Never in my life would I have imagined that I would end up spending a chunk of time traveling to Belgium. I’ve spent a little more than 3 months in total here, and envision I’ll be spending more time here in the future because my partner is getting his PhD here.
Belgium is one of those countries I just never really had an impression of, or maybe it was just a bland impression? And I’m someone who spent 5 years in Minnesota, which I’m fairly certain also brings up a bland image for others. I ended up learning to really appreciate the Twin Cities and found Minnesota quite charming. I can’t say I’m quite there with Belgium, but I’m definitely farther along in finding Belgium’s charm compared to my first short trip here.
Now, just like you and most people, my knowledge about Belgium was pretty limited to that it’s a country famous for fries, waffles, beer, and chocolate (not in that particular order). I have now since tried these foods and find them quite delicious, but not particularly off the charts unique either.
In this post I’m going to write about some first impressions and things that have stuck with me, that I found an appreciation for, that’s not just fries, waffles, beer, chocolate or other European things like bread and cheese.
My overall time in Belgium though, has been limited to 3 months and a week, with 3 months being in the middle of the pandemic. I’m sure there is still plenty more to discover! But for now, these are some of the things I’ve grown to appreciate.
Speculoos / Speculaas Treats
When I had my first Speculoos cookie in Belgium, I was sure I had this taste before. I soon remembered that this taste was from those cookies you get on Delta domestic flights. Kind of gingerbread-y and cinnamon-y. Okay maybe Delta just services gingerbread cookies. But Speculoos here are cookies made of various spices, including cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, and ginger.
You can actually find all kinds of things with this flavor. Some of my favorites include speculoos ice cream and the spread! Used like how you would Nutella. Who needs peanut butter when you have Speculoos spread. Well, speculoos is much sweeter… I’ve indulged a fair amount with this flavor, and to me it’s a classically Belgian (and Flemish/Dutch) treat that I’ve just never heard of properly until visiting Belgium.
Gouda cheese is actually from the Netherlands. But it’s the most dominant cheese found in the local grocery store here in Leuven, Belgium. I never thought much about nor cared about Gouda cheese before, but now that I see it everywhere and it’s become a staple for my sandwiches, I’ve grown to appreciate it quite a bit.
I like that in the grocery stores here, you can find differently aged sliced Gouda cheese, my favorite being “Jung” or young gouda cheese. I also learned that Gouda cheese is actually pronounced “how-da”, NOT “good-da” just FYI. The cheese is named after a city called Gouda, in the Netherlands, but not because the cheese was made there but rather it was traded there. Not only is it one of the most popular cheeses in the world, it’s also one of the oldest! Cool stuff.
Architecture quirks – Windows on slanted Roofs, very small kitchens, and very small bathrooms (especially showers)
When I first came to Belgium, the first thing that stood out to me were roof windows. I’ve lived in Berlin, Germany and have traveled a fair amount in Europe before, but windows on slanted roofs were not a common scene. I don’t even remember seeing short houses with roof windows in Amsterdam.
It was hard to research roof windows, and the history of it, but I did land on the website of a company named “VELUX” which is a company that makes roof windows today! They were inspired to “transform dark attics into liveable spaces full of daylight and fresh air”. It makes so much sense now. Given the fact that most days are gray, cloudy, and gloomy, the roof window makes a huge difference in bringing sunlight and fresh air into the upper floors in Belgium. Another company, Fakro, also has a brief history of roof windows, showing that Hans Christian Andersen had one, and Van Gogh also painted houses with roof windows.
Other quirks about Belgium (Flanders) apartments and rooms (at least the ones I’ve been in), include a ridiculously small kitchen sink and small bathroom and showers in general. This may be the trend for Dutch houses in general. But from what I’ve seen so far, Dutch houses have very steep stairs, they’re kind of in between a ladder and steps. Most houses also tend to have mini fridges (at least for American standards), and small kitchen sinks. As for bathrooms, the showers tend to be quite small and narrow. I found a blogpost summarizing how dutch houses are different, though from those photos, I have yet to be in a Dutch house that spacious!
I even learned there is a whole Instagram account dedicated to quirky Belgian architecture called @uglybelgianhouses.
Flanders, Wallonia, French, Flemish, Dutch – what is culture? What makes a country?
I, for one, understand the sensitive topic of “what makes a country” as someone who is from Taiwan… Not going there in this post. But, it’s pretty easy growing up that we assume 1 country = 1 culture. Wrong! Never has that been the case, I mean look at the United States, it has as many cultures as it has… cars? But I guess for countries I am less familiar with, it’s easier to assume their culture is one. Especially when it comes to European countries because on the surface, they just seem so homogenous (also wrong). Anyways, Belgium was one of those countries that I assumed was similar to France and Germany, seemingly homogenous and united.
