Saturday, September 22, 2012


Renowned for its chocolate, beer, and waffles – otherwise known as a perfect meal – Belgium offers much more than that. Located in Western Europe, Belgium lies between Netherlands and France and west of Germany.

It was actually part of the Netherlands until it broke apart and gained independence in 1830. For that reason, Dutch remains the most widely spoken language in Belgium. And actually, Belgium has three official languages: the two main ones are Dutch and French, but there are sizable German-speaking communities as well, prompting German as a third official language, even though less than 1% speak it.

A low-lying country and prone to flooding, Belgium was one of the few countries that were included in the area known as The Low Countries (which included the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, parts of northern France and western Germany). Several river systems (like the Rhine, the Oise, and Scheldt) and their tributaries meander their way through Belgian fields and countryside.

The name Belgium comes from the ancient Roman name, Gallia Belgica, which pretty much covered the same area. Its capital is Brussels (in French: Bruxelles; in Dutch: Brussel), which also happens to be the de facto capital of the European Union as well as the seat of the French Community and the Flemish Community. Most likely, the name Brussels came from the Old Dutch meaning “home in the marsh” from the words broek (marsh) and sel (home).

Belgium also has several other cities that have become famous over the years. Antwerp is an important seaport in the northern part of Belgium. Legend says that giant used to guard the river Scheldt and charge a toll for crossing the river. For those who refused, he’d cut off a hand and throw it into the river. One day, the valiant Brabo gave the giant a dose of his own medicine and cut off the giant’s hand and threw it into the river. Therefore, the Dutch word for the city Antwerpen prevails (from the words for “hand” and “to throw”). It was host to the 1920 Olympics, but suffered considered damage during WWII a couple decades later.  It’s known as a center of art, especially painting. In fact, Vincent van Gogh lived there for many years. It’s also known for its diamond district, an area of several blocks with many shops for cleaning, cutting, and trading diamonds. Hmm, I may have to make a stop in Antwerp.

History buffs may have heard of the Treaty of Ghent, which was the location of the signing of the treaty that ended the War of 1812 between the United States and England. Today Ghent is the home of Ghent University, Belgium’s first Dutch-speaking university. It’s also the place out of which several culinary dishes grew out of, including waterzooi (which started out as a stew with local fish, but later changed to using chicken). They even have Vegetarian Thursdays, which I think are awesome. It would never catch on in Indianapolis, though, sadly. The best thing in Ghent? A music festival called “I Love Techno” that’s part of the Flanders Expo (no, not Ned Flanders). When the kids are older and moved out, I’m definitely putting that on my calendar. For reals.

Most Belgians enjoy a higher quality of life, the vast majority living in urban settings. And they also enjoy 100% access to clean water and sanitation in both urban and rural settings. About 99% are literate and their healthcare is among the best in Europe (including becoming a popular medical tourism spot). It does happen to be a majority Christian country (and of that 75% are Roman Catholic), although there are sizable communities of other religions, including a large Jewish population in Antwerp. Its multi-cultural environments provide a rich and intricate insight into Europe as a whole. Belgian culture is proving to me to be a fascinating blend of history, art, music, individualism, and perseverance.

Up next: Holidays and Celebrations

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