Monday, January 10, 2011

Things that are great about Belgium

When I lived in Norway, I thought I lived in the best country in the world, and chances are that I did. But darn it, this place is pretty neat. Here are nine things that make Belgium a pretty great place to live in - at least to a guy who used to live here. Most of it is food, for some reason.

1. The location

I used to live at the end of the world, in what now feels like one of the most desolate places on the planet. Of course, I didn't know any better at the time. Now I live in a country with a population density higher than Japan, featuring Brussels, "the capital of Europe", and some pretty interesting neighbouring countries including France, Germany, and the Netherlands. I'm a 2-hour train ride away from London and Paris and only 30 minutes away from the statue of the little peeing guy.

"Well, hello there."

2. The health care system

Being a (type 1) diabetic I've already been to the hospital here a fair few times. I use a public hospital in Brussels with an excellent diabetes clinic, and the care I receive there is overwhelmingly good.

In Belgium, you pay the full cost of your health care, but this is reimbursed by your welfare organ of choice (examples are the socialist welfare and the Christian welfare). Thanks to my hospital's "convention diabetique" I don't have to pay a single cent for my considerable and expensive supplies.

3. Public transportation

As bad as it gets sometimes, anything is better than Northern Norway. I thought a "train" was some kind of shellfish until I moved to Belgium. Here, no place is too small to have its own train station, even if it is only a small platform with a bench and a loudspeaker. The prices are fair, too. Now if they'd only do something about all the delays...

4. Belgian waffles

More specifically, Liège waffles (see above picture). If you see a "Belgian" waffle outside Belgium, it will most likely be in the slightly different Brussels style - which was actually invented in Ghent. However, by far the most common waffle in Belgium is the Liège waffle, which was actually invented in Liège. Get one that's fresh and warm, put some whipped cream and cherry sauce on that thing and take a bite out of heaven.

You can also have two with chocolate,
but they might make you giggly.

5. Belgian chocolate

Belgians do not only make some of the world's best chocolate, but they have some spectacular ways to serve it. My first experience with a chocolate fountain was at a wedding last autumn. It was freaking awesome.

A chocolate fountain in a shop in Brussels.

Another new thing to me was chocolate bars. Belgium has three that you can check out here. No-one's got a complete definition of the word "delicious" until they've tried the Quetzalfloat milkshake. Mjam!

6. Fries


Fries may or may not have been invented in Belgium, but in any case Belgians are making sure that the bond between the nation and the dish is as strong as anywhere on the planet. I never tasted real fries until I came to Belgium, and now I can't imagine life without them. They're like yellow gold.

7. The history

I come from a land that was a third world country between 5,000 BC and 1969. Flanders has been one of the most significant regions of Western European for centuries. It supplied high-quality cloth to all of Europe, and it is only fitting that the next prime minister be named De Wever ('The Weaver'). For centuries the region's location has also drawn the attraction of militant neighbours: Hitler, Julius Caesar ('of all the Gauls, the Belgae are the bravest'), the Emperor of Germany, and so on. Few peoples have paid as dearly for their independence as the Belgians.

8. The beer

I'm no great beer drinker, but it's impossible to overlook Belgium's respectable tradition for beer brewing. The country has 115 breweries that squeeze out approximately 8 700 different types of beer, which gives an average of 14 types for each municipality. If you visit Belgium, you won't have much trouble finding a café that lets you choose between over 1 000 types.

Cherry-flavoured beer, anyone?

In addition, most breweries have their own distinct type of glass which they recommend for drinking their beer. This makes Belgian beer glasses a great collector's item, as there's bound to be hundreds of different ones out there.

Word to the wise: Belgium apparently has no restrictions on drinking in public, so be careful out there.

9. The climate

Well, it's a heck of a lot better than what I'm used to. Last year I had the warmest summer of my life, and it's bound to be much the same this year. That's fine, because I need to even out my tan lines from last year. Got to do something about that raw cold in the winter, though. And the rain... Let's not talk about the rain.

10. This girl


  1. Love the post, baby! :D

    You're right, there are a lot of awesome things in Belgium! And we haven't seen the last of them ;) Reminds me my dad still has to make those waffles!

