In one of my first French classes at Université Libre de Bruxelles, we had a lively discussion about the “savoir-vivres” of Belgian life, and I, as a freshly-arrived and still moderately-slow French speaker, tried as hard as I could to keep up with the language while also really taking note of the “savoir-vivres” we were discussing. “Savoir-vivre” is a French phrase which essentially refers to the rules for following an elegant and unproblematic lifestyle. Belgians obviously have very different “savoir-vivres” compared to Americans, and beyond defeating the language barrier, I was faced with the challenges of learning the ins and outs of Belgian “savoir-vivre.” I have never taken such odd notes during a class in my life. I had phrases like “popcorn with sugar, not salt!” and “it is encouraged to be a few minutes late” and “APÉRO IS IMPORTANT” written in my notebook in hurried and frazzled handwriting. I have since transferred this haphazard list into a digital list on my phone (way more convenient – 10/10 recommend) so I can continue my “savoir-vivre” studies while out and about. Reflecting on this list, I have realized the main challenge presented by this new set of “savoir-vivres” for my semester in Brussels: Belgians do not have the same definition of “convenience” as Americans do.
Americans like myself tend to be raised in an environment of instant gratification; you know you can always rely on going to a store like Target or Walmart to find nearly anything that you could want, all in one place, any day of the week and, at certain locations, at any hour of the day. I used to be able to hop in the car to drive to Wegmans for a late-night snack of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream at 11:30 PM without hesitation. I used to be able to assume that I could find both acrylic paints AND a loaf of bread in ONE store without a problem. I used to gawk at a 20 minute walk to the store, not even considering it as an option over my easy 5-minute drive. In Belgium, and many other European countries, this mindset leads to a bit of a challenge (and devastation when craving ice cream at 11:30 PM with none in the freezer!).
In Brussels, I have learned that stores that “have it all” are rare; in fact, most are well outside of the city and not worth the long trip with public transport. I have had to designate my go-to store for food, my go-to store for cosmetics and hygienic products, my go-to store for office and school supplies, and my go-to store for cleaning/home products. Having to separate my shopping trips was an annoyance at first, but now it is a way of life! My go-to stores are somewhat near each other, but they require anywhere between 10 minutes of walking to 25 minutes of walking. I get my steps in each day for sure, and with the added weights of my filled-up shopping bags! For Belgians, because most stores are within walking distance, many do not do their shopping the same way that Americans do: all at once getting everything one might possibly need. Belgians buy their groceries leisurely; they stop in the store perhaps on the way back from work, only to get home and realize they forgot bread. Not a problem- just take a 5 minute walk around the corner to a local boulangerie. I have always found that in America, it was such a nuisance to have to return to the grocery store for one forgotten item, especially if you have to drive to get there. Here, it is not a nuisance at all; in fact, Belgians embrace the stroll!
One “savoir-vivre” of Belgian life is that walking is always an option to get from point A to point B. I could take public transport to arrive on campus from my home in just 15 minutes, but I find myself preferring to walk anywhere between 30 minutes to 45 minutes to get home! It is the perfect way to unwind after classes, and if you told a Belgian you have to walk 30 minutes to get home, they might even say “ONLY 30 minutes?”
With all of the walking, I’ve realized that Belgians are not the most punctual people. If you have plans to meet at 6:00 PM, expect a Belgian to casually stroll to your established meeting place anywhere between 6:05 PM and 6:20 PM. Here in Belgium, it is not seen as rude to be a little bit late; in fact, arriving early is seen as rude and pushy. I’ve noticed that although most of my classes technically start at the top of the hour, the professors tend to waltz in up to 15 minutes late with a coffee in hand, and no one bats an eye! I’ve grown to appreciate the relaxed environment in Brussels, but it was certainly a challenge to get over my impatient and punctual tendencies I developed in America.
A few other “savoir-vivres” from Brussels: most stores and cafés are not open on Sundays; the customer is actually not “always right” as they are in America (we really emphasize customer service in the US, but not in Belgium!); eggs and milk are NOT refrigerated; even if it says it will not rain, ALWAYS bring an umbrella; sweatpants and leggings are never an appropriate outfit choice; and recycling is a BIG thing here (you can be fined if you don’t sort your trash properly!).
It takes some time to get used to these new ways of life and to really slow down in comparison to American lifestyles, but thankfully the Belgians I have met are patient and always willing to help! Reaching out to locals is the best way to learn the “savoir-vivres” of Brussels. Also, creating a routine so you aren’t stuck without groceries on a Sunday is crucial. Now, I’ve grown so comfortable with the Belgian lifestyle that I am afraid I might experience another culture shock coming back to America! Why was I always in such a rush when living in America?? I guess that’s a challenge for when my semester ends.