Notes from Belgium

written on Saturday, 06 Jul 2013

Note: This writeup is part of a series of notes I kept on some of my journies . Inspired by many others before me, I decided to keep notes on anything I find interesting while being abroad. Please bear in mind that these notes are assorted and might lack any value whatsoever.


Shortly after having fun in Nederlands [1] I quite coincidentally showed up in Belgium. While being there the following seemed interesting enough to write down a note about it:

Driving habits

It seems that Belgium is very similar to Netherlands in regard to driving. Even bus drivers stop when you are about to cross the street and even if you gesture them something like 'you first' they'll insist and wait until you really cross it.

Also, Belgium is the first country in which I've seen an ambulance (with lights turned on) waiting for the green light.

The tale of a kick scooter

I expected Belgium to be similar in many ways with Netherlands but there is one thing that really surprised me. They really do use kick scooters here. I must say I'm pretty envy. Why didn't I took mine with me?

Oh, I know now. Ryanair.

The Language

While being in Netherlands one thing became quite obvious to me: Dutch is a strange yet beautiful language. That said, I thought I would have never get a grasp of it (I rather go for languages that are easy from my point of view like Spanish or Russian).

It is very strange here in Belgium. I don't know what is the name of that language they speak but I suppose it is some kind of Dutch dialect (they also speak French but I don't get much of that). And the most surprising thing is that it suddenly starts making sense. It's not that I would somehow magically managed to understand everything. But from the context and similarity to English and German I was able to decrypt quite a lot (like signs in the train or on the street).

With a Dutch dictionary and phrasebook I probably could hold a meaningful conversation.

Unfortunately, I won't have time for that here. We'll hopefully see in Eindhoven.

On buildings

I am no expert on buildings and architecture. I can't tell you differences between the baroque and classical style. I only judge buildings by the impressions they leave at me. It's not objective but it never meant to be. Still, there is something about buildings I just cannot leave untouched.

I have never been thinking about buildings up until now. They were just structures that provide a place to live, work and sleep. But then something changed. Something invisible but still noticeable changed.

Here is a sad fact: I didn't like single building in Brussels. Maybe it was because I saw buildings mostly from the subway (and I'm not even sure if that's the correct term because there were times when it went above the ground). Maybe I didn't look well enough. Maybe I just cannot appreciate modern architecture. Maybe I failed to see value when staring at it.

I don't know.

But I do know that the main square looked quite nice. Up to the point when they told me it's the biggest square in Europe.

From that point on, my brain refused to like it.

http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7351/9223661210_dd86d59a7f_o.png

The only building I liked in the Brussels main square when leaving. Yes, because of the duck.

What it really means to be multilangual

Belgium is a multilingual country. There are three official languages: French, Dutch and German. Also, since there are huge amounts of people from all over the world meeting there I expected English to be spoken pretty much everywhere.

I could not be more wrong. I recall now that I heard someone saying that "English is only good to order coffee in Brussels". At that time I thought it was highly exaggerated. I can say now that it really is like that. And sometimes even worse.

If you want to speak with the natives you better know some French/Dutch/German. It's not that they wouldn't speak English at all. I believe that in most cases they do. But even of they do, they prefer not to. That is quite acceptable. But the worst thing you can do is show them you know just a little bit of language they are speaking in.

Forget about speaking English afterwards.


You can also find extreme cases of this phenomenon. I've personally met with a German gentleman in Brussels who spoke German and German only. Honestly, I did not have enough courage to ask him to speak English but something is telling me that it wouldn't help either.

Left with no other choice I used my limited German and actually managed to keep some kind of discussion going (it was more less his monologue but discussion sounds better). When we finished some 20 minutes later I had a strange feeling. Not only did I understand quite a lot but I also created a few sentences which were not completely wrong.

The moral is obvious here: learn languages (also applies to programming languages). Sooner or later it will pay off.

"We should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly."

Kató Lomb

Prejudices

When I went to Belgium for the first time I was equipped with this video and the notion of Brussels being the heaven of all bureaucrats in the whole world. So I generally did not expect much.

I did not expect much this time either but I realized one more thing. Belgium is not only Brussels, even though it is obviously its very important part. That also means that not everything that is true in Brussels has to hold true in other parts of this country. Which very nicely shows what prejudices are.

After I got home I randomly went over an article which was cleverly titled The EU Guide to Broken Belgium. If you want to know what a large part of my perception of Belgium looked like before I actually met some Belgium people go read that article.

It was just after I met them when I realized how prejudical I was and that I should not. After all, big companies at least try to enhance awareness of computer security, there are some awesome people there and some of them know precisely how intelligent humor should look like.

Epilogue

A few weeks after I came home from Belgium and managed to find some time to spare I indeed started learning some Dutch vocabulary with Memrise. I was (and still am) intending to get at least to some conversational level. It doesn't seem possible, especially give the amount of time I will be able to devote to it but I will try to document the whole process and write about it here.

To sum up my trip to Belgium I'd like to thank my colleague Koen Metsu, his beautiful wife and their awesome son for showing up and supporting us at a science fair which was, to a great extend, a waste of time.

[1]Please note the usage of the word Nederlands. Some might say that it is the wrong spelling of Netherlands and some might even be correct. I personally think that this misspeling originates from the fact that I was trying to learn some Dutch at the time of writing those notes and honoring it by using the Dutch version (which was not correct either) was the only logical option.