  2. Let's work together to make that happen, then ;)

  3. The girl is your girlfriend I assume? :)

    One thing about the healthcare system: here in Spain (I am a Belgian expat in Spain) healthcare is virtually free. Visiting a doctor is totally free, and the medication I need costs me 1.5 euro whereas in Belgium it cost me 20 € for the same dosage. Also, even surgery is usually free here, with the downside of a waiting list. But overall, Spanish healthcare is probably the best I've come across already, and I've lived in 5 other countries besides Belgium and Spain ... That said, it's not bad at all neither in Belgium.

    Being clinically depressive and suffering from anxiety disorder, I do have to mention mental healthcare is bad in most EU countries. It is developping in the right direction, but still ... I heard Sweden has the best mental healthcare of Europe. I can only say here in Spain you need the private clinics if you want to have a good therapist, which costs me about 55€ a week for a one hour session.

    Anyway, let's not complain, things could be much worse. If I talk to American friends of mine, I think generally Europe has good healthcare overall. At least in most EU countries we can go to a doctor even when we're not having huge sums on the bank account.

    PS: funny that one of my dreams is to live above the polar circle in Trømso or further north. Hopefully I can realise your traject in opposite direction someday (but employment up there is hard to find and my Norsk is very limited)

  4. @Gerrit:

    Your assumption is correct :)

    Interesting facts about the Spanish health care system. Of course, when I hear that I can get something for free, my first thought is always: "What's the catch?"

    Wikipedia can explain Norwegian health care better than me:

    "Norway has a government run and government financed universal health care system, covering physical and mental health for all and dental health for children under the age of 16. Hospitals are paid by the state and doctor visit fees are capped at a fairly low rate. Medicine is market price, but people needing the medicine more than three months a year, gets prescription with high discount. There is also a yearly cap for people with high medical expenses (€240 in most cases)."

    (It should also be mentioned that the cap for doctor visits and prescription medicine is one and the same, so if you reach the cap with the one, the other also becomes free.)

    Finally: If I can learn Dutch, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to learn Norwegian! ;)

  5. Jeg snakker litt norsk :) Litt :( But I also know what to say if I would realise my dream someday: "Jeg bor en Tromsø".

    I know it sounds odd that my big passions are the Middle East and the Arctic, because they are very different. I fell in love with both for differentr reasons and while I do like life in Spain, I hope to settle either in Turkey or Israel, or either in North Norway at some point. Tromsø would be amazing, Longyearbyen would be a nice alternative. Maybe Kirkenes or Grense Jakobselv, the llatter is desolate enough for this poet to spend time in reclusion and only return to the populated world (= Kirkenes, Alta, Tromsø, Vardø, ...) with a novel and a whole pile of poems finished.
    (PS: my poetry ambitions is one of the reasons why I moved to Spain. Here thee artistic scene is quite big, especially in cities such as Barcelona and Madrid the offer is very big. So I hope to find my way in the artistic world, and Spain is a good place for that ... But I guess there's poetry clubs in Tromsø as well ? Longyearbyen maybe not but then I'd be the pioneer which is also exciting, starting the Svalbard Circle of Writers and Poets)

    As for the Spanish health care. Spain has long been a socialist stronghold since Franco's death turned it back into a democracy. Hence the state has supplied free healthcare and extremely cheap pharmacy bills to everyone. This doesn't mean it is perfect. The public system often comes with long waiting lists, so those who can afford it often go to a private clinic where they pay but are helped immediately. Personally I would support the abolition of the two networks and revert to only a state-supplied system. Unfortunately the right-wing Partido Popular won quite a lot of votes in recent elections, Spain is going through a difficult time politically (some people literally camp in the squares for days calling for a revolution) and this may reflect on the healthcare system changing -- although I hope it won't change.

