Sunday, May 2, 2010

Family ties

Belgium is a small country. How small? Less than 12,000 square kilometers, or about the size of Maryland. (Maryland is a small state on the eastern seaboard; you may have heard of it. No? Well, trust me, it exists--I've been there.)

If you've been to Europe then this may not come as a surprise to you. European countries are small, especially compared to the U.S. That makes it very convenient for travelers zooming around Europe on a Eurailpass. But what does that mean for the people living here?

One thing that has really struck me is that if you're Belgian, chances are you live pretty close to your family, the town you grew up in, your childhood friends, the college you went to and all your exes. In fact, everyone you know or ever knew lives within a one- or two-hour drive.

Even by European standards, Belgium is small. And then you consider that Belgium is divided into two language communities and you realize that it's even smaller, since people tend to stay in either Flanders or Wallonia, depending on whether they speak Dutch or French.

This makes for very close family ties and social networks. It's easy to maintain friendships over the years because people don't move around that much. The thing that's really weird to me is that people don't just know their friends' partners but also each others' parents and extended families too.

In the U.S. I hardly ever met my friends' parents or siblings because they usually lived hundreds if not thousands of miles away. I've never been to most of my friends' home towns. Sure, if I knew someone long enough and we were close enough, then eventually I might meet the parents when they came to visit. But not as a rule and only occasionally.

Belgians tend to reserve Sundays for family time. That's when people will drive back to their home town (or village, actually) and have dinner with their parents. It's almost a weekly ritual for some. Everything is closed on Sundays anyway so there's not much else to do. It seems quaint and old-fashioned by American standards, but I think it's nice.

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