Saturday, 16 May 2015

So far away from home: Belgium versus Australia

Sometimes something happens which really points out some difference between Belgium and Australia. I mean, it's obvious that the 2 countries are very different, but people and attitudes are very different too.

Like the other day when a Belgian friend said "You know that I'm moving a long way away!" I was a bit taken aback by this statement. I knew she was going to move in with her boyfriend, but we'd seen him often enough that I didn't think he lived far away. "Oh! I said, how far are you moving?". The answer was 30km. I smiled. Thirty kilometres isn't far for an Australian, especially not for one from the country. I once had a boyfriend move about 270km to where I lived. And, I am now in Belgium, my husbands home country, instead of Australia (but that's different, I think).

Country size and population density
The most obvious difference is the size of the countries. Australia is the 6th biggest country in the world (after Brazil). Belgium fits into Australia about 252 times! Yet, Belgium's population is only about half of what Australia's is. So, for me, Belgium is a bit like a large urban area. It surprises me that I can cycle from one town to another on an afternoon ride, and still have energy and time to cycle to more towns. The other day I was even more surprised when I got lost: when I located the 'you are here' sticker on the canal path map it indicated that I was almost in the next country (The Netherlands)! Of course, this wouldn't happen in Australia.
Belgium's size is a bit more than 30,000 km², Australia's largest cattle station is roughly 24,000 km²*.

Languages in Belgium.
Growing up in rural Australia one doesn't get much influence from other languages. When French was provided as an option in high school most of us couldn't see the point... who'd ever heard a person speak French? (aside from the schools flamboyantly strange French (and art) teacher). In comparison Belgium has 3 official languages and most people seem to be fluent in English as well as their own language. Added to these 3 languages, they also have dialects. Flemish Dutch isn't the same as Netherlands Dutch, and nor is it the same across the Flemish part of Belgium.
Despite its size Australia doesn't really have dialects, although it does have some sociocultural variation as well explained by this wikipedia article:

Less clapping and cheering.
I find that Belgians are amazingly quiet when they watch a live show. We went to a Burlesque show and I was surprised that nobody cheered the show until the end of each act. The woman stripped to a silent audience.
If you watch a parade in Australia you get tired from clapping. Not in Belgium, they watch quietly. But it's hard to clap while you're holding an umbrella.... which brings me to my next point.

Rain (I love a sunburnt country)
It rains a lot in Belgium, and it doesn't rain much in most parts of Australia (it's a big country so generalising isn't sensible). But ironically, despite the seemly constant rainfall in Belgium versus the seemingly constant drought of rural South East Queensland, Belgium doesn't get that much more rainfall in total. That's because Belgian rain falls slowly, whereas in Australia it buckets down. (when Men at Work sang "Do you hear the thunder? you better run you better take cover" it had relevance).

Belgians are friendly, but they are also very blunt. They will tell it as it is. Take this as an example. Whilst cycling an unknown area the other day (just prior to getting lost actually) I was forced onto a detour. The detour wasn't well marked and I found myself in a sand mine. I stopped and at that time another cyclist, also confused by the lack of detour signage said something to me, in Dutch of course. I could pretty much tell by the way he looked (I don't know what... there's a look here) that he'd speak English if prompted so I said "I don't speak much Dutch." He said "oh, looks like we should turn back". So we did. I stopped at a public map sign, and he stopped with people to ask for directions. Him having directions he instructed me "it's this way" and we continued on. The path, through the edge of the sand mine, was difficult going, so once the direction was obvious I said "thanks for your help, you don't need to be waiting for me". And he replied "I wasn't, this just isn't easy on a racing bike". !
You see I think that in Australia the guy might think that, but he'd say "oh, okay, well this isn't easy on a racing bike, but you're okay now? you know the way? all the best, enjoy your stay". He wouldn't admit to not making sure the lost foreign woman was okay, even if it hadn't occurred to him to be concerned.
Blunt, honest, that's Belgians. As a Chilean once said to me (he spent a year in Brisbane) Australians are careful not to offend.

I'm sure there might be a part 2 to this article as there are a lot more differences, but that'll do for now.

* Thanks Wikipedia for the sizes.

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