10 things I miss about Belgium right now
It’s been more than a year since we were able to visit our home country Belgium. By now, we certainly notice the Swedish influence creeping in (what size of drink would you like with your meal? Answer: Lagom size), and our language is a weird mix- but while we’re doing well here, there are some things that I miss deeply.
1.Friends and family. This one is obvious and I considered that perhaps it shouldn’t even be on the list. But it is our number one. Travel restrictions made all visits impossible for a year and it’s still unclear what summer might bring. It’s been a relief to hear that our parents and some friends already got their vaccines and the wish to quickly see them again is a great motivation to do our very best to stay safe and healthy.
2. Great food and restaurants. Sweden doesn’t have a food culture. We Belgians love to gather around the table for hours and eat, talk, have a good time. In Belgium, there are great restaurants and bars just everywhere. We love visiting our favourites but also trying new food (Ethiopian was the last one we tried in Antwerp). The whole atmosphere is different. It feels alive, welcoming, inspiring. In Stockholm, we’ve been asked to leave at 9 pm on a Saturday evening which I think is weird. Also, mayonnaise on sushi or greasy pizza is the norm here, wtf? I’m craving Da Mauro‘s Italian food! Or my favourite sushi places! Or just really good fries! Or just wandering around in the city, looking at different menus and then settle and curiously waiting for the food to arrive. OMG and ‘kroketjes’! On to the next item on my list or I’ll be drooling all over my computer.
3. Art shops. I have zero access to a good art shop at the moment. Buying online might be practical- it just arrives at the local supermarket to be picked up. But nothing compares to going to your favourite art shops, standing in front of a whole wall of pencils, and taking your time to pick the right color :-). There is nothing like the endless choice of paper, paint, and tools- and the advice that you can get at these shops. Here in Sweden, customer service is rather limited, to the point that in some shops they are just rude. I’ve imported paper (my dearest Simili Japon) myself because even asking for suggestions is too much it seems. (I asked for something off-white, rather smooth, large size, in paper-land that’s not even being picky).
4. Old city centers. Some Swedes get upset when I say that some cities here feel like they have no past or future, but that’s how I feel with some of these places (like Västerås). They look ok, are clean, rather modern and mostly practical. They are not ugly, just boring. Lacking the character that you sense when you see that a city has been all-in on the future or embracing its past- ideally both. I grew up surrounded by history and maybe that fueled my love for wandering around old cities, seeing all the details of past glory and forgotten habits (like shoe scrapers in houses in Antwerp). Cobblestones, charming stores, bars, streets too narrow to have cars… I think that Stockholm has some of it with Gamla stan but the nicest places to eat, hang out, or shop are in other parts. A nordic style example of what I like is Copenhagen which has a nice balance of old buildings with beautiful details, some unique places like Freetown Christiania, and modern architecture with a vision by Bjarke Ingels.
5. Dutch/Flemish book shops. The worldwide web is a blessing, for sure. Still, I miss flipping through real paper books in my own language. Before the pandemic, I’d go to Antwerp or Amsterdam and spend a whole day only visiting book stores :-). The good thing is that I’ve been reading much more Swedish now 🙂
6. Art scene. There is something vibrant about the art scene in Belgium. In most big cities there are galleries, museums, specialty shops, and events that are both for families or more underground. There is something rough but pure about it, but with much love for the art and mastery. Some found it funny, the levels of excitement that I show when being able to do something arty in Antwerp or Brussels- and that’s part of how life here is. I’ve been talking to artists that have been traveling around and who have a sense of what’s going on in Sweden, and all of them say that what I’m looking for simply doesn’t exist here. In my small town, for example, the opening of an exhibition might be at 3 pm in the middle of the week. If you’re lucky the artist is there. Just as a few middle-aged people. An opening evening in Belgium is often a crowded event with the artist present, maybe a DJ, drinks, and meeting new people.
7. Visiting old favourites. In times of quiet desperation, I find calmness in visiting places from the past. The field where I used to play with my friends every day, the trees we climbed, and the sound of the church bells. Perhaps even the smell of our local church, the glass in lead windows that color the light, and the wood carvings of the stories we had to memorize. Places that I visited with my grandmother or the museums that I have always appreciated. The route to school. The spots where we met our fellow dog-loving friends. Until the pandemic, many of these places were still a part of our lives. I’d text my friend to go for ‘toereke kamp?'(the place where we’d meet) whenever I’d be around. I’d take the same metro or bus that I did for years to go to school. I’d go to the same art shop that I’ve been going to for 25 years.
8. Small talk. For a while, I thought I had lost the ability for chatting with strangers or meeting new people. I’ve always found joy and calm in doing things on my own but after a while, one might wonder if something is wrong. When I’m out here on my own, I rarely see people, and even in the city, conversations just do not happen- unless I bump into another foreigner. I thought that perhaps in Belgium, I’m more open because it’s my own language, I know the habits, the body language,… Until I visited Copenhagen and every day, the conversations just happened. I visited a movie set, met a lady who creates jewelry, talked to people on the street, and met a German-Belgian group in a restaurant and we hung out all evening.
9. Public transport. Haha, I’d never think I’d miss hot busses or loud metros but oh man, I miss them! I try to use my car as little as possible because traffic is a mess in Belgium: traffic jams in the middle of the day, no parking spots, all that stress. Then hopping on the bus or metro feels liberating, partly due to the fact that if you miss one, you can take the next, or the next,… If I buy a bus ticket here and I’m not in my spot in time, it’s gone and I might have to call a taxi (so I’m always at least 20minutes early, can you imagine lol). Next time in Belgium, I might have to ride the tram ALL DAY!
10. Variety in the landscape. The area that I live in, has roughly the same size as the whole of Belgium and it consists of mostly trees (birch and pine), rocks, lakes, and some red houses. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of this, it’s the main reason we moved. Still, what I like about Belgium is that variety. The many species in plants, the contrast between the beach by the North Sea and the hills in the Ardennes. The polders, the cities, the flat fields, and gardens. The chapels by the road and blooming orchards. The meandering rivers and old castles. The fact that every region has its own specialties in pastries and beer.
11– Ok, just one more: Dressing up. In Belgium, it’s the habit of dressing up when you go out. Even if it’s very low-key, people put on a clean shirt, their nicer shoes, or go all-in with perfume, a flowy dress, and shiny jewelry. I think everybody puts in some kind of effort. In Belgium, I would never go to a shop in ski pants and boots. Never ever! Over here, nobody blinks an eye when I do so, but I get the stares when I wear my tailored coat and a hat. Over here, it’s completely normal to wear just whatever, to go out in crocs and shorts or black and neon activewear. Living in the woods, there are some clothes and shoes that I haven’t worn in over a year. Just because there is no use for them. We don’t even have a sidewalk, I go straight from my home to the muddy woods. A year ago I went to a musical, dressed up with a sequin jacket (my godchild said that I looked like a movie star lol), since then putting on jeans and sneakers feels like dressing up :-).