Language: Dutch, French, German (Depends on which part of the country you are in)
General Overview: Belgium is a small country in Northern Europe. There is no one “official” language as Dutch, French, and German can all be heard here. It is split between the Dutch speaking Flemish of the north and the French speaking Walloons from the south. I understand that there is a friendly rivalry between the north and south parts of the country, similar to the southern US distancing themselves from the rest of America.
Belgium used to be a part of the Netherlands until it declared independence in 1830. Although a separate nation now, there are many similarities between the cultures of the Netherlands and Belgium, the most notable being the Dutch language spoken in the Flanders region.
Brussels, the largest city in Belgium, is home to the parliament of the European Union and has earned the nickname “Capital of Europe”. Because of this, as well as the various languages heard throughout the land, Belgium is one of the most diverse countries in the world and there are many regional variances of culture depending on where you go.
Belgium has no formal government and they have been trying to put one in power for the last year with little success.
Notable Cities: Brussels
Cuisine: There are 3 culinary items that Belgium is notorious for: Chocolate, waffles, and beer.
The chocolate in Belgium is legendary and you can buy the amazing stuff your country imports for fairly cheap here. Any town will have a variety of chocolate shops available, most of which create the chocolate right there in the store. Beware of chocolate shops in the tourist areas, as they will undoubtedly overprice the products and even offer “rare/delicacy” chocolates that really aren’t that great. A lot of the good chocolates can be found at supermarkets for 1/4 the price of tourist shops and those aren’t even considered the best ones.
Everybody has heard of the Belgium Waffle, but very few have had a proper Belgium style waffle. In America, waffles are considered a breakfast item that is doused in butter and syrup, but in Belgium this is not the case. Waffles are more of a snack than a meal, with most vending machines selling them. They come in oval shapes and are usually pretty thick. If bought at a store, they are normally topped with whipped cream and powdered sugar, as well as any additional toppings the customer prefers. These waffles are nothing like the toaster style “Egos” that Americans grew up; Belgium waffles are sugary goodness that would be considered “soul food” back home. A must do when traveling the country.
Despite Belgium’s small size (it’s population is 2/3 that of New York) there is a surprisingly large selection of home brewed beers available. At one store in Brugge, there were over 250 different types of Belgium beers available for sale. The Belgians take great pride in their beer and would not settle for the standard cheap beers like Carslberg or Miller Lite. Pale lagers are popular and are served in what look like large wine glasses rather than the standard pint glass.
One of the lesser known staples of a Belgian diet is fries. There are french fry stands all over the country and are usually served in a paper cone with topping of choice (the fries are popular with mayo, a salute to their Dutch neighbors).
Attitude: The attitude in Belgium is very laid back and friendly. It’s one of those rare places in Europe where you can actually get friendly service in a restaurant or bar. Everybody seems really happy and relaxed, making me wonder if they ever go to work or get stressed out.
Any time of the day people can be found at the parks enjoying some beer with their friends and family. In the urban areas, there is a really “cozy” feel to everything (besides Brussels, a fast-paced exception). I think that the Belgians feel a common tie to their neighbors, the Dutch (makes sense since they used to be the same country).
There isn’t the slightest tone of arrogance or superiority when speaking with Dutch people. They might feel a little overpowered by some of the large countries around them like France or Germany, but never inferior. This is a tiny nation that is proud to be just that; a small, cozy place to live and enjoy life.
Drinking: As said before, the Belgians take great pride in their beer. They love drinking in social situations and it can be quite easy to strike up a conversation with a local over a glass of pale lager.
Drinking in the streets is common, but acting like a drunkard is not. I rarely saw some of the rowdy street behavior that was common in Denmark and I believe that they try to maintain composure to look respectable in public. Hard alcohol like whiskey and vodka is not as common here and takes a noticeable backseat to beer.
Although unrelated to drinking, I should point out that cigarette smoking is much less common here than the other countries. There are very few stores that sell tobacco and they usually aren’t open very late. I am not sure what the laws against smoking are, but they seem to be working as the mass public doesn’t smoke that much (compared to previous countries).
Attitudes towards foreigners: The attitude towards foreigners is really good here. Belgians love meeting new people, and it is fairly common for foreigners to be in the country due to its small size. They always want to know what outsiders think about Belgium, and then will happily describe how they feel about your country.
When doing this, they won’t hold much back. They will tell you the good/bad things they perceive from your land without hesitation. At the same time, if you are from a place they have never been to, except a lot of questions. They are curious about foreign lands and love to learn about them.
English is spoken here at a pretty basic level. Most people you meet can speak English but might not be able to follow a natural speaker that well. Be sure to talk with common words in an understandable dialect; if you start talking as if they were fellow English speakers they might not be able to understand you. As long as you are polite, expect to be treated greatly in Belgium.
The rules: Belgium is much like Germany when it comes to following the rules. Streets are not to be crossed until the green man is up, trash is never to be thrown on the ground, and people are to be quiet when leaving the bar late at night.
Although Belgians follow the rules with complete respect, there aren’t very many rules to follow (could explain that). Written rules are not as commonplace in public areas.
It should be noted that Belgium holds the record for longest time without a formal government (breaking Iraq’s record last February) and to date has not settled on a real government, using what is called a “caretaker government” for the time being. Technically, Belgium is a state of anarchy, however there are still police forces keeping basic order and the citizens are living as if there isn’t a political problem. The government situation seems to have little effect on how people behave here.
Wealth: Belgium enjoys a decent standard of living as is on par with the rest of the industrialized world for wealth. There isn’t a high number of very wealthy people in the country, nor very poor people. The majority is middle-class and with the socialized system in effect, the distribution of wealth is pretty equal.
I found it interesting that there were far less beggars in Belgium than anywhere else. Usually when traveling Europe you will encounter homeless people on the streets begging for change (highest in tourist places or train stations) but this is not as common here. Perhaps a testament to the countries wealth fare system working efficiently.