Fans of Flanders

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9 Dutch habits I lost after moving to Belgium*


1. Shouting rather than talking

The origins of the default speaking volume in the Netherlands – i.e. somewhere between 'bellowing' and 'yelling' – are shrouded in mystery. Perhaps it developed in order to bridge the distances between adjacent farms in the polders. Others ventured the hypothesis that the Dutch suffer from a genetic hearing deficiency.

Whatever the reason, I soon learned to dial it down in Flanders; the regrettable side effect being that my Dutch family is no longer able to hear what I’m saying.

2. Being overly direct 

Dutch directness is almost proverbial — almost, since to adequately capture it would require a proverb too offensive to ever be used in polite conversation. The Flemish, on the other hand, are about as direct as a bike trail crossing the Himalayas, and they tend not to appreciate the quality in others very much.

As such, I’ve had to (try to) abandon some of the more shovel-to-the-face aspects of my nationally ingrained directness.

3. Relying on Dutch-Dutch

Much like the British and Americans, the Dutch and Flemish are peoples 'separated by a common language'(1). While my accent hasn't altered radically since I came here, my vocabulary has undergone a number of changes, based on trial and (lots and lots of) error.

Confusion between the Dutch-Dutch and Flemish-Dutch meanings of voormiddag and namiddag (respectively: early and late afternoon vs. morning and afternoon) initially caused me to miss quite a few early appointments.

I am also unlikely, these days, to describe one of my hobbies as vogelen (bird-watching), as in Flanders this verb refers to a wholly different type of activity with other sorts of 'birds' altogether… Relatedly, don’t even get me started on poep and poepen.

4. Biking everywhere

The Dutch bike when and where they can. Even though cycling isn’t much less popular in Flanders, there’s one major difference: while Dutch infrastructure is designed to facilitate bicycles, infrastructure in Flanders and Belgium sucks ball bearings in this regard.

Bike lanes, if present at all, are usually situated right alongside parking strips, so as to maximise the odds that you’ll be struck by swinging car doors. Then there’s the traffic lights: in many places, cars turning right or left actually get a green light at the same time as bicycles and pedestrians that are continuing straight on. Surely there have got to be less drastic means of exerting population control.

All of this has rendered me less inclined to jump on my bicycle. Nevertheless, perhaps this situation does serve to explain how it is that Flanders became such a top region for professional cycling: if you’re reared to survive the onslaught of Flemish traffic while riding a bike, it’s little wonder that you’ll be able to compete with the world’s best.

5. Having dinner at 5.30 PM, and finishing at 5.38 PM

Admittedly, it’s not inconceivable that I may have slightly exaggerated the alleged duration. Some dinners in the Netherlands actually only take six minutes, rather than eight.

In Flanders, by contrast, dinner may take up anything from an hour to (what initially feels like) several days. Moreover, dinnertime tends to be significantly later in the evening. Or rather: to actually be in the evening, rather than in the namiddag.

6. Wearing eye-scorchingly bright coloured clothes

Show me someone wearing bright yellow pants with a luminous blue and red jacket, walking around Leuven, Antwerp or Brussels during the weekend, and I’ll show you a Dutch tourist(2).

It’s a habit I actually never took to while living in the Netherlands myself: I was a closet [sic] Belgian in this regard, most of my life. Migrating was like coming home, wardrobe-wise.

7. Expecting decent customer service

Or any kind of customer service, really. Let’s be honest: in Flanders, it’s a good day when a waiter doesn’t (noticeably) spit in your coffee or when a civil servant eventually does what he is supposed to do, despite excessive sighing, eye-rolling, and taking a coffee break right when it’s your turn.

Smiling and friendliness aren’t so much optional as that they seem to be officially frowned upon in most contexts (and there’s certainly no shortage of frowns).

8. Greeting strangers

While the Dutch don’t go around saying hello to everyone in the street (unless they’re trying to get elected to public office), they do greet people when they enter, say, the waiting room at the doctor’s office or the changing room at the sports centre.

Do this in Flanders, however, and people tend to stare at you as if your most likely occupation is either axe murderer or home-grown terrorist. Or both.

9. Always kissing thrice          

Last but not least, moving to Belgium resulted in kiss deflation and, especially, kiss complication. We’re talking (cheek) kisses in the context of greetings and congratulations here, by the way, not the more romantic variety.

Differences occur firstly where it concerns the gender dimension. In the Netherlands, women kiss each other, as do men and women. Men, however, merely shake hands with one another (in a manly fashion, obviously). In Belgium, the gender rules are more complicated, as they vary from region to region. While in Flanders men generally do not kiss other men, in Brussels and Wallonia they do.

Secondly, there’s the required level of intimacy that suffices for (or even requires) kissing to occur. In the Netherlands one kisses friends and relatives only. Anyone else has to make do with a handshake. In Belgium the smooch-level is significantly lower, and often includes vague acquaintances, colleagues, and other awkward categories of people.

Finally, there’s the number of kisses. The Dutch rules governing this are roughly as follows:

  • 'hello' = 3 kisses;
  • 'goodbye' = 3 kisses;
  • 'happy birthday' = 3 kisses;
  • 'happy New Year' = 3 kisses;
  • 'you got a puppy' = 3 kisses;
  • 'you didn’t get a puppy' = 3 kisses;
  • etc.

In Belgium, once again, things aren’t as simple(3). In the average hello-goodbye-situation Flemish people usually dole out a single kiss only (and to think that they call the Dutch stingy…). Regional exceptions apply though: there are people in the west of Flanders, for instance, that kiss no less than four times. In Brussels and Wallonia most people kiss once as well, though some stick to two, and again there’s even a few areas where three or four is the norm.

Thankfully, congratulatory kisses are less complicated: three seems to be the standard pretty much regardless of region. So when all else fails, one can always yell "congratulations" and dive in self-assuredly.

* Inspiration for this blog post came from similar posts like 10 Mexican habits I lost when I moved to the USA; 19 British habits I lost when I moved to Germany; 10 French habits I Lost when I moved to the USA9 American habits I lost in France; 25 British habits I lost when I moved to France; 19 Welsh habits I lost when I moved to England; etc.**

** Update (22.05.2015): this blog, in turn, gave rise to a 'reverse' response by Tim Reeskens: 'Eight Belgian Habits I Lost after Moving to the Netherlands'.

(1) The phrase is widely attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but it has not been found in his published works. Shaw also didn’t say: "To be remembered by that which one never said, is the greatest honour".

(2) The fact that they generally tower over everyone tends to aid identification as well.

(3) Though the Belgian complexity, in turn, is nothing compared to that of France

Jogchum Vrielink

Jogchum Vrielink (@JogchumV) is a Dutch national, working at the Law Faculty of the University of Leuven (Leuven Institute for Human Rights and Critical Studies). He came to Flanders in 1999, for a year. It has turned out to be a long year…