Who are you, Flanders?

I must admit that I didn’t really have a clue what to expect from Belgium. And yes, I always said “Belgium” because I also didn’t know about any differences between Wallonia and Flanders. However, the following weeks and months I was taught of a better – or wasn’t I?

I’m now sitting here with the feeling that I somehow understand the region I stay in – lovely but rainy Flanders – much better than before. At the same time, I’m still not sure what it wants from me, who it expects me to be. I feel like the whole region is a huge contradiction in itself – but that’s what makes it so special. To illustrate you better what I mean, let me give you a couple of examples.

The language

The official language of the Flemish region is Dutch. But it’s not the “real” Dutch that people in the Netherlands speak – it’s Flemish. It’s some kind of accent or dialect, I think. Then you go out and people suddenly also speak French fluently. This still makes sense, as they must learn it in school. But then again, many people also understand and speak my native language German! This again wasn’t to much of a surprise as some Dutch words sound really like the same expression in German. Yet, some words or sounds are just incredibly difficult to pronounce for me. Actually, it’s quite admirable that people here can show off with so many different languages but sometimes that still confuses me. You meet a person and you’re asking yourself: “Should I rather stay safe and use English? Or try the little bit of Dutch I know? Or maybe use the French skills from secondary school?” – I still don’t know.

The “regulations”

In Austria, shops are closed on Sundays, which means I’m used to that. Officially, shops are closed on Sundays in Flanders as well. But are they really? We visited Antwerp on the so-called “Fashion-weekend” where not only all the shops were open but there were also hundreds and thousands of tourists strolling through the streets. But watch out: Shops are also allowed to be open on the first Sunday of the month since September – and I swear they are open then. Later in November, there was the Black Friday weekend (or week) where surprisingly all the shops were open again. Of course, people can’t miss out on special Christmas sales so in the middle of December, shops are open on Sundays as well. What a surprise! So, if you’re lucky you might get to do a shopping tour on Sundays as well – chances are quite high, I feel like.

The priorities

Flanders (and Belgium in general) has become part of the top regions in Europe for everyday cycling. Even if I wouldn’t have been obliged to use the bike on an everyday basis as a student from abroad, I would have had the feeling that it is the number one mobility choice. The cycling paths are attracting and easy, there is a lot of space to leave your bike as well. It seems like Flanders really cares about your health – but wait. Chances are high that right next to a bike parking lot, there’s a Frituur where you can get a huge pack of fries with mayonnaise or any other sauce you could wish for. Or you can already smell some freshly made waffles with many different toppings. Or you can see some beautifully wrapped Belgian pralines or other forms of chocolate. So, what now, Flanders? Do you want me to be healthy or not?

Of course, these were just the most obvious examples and just like for everything in life – it depends on what you make out of it. Still, in one of our classes I’ve learnt that absurdity is all about accepting that there’s no order and to embrace confusion. Meanwhile, I can really relate to that. This country, and specifically Flanders – with all its absurdities – has won a very special place in my heart and my memories. And that’s what I’m really grateful for.

Howest: Meeting Flanders today – Personal testimony on time in Belgium (Absurdity in Flanders)

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