November 9, 2016

What I Don't Like About Belgium

What I Don't Like About Belgium

Another top five, as promised.

It's important to emphasize that I don't like these things as a consequence of either my personality or my cultural tastes. I expect most Belgians don't have a problem with these things because they've grown up with them. They're not universal declarations.

1) The authoritarian educational system.
To be fair, I come from a system that is, perhaps, the most egalitarian on earth. Correct me if I'm wrong: are there other countries where disagreement with professors is not only tolerated but encouraged? This feature of American education and my critical, creative personality make Belgian education almost unbearable (and barely deserving of the name).

I believe it's the legacy of Catholicism. Taking an exam here is like reciting your catechism to a bishop, except the bishops are professors. I call authoritarian education "academic clericalism." It needs to be exorcised. I won't go into the whys and alternatives in this post.

2) The lack of public space.
One might think that a country with a strong social welfare system and almost exclusively public education would have a strong sense of the public sphere. My question then: what's with your public libraries and parks? Yes they have both, but the libraries are underdeveloped and have limited opening hours, the parks are few and small.

A related question: why don't you have living rooms in your student houses? Students have private bedrooms (no roommates) and shared kitchens and bathrooms. They have no space set aside to hang out. Socializing is done almost exclusively in bars and cafes.

There's a strong boundary line dividing the private and public spheres. I find it alienating and an obstacle to cultivating community.


3) Worker first, customers second.

Customer service, such as it is, is almost guaranteed to drive a North American crazy. I don't like customer service sycophantswe get that too much in Americabut I like to be welcomed. In Belgium it's not uncommon to be ignored in a store or restaurant. Sometimes clerks will ask you to leave the store ten minutes before it closes (so they can leave on the hour), meaning opening times aren't for the customer, they're for the workers. Some places close during lunch, or on Monday, or during the morning or afternoon of an arbitrary weekday. Almost nothing is open after 6pm, or on Sunday, or on the 16+ public holidays (in Leuven, a city of 90,000). In some stores, including grocery stores, the clerks ask to see inside your bag when you leave. Let me be clear about this: their default assumption toward all their customers is that they're thieves.

4) No free water at the table in restaurants.
This is proof that the UN statement on human rights remains incomplete. I'm being dramatic, but with a hint of seriousness. Not only do you have to pay for bottled water (I used to think Belgium was environmentally progressive), there's no public water fountains or free public toilets. There aren't even water fountains at the gym! Some things should always be freely available in society: air, a place to sleep on the ground (I'm referring to wild camping), drinking water, and toilets. For me, public water fountains and toilets have the same status as due process and freedom of speech.

5) The climate.
Too warm in the summer and far too warm in the winter. I don't mind not having air conditioning (even when I wish I had it; it's just not worth it), after all, it's not often that it gets really hot. But they don't have screens in the windows. More than that, their windows are designed in such a way that screens can't be installed. So if you want airflow when it's hot you have to take all the bugs that come with it.

That's summer. Winter in Belgium is heartbreaking. I've seen snow two or three times in three years. I can't say any more about it without making me depressed for the rest of the day.

Bonus: the horrifying lack of natural areas, especially in Flanders and especially inside towns and cities.

I could go on, and I could be more vicious in my criticism, but I live here so instead I should probably go back to my top five and focus on the virtues of the place.