I first visited Brussels in 1999. In 2000 I brought my family here. What impressed me from the very beginning were the buildings, especially the famous Belgian houses with their specific architecture, a mixture of the southern and northern styles. The houses of this type are on two or three floors and there is no room between them. I figured that the houses staying together in front of the winds and rains – which are of a particular intensity here – make them stronger. The missing space between the houses may explain my guess.
It was not easy to understand the Belgian society when we arrived here. Three communities, three official languages and different administration layers: local, regional, federal and on top the community layers, French and Flemish. When arriving here we saw bilingual texts everywhere and we understood immediately why Brussels is bilingual on one hand. On the other hand it took us some years to understand how the Belgian administration works. That was important given the fact that we needed to renew our papers each six months. I still have a huge pile of papers from that period, which, for records purposes, I still keep them archived somewhere. But, that is already past and let’s not open the subject here.
When we first travelled throughout Belgium we noticed that the same cities and villages bear different names, depending where you were, in Wallonia or in Flanders. For instance, we got lost when we saw “Liège” in Wallonia and “Luik” in Flanders, which were actually the names of the same city, but in the two languages, French and Flemish. That was confusing as we were used to our mother tongue rules, where the original names are often preserved.
Brussels is a symbol of the European integration and everyone visiting Brussels sees and feels that. I often come across Brussels visitors who take pictures of themselves in front of the EU administration famous buildings, be it the European Parliament, the Council or the Commission. To a certain extent the EU yellow stars are not only part of the EU symbols, but somehow they are overused. Most of the Brussels-based NGOs and other entities bear something “euro” in their names or logos. This is probably to remind people that the EU capital is here, the EU as such was born here and they belong to this space and their reputation grows.
Brussels offers plenty of entertaining opportunities: from unique events such as the flower carpets in Grande Place, every two years, to concerts and exhibitions. Brussels as such does not have (yet) large spaces for big concerts, apart from the stadiums, which I do not like given their original configuration: they were built for other purposes than music and there is no acoustic facilities. Music becomes just an indefinite huge noise there.
Brussels and Belgium as such became our adoptive country. Little by little we have gotten familiar with the country, the people and their culture. We do not pretend that we know everything about Belgium and its people, but we do our best to catch up with its history, customs and habits.
Belgium produces ones of the best beers, chocolate and waffles. Belgians claims that the French fries have their origin here and not in France. We are still testing the large variety of cheese, beer and chocolate produced in Belgium. There are more than 300 varieties of beer and more than 400 varieties of cheese produced in Belgium. We have been testing and testing and we still need to test the varieties of cheese and beer in the years to come since we have been unable to cover all them from 2000 to date.
We learned a lot of new things in our adoptive country. For instance, we could not eat mussels at the beginning, but we gave it a try and we discovered their great taste. Little by little we borrowed some of the Belgian food habits, which are part of our ordinary cuisine.
It is also worth noting that today Belgium is a country divided politically and linguistically whereas in the past its territory was housing many of the major artistic movements that contributed to enhancing the European cultural heritage. There is also a contrasting reality of the cultures shared by the two communities, where a number of cultural barriers are being removed little by little. For example there are only two bilingual higher education institutions in Belgium, namely the Royal Military Academy and the Antwerp Maritime Academy.
Belgium stays as the main bridge between Germanic and Latin Europe.