Ha. Ha. Ha! I could not be more wrong! It’s not like I’ve been able to learn that much about Belgian history, but just from learning the basics, like how there’s a French side, a Flemish side, and how Brussels is French, it just feels like a country made up of two primary cultures that have more in common with their neighboring countries (Netherlands and France). Anyways, there is a lot of history to why Belgium was formed, many political and historical reasons There is a lot of history to why Belgium is formed the way it is as a country and encompasses various languages and cultures, so I won’t go into it, you can Google that part.
The fact that a simple train ride within the borders of the same country can take you to areas with completely different languages is in itself a cool thing. It just goes to show that what constitutes a “country” can vary widely and really is just dependent on historical situations, and not intrinsic to the land and the people.
Ethnic, racial, language diversity
Okay maybe this is biased to the areas I’ve been in which is a university town and parts of Brussels. But given that I’ve seen a fair amount of stores and restaurants owned by people of color as well as plenty of people of color speak Dutch or French is enough to share that there are immigrants here and they are Belgian. Before coming to Belgium, most of the (im)migration stories I heard were regarding France, Germany, and Southern European states. I don’t have much to say here, but just that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the diversity I’ve seen here so far. Something I hope to research more about!
Good quality of life & affordable education
Not really speaking from personal experience but rather from other people’s experience. There seems to be a great quality of life in Belgium, with two big factors like education and healthcare being affordable.
For a while, I actually considered applying to graduate school here because they have very affordable English-speaking graduate programs. I’m thinking of KU Leuven specifically. The minimum tuition I’ve seen cost 1000 Euro for an entire school year, even for international students! It’s more affordable than neighboring countries, and for the same degree in the Netherlands, it can go up to the ten thousand euro range. Which is still more affordable than the UK (20k Pound range), which is also more affordable than the US (50k-100k???).
Besides Belgium, I’ve only seen such low prices for graduate school in Germany (which also provide English-speaking programs). I get a good impression of the respective country when their universities make it affordable to study there, even for international students. I think it helps contribute to a positive appeal of Belgium.
Idyllic & “classic European” Nature
Not sure how to describe nature here besides it feels like the same environment as the fairytales I read growing up? The land is mostly flat, quite green, and there are a lot of wood-like areas. There is the Ardennes forest too, which I want to visit someday. The combination of the trees and very European looking houses, makes me feel like I know what inspired these European fairy tales. Though it’s not all pretty old houses and nature, there are also plenty of industrial areas, high rises, highways, and cars.
Overall, other parts of Belgium I’ve found charming include the access to good bread, good pastries, and just good food in general. Even in the town I’ve been staying in (Leuven), there has been no shortage of Asian food. There’s even an entire stretch of street mostly filled with Asian restaurants and Asian grocery stores, which I’ve really come to appreciate especially while living here. I want to do research and write a blog post specifically about Asian immigration to Belgium.
I also noticed that public transport is quite decent in general, including the comprehensive cross country train system, which is pretty much the norm in Europe. Although, it can get pricey as a tourist or if you’re not riding it very often. But I believe they have good deals for locals and students.
Another part that was nice in pre-pandemic times is that Brussels is a hub for flights, so you can find direct flights to many places across Europe and beyond. I am curious how the pandemic will change this, or if it will change at all.
As for the things that are less likeable about Belgium that I’ve experienced so far are mainly the weather and my own qualms around grocery shopping. When it comes to the weather, it rains a lot and according to my partner who lives here year round, there are many days of gray skies and cloudy days.
I’ve only been able to visit in the winter months, and so far, though I experience a lot of cloudy days and grayness, I’ve also seen plenty of blue sky days. But then the rain comes at night or the day after… And once the rain comes, it comes for days!
Another thing I am less a fan of is just grocery shopping in general. Stores are really not that different from markets in the U.S. but I do struggle more here because food usually only has Flemish and French, no English (totally okay and as expected!). Anyways, my main qualm is that foods like meat and frozen foods tend to be more expensive but also on the lower quantity side. Perhaps I’ve just been used to American grocery stores selling big quantities of meat, here you will find packages much smaller but for similar pricing. Frozen food is also quite expensive. And with the seemingly small size of fridges and freezers, perhaps they’re also less popular.
I think I’ve basically summed up my first impressions of Belgium. Still can’t say it’s one of my favorite places or that I would defend it if someone called Belgium “meh”. I’ve only experienced a very tiny sliver of this country…and also in the middle of a pandemic. Maybe someday I’ll get to explore and appreciate it more.