Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Seattle of Europe

That's my new name for Belgium, since apparently it rains a lot here. I have to say, there's been a fair amount of precipitation since I got here, both rain and snow. Although I gather that snow's pretty unusual--apparently I chose an uncommonly cold winter to move here.

Rain I don't mind. But I'm told that overcast skies are the norm and sunny days are rare. That does give me pause... but once again, it's a prime example of the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for." After years of complaining about the incessant sun and lack of rain in Los Angeles, I now get to enjoy the exact opposite.

It's also dark. Sunrise is around 7:30 am, although the sky doesn't really begin to lighten until about 8:00. Sunset is around 4:30 pm and it's dark by 5:00. Short days. (Brussels is at approximately the same latitude as Calgary.) I'm hoping this means that summer days will be really long.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


You've heard of Waterloo, right? The famous battle that ended Napoleon's imperial ambitions? As in the phrase, "Napoleon met his Waterloo"? The place-name that's become synonymous with humiliating defeat?

Did you know that Waterloo is in Belgium?! I didn't!

Yet there it was, a name on a highway exit between Brussels and Hasselt. I guess I never really thought about where Waterloo was located...

France, maybe? Not a very French name, though. I mean, "Waterloo"! Is that even Dutch? What kind of a name is that, anyway? And why didn't I ever wonder where it was? I don't think it ever occurred to me that Waterloo might actually be somewhere real.

Well, now I know. It's in Belgium. Just outside Brussels, actually.

Addendum: My Belgian friend Valerie tells me that Waterloo is in fact a very Dutch name. "Loo" is apparently an old word for forest, hence "Waterloo" = water-forest.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A country divided

So the first thing you should know about Belgium is that there's an invisible line dividing the country in half horizontally. This is the language border.

To the north is what used to be called Flanders, i.e. the Flemish part of the country. Linguistically and culturally, Flanders is closely aligned with Holland, a.k.a. The Netherlands. The Flemish speak Dutch; in Dutch (an English word that doesn't exist in Dutch) the language is called Nederlands. It's very similar to the Dutch spoken in Holland, but there are differences. Friends tell me it's like the difference between British English and American English.

To the south is a region called Wallonia, which is French-speaking. In the nineteenth century, Wallonia was at the forefront of the industrial revolution in Europe and was much more prosperous than the Flanders, which was primarily agricultural. Beginning in the twentieth century, as the importance of heavy industry declined, Wallonia's fortunes waned and it is now much poorer than the north, with high unemployment.

The linguistic and economic differences between north and south result in a great deal of social and political tension, if not outright conflict. As far as I can make out, the Flemish people don't have much to do with their French-speaking compatriots, and vice versa. I'm told that Dutch-speaking Belgians think of the Walloons as lazy and dirty. (If I had to guess, I bet the French speakers regard their neighbors to the north as uptight workaholics.)

Brussels, the capital, is on the Flemish side of the language border but is primarily French-speaking. There's also a small German-speaking region, which was annexed by Belgium after the defeat of Germany in the First World War.

All of this makes for a very convoluted system of government. Belgium has a king, and is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. There are three regional governments, with jurisdiction over the French, Flemish and German areas. It's actually a bit more complicated than that even, since the linguistic communities and geographic regions aren't the same.

Anyway, one of the first things I wanted to know about Belgium when I decided to move here was "What language do they speak?" Simple question, right? Wrong!

There are three official languages: Dutch, French and German, as well as a fourth "unofficial" language: English. Because everyone has a different native tongue and because of the influence of American media, everyone speaks at least a little English, and most people I've met speak it fluently.

Which is lucky for me, since I don't speak Dutch. I know a little French, which sometimes comes in handy, mostly for reading labels and signs, which tend to be in both languages. I'm starting an intensive Dutch language class next week. So far, I've found it very hard to understand, even a little, and very hard to pronounce. This should be interesting.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A new life, a new blog

Having moved from the U.S. (specifically, Los Angeles, California) to Belgium three weeks ago, with very little foreknowledge of the country or culture I'd soon be living in, I am constantly amazed at the cultural differences. Little things, like the fact that everyone drives stick, and big things, like the language border dividing the country.

Honestly, the only thing I knew about Belgium was that it produces good beer, good chocolate, and good fries. (Don't call them French fries!) I had to look on a map to find out exactly where it was! (Somewhere in Western Europe, near France, I thought.)

Well, it turns out there's more to the country than beer, chocolate and fries. Or waffles. It occurred to me that it might be fun to write about the things I'm learning, both for my own amusement and the amusement of my friends back home. (I still think of the U.S. as home--I'll let you know when that changes.)

So here's my new blog. This one is public so feel free to share it with friends, family, neighbors, coworkers... I already have a backlog of fun facts I want to write about, so I'll try to post often. Thanks for reading!