by Timothy Lutts
Ten Facts About Belgium, after a long vacation in the region.
1. The country has two official languages. In the south, Wallonia, they speak French. In the north, Flanders, they speak Dutch. And in the middle, where the capital Brussels is, they speak both. All major signs are in both languages.
2. They have great beer. In my time there, I enjoyed Carlsberg, Grimbergen, Hoegarden, Leffe, La Chouffe, Piraat, Orval and more. Here’s a picture of an important spot in Brussels.
3. They really like moules (mussels) and frites (which we call French fries). The universal sign for frites is a paper cone, with the frites poking out the top. And they eat them with mayonnaise, not ketchup.
4. Belgians are a little boring, in a dependable way, which is why they were tapped to lead the European Union. And the European Union has brought a little economic boom to Brussels. But it hasn’t helped the rest of the country much. Belgium’s GDP shrank a little last year.
5. Unfortunately, Brussels is rather dirtier than we expected. After the cleanliness of London and Luxembourg, it was a bit disappointing.
6. However, Brussels has a big and beautiful main square, thanks to the fact that after the French bombarded it flat in 1695, the Belgians quickly rebuilt glorious architectural wonders, which miraculously escaped destruction in the World Wars of the 20th century.
7. Belgians, like all Europeans, still smoke too many cigarettes. The weather was unseasonably wonderful for our entire vacation, so we ate outdoors when possible. Trouble is, that’s where the smokers are.
8. Like all Northern Europeans, Belgians are very good at obeying traffic laws, both in the cities and on the highways. It’s wonderful that they still keep to right on the highway unless passing, while in the U.S., the practice of staying in the left lane at all times has led to an epidemic of passing on the right.
9. Similarly, they obey the rules as pedestrians, which means no crossing the street until the walk sign is on. As a frequent visitor to New York City, where the rules long ago ceased to mean anything, I’m of two minds about this. It slows life down, and this is both good and bad.
10. Finally, bicycles. They ride more than Americans, but less than the Dutch, who are the European champions. It’s fun to dream about making America a less car-centric culture—and more fit as a result—but it’s very hard to see the road to get there, in part because our country is so diverse.