Living in Belgium Today

It is sometimes said that many people in Europe hold a rather negative image of Belgium. Undoubtedly, the country is sharply divided by language. This division causes a seemingly endless separation of people, politics, government, administration, media, and other aspects of society and culture. It is a densely populated country and one that is often described as being flat, dull, and boring. As in other northern European countries, it often seems that it is always raining here.

QUALITY OF LIFE

Yet, despite these negative impressions, Belgians have a consistently high quality of life. In 2007, Brussels ranked 14 in a league table of world capitals drawn up by Mercer Human Resource Consulting. This widely acclaimed index uses a number of categories to measure human wellbeing. Belgium falls right behind the neighboring Netherlands (ranked 10) and Luxembourg (12). It ranks ahead of such other European states as Austria, Denmark, France, Italy, the U.K., Germany, and Spain. (Canada ranks sixth on the HDI, and the U.S. is close behind in eighth place.) This placed Brussels ahead of such cities as Toronto (ranked 15), San Francisco (28), and London (39). For comparison, other U.S. cities well behind Brussels in this listing were Honolulu (27), Boston (36), Washington D.C. and Chicago (both 44), and New York (48). Belgium scores consistently high with regard to the main indicators of good living, and ranked 13 in the 2006 Human Development Index (HDI) report of the United Nations.

The gross domestic product (GDP) growth for 2006 was 3.2 percent. This figure represented a record leap in the history of the country’s economy. The corresponding figure for per capita income was $34,460 in 2006. This prosperity extends throughout the country, although figures for productivity show that it is, on average, 10 percent greater for the inhabitants of the Flemish regions in the north compared with the Wallonians in the south.

Brussels, which is the multilingual and multiethnic capital, is more than just the huge central metropolis of this country. It calls itself, with reason, the “Capital of Europe,” and the very name “Brussels” is now synonymous with the parliament of the European Union (EU). On TV and in the news media around the world, we continually hear that “Brussels reaches a decision” or “Brussels issues a ruling.” Yet, how much does all the debating and decision-making have to do with the country and its people?

As we have said, the quality of life in Belgium is rated higher than in many U.S. cities; certainly, this is a prosperous country by any standards. To assess what this means for Belgian citizens, we should briefly examine key aspects of modern life such as housing, education, culture, cuisine, entertainment, and sports. We should also consider negative aspects, such as crime.

Housing

Reasonably priced housing is still widely available in Belgium, despite steep rises in real estate prices during recent years. These increases, following five years of solid growth, have been most noticeable in Brussels. In 2004, the average house price in Brussels was $228,000. This made it the cheapest European capital, trailing London ($410,000) and Paris ($326,000). The quoted figures are calculated using the exchange rate of 1 euro = 1.25 U.S. dollars, which was roughly the rate at the time. However, realtors say house prices rose sharply in the Belgian capital in 2005, increasing an average of 14 percent. These price rises were attributed mainly to low interest rates. A wide choice of rental accommodations is also available, ranging from studio apartments to villas in Brussels and its suburbs.

Medical Services

Another benefit of living in Belgium is its excellent medical services, which are among the most modern in the world. The country has about 40,000 doctors to serve the needs of its 10 million citizens, and approximately 400 hospitals are scattered throughout the country along with a large number of specialist centers.

Belgium’s medical services are known for their easy accessibility, low cost, and high standards. In fact, every year about 20,000 people from other European countries who are experiencing long delays in receiving treatment travel to Belgium to get medical care. This is one advantage of being a member of the European Union. European Community law states that any citizen of the Union who is enduring “undue delays” in receiving treatment in their home country can apply to have medical care in a member-state. Even with travel expenses added in, this can be a real bargain.

Education

Education in Belgium is regulated and for the most part financed by one of the three communities—­Flemish, Walloon, or German. All three communities have a unified school system that features only small differences with regard to organization. The particular types of schools are further divided into three groups. First, there are schools owned by the communities. Second, there are subsidized public schools organized by provinces and municipalities. Finally, there are subsidized free schools, most of which are administered by an organization that is affiliated with the Catholic Church. The latter group, parochial schools, is the largest in both the number of schools and the number of pupils.

