As one gets older, a fair rule of thumb is that time accelerates. The intervals between birthdays seem to be shorter and certainly a great deal shorter than at age ten when the long wait to have access to adult privileges seemed to be endless. Thus, as I approach the twenty- ninth anniversary of my arrival in Belgium, it seems unbelievable that I and some of my compatriots have spent so long in this country. It’s long overdue to reflect why.
Given the curiously unflattering image that Belgium projects to the world, it’sa wonder that foreigners come at all or, if they do, that they stay.
We – the foreigners that is – have all heard the sneering jibe “name me ten famous Belgians”. The expectation is that the listener will have difficulty doing so and when a string of names is easily reeled off, the questioner then retreats into embarrassed silence. I once heard Jean-Luc Dehaene, then Prime Minister, being the but of this kind of insult at the hands of a student speaking at the Oxford Union, a prestigious debating society at that ancient university which is said to be, with justification, the training ground for the House of Commons. I’m glad to say that he ignored it. Or again, “Isn’t Belgium/Brussels a very dull place to live”? Standard reply: “If you drive through it on the motorway in two hours, of course you would think that!” There is certainly work to be done to ensure that these impressions and half-truths are dispelled. Belgium has an identity problem abroad that is partly self-inflicted because of the divisions of the country but is definitely ill deserved.
Naturally I cannot pretend that we enjoy living here because of the climate which, if anything, is marginally worse than in Britain. Or even these days for the cuisine, good though it is, because, if you are willing to pay the price, sophisticated “foodies” can get what they want in most places these days (in witness whereof please inspect the increasing number of stars awarded by Michelin in Britain, yes, even there!).
Nor again, for the endless wrangles about language or the relentless layers of government designed to paper over the cracks of the Belgian nation-state. If you know the history of the country, you know and try to understand why these things are as they are even though common sense would have dictated a completely bilingual or even trilingual country.
Nor even, because of the Belgian people where there is more in common between the communities, with or without the monarchy and les Diables Rouges, than most would like to admit. Because of the small size of the country, social life is centred around family and the friends with whom you have grown up. Outsiders, even long-standing ones, are welcome, but not often in the intimate circle of a family or small community.
The reason to come and stay is fundamentally the reason for living anywhere and that is that, taken overall, Belgium is a comfortable, easy place to live with ready access to anywhere in Europe. I could list the components of this comfort: the health and other social services and infrastructure, an excellent and financially accessible housing market, excellent retail banking services (compared with the UK and the US anyway) and so on.
But these are only some of a number of elements that make up a general quality of life. I cannot think of a city the size of Brussels in the English- speaking world that offers anything like the variety of artistic, cultural or other facilities. Some, perhaps but very few.Yes, it’s “only” a large park, but where else can you take a tram into a forest like the Forêt de Soignes? Except at eight o’clock in the morning, you can get from a to b without congestion charges (starting any minute in London) or almost permanent grid-lock (New York) – though I must say that an RER is long overdue. Family life is respected here in a slightly old-fashioned but agreeable way. Even the quirkiness, the funny folk customs, grow on you. Oh, and the beer and the chocolates!
However, the general tolerance and laissez-faire attitude is perhaps the characteristic that is most valuable . Belgians have made the most of their situation, invasion after invasion, for centuries and have turned a backward rural and unlikely nation-state into a prosperous forward looking European country. Instead of foreign denigration of these achievements, we should applaud them. That is not to say that everything is right in the state of Belgium. Immigration has strained that tolerance to the limits and there is still much to be done on the economic front. Nevertheless, the balance sheet is definitely positive. My family and I can look back on half a lifetime in Belgium with satisfaction and happiness. There is no better recommendation.
Richard (juin 2003)