sunnuntai 24. maaliskuuta 2013

ode to Belgium

Sounds like: evergreen french songs, autotuned r&b and carneval music.
Smells like: warm waffles, beer and antique furniture

I ended up in Belgium by accident, but I could never be happier for it.

Belgium is the center of Europe. The country is a melting pot of surrounding cultures; France, Holland, Germany and Great-Britain. For example in the traditional foods eaten in Belgium, on top of specialities  from here there are also the best picks from the neighbor countries. You can see elements of other cultures everyday.

Due to it's compact size, belgium is easy to explore, yet discovering the whole country would take a lifetime. For a country this small, there is an incredible number of interesting and relatively big cities; Anvers with it's gorgeous strain station and enormous shopping street, Bruges with the canals and beautiful historical buildings (and british tourists), Gent with the castle, Leuven with the student life, Charleroi (not going to say anything about charleroi), Namur, Hasselt and at last my favourites; Brussels and Liege, of which everyone reading this blog must have some kind of a picture. And even though my exchange is, as supposed to, more about the people than the country, Belgium as a country will forever feel like home to me. I will remember the streets, the bars and the weird unlogical style of belgian architecture, and they will always remind me of the times I spent here. The cornershop in Liege, right by the cathedral, where you can get the best waffles in the country, the jewellery shop with the angry lady next to our bar in the carre, the train stations, some of them beautiful and some, well, not so much, but where all the best adventures started.

Belgium has strong traditions that are easy to get affected on. Who wouldn't love a beer festival? Belgian people are generous, kind, helpful and they certainly like to party. I don't even have to mention the food; chocolate, mussels, fries, waffles, the list goes on. People here actively participate in organizing events such as town festivals, garage sales, carnivals, or just dinner gatherings with friends. People hold on to being polite and treating others warmly - they greet the bus driver when they get on and thank him when they get off.

The village culture is one of the characteristics of the country that you also see everyday. In finland (and I think I can speak for other northern countries as well) if you live in the suburbs, you might, if you're lucky, find one grocery store in the area, but for everything else you have to go all the way to the center of the town or city. Whereas in here, every neighborhood has their own bakery, butcher shop, friterie, sandwicherie, restaurants and pubs. The people know which bakery has the best baguette or pain au chocolat in the area and which friterie sells the crispiest fries. For this reason, even if they live close, they only go to the center for the saturday morning market or when they have to buy something special.  The exception for this of course is young people, who often go for a drink after school with friends, especially on friday afternoons, when all the bars in town are full of students socializing.

One thing that makes Belgium so great is the modesty. Unlike many european countries, like France, Spain and Italy, Belgium is not on top of the list for most famous tourist attractions, nor is it remarkably famous for arts, or having a bunch of internationally known people. Due to this, when you come to Belgium, you don't have specific expectations, a postcard picture in your head of what the country should be like. The stereotype of Belgium and belgians is usually mainly constructed by the fact that they have chocolate and beer (which is very true). But without further stereotype of the country, people coming here let the country surprise them, and usually see the diversity of the culture better as well as other things that Belgium has to offer. If you're already expecting something specific, you keep looking for those things and don't as easily see all the amazing stuff outside your stereotype, outside the postcard picture in your head.

I sometimes find myself being distractingly enthusiastic about the differences between belgium and finland in every aspect; culture, geography, language, people, food and traditions. Fortunately I have my fellow exchange students, with whom I can spend hours talking about these things. I'm sure that when I go home people will think I'm crazy. But that's only because they haven't seen the same as I have, and knowing that, I can do nothing but be grateful for this opportunity.


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