Education in Belgium is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 18. School results in Belgium compare favorably with other European countries. Dutch-­speaking students generally perform somewhat better on standardized tests than do French-speaking ones. The different stages of education are the same in all communities. Basic education consists of preschool (up to 6 years) followed by primary school (6 to 12 years). Although it is not compulsory, more than 90 percent of all children attend preschool, which—­
like primary school—­ is free. Education in primary schools is rather traditional: It concentrates on reading, writing, and basic mathematics, but it also touches upon a very broad range of topics that includes biology, music, religion, history, and geography.

Flemish schools in Brussels and some municipalities near the language border must offer French lessons beginning in the first or second year. Most other Flemish schools offer French education during the third cycle. Primary schools in the French community must teach a foreign language, which is generally Dutch or English, depending on the school. Primary schools in the German community include obligatory French lessons.

Secondary school is for 12-to-18-­year-­old students. When they graduate from primary school around the age of 12, students enter secondary education. At this point, they have to choose a direction that they want to follow, depending on their skill level and interests. This direction will be either general secondary education, or technical or vocational (both of which are very job specific).

Higher education in Belgium is organized by the two main communities: the Flemish and the French. German speakers typically enroll in institutions in the French community, or in Germany. In Belgium, anyone who has a qualifying diploma of secondary education is free to enroll at any institute of higher education, typically universities or colleges. There, students work toward earning a bachelor’s degree, which usually takes three years. This may be followed by another one to two years of work to earn a master’s degree. This is in line with the Bologna Process, which has become the standard for many European countries. Financial aid is available for students whose families lack sufficient income. The aid is awarded by the community governments and depends on the family’s financial circumstances, but it is seldom more than $4,000 per year.

Information Technology

One aspect of modern life in which Belgium, like most other EU nations, is at the forefront is the use of computers and the Internet. The total population of the EU in 2007 was approximately 493 million (of the world’s 6.625 billion people), or 7.5 percent of the world’s population. The number of EU citizens who are Internet users was approximately 256 million in 2007, or about 22 percent of the world’s total Internet users (over 1 billion in 2007). Internet usage in the EU population as a whole is 51.8 percent, compared to only 15.1 percent for the rest of the world. In Belgium, 48.5 percent of the population uses the Internet. User growth from the years 2000 to 2007 was 155 percent, compared with 171 percent for the EU as a whole. These figures indicate a population that is generally well educated and eager to embrace new information technology. It may also signal a new willingness to bridge the gap caused by Belgium’s linguistic diversity.

CULTURAL LIFE

Belgium is rich in culture. Most Belgians view their culture as an integral part of European, or Western, culture. Even so, both the Walloons and the Flemish tend to make individual and collective cultural choices mainly from within their own community. When they do go outside their community, the Flemish draw intensively from the English-­speaking culture (which dominates sciences, professional life, and most news media) and French and other Latin cultures. The French speakers, however, tend to focus on cultural life in Paris and elsewhere in the French-­speaking world.

Cinema and Theater

A wide variety of cinema options exist, especially in Brussels. Movies made in the United States are generally screened in their original English, and many French-­made films are shown in Belgium. Belgian filmmakers have been rewarded quite a few times at the Cannes Film Festival (for example, the filmmaking duo Luc and Jean-­Pierre Dardenne, Benoit Poelvoorde, and others) and also in other less-known festivals. Belgian movies are generally made on a fairly low budget.

Belgian theater is likewise divided between the two communities, and each has developed in its own way. Even at arts festivals, such as that mounted by the Belgian government in 1980 to mark the five-hundredth anniversary of the founding of Brussels, this divide was starkly evident. It was particularly noticeable to foreign correspondents who were primarily invited to the French-­language plays, which they were more likely to understand. Most plays are performed in French, but there is also a lively Dutch language theater scene to be found.

