people speak…well Flemish — a softer-sounding version of Dutch that, truly, only Belgians and Dutch people can tell apart. The most erudite ones will tell you that Flemish is the actual correct version of Dutch, and that standard Dutch is, actually, a dialect falsely promoted by The Hague. The most hardened of them all, coined Flamingant by their French-speaking counterparts, will refuse to speak to you in any other language than Flemish. Should you be heard speaking either French, Dutch or even German, in certain restaurants or bars of Antwerp —considered the informal capital of Flamingants— you might never be served at all.
Should you take it upon yourself to integrate and learn Flemish, then you might have to choose your city wisely. As a result of the historic failure of Dutch standardization, Flemish finds itself as an even more fragmented language than Walloon. Virtually every city has its own kind of Flemish. Leuven, Antwerp, or Oostende all have their own dialects, distinct from each other. A native speaker from Brussels wouldn’t be able to understand a West-Vlaams speaker from Kortrijk. In all this linguistic mess, the region of the capital might very well be the easiest pick, right ? Not really. Brussels is both technically Flemish — with its very own dialect, the Bruxelleer —, the only officially bilingual region of the country and, also, the largest French-speaking city in Belgium. Over 95% of the city’s citizen use French daily. Although its international status, as the informal capital city of the EU and host to many international institutions, is giving English a lot of leeway.
The role and complex situations of languages across Belgium might either fascinate you or give you headaches. However, the most striking feature that will leave you in awe and in love with the country comes with the Belgian way of life. Belgium might be a disorganized, sometimes messy, often complicated country institutionally and Belgians sometimes have a hard time coexisting among one another, but one thing unites them across the whole country. It doesn’t matter whether it is in the dirtiest streets of Charleroi—repeatedly crowned the ugliest city in Belgium— the taverns of Antwerp or the canals of Bruges, the “Venice of the North”, you will find one treasure among all Belgians and across all of Belgium : their love of life. If there is one thing Belgians are good at, it is celebrating life. Leisure is an intricate and essential part of the Low Countries’ culture. Every corner, every town, every village, has its own, very Belgian, way of celebrating life, its pleasures, its gifts. If you want to find the treasures of Belgium, drive your car to Liège during the 14th of July. Ride your bike to Visé, 20 mins away from the Netherlands, in the middle of August, and spend your day drinking from stall to stall across the whole village. Hitchhike back to Dinant and take a trek across the woods of the Ardennes. Take a train for Louvain-la-neuve and take part in its student 24h race, again, of beer drinking. Give your liver some rest and maybe carpool to Leuven for a day city-trip, enjoy its picturesque architecture in one of the oldest town in Belgium. Visit the center of Brussels, try its mitraillette sandwich, a large 40cm baguette filled with tons of fries, meat and a buck load of sauce. If your belly is still alive, taste the frikandel, a Belgian meat, which recipe you do not want to know. Take another train, take a stroll to the small romantic streets of Gent before doing a tour of the “trappist” monasteries, producers of the best beers in the world :Leffe, Affligem, Forest, Val-Dieu, Westmalle and the king of kings, awarded best beer in the world in 2005 and 2013, the Westvleteren XII. Careful with that one though, you are only allowed to buy one pack per year and you may only do so at the monastery itself.
To reward yourself and take a much needed rest after your incredible journey, what better way than to rent a small apartment on the coastline in Oostende ? You might not understand their Flemish but you will sure appreciate the calming sound of the quiet waves of the English Channel. As you’ll be sipping your light Hoegaarden, you will remember the humorous spirit of Belgians from every generations that you met in old taverns and their terraces, in abbey’s gardens and cobblestoned streets. You will reminisce the generous ambient good-heartedness and passion for tasty gluttony. As one of them once explained to me: “We, Belgians, are used to be trampled on by all the great powers of Europe, our history is nothing but stretching from both arm between greedy insatiable neighbors. It is our way to cope with it, to take pride in our modesty through deprecating humor, bonhomie and love of leisure”. That is the Belgian spirit, and that is what you will remember whenever you’re asked again : “what comes to mind when you think about Belgium?”