An introduction to Belgium
Belgium is a small, densely populated country (10,39 million inhabitants with 339 people/km2), with three official languages: Dutch, French and German. Its capital, Brussels, doubles as the capital of the European Union.
Belgians enjoy a comfortable life: most own their own homes, love good food and drink, benefit from an excellent social security and healthcare system, and insist on having their roads and highways brightly lit at night (the illuminated “Belgian Window” can apparently be seen from space).
International guests at Ghent University, who want to experience firsthand life in Belgium, are always welcome to join the permanent training course Low Countries Studies.
Politics and languages
Despite its small size, Belgium has a unique and complex institutional and political structure. The country is divided into three language groups (three communities), Dutch-speaking (6 million), French-speaking (4 million) and German-speaking (70,000), each with their own administration in charge mainly of cultural and educational affairs.
In addition, there are three regions, linked to economic interests, again with their own governments: Flanders (in the north), Wallonia (in the south), and Brussels. The federal government mainly has authority over foreign affairs, immigration issues, social security and defence.
Belgium has 10 provinces. Ghent is the capital of the Province of East Flanders (part of the Dutch-speaking community). It is a central location in Flanders: either the sea or Brussels and Antwerp are half an hour away.
A concise history
Some Belgian towns, notably Tongeren and Tournai, date back to Roman times, when Julius Caesar declared ancient Belgians to be the “bravest of all Gauls” (after conquering them).
In the Middle Ages (1200-1500) many Belgian cities flourished and expanded. The ports of Bruges and Antwerp were among the largest and busiest in Europe, cathedrals rose up everywhere, elaborate town halls proudly proclaimed the citydwellers’ new-found freedoms and wealth. Many different countries ruled over the Low Countries, including Spain, Austria, France and the Netherlands.
Finally, Belgium gained its independence in 1830, drew up a constitution and imported a monarch from among the German nobility. It entered the Industrial Era at an early stage, and is now firmly established primarily as a service economy with over 70% of the working population employed outside of agriculture and industry. The standard of living in Belgium is among the highest in the world. Timeline: chronology of key events since 1830...
The art of compromise and underachievement
A prevailing attitude of many Belgians is a high degree of self-criticism characteristic of almost all Belgians. There is no such thing as a patriotic Belgian. Attractively modest though this attitude might seem, it does lead to a distorted image of Belgium abroad. After all, who will take a country seriously when even its own citizens deride it?
As an international student or scholar in Belgium, you will find that most Belgians will agree wholeheartedly with any criticism you have to offer of their country, customs or politics.
We have never started or engaged in an armed conflict, either internally or internationally, except for a futile attempt at self-defence against the Germans in World Wars I and II. This lack of pride in its own achievements contributes largely to Belgium’s indeterminate, or non-existent, identity abroad.
Chocolate springs most readily to mind when foreigners are asked what they know of Belgium, an embarrassed silence usually follows further enquiries. Whereas other small countries, such as the Netherlands, Portugal or Norway, have been successful in projecting a coherent image of themselves to the outside world, Belgians have never really tried.
The Belgian Character
The one thing that most non-Belgians would agree on when first confronted with the Belgians on their home turf is that they are a reserved and introverted people. This impression usually lasts until their first visit to a Belgian’s home, where they will be very cordially welcomed and fed large amounts of excellent food and drink.
A Belgian feels most relaxed and comfortable in the midst of his close circle of family and friends. Family ties are very important – witness the weekly exodus of Belgian students from Ghent, who routinely spend every weekend at home with their parents and childhood friends. Friendships are enduring; once you have made a Belgian friend, you will find that it is very hard to get rid of him.
Another attractive feature of the Belgian character is the trend towards egalitarianism. There are no obscenely wide gaps in income, the rich are never super rich, the poor are provided for, and the number of homeless people might well be the smallest in the entire industrial world.
It is fashionable among Belgians and non-Belgians alike to complain about the level of bureaucracy in the country and the inordinate number of holidays that Belgians enjoy. In fact, economic productivity is among the highest in the world, and the anarchic streak in the Belgian character ensures that bureaucrats never gain the upper hand.
Belgium is also a very safe country, with a remarkably low crime rate. Brussels, according to some surveys, is the safest capital in the world in terms of the murder rate.
A very short introduction to Belgian popular culture
Some aspects of Belgian popular culture hardly need an introduction. Most students will not need any encouragement to try out the hundreds of delicious Belgian beers.
Thirsty or hungry? Check out the food and drinks pages.
A lesser-known attraction, and one that routinely creates confusion among non-Belgians, is the figure of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas). Affectionately known as de Sint, he is often described as the Belgian (and Dutch) version of Santa Claus. However, he has no connection with Christmas. Dressed in magnificent red robes and a bishop’s mitre, Sinterklaas visits Belgian (and Dutch) children’s homes on the eve of December 5, and climbs the roof seated on his white horse, accompanied by his faithful servant Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) to deliver presents to good children through the chimney.
An excellent opportunity to observe Belgians having fun in large numbers outdoors is on the occasion of a local kermis. A kermis is a typically Belgian type of fair, complete with noisy fairground rides, bumper cars, 'oliebollen' (a variety of doughnut), escargots (snails) and 'frieten' (fries) stands. Ghent has its very own unmissable kermis during March - April.