Museums and Galleries

Belgium has many impressive museums and art galleries, which draw members of the Belgian public and tourists alike. Particularly of note are the four museums connected with the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. These are situated in the capital, in the downtown area of the Coudenberg. Two of the museums (the Museum of Ancient Art and the Museum of Modern Art) are located in the main building. The other two (the Museum Constantin Meunier and the Antoine Wiertz Museum) are dedicated to specific Belgian artists. These are much smaller and are located in different areas of the city. The main building is the largest museum complex in Belgium. Located in the heart of Brussels, this museum contains a rich collection of fourteenth-­century fine arts and artifacts. Its prized possessions are numerous works confiscated by the French revolutionaries in 1794, the collections of King William I, and independent works of art by Belgian artists since 1830.

The Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Dutch: Koninklijk Museum von Schone Kunsten) in Antwerp is another museum with a magnificent collection, including works by Jan van Eyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Franz Hals, and Auguste Rodin among others. A haven for art lovers is the Groeninge Museum in Bruges. This museum offers a rich and fascinating array of works, primarily by Belgian artists. Highlights include the world-­famous collection of works by the Flemish Primitives, as well as paintings by various Renaissance and Baroque masters. There are several interesting pieces from the Neoclassical and Realist periods of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Among the collections can be found milestones from the Symbolist and Modernist movements, masterpieces by the Flemish Expressionists, and a varied selection of post-1945 modern art. Works included are by artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, Jean Brusselmans, Petrus Christus, Emile Claus, Gerard David, Gustave de Smet, James Ensor, Rene Magritte, Hans Memling, Constant Permeke, Jan van Eyck, Rik Wouters, and many others.

Belgian Cuisine

We have already discussed some of the food for which this country justly prides itself. It is sometimes said that Belgians prefer quantity rather than quality with regard to food, which is why one is likely to be given large helpings. Even so, when it comes to eating out in restaurants, Belgium can provide unrivalled choice and quality as well. Brussels is said to have more Michelin Guide starred restaurants than even Paris.

Brussels sprouts may be a plain vegetable, but more popular foods have been introduced by the Belgians, namely waffles and French fries despite the name of the latter. One of the typical Belgian dishes is stoemp (mashed potatoes with other vegetables, often served with sausage). The country is also well known for vlaamse stoofkarbonaden (French: carbonnades flamandes), or Flemish beef stew. This dish is made like French beef burgundy, but using beer instead of red wine. Of course, there are the ubiquitous mussels and fries, called moules frites in French or mosselen friet in Dutch. Belgian pate as well as other cold meat products from the Ardennes are also a source of pride in restaurants throughout the country.

Belgian beer is renowned for its quality. Its importance to the Belgians is comparable to that of wine to the French or Italians. For a small nation, Belgium has perhaps the most numerous and varied selection of beers in the world. Best known abroad are the popular pale lagers, but one can also find specialized brews like Flemish Red and lambic beers, which have distinctive tart flavors. Belgian beer brewing goes back to medieval times, when monasteries began producing beers. Trappist beers, of which there are six varieties in Belgium brewed by Trappist monks, are very popular. The monks have taken a vow of silence and will not reveal their recipe, yet their brewing expertise appears to be undiminished.

One of the oldest breweries in the country is the Den Horen Brewery in the city of Leuven, which can be traced back to 1366. In 1708, Sebastian Artois became master brewer and later gave his name to the brewery. Today, the Artois Brewery, which existed long before Belgium became an independent nation, is best known for its Stella Artois lager. The beer is exported worldwide, and, in 2006, the brewery’s production reached 10 million hectoliters (about 264,000,000 U.S. gallons).

Beer production was boosted by a 1919 parliamentary act that prohibited the sale of spirits in pubs, thus encouraging the market to produce beers that contained a higher level of alcohol. There are indeed thousands of pubs in Belgium—­where they are called cafes—­and most of these offer a wide selection of beer, which is mostly bottled rather than draft.

