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Living in Belgium
10 Things To Know Before Moving to Belgium
Belgium is regarded as the symbolic capital of Europe — the headquarters of the European Union are based in Brussels, and it’s centrally located in western Europe. Belgium is a popular destination for expats and we’re pretty sure you’ll settle in very quickly, but there are a few things to bear in mind before moving.
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1. English Isn’t as Widely Spoken as You Might Think
In comparison to neighboring countries, speaking English isn’t very common here. That being said, we’re talking about an English-speaking percentage of 60% across Belgium, so you will still find someone to understand during your first few weeks in Bruges or Antwerp. With their neighbors the Netherlands and Germany having 90% and 70% English speaking rates respectively, it might come as a surprise if you struggle to get by in the first couple of weeks.
2. Don’t Get the Language Wrong
First and foremost, there is no language called “Belgian” (this mistake has been made by tourists many a time). Instead, Belgium has three official languages: French, Flemish (a Belgian dialect of Dutch), and German. Thanks to years of rivalry and political jostling, speaking French in Flanders (the northern half of Belgium) really isn’t clever because people will either not understand or not respond to you. This is the same if you use Flemish in Wallonia (the French speaking half of Belgium). If in doubt, opt for English, at least then if the unassuming Belgian you’re speaking to doesn’t understand you, they won’t be offended at the same time!
3. Two for the Price of One
The history of Belgium really is a tale of two regions: Flanders in the north, and Wallonia in the south. Both regions have been independent kingdoms in their histories, and still maintain very individual identities to this day. The language difference has already been mentioned, but each region possesses a very different culture as well — Flanders takes on a very Dutch way of living, where directness is preferred, and handshakes are the normal way of greeting a friend. Travel a few kilometers south and you will find a more French-orientated way of life, both in a private and in a business setting (French companies tend be operated in a top-down manner). The result of all this is that you can have a varied expat experience in Belgium depending on where you’re based (if you’re in Brussels then it’s a balancing act) — it’s just important to remember the cultural nuances of the regions.
4. The Beer Packs a Punch
Every country has its own specialty when it comes to beer, but the Belgians are famous for brewing. From the famous Leffe to a Flanders Red Ale, there are plenty to sample — but be warned: Belgian beers pack a punch. Depending on where you’re from beer is never usually above 5.5% or 6% ABV (alcohol content). Not here! You can expect anything from 7% to 11% for your average pub-served beverage, albeit in a smaller measure than a half liter or liter. So, when you see your Belgian colleagues wading through their third beer, just take a back seat: don’t run before you can walk.
5. Pack Your Umbrella
Residents of the UK or even Ireland will not be surprised by this, but Northern/Western Europe is wet. Rain is often interspersed by sunny spells rather than the other way around, especially in March and April where there are an average of 18 rainy days in the month. That’s more than half! You might be able to find a couple of days where the temperature breaks the 20 Degrees Celsius mark, but they are unfortunately few and far between. Anoraks and umbrellas are fashionable in Brussels during spring.
6. Flowers are Important
As with many other European cultures, the art of gift giving is important in Belgium. It’s not as necessary as say in Japan, where small gifts are the norm at business meetings, but if you are invited into someone’s home you should definitely be bringing something. Small sweets for the family’s children are always well received, but flowers for the hosts are also a safe bet. A small warning though: chrysanthemums are funeral flowers and to give them to a friend or colleague is a big social faux pas. You’ll more than likely get some leeway because you’re a foreigner, but you’ll also make great first impression if you nail a cultural nuance like this straight away.
7. Make Sure You Finish Your Plate
Eating is an absolute cultural minefield. Choice of cutlery, seating arrangements, who serves who — it all changes from country to country. One of the biggest variables however is the problem of finishing your plate. In some countries (such as China), it is considered rude to finish all of your food, as you are implying that your hosts did not provide enough and you are not satisfied. Not in Belgium! Here you should always finish your plate — it’s just good manners. If you are allergic to something then of course don’t force the use of an epi pen just to impress your hosts, but you should think about suffering through the cauliflower, even if you wouldn’t eat it at home.
8. Get Those Cheeks Moisturized
Another cultural land mine you could step on in Belgium are greetings, and how to execute them. If you’re British like me, then a firm handshake towards men, and an awkward half-hug towards women suffices. On the continent things are different though. When you first meet someone, a handshake is fine, but if a relationship is developed then three kisses on the cheek is normal. Don’t actually kiss the person though, just sort of make a kissing sound effect somewhere near their cheek (you’ll get the hang of it!). Men never kiss men though, so you should still practice your handshaking technique.
9. Strap in for the Long Haul
Again, this one may or may not be a secret depending on where you’re from. Belgium is a very congested country, and especially the city of Brussels is quite crowded. The residents of the capital will spend at least 23% of peak driving time in traffic — that’s an average of 42 hours over the year (find out more from INRIX’s global traffic ranking). The answer? Get a bike of course! Like the Dutch, the Belgians love a good two-wheeled adventure, and most cities in Belgium are very safe for cyclists with Antwerp even ranking in the top ten worldwide. Ditch the car and jump on a vélo instead!
10. Join InterNations
Don’t be shocked, you knew the shameless plug was coming! Moving abroad is tricky for anyone, so seeing a few familiar faces who speak your language can be both comforting and useful. We have no doubt that you’ll fly through life in Belgium in no time, but why not join InterNations and attend some of our fantastic events and smooth the process? Here you can meet expats from all over the world who will have that little bit more experience and might give you that crucial bit of advice. You can also explore more of your new hometown too, as we have plenty of groups which go about seeing the best sites in Antwerp and Brussels, as well as other major cities. Make life easier for yourself, and join InterNations to get settled in Belgium.