    I am a member of a local political party here, the EUiA (which is the Catalan abbreviation for the United and Alternative Left, which is a coalition of ecologists, communists and social-democrats). Our party (= the party I am member of) made it top priority in the recent elections to NOT cut in the state subsidies for healthcare, education and social housing. We don't want that a good health and decent house becomes a privilege for a tiny group of wealthy people, especially a good health should be a basic right. Our party also lobbies for more green energy, easier access to good education and culture, and better protection for minorities such as immigrants. But given the crisis we focussed a lot on healthcare, education, social housing etc remaining accissible for all and state-provided. These were regional elections but with 10% of the votes here in Barcelona we did get twice the percentage we were predicted in the media, and we are the second biggest left-wing party now in this part of Spain. The southernmore parts voted more right-wing, in Catalunya however the left side is still relatively strong (although the big winners were the CiU, who campaign mainly for Catalan independence)

  6. (part II of my comment)

    I am lucky to be in good health physically (never needed surgery, never had big health problems - and that despite being vegetarian since childhood ;)) but unfortunately I have clinical depression and anxiety disorders for which I need to take a lot of meds. Here in Spain they are very cheap, so I hope this won't change now.

    A shortcoming in mental healthcare that exists in all European countries I've been in, is the lack of help outside of the psychotherapist's room. I mean, we have one hour a week to talk to a therapist, but that is sometimes not enough. We have no place to go to to meet other sufferers and talk to people who know what we go through. We must suffer in silence or, like I do, be open about my problems and notice some people just don't understand it. This is a shortcoming in the entire Europe although I heard Scandinavia is an exception because people would be more educated about psychology and thus have less of a taboo atmosphere about the subject. My poetry largely deals with the taboo and with life with psychological struggles, it is my way to try to contribute to emancipation of those who have psychological problems. The moment people are educated, we can talk about better ways to help those who suffer.

    but I am going off topic now... Great post and great blog, keep up the good work! Pity I don't know how to subscribe to specific posts and remain an email update when new comments are posted, I only figured out how to subscribe to the entire blog. I must increase my IT knowledge...

  7. @Gerrit: Well, if you want peace and quiet, the further north you go the better. As long as you prepare for the cold, you will be satisfied.

    As far as I can tell (and that is not very far), poetry is alive and well in Tromsø, although I wouldn't be able to give you any particular names. However, if you're interested in poetry about the arctic life, about nature and the people who live next door to it, you should be in the right place.

    It seems to me that it takes a very strong economy to support a good healthcare and welfare system. It think Norway is special in this respect. The socialist and social democratic parties stayed in power through the postwar years, and they maintained it even after the oil made the country rich. If you can tell me of another way for socialists to keep a country at the top of the Human Development Index, I'd love to hear it.

    What is your stance on the question of Catalan independence? I'm interested because it seems similar to the question of Belgium's unity. (But I know far too little to draw comparisons between Flemish and Catalan nationalists.)

    Good luck with the EUiA! I'd love to hear how it goes with you in the future.

  8. Well, I try to sort of stay out of the Catalan issue, because I feel like it is not my role to say (as an expat) to locals which flag should wave about their squares. I joined the EUiA because of my far-left ideologies, that is the type of ideology that is cross-border: if you're liberal/democrat/socialist/communist/ecologist/whatever in country A, you're likely to subscribe to the same ideology in country B. The Catalan issue is not like a general ideology you follow: it is very much a regional issue.

    Catalunya has quite a lot of regional authority as it is, maybe a status quo for now would be good. In the end we first must get the crisis resolved in Spain before we tackle other issues again. But then, I joined the EUiA because of my leftist ideology, I try to not tell Catalans to feel Spanish or Catalan (or both, some of my friends feel proudly Catalan but still have a Spanish pride as well)

    I think natural resources like oil make it definitely easier for a socialist nation to do well. Of course, given my own political ideology, I refuse to believe other countries cannot function in a socialist system. I think what the left and the far left mainly need to strive for, is using the theories (Marxism-Leninism) and adapt them to the modern timeframe, trying to learn from past mistakes and apply correctly what was not applied correctly before. I strongly believe in the theory, it has not been applied correctly in the former East Bloc but that doesn't mean the theory cannot be applied correctly. I think to do that is what the left should strive for. Just my opinion though :)

  9. Thank you for enlightening me, Gerrit. I'm sorry to say that I usually learn more from a conversation than my conversation partner does.

    Anyway, feel free to comment on anything that interests you!