Celebrations

Festivals play a major role in Belgium’s cultural life. Nearly every city and town has its own festival, and many date back several centuries. These aren’t just displays put on to encourage tourism but real, authentic celebrations that take months to prepare. Two of the biggest festivals are the three-­day carnival at Binche, near Mons, which is held just before Lent (the 40 days that precede Easter), and the Procession of the Holy Blood, held in Bruges in May. During the carnival in Binche, gilles lead the procession. These are men dressed in high, plumed hats and bright costumes. Several of these festivals include sporting competitions, such as cycling, and many of the celebrations are known as kermesse festivals. Kermesse is an old Flemish word derived from kerk (church) and mis (mass). These festivals were originally organized by local churches and were accompanied by feasting, dancing, and sports. Now they are now more like town fairs, and nearly every village has such a festival once or twice a year. The large Zuidfoor, or Foire du Midi (South Fair), of Brussels and the Sinksenfoor (Whitsun Fair) of Antwerp attract many visitors over several weeks. The fair on the Vrijdagmarkt in Ghent coincides with the 10-day Gentse Feesten (Ghent Festivities), which are held across the entire inner city around July 21 (the Belgian national holiday).

Another important holiday (which is, however, not an official public holiday) takes place each year on December 6, called Sinterklaasdag in Dutch or la Saint-­Nicolas in French (the saint’s day of St. Nicholas). This day is a kind of early Christmas. On the evening of December 5, before going to bed, kids put their shoes by the hearth along with some water or wine and a carrot for St. Nicholas’s horse or donkey (rather than the reindeer that the youngsters in the United States and Canada expect). Supposedly St. Nicholas arrives at night and descends down the chimney. He takes the food and the water or wine, leaves presents, goes back up the chimney, feeds his horse or donkey, and continues on his way. He also knows whether kids have been good or bad. Dutch immigrants brought this tradition to the United States, where—­of course—­St. Nicholasis now known as Santa Claus.

A Brussels landmark that tourists to the city always seek out is a statue that commemorates the supposed heroic act of a small child. The Manneken Pis is a small bronze fountain sculpture of a little boy urinating. The legend is that, when the city was under siege in the fourteenth century, its attackers placed explosive charges within the city walls to destroy them. A little boy from Brussels who was spying on them rushed out and urinated on the burning fuse, thus saving the city. In any case, it makes a good story, and the city treats the statue with respect—­dressing it in various costumes for festivals and other occasions.

The costume-changing is done during ceremonies that are often accompanied by brass-band music. When the fountain is turned on again, the pressure sometimes causes people in the crowd to be sprinkled with water, to everyone’s delight. As a result of feminist pressure, the Manneken statue now has a female equivalent, the Jeanneke Pis, a 1987 statue of a small girl similarly occupied on the other side of the Grand-Place. Europe’s liberal attitudes toward such works of art are not always deemed so acceptable in the United States. In 2002, a Belgian waffle-­maker in Florida set up a replica of the Manneken Pis in front of his waffle stand in the Fashion Square Mall in Orlando. Shocked shoppers made formal complaints, and mall officials banned the display, claiming that it was in violation of the owner’s lease.

Sports

Football (or soccer, as it is known in the United States) is undoubtedly the most popular sport in Belgium. The national team and certain clubs in the Belgian football league system, such as Bruges’s Club Bruge and Liege’s Standard de Liege, have a considerable reputation. A national Belgian football association was founded as long ago as 1895, and the game has a considerable following among members of both the Flemish and the Walloon communities.

Other popular Belgian sports include cycling, tennis, swimming, and judo. A Belgian Sportsman of the Year and Sports-woman of the Year are elected annually. The sports already mentioned are usually those in which the winners of these competitions compete, but winners have also been selected from the sports of motor racing and motocross. As we have already seen, Belgium’s most successful sportsman ever is the cyclist Eddy Merckx, who was chosen in 2000 as “Sports Figure of the Century.”

