Belgium – love at second sight!
At that stage it was quite clear to me: for the majority of Germans, Belgium is terra incognita. We might make jokes about the Americans who believe that Europe is in the Pacific and Germany is a monarchy, but if you were to ask a couple of average citizens on the Marienplatz in Munich what they know about Belgium – Belgium? Where is it exactly? Aren’t the chips meant to be good there?
And they certainly are. But why would two out of three Germans who move to Belgium never come back? It is surely not down to potato strips deep-fried several times at different temperatures.
Initially the capital of Belgium, Brussels, overwhelms the Teuton with everything that at a deep level he detests. Noise, chaos, excessive levels of petty criminality, this is simply how things are in the city. As a Bavarian used to law and order, I can only stare in disbelief at the police, who much prefer to finish their cigarette than get excited about a car going down a one-way street the wrong way – right in front of their eyes. And after my car had been broken into for the third time in a year, I knew I had really arrived in Belgium – I didn’t bother going to the police station but simply drove straight off to have the glass replaced.
If my family back home start singing that typical German lament about taxes that are too high, bureaucracy that is too great and the incompetence of Deutsche Telekom, all I can do is smile weakly. VAT in Belgium is at 21 percent, the time required to register in my municipality of Ixelles/Elsene was three months, and it was half a year before I got a telephone connection from Belgacom that functioned at least sporadically.
The Belgians believed in being chilled. The small state is practically crushed by the tensions between the Walloons and the Flems, one government after the other goes to the wall – but nobody really gets excited about it. “That is a dispute between politicians, not citizens,“ said one of my Belgian friends.
And that is precisely the charm of this country and of this, in the best sense of the word, laid-back way of living. Very free, very human, with much less fear and aggression. It is rare to see anyone shouting, even in the daily traffic chaos of Brussels. One practices forbearance – as much with neighbours as with workmen who have only half-completed a job.
My car mechanic Joost was similarly bemused when I stood in his garage after having the exhaust repaired and aired my German anger. I had paid for a new exhaust and the thing was banging as if it was about to fall off. He laughed and got underneath the car. Aha, he’d forgotten two screws. Excuse me? Forgotten? I get mad. The Belgian screws them on. Rip, zip! No it’s okay. No problem. No stress. “Nog een prettige dag – Bonne journée.“ Why get cross? On that particular day I felt very German.
The laissez-faire attitude of the Belgians is contagious. I notice it particularly when I am visiting Germany. In the meantime I find the harsh language, the coarse way of dealing with things and the ever-present irritation very arduous. Beforehand I barely noticed it. “Hand me a spoon!“ yells the man in a tie at the waitress in a Berlin cafe. The woman can feel that the client enjoys giving orders. A few metres away a young man in a pinstripe is standing at the bar. In Belgium he would probably have been flirting with the barmaid behind the counter. Here he is having a go at her. He wants a hot chocolate, not the normal one but a "white" one. And that is also typical German: wanting virtually everything and yet still bellyaching.
On my return to the airport in Brussels, as the North-African taxi driver takes the suitcase out of my hand and with a cheerful “Bonjour Monsieur“, enquires in a French sing-song voice how I am, I immediately feel at home. Why can’t people in Germany live a bit more like the Belgians? A bit more polite, tolerant, and above all, with a greater capacity for enjoyment. Many supermarkets between Bruges and Bastgone would be considered delicatessen in German. And it is not without reason that the front page of my four Asterix books shows the tiny Gaul at a heavily-laden table with hordes of happy Belgians having a good time.
Ten minutes later and we are stuck in traffic. And then I wish that the Belgians could be just a bit more German.