WE ARE FROM BELGIUM
It is not difficult to love Belgium. You may only be familiar with the country from holiday guidebooks, although chips, smurfs, Eddy Merckx and Magritte may ring a bell. But there is much more to Belgium than you think. This is a country that works quietly and efficiently, like a clever engineer or a confident inventor. Calm and solid, free of unnecessary bluster but not without colour or interest. Think Switzerland with a warm southerly wind blowing in from Paris. A David among the Goliaths. Small but flexible, compact but home to the best of the best. Approachable but never naive. Welcome to Belgium. Santé – gezondheid!
Belgium seems to have more parliaments than residents, is smaller than a garden gnome’s little toe, has more official languages than major cities and never makes it to the final round of Eurovision. Or the UEFA Cup either. Or any sport besides women’s tennis. And nobody – not even the prime minister – knows all the verses of the national anthem, since it isn’t taught in schools.
And all that is truly odd, because our education system is without a doubt the best, most democratic and transparent in the world. Tip top. Just like our health care system, our graduates, our never-ceasing prattle about the weather, our pralines, our bank balances, our endive, our pharmaceuticals, our tidy lawns and our legendary cyclists.
And despite our appreciation of the absurd, and our chaotic constructions and eccentric solutions, Belgium remains at the top of the class. But how?
You might say that Belgium exists only because Germany and England needed a place to fight out their quarrels without actually having to invade each other’s territory. Or because the Dutch need a place to camp on their way to southern European holiday destinations, or a place to stop for sandwiches on the long drive home from the French Riviera to The Hague or Amsterdam.
You might also say that throughout history Belgium has been trampled on, built up, surrendered to and taken over by anyone and everyone. Or by whoever happened to be in the area at the time.
You would also be forgiven for saying that Belgium is a country that is almost swallowed up by the major European powers and, on a global scale, weighs in (just!) somewhere between the American V8 engine and the purring Asian tiger.
But whatever you say, and in spite of everything, Belgium’s history is in no way a burden. And all in all, its location is actually a blessing. Nestled between Flanders (almost Scandinavian!) and Wallonia (northern Europeans consider it akin to Provence!), Belgium enjoys the best of all its adjoining worlds. A bridge between the German and Roman cultures, between beer and wine, butter and oil, Abba and Aznavour. It imports humour from the UK, cars from Germany – anything else would be quite odd. Antwerp boasts one of the world’s largest ports but is also a city of world-renowned fashion. Its residents are no more than an hour away from an airport connecting them to every corner of the globe. And the best thing of all? Belgians think all of this is perfectly ordinary.
To put it concisely, it isn’t difficult to love Belgium.
Belgium: independent since 1830, 11 million inhabitants, 30,000 square kilometres and one of the world’s most densely populated countries. Average temperature here is 11°C. The main city is Brussels, which is the nation’s capital and the administrative centre of the European Union. Dutch, French and German are the country’s three official languages, although there are myriad local dialects and accents. The political structure is complex for such a small country: Belgium has six parliaments. Brussels has its own parliament and the capital region has no fewer than 19 mayors for one million inhabitants. The economy runs on knowledge and services for 73%, with industry at 24% and agriculture at approximately 2%. Belgian workers are among the world’s most productive, and the country’s low unemployment is mainly thanks to a strong work ethic. Belgium’s taxes are among Europe’s highest and can amount to 65% of income, so compared to the European average employees cost up to 70% more here. Church and state are rigidly separate. In about 50 BC, Julius Caesar described the Belgians as the bravest of people.