PUBLIC SAFETY

According to the U.S. State Department, Belgium is a relatively safe country compared with its neighbors. However, other sources dispute this claim. According to Urban Audit, an organization
that reports a range of statistics for cities in the EU, in 2001, Brussels had the fourth-highest number of
recorded crimes among all European capitals. According to the same source, Brussels had a rate of 10 murders or violent deaths per 100,000 citizens, which was five times higher than in Paris (2 per 100,000). This rate was twice as high as London’s, but the overall crime rate was similar to that of Paris. Belgium’s second largest city, Antwerp, experienced crime rates about 20 percent below those of Brussels. Charleroi and Liege, industrial cities with high unemployment rates in Wallonia, had more elevated crime rates than the less industrialized cities of Ghent and Bruges in Flanders.

Following a series of shocking murders in recent years, Belgians have become increasingly worried about violent crime—­something that was extremely rare not too long ago in this country. Several attacks on armored vans were carried out in the last 20 years, often resulting in the killing of the security agents in charge. However, the most infamous and horrifying crime of recent years is what has become known as the Affaire Dutroux. A series of kidnappings, rapes, and murders—­not to mention drug dealing, car theft, and muggings—­were carried out by a notorious Belgian criminal named Marc Dutroux. The failure of the Belgian police to act swiftly and effectively, and the slowness of the judiciary to bring charges against Dutroux, led to widespread anger and discontent among the public. This culminated in a mass protest, known as the White March, in which 300,000 people marched on Brussels in October 1996.

The scandal led to the reorganization of Belgium’s law enforcement agencies. Dutroux, an unemployed electrician who lived in Charleroi, had a long criminal history. After being jailed for the rape of five young girls in 1986, he was sentenced to 13? years in prison. Released after three years, he and an accomplice kidnapped two 8-year-old girls in 1995 and imprisoned and abused them in a basement dungeon in one of his seven houses. Two months later, he kidnapped and imprisoned two more girls, ages 17 and 19, whom he later murdered. From December 1995 to March 1996, he was in custody while police investigated his involvement with stolen luxury cars. Police searched the house looking for evidence in relation to the car theft charges. At the time, the young girls were still alive in the hidden dungeon, but they were not found. Tragically, they starved to death sometime during the following three months, while Dutroux was detained. He also murdered an accomplice and later claimed that he did so because the man had allowed the girls to starve while Dutroux was in police custody.

In May and August 1996, Dutroux separately kidnapped two more teenaged girls, whom he held captive in his dungeon. At this point, a witness remembered part of a license plate that matched Dutroux’s. On August 13, 1996, Dutroux and his wife were arrested, but a search of his houses did not turn up anything. Two days later, they both confessed and led police investigators to the dungeon, where the two girls were discovered alive. During his trial (which was delayed for eight years, until 2004), Dutroux claimed that he was part of a Europe-­wide prostitution ring. He indicated that his accomplices included Belgian police officers, businessmen, doctors, and even politicians.

Nonetheless, he received the maximum sentence of life imprisonment. In 1998, two years after his arrest, a 17-month investigation by a parliamentary commission found that he did not have accomplices in high office, as he continued to claim. The commission did, however, sternly blame the police and judiciary for failing to bring Dutroux to justice earlier and for their corruption, sloppiness, and general incompetence. Although the public, so many of whom had joined the White March 18 months before, accepted these findings, deep suspicion remained that Dutroux did indeed have friends in high places. There was further public outrage in 1998, when Dutroux overpowered a guard while being taken to a courthouse, took his gun, and escaped. Although he was soon recaptured, the justice minister, the minister of the interior, and the police chief all resigned as a result. The Affaire Dutroux was considered so evil and notorious that more than one-third of Belgians with the quite common last name of Dutroux applied to have their names changed between 1996 and the trial!

In addition to general safety issues, Brussels is believed to serve as a hub for terrorists, as reported by various sources (such as Interpol and local newspapers). In the same urban areas that pose safety problems, there is radicalization and active recruitment by terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda. As stated by Hind Fraihi of the journal Het Nieuwsblad, the recruitment is done in mosques (Islamic religious centers), with the actual training done in Afghanistan. Recently, a female suicide bomber in Iraq, Muriel Degauque, became the first Western suicide bomber in modern terrorism. She was not trained in Brussels but in Charleroi, one of the cities with the highest crime rates in the country. The Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain, or GICM), which is an ally of al Qaeda, also has links in Belgium. There were arrests in Brussels and Antwerp of individuals connected with GICM following the carnage of the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, Spain, in which 191 innocent commuters were killed and 2,050 injured.

