I am now more than halfway through my exchange semester in Brussels, nearing final classes and exams now! It’s totally wild. School is really tough, and yet I’m finally settling into a social life here and sometimes that’s all I can think about. Time to put my genius cap on! Across the ocean, my relationships with loved ones have changed, as has my relationship with myself. You really don’t understand the differences that 3 months will make until you take the time look behind you.
With that being said, I thought I’d give you all some insight on some distinct elements of life in Brussels/Belgium/Europe so far.
It is always raining. Always.
Mother Nature is the moodiest when she’s hanging out in Belgium. A day could start gorgeously warm and sunny, and as soon as you step outside you’ll be greeted with an absolute downpour! Let me tell you – this makes the country bloody flipping cold. Belgians like to laugh at me and say that I’m Canadian and should be used to the cold, but the wind will blow the dampness into your bones and you will experience a chill like no other. Last week, her weather of choice is abrupt and aggressive bouts of hailstones and freezing rain about 6 times a day. This week, I’ve seen unprecedented amounts of gorgeousness – 25 degrees and sunny! Who even knows what is next to come.
Unity…is just not a thing.
Most of us Canucks can agree that Canada is not the greatest example of cultural unity ever – we are generally united only in diversity itself, and the idea that we are NOT Americans – just really polite maple syrup aficionados who say ‘eh’ a lot.
Yet Belgium is even more befuddling to me. First, you have 3 competing languages – French, Flemish, and German. There are political and cultural regions divided linguistically with their own councils and responsibilities, not to mention a heck of a lot of levels of national government for ONE COUNTRY. Two intelligence forces. A Flemish separatist movement. A constitutional monarchy. Several competing transportation institutions, both regionally, nationally, and municipally. Not to mention that each city in Belgium has at least 2 different names and pronunciations, for example;
Bruges = Bruge = Brugge
Anvers = Antwerp = Antwerpen
Brussel = Brussels = Bruxelles
Louvain = Leuven = Löwen
This country hangs in a balance that I will probably never understand…and yet I still try!
OH…and let’s not talk about the magically impressive yet headache-inducing creation that is the European Union.
Canadian undercover? NOT GONNA HAPPEN.
I am IMMEDIATELY singled out whenever I say more than a few words in French. The Belgians have ‘Canadar’, I’m telling you! English is my first language, but I’ve studied French from a young age – my particular way of speaking is a bit of an ugly mutt, influenced heavily by Acadian, Québécois, and Montréalais rhythms. It’s going to sound silly to anyone, really – but it is very distinctly Canadian, and people in Belgium WILL ask about it, 9 times out of 10. Even my Canadian friends who speak French as their first language will often have shopkeepers immediately switch to English when talking to them. Even so, a lot of people here think it’s super attractive to have a Canadian accent. I’ve even been called a “sexy caribou”…WHAT AM I MISSING HERE? AM I EXOTIC NOW OR SOMETHING? This must be how people with British accents feel…
OH! And before I forget: are you wearing a scarf and carrying an umbrella at all times? No? HA! You’re a newbie foreigner FOR SURE.
French fries aren’t French!
First of all – the reason they are called French fries is because some silly Americans during World War One came across these lovely fried potatoes and didn’t know which country they were in – they just heard French being spoken and made a snap judgment. Don’t you be thinking that the fast food industry in North America is the top player when it comes to fries; it’s the Belgians that have NAILED the recipe! True blue “frites” are made by double frying the potatoes in oil (and sometimes duck fat), and served with a variety of mayo-based sauces in a paper cone. Great snack at any time of day or night – and you will definitely run into your friends at the local snack hut!
Other things that are distinctly Belgian? Waffles, truffles or prailiné chocolate, René Magritte (surrealist painter – “Ceci n’est pas un pipe”), Stromae (singer of Alors on Danse, Papaoutai), and famous comics like TinTin.
Traveling is a cinch
Europe has a beautiful thing called Schengen – the ability to move between countries in Europe freely. Belgium is a small country bordered by France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. There are several cheap airfare companies, like Ryanair, where you can get a return flight to many places in Europe for under $100 CAD. Not into flying? There are 3 major train stations in Brussels alone with trains leaving for all sorts of destinations. Buses and rideshare programs like BlaBla Car are abundant as well! Get out and go!