By the end of my first year in Brussels, I managed to finally settle in. I was nineteen years old when I had arrived to Belgium to study for a bachelor degree in interpreting and translating, and therefore, was probably young enough to embrace my new surroundings faster and with a relative ease. In the future I would change two more countries of residence, to finally realize that over the age of forty, moving to another country is much more difficult. You experience a prolonged cultural shock, miss your friends and your family, have to learn another language and try to integrate with a luggage of well-established views, routine and habits.
Still…even at the age of nineteen, staying in another country as a potential immigrant is a difficult endeavor. I was used to Russia and Ukraine of my childhood, and wasn’t prepared for the fact that people could be so different elsewhere. They say that we are all the same, beyond the surface, but having lived in four (five if I count Ukraine) different countries, I think that growing up in a particular culture marks the person forever. People are different from one country to another.
So, what was different in Belgian people?
- Belgians are very friendly, and genuinely friendly. It isn’t a mask. They are curious about other people, cultures and languages (probably due to their history of gaining independence relatively late), and thus, are very welcoming. It is one of the easiest country to integrate in, provided you speak their languages (French, Flemish and even, German!).
2. They smile to you even when they don’t know you. That was the biggest challenge for me. Russian people appear as unsmiling zombies at a first encounter, they rarely smile to a stranger. Smiling is gross. Smiling to someone you don’t know, means something is wrong with you.
I had to learn to smile. The problem was me, I, thankfully, learned very quickly, and not the good-natured Belgian people. After having lived in Belgium for 6 years in total (I ended up living in Brussels twice), I smile now all the time if I see someone for the first time, unless the person is openly hostile. I love smiling now. I think that I am a bit Belgian myself, so much it marked me during my student years.
3. If you are a woman and you live in Belgium, you are lucky. Belgian men are very courteous. They smile to you on the street, they say that you are beautiful, and aren’t affected that much by some aspects of the latest wave of feminism. They open the door for you to go first, they flirt with you, and if they invite you on a date, they treat you well. Nothing is wrong with it, agree?
4. Belgian people smile often because they lead a nice life. Belgium country is a country of ‘bon vivants’. They like good food and food is delicious in Belgium. They are also much more generous than French. You won’t encounter tiny hardly visible portions on your plate. If you order a dish at a restaurant, it comes in a size that will feed you well. They also like wine, and their shops are amazing. If a company launches a new product, you can count on Belgian people to try it on. They are open to possibilities, they have a curious mind. Leaving my residence in the Netherlands (my second foreign country where I lived) to return to Brussels, wasn’t due to the fact that Dutch shops stopped selling my favorite Danone coconut yogurt, but still, I was pleasantly surprised when on my first trip to a local grocery shop, I discovered that the yogurt was still available, occupying the central place on the shelf.
5. Belgian people are generous. I moved after my first year in Brussels to another place, – a small studio facing the cemetery, and my Belgian neighbor took me immediately under her wing. She would bring me to see her parents, take me to camping in the Ardennes, show me Brussels, and invite me for dinners. Belgian people are nice.
And so, after my first difficult year in Brussels, by the end of August I was totally in love with the country.
The only ‘but’ was – I put on ten kilos due to the delicious Belgian food. But oh, the food, the Belgian food – it deserves a whole different story.
(me at the age of twenty in Brussels)
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