UNEXPLAINED FLYING OBJECTS

To conclude this chapter, let us look briefly at an intriguing mystery that gripped Belgium during the years 1988 to 1991 and remains unexplained to the present day. All across the country, thousands of people reported sightings of strange black triangular aircraft in the skies. These unidentified flying objects (UFOs) were unlike any known airplanes. These were seen mostly at night, and they often hovered, or moved slowly and silently, at low altitudes. Generally, three bright white lights were said to be fixed at the corners of these thick triangular shapes, and a central red light was often seen shining brightly down from their centers.

Two gendarmes in a patrol car, Heinrich Nicholl and Hubert Montigny, spotted just such a huge object in the sky near the city of Eupen (in Liege province) on November 29, 1989. They described it as the size of a football field floating in the air and with strong “headlights” shining down from its three corners. For nearly an hour, they followed it as it hovered over the fields, sometimes bathing the ground below in light. A police dispatcher in Eupen to whom they reported it later saw the same object from his window as it flew over the city. The gendarmes then saw a second similar object appear, before both vanished out of sight.

Six minutes later, two other gendarmes at La Calamine, eight miles (13 kilometers) north of the city, saw another dark triangular craft in the sky. Again, they described it as huge and wondered whether it could be a U.S. military aircraft. This one silently moved low over a church, and the gendarmes watched as a pulsating red light descended from the center of the triangle and flew around before returning to the craft. Then, the three white corner lights seemed to move together and merge into a single bright light. This light flew away at high speed, leaving the sky empty and the two men totally bewildered.

There were reports of similar objects in the skies over Brussels, Liege, Namur, and other Belgian cities. On March 30, 1990, citizens of Ans (a suburb of Liege) saw another unidentified triangular object hovering silently over the city. Local police officials arrived and reported seeing the object hover over apartment buildings. Again, one officer reported a glowing red disk of light, which descended from the huge triangle and darted around several buildings before disappearing. The larger object eventually took off at high speed. On several occasions, the Belgium Air Force had scrambled fighter jets to pursue these objects, but usually without success. During the Ans sighting, however—­during which the objects also were detected by ground radar systems—­two F-16 fighter planes were sent up. These planes managed to achieve target lock-on in three of nine attempts during an hour-­ long pursuit.

Yet, on each occasion, the object would shoot away within seconds at speeds estimated to have exceeded 1,000 miles per hour (900 knots). Radar recordings from one of the F-16s show the object flying upward and then descending at a rate of acceleration that would have proved fatal to human pilots.

At a press conference called by the Belgian Air Force, Major General Wilfried De Brouwer—
who was general-­ aviator of the air force and the third ranking member of the Belgian military hierarchy—­described the pursuit by the F-16s and spoke of the thousands of unidentified flying object (UFO) sightings. He had no explanation for what these unidentified flying objects might have been, other than to say that the flight characteristics were outside the performance ability of any known military aircraft. He excluded the possibility that the objects were U.S. stealth aircraft, saying that the craft observed could remain stationary at very low altitudes, hardly moving. Balloons, ultralight aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were similarly rejected as explanations due to the highly variable speeds observed. He rejected the suggestion that the radar images were caused by electromagnetic interference because both the radar of the F-16s and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ground radar at Glons had tracked it. Likewise, had any of the observed objects been laser or light projections, they would not have been detectable on radar.

In 1990, General Brouwer admitted that something was going on over Belgium that was “beyond our control.” He believed it to be “our job to find where it comes from” and to identify its origins and intentions. Today, however, the sightings remain as great a mystery as they were nearly two decades ago. Since the Belgian sightings, similar craft have been reported over Germany, Britain, Russia, and the United States. There was certainly no proof of their extraterrestrial origin, even though this conclusion was drawn and accepted by many witnesses of these mysterious appearances.